There's this story I heard once from a homeless veteran I'll call James. He had a pinched face and a smoky voice and huge, square glasses and the kind of wicked alcoholism that accelerated from zero to knife-fight in about half a sip of beer. I was working the night shift in a coffee shop, and James, who at the time was sober and taking a computer programming class, was keeping me company. He told me about this thing he used to do, back in Vietnam.
On those days when he didn't have to be anywhere, James would go out into the jungle. His friends used to go into town to pick up some prostitutes, but James was in one of his religious phases, and so he didn't tag along. Instead, he'd hollow out a coconut, put his gold watch inside of it, and leave it on the jungle floor. Then he'd go hide, and wait. If he was lucky, an orangutan would come along and notice the watch gleaming inside the coconut. It would reach inside to see what the shiny thing was. James would fashion the hole in such a way that an open hand could get into the coconut, but a closed fist was too big to get out. The orangutan couldn't figure this out, and it didn't want to let go of the shiny thing, so its hand would be stuck inside.
The orangutan couldn't seem to make the connection between its hand being stuck and letting go of the watch. Those two problems—the stuck hand and the wanting the thing inside the coconut—were hurtling forward through its ape brain on parallel tracks, and they seemed unsolvable. And so the orangutan started to get agitated. It was at that point that James would jump out of the shadows, he told me, and quickly beat the confused orangutan to death with the butt of his gun.
James clearly loved telling the story, and I loved it, too: It seemed to have so many meanings. If we're the orangutan in the story, we don't understand that the simple solution to our predicament would be obvious if we could just let go of the thing we want. If we're James in the story, we're unknowingly acting out the cruelty and the pointlessness of the Vietnam War on a tiny scale, for recreation, even as the larger war is playing out all around us. I've been thinking a lot about James's story since the government shut down on October 1. I'll tell you why in a minute. But first, I want to talk about the internet.
The internet is an engine powered by outrage. You sit at your desk dying to escape from your job, and so you visit one of your favorite blogs, or Twitter. What do you find there? Posts written solely with the intent of making you feel outraged, because outrage is the cheapest way to get a response out of a human being. A celebrity rubbed her clothed ass into another celebrity's clothed groin. Outrageous! Some Christian busybody banned a book that you love from a school library because of a sexual reference. How dare she? This person is arguing that a sports team name might be racist toward Native Americans. Time to leave a comment complaining about the political correctness police! And, say, why isn't there a White History Month, anyway?
It now takes so much to outrage the American public into action that we're really unshockable. That's why America keeps cutting itself, in the hopes that it'll feel something.
Don't believe me? Let's look at the last week's worth of events. On October 1, congressional Republicans decided to shut the government down. Let's put it another way: The party controlling half of one of our three branches of government has decided to hold the entire nation's well-being hostage. So-called "nonessential" government services, which include food and shelter for impoverished mothers and children, treatments for kids with cancer, educational aid, and the front lines of scientific research, are closed until further notice. Also closed: more than half of health and human services, all food inspection, the Environmental Protection Agency, and NASA. The NSA is still spying on you during the shutdown, but because of the shutdown, you can't file a Freedom of Information Act request to find out what they know. Oh well. At least the plush congressional gyms—featuring saunas, swimming pools, a steam room, and paddleball courts—are still open, so poor Paul Ryan won't have to skip leg day.
Republicans say they're doing this because they want Obamacare repealed. They've voted 41 times to repeal Obamacare. Never mind that Obamacare was voted into law by Congress, signed into law by President Barack Obama, and approved by the Supreme Court, meaning it's survived every one of the checks and balances that the founding fathers wrote into the Constitution. Never mind that President Obama won—twice! Never mind that health-care costs are choking America to death, and so any sort of a solution—even one as essentially conservative as Obamacare, which Mitt Romney basically wrote—is necessary to save the middle and lower classes of this country. This is apparently a dictatorship, and the dictators of half of one-third of the government don't want it. So they'll stop the whole fucking show until they get their way.
