It was hard not to feel a sense of schadenfreude watching Republicans yesterday as they wriggled in a box of their own design, desperately proposing to re-fund those “non-essential” elements of government they were so keen last month to de-fund in order to spike the Affordable Care Act. No doubt reeling from the effects of seeing veterans barred from the World War II Memorial on the National Mall, or this morning’s Washington Post front showing cops barricading the Martin Luther King Memorial on the Tidal Basin (see above), or seeing millions crash the ACA online exchanges, Sen. Ted Cruz suggested a series of piecemeal continuing resolutions to re-open popular parts of government like the National Park Service and the Smithsonian Institution.
But this is a small and fleeting feeling. Something much larger and more ominous has happened as the doors have shut on our national museums and art galleries, and gates have gone up around our national monuments and public parks. The National Park System — which includes the monumental core of the nation’s capital — is the largest of its kind in the world, a vast archipelago of public lands. The Smithsonian is the most-visited museum complex in the world, no matter what the Louvre may claim.
So what the Republicans have wrought — and despite my usual nonpartisan tone I blame with animus this entirely avoidable and artificial crisis on the House Republican Caucus — is a shutdown of publicly accessible American culture. And for all the usual raving from the cultural right about the decrepitude of American culture and the stupidity of government funding of cultural projects such as NPR, PBS and the NEA, the finest examples of American and world culture and values are in fact collected, protected and curated by government mandate for anyone to enjoy. This obvious fact has now very suddenly occurred to the Republicans as they see thousands of tourists milling about the capital, deprived of their own national patrimony by Congressional cupidity.
My friends with the artistic collective CULTURESHUTDOWN could be forgiven for the prophetic irony we may feel for warning less than two weeks ago of just such a trend toward the official denigration of national culture. Speaking at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Prof. Susan Pearce of East Carolina University, Jasmin Mujanovic of York University, and Prof. Azra Aksamija of MIT spoke about the parliamentary paralysis that has suspended operations at six cultural institutions in Bosnia-Herzegovina without official status and called for an end to the political crisis in that country.
We warned that similar obstacles were cropping up in other countries like Hungary and Bulgaria. I even joked, unintentionally, about a world where the US Congress failed to agree — that’s when the laughs started — on whether the Smithsonian should continue as a federal institution, just as the Bosnian parliament has. In retrospect that was mere foreshadowing of the fiscal shutdown that followed Oct. 1 and shut down all of the Smithsonian museums and galleries in earnest.
Of course most of the rest of the government continues to be funded and to operate. Planes must be controlled in the sky, our borders must be defended, meat must be inspected, wars must be pursued. Our way of life must be protected. All of that is essential governmental activity.
But what remains “non-essential,” including the patrimony that we curate and cherish, represents that way of life and what it means to be an American — more specifically, how we are American. Just as narrow-minded chauvinists in Bosnia, who hate the idea of a Bosnian identity incorporating all its faiths as well as Bosnia’s pre-history, have strangled the institutions that present that plurality, so too now have the small-minded ideologues in Congress held American heritage hostage to advance their agenda.
If our representatives could now see the best of our history arrayed in the museums, and the land over which men like John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt once trekked — they are closed now, but I’m sure exceptions could be made for Members of Congress — they’d learn about characters much bigger, and generous, and large-minded, than this runt litter of small and mean and petty men and women now assembled.