Agonistes on the Government Shut Down

Word on the street is that they’ve got a potential government shut down going on. To Agonistes it seems fairly obvious that the Dems are thwarting the process in order to vilify the GOP in an election year. Smart move given the current climate, if you ask me. I guess you got to give the democrats credit for playing to win.

On the eve of a national government shut down I can’t help but think back to the story of Westward Expansion long about the turn of the century and pushing through to the late 1930s. A century or so removed from the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the west was blown wide open to migration largely due to the railroad, but also the telegraph and prosperity. But the people weren’t really moving. As contributors to the lack of interest there was WW1 (and the 1920s were pretty comfortable for most).

Because the federal government had this huge investment in the west and a need to get people on the land, it launched what amounted to an enormous PR campaign created to stimulate movement into the area. The campaign included free trips to visit the Texas panhandle, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Colorado, and even Nebraska and the Dakotas.  Our US government published pamphlets that highlighted how this land could be put to agricultural use. Heretofore only used for ranching, the area that would later be known as The Dust Bowl only recorded about 16 inches of rainfall a year—not the 20 inches annually required for successful agricultural endeavors. But here’s the kicker: the promotional pamphlets led people to believe that there was enough rain to raise successful crops year after year.  At worst it was a blatant lie. At best it was misleading.

Of course the cowboys knew it. They knew that the land was only good for cattle ranching, not farming. And the US Department of Agriculture did too. But the people came. They responded to the lure of cheap land and the American Dream. And they kept coming. And they bought tractors and they turned the prairie over and grew more grain than any nation had before or since. What they didn’t know—neither the government nor the farmer nor the cowboy—was that the prairie grass was the only thing holding the dirt down. Within two decades the prairie was gone, the Great Depression had settled in like an unwelcome relative, and the Dust Bowl was beginning its long run into our history books as one of the single most traumatic events in US history.

Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time chronicles the story of the Dust Bowl with abject detail. He describes the rabbit runs and the great dust storms of the 1930s. In vivid detail he tells the stories of the families that lived in “homes” dug out of the ground with dirt floors, no roofs or windows, with cow chips their only source of fuel for the stoves. (Can you imagine the permanent smell of manure on your skin, hair, clothing.) There were so many centipedes living in the walls that you could hear them crawling around you at night and the dust so bad that people died from a malady known as dust pneumonia. There was enough static electricity in the air to short cars and knock people down with an ill-advised handshake. Food was so scarce that people canned tumbleweed to eat in the winter months.

So what relevance does this have today? Why bring these events from first half of the Twentieth Century up on the eve of a potential government shut down? Because we made it. Not only did we survive the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, but we went on to become the most powerful nation the world has ever seen. And to its credit, I think, the administration of Roosevelt knew it. That is, the government believed. It believed in the fortitude and heart of the American people. It believed—and the irony is not lost on me—that we would ultimately not just survive, but find a way to thrive. What they knew is that we were and remain a nation of cowboys, so to speak, with indomitable spirits that cannot be tamed and that do not accept defeat. Stuff like that made us tough … for a generation anyway. All the government of the day did was plant a seed and make a better life possible for us (and with a little half-truth, too, I guess), then stepped back and let us do whatever we could with what was available. To a large degree, this was noble.

So here is what I wonder. Should talk of the shut down even matter? Think about it. When the Founding Fathers were building the framework of what our nation would become, the question was not so much what the federal government should be, but if it should be. When James Madison and Alexander Hamilton were writing the Federalist Papers–the documents would ultimately contribute the most to the framing of The Constitution– the big question was associated with the power of the central government as it related to the state governments—not what it would or could do to help us. Their resolution was to let the balance of power remain ambiguous, thus creating what Joseph Ellis described as something like an on-going yet slow-moving revolution and perpetually re-create the federal government A/K/A “genius”. And so perhaps that is where we find ourselves.

The role of government—any democratic government—is really quite simple: (1) remove obstacles (2) protect the people. Any Charlie Daniels song will tell you that maybe we don’t even need that. Circumstances amidst the Great Depression were so outrageous as to lie beyond any help the federal government could possibly provide. It was overwhelming. There were programs that worked with varying degrees of success, but by and large it was the people that pulled themselves out of it. A nation of cowboys found a way. Yeah it was hard. Terribly hard. But it’s only in those situations that you can find out what you’re capable of becoming.

I love this nation and what it stands for. Here’s to hoping we haven’t lost any of that along the way.


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