Thoughts on the Morning of the Shutdown

Jeff Oaks is a senior lecturer in poetry at the University of Pittsburgh and managing director of the Pittsburgh Contemporary Writers Series. He had authored three poetry chapbooks, Shift (Seven Kitchens Press, 2010), The Moon of Books (Ultima Obscura Press, 2000), and The Unknown Country (State Street Press, 1992). His new chapbook, Mistakes with Strangers, will be published by Seven Kitchens Press in 2014. He blogs at www.jeffoaks.wordpress.com.

Jeff Oaks

Jeff Oaks

Today the government shut down. Frankly, because I usually go to sleep around 9 pm now, I figured I’d go to sleep and Congress would have figured a way to keep things going. My quick check of Facebook says otherwise. At the heart of it is a small band of politicians who keep trying to present themselves as principled although they seem and act simply small-minded and without the ability to imagine the enormity that is America. They have one principle: shrink everything. They want to shrink not merely the government but the richness of the American imagination. They want an America that is simpler in language, in class structure, in sexual, racial, and gender choices. They see the government, the former governments, as having fomented these changes or at the very least as protecting these changes. They feel as if their own small imaginations are being violated by having to acknowledge that sexuality and race and class and gender are complicated and not either/or positions anymore. They hate the word choice. All their enemies have chosen what they are. They think they have been given no choice but are representatives of the natural state of man–heterosexual, white, without a nagging doubt in the world.

US federal government shutdown notice posted on October 1, 2013 by the ferry operator at the entrance of the Statue of Liberty ferry. The outline of the Liberty Island is vaguely visible in the background at the upper right corner of the picture. (photo: wiki)

US federal government shutdown notice posted on October 1, 2013 by the ferry operator at the entrance of the Statue of Liberty ferry. The outline of the Liberty Island is vaguely visible in the background at the upper right corner of the picture. (photo: wiki)

They want to end the tax code, which has become too complicated. They want one tax system if possible–everyone paying a 10% tithe that more or less pays only the military. They want marriage to be only between one man and one woman. They want every pregnancy to be forced to fruition, every woman to be silent about the costs of that labor. They want, in fact, all labor to be silent, silenced, invisible. They want all those who ask for decent treatment, equal opportunity, equal consideration, to be silent and accept their lot. They want everyone who notices the rise in corporate profits and the loss of employee jobs, everyone who points to inequities between the wages of workers and the absurd bonuses for bosses, to just shut up about it. They want us all to just shut up.

USDA Website

USDA Website

We confuse them I believe. And in that confusion, I sympathize with them. We are as a country a confusing bunch. We want a lot. It is hard sometimes to tell victims of inequality from someone trying to use guilt to get some free stuff for themselves. There are times when it seems that folks ought to try harder and without depending on a government loan to do something that needs to be done in their town. It must require a lot of will to have to say no to people who feel they are in desperate straits, and then to be able to go home and sleep at night. To say to people no the country can’t afford your problems. I pity them having to do that sometimes. So they’ve shut the country down. I doubt anyone in Washington is sleeping in this morning. No doubt they went to bed after arranging their suits for today’s appearances on tv, after rehearsing their talking points for what will surely be a day of contentious interviews, repetitive photo opportunities around patriotic, draped microphones, after practicing their various facial expressions in the mirror. Is there a moment when their phones get turned off? Is there a moment when they play with their children or touch with any tenderness their wives, husbands, silent partners? Do they have any humanity left in them at all? Or have they been flattened at last into a single dimension, pixelated, a mere image, a sound bite, a scowl? Will the silence they’ve forced now into being be of any use to the rest of us? Will we shrink like they’d like us to? What else could we do while we wait?

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