The Government Shutdown and History

By Susan Cook (Southern New Hampshire University, Manchester, NH)

On October 1, 2013, close to two weeks ago as I write this, the United States Congress failed to agree on a spending bill. This triggered a government shutdown, the eighteenth in this country since the creation of a new congressional budgetary procedure in 1976.

The eighteenth shutdown in less than 40 years.

This number would indicate that we’ve been there, done that. Except, as some journalists and political pundits inform us, this time is different. E. J. Dionne, Jr. writes in The Washington Post that this shutdown differs in a litany of ways: party politics, the Affordable Care Act, the looming debt ceiling—all of these contingent circumstances mark this shutdown as unique. This event, Dionne suggests, should not be confused with those that came before.

Yet the past often helps us make sense of the present. When JVC Online solicited thoughts from its readers on the connections between “19c healthcare practices, legislation, or political philosophies that speak to US govt #shutdown,” my thoughts went to the seemingly timeless frustration of bureaucracy. Historical corollaries alone don’t seem to quite capture the institutional absurdity, so I found myself turning to Dickens for help. The contemporary congressional posturing during the shutdown—a shutdown that actually costs money despite rhetoric characterizing it as a “slimdown”—calls to mind the bureaucratic process of Wiglomeration, a legal process “vastly ceremonious, wordy, unsatisfactory, and expensive.” [1] This would seem to sum up the past week and a half of rhetoric surrounding the shutdown—and yet, of course, the present shutdown is not exactly Wiglomeration. Yet the Circumlocution Office is even more evocative of the present situation. As Dickens writes, “Whatever was required to be done, the Circumlocution Office was beforehand with all the public departments in the art of perceiving—HOW NOT TO DO IT.” [2] A logic akin to circumlocution seems to dominate the present shutdown. And yet, of course, the present shutdown cannot be completely understood in terms of circumlocution. This disclaimer may seem unnecessary, but in our present rhetorical climate, I fear it is not.

Dionne’s opinion piece about the unique nature of this shutdown betrays more than a hint of exceptionalism, but it compels questions about the ways we use history and historical comparisons. What do we gain by and what are the risks of reading the financial crisis of 2013 in light of a Victorian event? What happens when we stop reading an event in light of another, and read it as another?

Historical comparisons give us a chance to see the contemporary event through the sharpened focus of past experience. They give us perspective and space for reflection, qualities so often lacking amidst contemporary hyperbolic and hysteric media noise. Without history we risk missing the lessons of the past and losing a sense of context. Historical associations are valuable in reverse as well: placing our Victorianist work alongside contemporary events can give that work relevance, particularly in the eyes of a public increasingly skeptical of the value of the humanities.

But—and this is where I think the urgency in Dionne’s piece comes from—historical comparisons can go too far. They can veer into conflations. There is a risk of seeing a present event as a past event, rather than seeing a past event as analogous in some ways to a present event. As I see it, this is the difference between metaphor and analogy. Lakoff and Johnson tell us metaphor is “understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another.” [3] Metaphor allows us to understand something as something else. Analogy, on the other hand, establishes a comparison or correspondence between two things “for the purpose of explanation or clarification.” [4] Metaphor overwrites; analogy creates links.

Dionne’s warning is a warning against a metaphoric treatment of history—against reading one event as another. Yet just as problematic, perhaps, is the impulse to read a current event in isolation as a wholly exceptional occurrence, disconnected from any other. The idea of a more analogous treatment of history helps me understand the ways we might mediate between the two.

This may seem like an obvious distinction and hence an unnecessary warning, but the dominant rhetoric indicates otherwise. Writers of Dionne’s persuasion insist, often hyperbolically, that this event is unique. Conversely, other writers insist, often hyperbolically, on “many parallels” between the shutdown and (for example) a) corporate lockouts, b) Abraham Lincoln’s election, c) Maoist China, d) the English Civil War, or d) Nazi Germany. The first approach typically characterizes the shutdown as unequivocally “different from all the others,” leaving government officials ominously “mystified” and without past experiences to guide them. The second tends to draw historical connections by describing it as “strikingly similar” to and “exactly” like previous events. This rhetoric does the work of metaphor, supplanting one event for another.

One might argue that such an all-or-nothing approach—”the superlative degree of comparison only”—governs much of the contemporary U.S. political landscape and seems the favorite approach of our own “noisiest authorities.” [5] We should actively resist following suit. Using literary representations of the past to understand the present is only one way of thinking historically, but it is one that highlights connection as well as displacement–displacement made possible through analogy. Nothing will ever quite fit exactly—nothing will give us that solace of knowing the outcome or fully understanding the situation—but we go on, messily interpreting and reinterpreting, and that is precisely the point.

Susan Cook is Assistant Professor of English at Southern New Hampshire University, where she teaches nineteenth- and twentieth-century British literature. She writes about Victorian literature and visual culture. Follow Susan @Susan_E_Cook.

[1] Charles Dickens, Bleak House (New York: Penguin, 2003), p. 121.

[2] Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999), p. 88.

[3] George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago, U Chicago P, 1980), p. 5.

[4] The Oxford English Dictionary Online (2013).

[5] Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (New York: Penguin, 1996), p. 5.

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