In another time, maybe before CNN punctured our skulls with its fangs and feasted on our outrage glands, we'd be protesting in the streets. As it is, if anyone's even paying attention, they're observing this whole thing like it's a game, where the "team" with the most "points" wins the "news cycle," whatever the fuck that is. And it won't be over until enough Republicans cave to reality and decide to end the shutdown.
Or, no wait. Based on just about everyone's count, there are enough Republican votes to end the shutdown. But Speaker of the House John Boehner refuses to bring it to a vote, because he's scared of the anti-government Tea Party Republicans. In lieu of winning in real life, Republicans have cornered the market on outrage. It's not a bad instinct, because outrage is still the currency by which you can most easily seize the public's attention. Every time they make a public appearance, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul are trying to crest a wave of outrage that they can parlay into a run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.
They're not alone. Two days after voting for the shutdown, Texas congressman Randy Neugebauer tried to lead a group of teabaggy veterans into the World War II Memorial in Washington, DC, but it was closed, because the WWII Memorial is a federal park. When a Park Service employee tried to stop Congressman Neugebauer, whose American flag on a dowel stuck into his breast pocket gave him the appearance of a burger served in a TGI Fridays on the Fourth of July, he lost his shit on her: "How do you look at them... and deny them access?" Neugebauer said, indicating the veterans. High on the fumes of his own hypocritical outrage, he added, "The Park Service should be ashamed of themselves."
The employee responded, "I'm not ashamed."
Neugebauer replied, "You should be."
Those fumes must be some good shit. These guys are in a daze. After Indiana congressman Marlin Stutzman told the Washington Examiner that his fellow Republicans in Congress are "not going to be disrespected" by President Obama and the Democrats, he elaborated, bizarrely, "We have to get something out of this [shutdown], and I don't know what that even is."
Then, of course, there's Arkansas congressman Tim Griffin, whose response to the car chase and shoot-out at the White House and the Capitol on October 3 was to hole up in his congressional coat closet, presumably pissing himself, while tweeting hypocritical outrage: "Stop the violent rhetoric President Obama, Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi. #Disgusting." The NRA-loving Griffin, who has voted against gun-control legislation at every opportunity, later explained that he "tweeted out of emotion" when he tried to blame the shooting on Democrats who wanted to keep the government open. Meanwhile, the Capitol police who put their lives on the line to protect the congressmen were working without any promise of being paid.
At least President Obama—who has had, let's face it, a terrible year—hasn't played along with the outrage game. He and congressional Democrats haven't taken any of this bait; they've smartly decided to let Republicans flame out on their own. Obama's shutdown press conference on Tuesday was exhaustive in length, confident in tone, and dense with facts. In other words, it was just the sort of thing that makes modern Republicans shriek and arch their backs.
On Sunday, Boehner threatened to extend the government shutdown into next week's debt limit increase vote. The last time House Republicans fought with President Obama over the debt ceiling, our financial standing internationally took a beating, our credit rating got the shiv, and the economy lagged. A one-two dickslap of the shutdown followed by (or, worse yet, running concurrently with) a debt-ceiling battle could plunge us back into a recession.
Of course, shutdowns can't last forever. Maybe even now, as you're reading this sentence, the shutdown is over. When it ends, cable's talking heads will distribute "points" to each "side" based on public perception. Polls will be taken. Wrists will be slapped. Victory speeches will be given. But the shutdown isn't even the real story. The truth is so much worse.
The real story is that the teabaggers have already won. This shutdown thing is just the fart joke to keep you from noticing the heist going on in the background. On the very first day of the shutdown, Derek Thompson revealed in the Atlantic that our perception of "normal" has been fundamentally shifted to the right. The budget that the Senate and the House are fighting over? It's almost 20 percent smaller than the budget President Obama proposed five years ago, or the one that Democrats proposed four years ago. Hell, the Senate's budget is actually 10 percent smaller than the budget that Paul Ryan proposed three years ago, the one that Democrats swore up and down was going to transform America into an Ayn Rand–y hellscape of libertarianism. In the last five years, Republicans have successfully starved the government to death.
