Feeling the news, in the midst of government shutdown

By Michaela Dwyer

“What’s your government shutdown story?”

It’s plausible that this will be a question folks ask each other one, five, twenty years from now—just as I’m sure people are asking it now about the last government shutdown in 1995-1996 (so far—and maybe it’s a function of my age—I’m mostly hearing sentiments that stop at “oh, yeah, that happened 17 years ago”). It’s a question that begs narrative-sharing; I envision a gathering of old friends, in some American city, clinking wine glasses or beer bottles or mason jars full of ginger ale. Because I’m a student of literature and am therefore so empathetically empowered as to imagine myself into fictional situations, let’s pretend I am there, and some kind, listening soul begs my narrative. To which I’d respond:

“My government shutdown story is the agony of a potential field trip cancellation.”

Antietam Battlefield. Courtesy of the National Park Service.

Fast-rewind to the present: each weekend recently I’ve been home helping my younger sister edit college application essays. She’s a senior in high school and taking a course on the Civil War and the American West—a course I did not enroll in because I was busy selling my perpetually perfectionistic soul to a bounty of Advanced Placement classes. One of the cornerstones of the class, besides spending a full day outside conjuring the North-South tussle via capture-the-flag, is a several-days’ field trip to Civil War battle sites in West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. It’s the type of educational and fun trip that high school dreams, and memories, are made of. (I was able to attend through a separate class, and have fond memories of dissolving senior-year anxiety by reenacting a Gettysburg charge in very muddy grass). This year, the trip has been in limbo since whispers began circulating several weeks ago about government shutdown. The itinerary includes several National Military Parks and Battlefields, such as Antietam and Gettysburg, that fall under the purview of the National Park Service. The NPS is bundled within the Department of the Interior, which has been shut down since October 1.

Out of all the major newsmedia analyses and Facebook laments of furloughed friends, this narrative of a (temporarily) failed field trip has felt the most consistently real to me. Here, there’s a thickness of experience accumulated on a weekly basis: I return home on the weekend, settle into the sofa, and inevitably discuss the status of the field trip with my family—which snowballs into a contemplation of the shutdown at large. This past Sunday, I watched family members refresh email inboxes with the same anticipatory anxiety preceding snow day announcements in the South. Even as I’m indirectly involved in the central action here—my field trip glory days have come and gone—I can still feel it. It’s a constant reminder that something larger than ourselves is disrupting our plans.

In The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes engagingly on his struggle, as an academic and as a human being, to understand moral diversity across various cultures and societies (especially those apart from “WEIRD” ones: Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic). He discusses three ethical metrics: autonomy (trademark of the WEIRD), community, and divinity. After studying under cultural psychologist Richard Shweder, Haidt decided to travel to Orissa, India on a Fulbright. His objective was to study the ethic of divinity, but he quickly picked up on the extent to which non-WEIRD ethics permeated every aspect of communal life. By way of full immersion, Haidt observed the culture’s “intensely interdependent” nature. He writes: “I had read about Shweder’s ethic of community and had understood it intellectually. But now, for the first time in my life, I began to feel it” (119).

The North Carolina Museum of art mourns an unscreened film.

This ability to “feel” is remarkable because it is both an empathetic leap and not a leap at all. When we live deeply within a culture, whether or by birth or intentional immersion, we must be honest enough with ourselves to notate the patterns, beliefs, and relationships that govern our days. When I think back on the shutdown in future times, there’s no way I’ll rattle off a list of the New York Times articles I read or the endless CNN banter; we’re human beings, not (yet) computationally composed newsbyte amalgams. I’ll remember my sister missing out on enlivened history; I’ll remember the North Carolina Museum of Art’s tweet about not being able to screen the 1932 film The Crowd Roars, due to the Library of Congress’ shutdown; I’ll remember furloughed D.C. friends eating discounted District food. Recalling each of these narratives unlocks my, and our, ability to care about another, and another, and another. It’s an exercise in upholding local memory in the face of larger forces and institutions that—and especially during times like these, as Nathan pointed out last week—can feel increasingly abstract and ineffective. I can’t think of a more compelling reminder of the extent to which government impacts our everyday lives.