A Rationality Shutdown

Wednesday, October 9th, 2013

By Robert C. Koehler

In an agony of stupidity, the government shuts down.

Only some of it shuts down, of course. The part that stays open is the part that’s at war. “Those of you in uniform will remain on your normal duty status,” the president said. “The threats to our national security have not changed, and we need you to be ready for any contingency. Ongoing military operations, like our efforts in Afghanistan, will continue.”

As I once observed, there’s no such thing as a relaxed nation. It can shut down what it does right, if clumsily, like feeding people, educating them and helping them through difficulty, but it will only shut down its predatory sense of identity in a state of total defeat by a bigger predator. Not letting that happen is its endless obsession.

This is the sly, primitive, irrational part of government: its reptile-brain function. That’s still in full operation. We’re continuing to raid, bomb and terrorize Fourth World countries and pointlessly harvest global metadata. We’re still “completing our mission” in Afghanistan. We’re just phasing out the government functions that have value. Perhaps what we should talk about is a rationality shutdown.

Bizarrely, the irrational functions of government are usually called “security,” though of course they have nothing to do with rational security. Four decades ago, in Miami and the Siege of Chicago, Norman Mailer described the irrational security surrounding the country’s national political conventions: “. . . helicopters riding overhead like roller coasters, state troopers with magnums on their hips, motorcycles, yet no real security, just powers of retaliation.”

I was reminded of this quote the other day when I learned about Miriam Carey, the young mother with mental health issues who ran her car into a White House barrier, then died in a hail of police bullets during a subsequent car chase near the Capitol.

As Brittney Cooper wrote recently at Salon: “Among other things, Carey’s death is a cautionary tale about what can happen in a nation that systematically ignores the unwell. One is left to wonder whether she had all the social support she needed in a country that not only thinks access to healthcare is a privilege rather than a right, but that also stigmatizes mental illness.”

Cooper adds that Carey’s death is “set against the backdrop of a governmental assault on struggling and vulnerable moms” and an “irrational obsession with terrorist threat, over-policing of marginalized communities and a lack of empathy for the least of these, all of which are tied to a fear of brown people.”

The government shutdown puts this in slightly starker relief than it normally is. As we wait for the sluggish, highly compromised forces of rationality to reassert themselves, there’s value in observing the activities that continue to function during this manufactured political crisis, because they’re mostly what we need to change.

We’re still stuck with a government that thinks its role is to define us rather than listen to us. A democracy is supposed to be otherwise, but we worship power and decisive action in this country a lot more than we worship “gridlock,” which often enough is what the slow process of nonviolent conflict resolution looks like.

If our mainstream media valued the democratic process, the political predators would have a serious check on their activities, but all of the old integrity is breaking down. The corporate media is endlessly desperate for the big headline. Pulling in listeners or readers is a lot more important than reporting news with any depth, compassion or seriousness.

Thus an NPR report on recent U.S. Special Forces operations in Libya and Somalia was delivered with the enthusiasm of a no-longer-bored 10-year-old. Wow, “President Obama decided to do something — and it happened,” raved White House correspondent Ari Shapiro.

In Libya, a major bad guy is captured. In Somalia, another major bad guy may or may not have been killed by Navy SEALs. This is important because, in the absence of this sort of thing, “American allies and adversaries may start to wonder if the president and the United States are weak — frozen in place,” Shapiro said. “With that backdrop, the raids in Libya and Somalia start to look like an important boost for Obama. . . .

“In another change from the norm, these weekend raids received praise from people in both parties.”

USA! USA! We’re still the primo predator out there. Maybe thousands of American children have been shut out of Head Start classes, as Zoe Carpenter writes in The Nation. Maybe 9 million women and children now lack access to food and infant formula through the Women, Infants and Children program, and domestic violence programs and emergency shelters are having to close their doors, but what does any of that have to do with national security?

These programs, of course, have everything to do with national security, but not enough of us have figured this out yet. Power flows toward rationality with daunting slowness.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at koehlercw@gmail.com, visit his website at commonwonders.com or listen to him at Voices of Peace radio.