Today, October 1st, 2013, the United States Government momentarily halted its business. Perhaps the best story I’ve read on this comes by way of Joshua Keating of Slate.com, and it takes the shut down as an opportune moment to describe how American media would report on this if the shut-down happened in a non-American, or non-Western, nation-state. It is enlightening. This is the first installment of the article. An excerpt from it, and a direct link if you click right here:
The capital’s rival clans find themselves at an impasse, unable to agree on a measure that will allow the American state to carry out its most basic functions. While the factions have come close to such a shutdown before, opponents of President Barack Obama’s embattled regime now appear prepared to allow the government to be shuttered over opposition to a controversial plan intended to bring the nation’s health care system in line with international standards…
…The current rebellion has been led by Sen. Ted Cruz, a young fundamentalist lawmaker from the restive Texas region, known in the past as a hotbed of separatist activity. Activity in the legislature ground to a halt last week for a full day as Cruz insisted on performing a time-honored American demonstration of stamina and self-denial, which involved speaking for 21 hours, quoting liberally from science fiction films and children’s books. The gesture drew wide media attention, though its political purpose was unclear to outsiders.
This story is fascinating for a number of reasons. To historians, it reminds me of how we are disciplined to develop histories of past societies by using the individual words of the people we are talking about. So, for example, yesterday around the graduate seminar table we got to talking about how the British mounty Walsh characterized Sitting Bull during the Hunkpapa chiefs short tenure north of the 49th parallel in Canada. Sitting Bull was thinking things over, and the Anglo-North American Walsh decided to refer to the chief as “Mohommet.”
I’m not sure how Walsh meant it, but it caused me to speak up and note that when Walsh called Sitting Bull “Mohommet,” it said more about Walsh than it ever could say about Sitting Bull: of course Sitting Bull was not Mohommet. Walsh hailed from Prescott, Onterio, though, and that was part of the St. Lawrence Seaway and The Atlantic World, and that world indeed was privy to imaginings of European Christiandom, and so on. This is why Walsh’s analogy is the most non-analogous attempted analogy in the history of analogies (okay, I’m exaggerating, but sometimes a person gets sucked into the amplified media craziness which, in turn, speaks to the point of this blog). Sitting Bull is Sitting Bull. He was by and for the Hunkpapa, the Seven Council Fires, the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota, and the northern Great Plains. Period.
This is easily the same for today’s media, though, where reporters are given a couple minutes or hours to cobble together something on a non-American or non-Western topic, and make it vaguely intelligible for a news-absorbing public. Then we can all sit in our living rooms and either nod in approval or shake our heads in disagreement about what country we need to consider invading next. In the second half of the 19th century, this is what a reading public did on the east and west coasts of North America as they read about the actions taking place on the North American steppe. “What could possibly go wrong here!?” Right.
An aside on how Keating of Slate.com describes Ted Cruz, with addition: certainly Ted would be described this way if he were the reverse operating in Mesopotamia and Persia and the Levant (in a kind of opposite world, though). But the media would also say something like, “Ted Cruz is from the adjoining Christian country of Canada.” Then listeners of that media would sit in their living rooms and be mind-boggled at how one Christian could have different ideas in North America from another Christian. “Honey, get this: they don’t all think the same way! At least that’s what the news is saying… Should we order pizza tonight? Or go for Chinese?”
Anyhow, happy government shut down. I’ve rolled up my sleeves to get through it all.