The top 1 percent of all earners in the United States earned 19.3 percent of all household income in the US last year. That's the highest economic disparity this country has seen in one hundred years. The 1 percent has recovered from the Great Recession of 2008, while everyone else has pretty much given up ever seeing that kind of prosperity ever again. The American dream—a fair wage, a decent retirement, a sturdy safety net—has slowly been robbed from us. And now that we have a shot at getting some reasonably (or at least slightly less insanely) priced health care in online exchanges without fear of preexisting conditions barring us from insurance, the Republican Congress is threatening to burn the whole fucking popsicle stand to the ground.
You know what we should be fighting for right now, if we lived in a country with any sense of justice? A single-payer health plan. How would we fund that? The same way we'd fund all those social services programs that would help single mothers get good educations. The same way we'd provide outreach for people in need of mental health care, rather than waiting for them to blow out a synapse and drive a car at the White House with a screaming 1-year-old child in the backseat so we can just shoot them to death.
How would we do all that? By taxing the fuck out of the rich.
The Waltons, America's richest family, are worth more than a hundred billion dollars. This is a failure of capitalism. Nobody needs a hundred billion dollars. Nobody is worth a hundred billion dollars. Nobody works a hundred billion dollars harder than someone who makes minimum wage. It's impossible. It's wrong. It's evil. The Walton family are bad citizens. They're un-American.
I'm not talking here about class war or revolution. I'm talking about the American way. When he was president, Dwight Eisenhower pushed the tax rate for the richest Americans down to 91 percent. If Eisenhower- era tax rates were still in effect, the Waltons would still have nine billion dollars, and we'd have government-funded health care like the rest of the civilized world.
After this shutdown, you tell me who's won and who's lost.
And the thing about that orangutan story James told me? Yeah, that was obviously bullshit. There are no orangutans in Vietnam, or any large primates other than humans. I knew the story was bullshit when he told me, but I didn't challenge it. It was a good story, and he told it well. We both knew it was a lie, but so what?
People tell stories for two reasons: Either they're trying to convince you of something, or they're trying to convince themselves of something. So either James did some awful things in Vietnam and he was trying to smooth his past over by turning it into a still-batshit-but-somewhat-more-socially-acceptable story about beating an orangutan to death, or he was trying to shock me into thinking he was a badass motherfucker who did crazy-awesome stuff all the time. Maybe both.
I've been thinking of the story so much lately because James reminds me of the Republicans, trying desperately to tap into America's chewed-up outrage receptors in the hopes of getting a reaction. Maybe they desperately want to convince themselves that they're pure and good warriors for truth. Or maybe they want us to think they're crazy sons of bitches who'll nuke everything so we won't cross them again. Maybe the answer is somewhere in the middle.
No matter what really happened in Vietnam, the truth about James is that a couple weeks later, he showed up at my coffee shop with formaldehyde breath and bloodshot eyes one morning at 7 a.m., asking for 20 bucks. He was kicked out of the veterans' shelter, he said, because they were all a bunch of assholes. When I refused, he told me to go fuck myself and then he just stood there swearing at me until I told him I'd call the cops. He left. I never saw him again. I'd like to think he eventually got clean, but every cell in my body knows that's not what happened to James. He'd made his decision about the way his life was going to go long before I'd met him—just like the teabaggers who really don't care who they hurt on their way out and down.
As for the analogy: The shutdown isn't the orangutan. The American people aren't the watch. The shutdown is making me think of James's story because the shutdown is serving the same purpose as James's story. Republicans think the shutdown is the story they're telling to explain why government is evil. Democrats think the shutdown is the story they're telling to explain why Republicans are crazy. But really it's the story we're all telling ourselves to keep from seeing that the whole fucking thing—our internet-based, outrage-fueled, 1-percent-favoring society—has burst into flames and rolled over onto its side. If we can't outrage ourselves anymore, at least we can keep distracting ourselves with lies for a little bit longer.