Sunday, October 20, 2013

How's That Shutdown Thing Playing in the Heartland? I Have a Story for You

"Lost, and unable to say what it was that oppressed them" (James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time [1962, repr. NY: Random House, 1993]).

How's that shutdown thing playing in the heartland or in the miasmatic nether swamps of places like darkest Arkansas, you ask? Thanks for asking. Do I have a story for you! 

Yesterday, Steve and I drove to Hot Springs to fill our water bottles at the fountains in the national park there. I've mentioned in previous postings that we make this trip every few months to refill the bottles of spring water we use in cooking and for drinking. Dotted throughout the park and in the center of the city are springs with spigots from which anyone can take water at no cost. The water flows continuously from deep in the mountains under the park and city.

We arrived at one of these fountains an hour or so before lunchtime. A cordial family, a father and two daughters, were occupying three of the spigots when we arrived, while someone else was using the other to fill her bottles. And so we removed our bottles from the car and stood and waited for spigots to come open for our use, as we chatted with the man and his daughters.

After they left, we began filling our bottles at the three spigots they'd vacated. It's possible for one person to use two spigots at once, since one can easily reach around from one spigot to the other and press the buttons releasing water on both at the same time. We've seen people using all four spigots at once, in fact, with those cords bicyclists use to secure their bicycles stretched around to press all four buttons at once.

As we work at filling our bottles, a couple, a man and woman, drive up and shove their bottles up to one of the spigots I'm using. They glare. When I've filled the bottle occupying that spigot, the woman demands the use of it. I ask if she has only a few bottles to fill, since, as a courtesy to people who have fewer bottles than we do, we always make room--as most folks using these fountains do.

"Where you from?" she replies, eying the matching turquoise rings Steve and I wear. "There's a protocol here. They should write it down. I'm from Hot Springs. You can only use two spigots at one time. That's the protocol."

I don't even try to engage these arguments. I don't point out that we're two people who have been using three spigots between us--which means one of us is using two spigots while the other uses one spigot, and this fits the "protocols" she's just invented. Nor do I point out that the "protocols" for the use of the spigots are set by the national park, not the city of Hot Springs. And that no such "protocols" exist . . . . 

I move over and let her have the spigot she's demanded, as others begin to crowd in around the fountain. As I do so, the conversation erupts into flames. It becomes a political eructation involving all the folks standing around the fountain. I had sensed from the time the couple arrived that there was . . . something . . . underneath the surface of their hostility. They arrived roiled, as mad as hornets. And they intended to vent their anger.

All the folks arriving right after this couple arrived were equally roiled. "Couldn't get to these fountains last week," a man growls, as he takes the spigot that the woman who was there when we arrived filling her bottles has just vacated. "Government shut the whole place down. Obama shut it down."

The lady who had insisted on my relinquishing a spigot to her chimes in her agreement: just disgraceful, the federal government shutting down this park, making spring water unavailable to the people of Hot Springs. In the background, another woman waiting to fill her bottles demurs: "Nope. It was the evil Republicans who shut things down."

"You know what, I'm gon' call you on that," the man who has started the conversation then shouts. "It was Obama who shut everything down, and he kept open the federal gym and golf course and everything his folks want and need. All of 'em are corrupt. Time to throw 'em all out. We could learn something from Rick Perry in Texas. He throws 'em out when their time in office is over and done with."

Murmurs of approval from all the other folks now crowding around the fountain, waiting for free spigots to fill their bottles. "Yep, not a one of 'em any good. Need to throw every one of 'em out. Government's the problem. Bloated up, spending money it doesn't have, wanting money from the rest of us to hand out to deadbeats. Need to take a leaf from Rick Perry's book over in Texas: get rid of all the waste and all the loafers and idlers who don't intend to do a lick of work. Shut the government down!"

At this point, thankfully, we'd filled our bottles and we quickly loaded them in our car and drove off, jubilant to be shot of the hornets. As we did so, Steve remarked, "That's about the meanest group of human beings I've had the misfortune to find myself among in a long time." 

And I wholeheartedly agreed. All of these folks were, as they informed each other, locals. They all live in and around Hot Springs, around a national park created and maintained by the federal government--the same government they want to shut down, and against which they want to rail now after the political party they supported in the last elections just shut the government down, shutting down their access to the national park. To the national park that is the raison d'ĂȘtre of their entire community, the economic draw of the community, the major employer of the community--such that, to shut the place down by shutting the government down is to cut off their economic nose to spite their ideological face . . . . 

These were all white Republican local residents of Hot Springs who were as mad as hornets about the effects of what their own political party had just done at the federal level, but who intend to blame what their party chose to do on the federal government that was the object of the nasty stunt their chosen political party had pulled. (The cordial family that was at the fountain when we arrived, who treated us courteously and spoke to us kindly? An African-American family.)

These were all white Republicans from a city whose political life is now controlled by the tea party faction of the Republican party. They're mad as hell and they're not going to take it any more. They were already as mad as hell before the shutdown took place, without being absolutely certain where to focus their anger--on the queers from Little Rock coming down to take their water from them? On the black family sitting up in the white house? On a world that seems to be escaping from their white christianist control?

And now they're madder than ever, after Mr. Obama shut down the government but kept things open for himself and his cronies. The lesson many folks in the hinterland have learned from the recent government shutdown? It's the Muslim in the White House who's at fault. He shut it down.

The folks we've sent to Congress? They're trying to solve the problem by shutting things down.  

And we want things shut down. Except when we don't. Except when it's our own national park that's been shut down. Except when that national park was created by and is sustained by the same federal government that we say is the problem, and which we want destroyed. 

We want the government destroyed, but we don't want "our" government-funded park destroyed. Because it somehow belongs to us, the tea party people of Hot Springs, in some unique and mysterious way, so that we can make up rules on the spot to keep you and your kind, who pay your tax dollars to keep the national park in operation, out of our park and out of our business. We can make up those rules and claim that local ownership even when anyone with even a modicum of common sense knows that "our" park depends completely on federal tax dollars for its sustenance--and so it belongs to you, too.

If you think that Republicans have learned their lesson from the recent shutdown and now understand that pulling ugly tricks like shutting down the federal government to score political points is immature, irrational, dysfunctional, and harmful even to those who wanted the shutdown, I suggest that you think again. And that you visit the springs at the national park in Hot Springs, and listen a while to the hair-raising earful you'll hear from the very angry, out-of-control white christianists who form the backbone of the Republican party now in places like Hot Springs, Arkansas.

You might learn something. Though you might not like what you learn.

Please see this subsequent footnote to the preceding posting.

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