Civil (-servant) disobedience, circa 2013

“If a plant cannot live according to its nature, it dies; and so a man.”Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience and Other Essays

I am not recommending this.

But imagine for the moment a parallel universe. In this parallel universe there just happens to be a partial shutdown of the United States federal government, as here. And very much like our actual universe, this shutdown has occurred at an arguably bad time: The government of the strongest economy of that parallel world is about to hit a debt ceiling that, though arbitrary and self-imposed, has the potential to cost America trillions of dollars[1]. International negotiations with leaders of other major economies have been postponed at a critical juncture, stifling global efforts to reboot world commerce after the 2008 debacle. Middle-east peace initiatives from Iran to Syria and Gaza are stymied. Cyber security is weakened; foreign hackers can scarcely believe their good fortune. Tropical storm Karen is howling in the Gulf, gathering strength and bearing down on the southern coast. Seven billion people worldwide are reassessing the extent to which they can afford to rely on America and its people as partners in their fight against rogue nations, corruption, and totalitarian governments.

Now imagine that in this parallel universe there exists a Rosa Parks.

Only her name isn’t Rosa Parks… it’s Jana Smith or Maria Sanchez or Yolanda Johnson or Julia Chen (or maybe it’s his name; insert your favorite, of either gender, here). And unlike Ms. Parks, she isn’t laying claim to her seat on the bus in 1955 (that matter has long ago been settled in this parallel universe as well as our own). Instead, in this parallel world of 2013 she is a federal employee. She has been for decades. Throughout those years she’s put up with the negative stereotypes people have of federal workers and the pay freezes and the whiplash that occurs every four years when administrations change because she has seen the importance of what she’s been doing and the broad public benefits…to veterans, the ill, the pre-school kids, those at risk from the weather or unsafe food or worse. She quietly endured the shutdown of 1995-96. But today she simply wants to return to work and do her job. So one fateful morning in the middle of the partial shutdown she shows up at her office, even though she had been deemed non-essential (or, more precisely, we’re told in recent days, non-excepted).

What would happen?

That depends upon just which parallel universe she’s in. In one, she has a long-standing relationship with the security guard at the desk. And it happens that he’s so fed up with the shutdown and its capricious nature and what he sees on the evening news coverage that he briefly chats her up and then waves her in. She has to turn on the hallway lighting, and her computer doesn’t work, but she starts making calls, to the people she’s used to serving on the outside world interspersed with co-workers, whom she encourages to come on in and join. It feels good, but soon authorities step in and bring everyone’s work to a halt, escorting them from the building. In another, the security guard has a family to support and that his own job doesn’t look safe. He immediately calls for backup. Added security forces and the news media arrive at the building’s front door just about the same time. In both multiverses, Twitter, Facebook, the blogosphere, and the airwaves light up.

So much for day one.

But in at least some of the parallel worlds, the following day sees something amazing. Thousands of Rosa Parks show up at their respective federal places of work. And tens of thousands of the general public… not just clients/constituents and the people the federal workers are called to serve but their friends from neighborhood and place of worship… seeing what’s afoot, and wanting to show solidarity, show up as well. In a few locations the federal workers are waved in to cheering. In another handful, there’s a scuffle or two, maybe an arrest. At most federal offices, everyone remains locked out. The second day’s media coverage of all these sites reveals a depth and unanimity of public opinion on the issue the politicians can no longer ignore.

Come to find out that in most of these alternative universes, the political leaders are actually anxious for such a sign. There hasn’t been a single bit of the disruption that they’ve enjoyed. They know they’ve let down the parents who raised them, their supporters, the American public, and worst of all, themselves. They came to Washington to make a difference, only to find themselves feeling just as trapped and impotent and frustrated as they’d felt before they took office. Most of the 435 Representatives and 100 Senators see the real power in the hands of no more than half a dozen of their number. But that half dozen in the inner circle doesn’t feel any more in-charge; instead they find themselves victimized by factions within their own parties. The President himself sees his hands tied by a recalcitrant House majority.

Turns out that everyone except for Rosa Parks is held hostage.

In these nearby multiverses, politicians find that an American people serious about holding them accountable and wanting action actually makes it easier for them to lead. The combined bankruptcy of the decision behind the partial government shutdown and the impending bankruptcy represented by the debt ceiling lead to clean up-or-down legislation on both, which pass overwhelmingly. The country returns to its previous level of polarization, which though more benign remains dysfunctional. But in a handful of parallel universes, the aftermath sees the country, over time, taking an additional step: first debating and then addressing at both national and state levels the multi-year gerrymandering of the landscape into politically-safe districts that has contributed to this tangle.

Thoreau and his ideas on civil disobedience may be too radical for most of us living on this particular real world. But he’s right about the consequences of not letting a man or woman live according that person’s nature. Such restrictions are not merely inconveniences. To bar a civil servant (service to others? With respect and a smile? what finer vocation could there be?) from his or her calling is to kill a bit of that soul.



[1] each trillion comes to $3000 for each man, woman, and child of us added to the $45,000 we each owe already… thankfully, largely to ourselves.

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3 Responses to Civil (-servant) disobedience, circa 2013

  1. George Leopold says:

    What you are advocating, Bill, is that we do our duty as citizens in a democracy. That, I do recommend!

  2. Michelle says:

    After reading this article this morning:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/06/us/a-federal-budget-crisis-months-in-the-planning.html?

    … the other thought is to refuse to purchase the products from those who seem to believe no government is good government. Here is a list of popular Koch products (marketed under Georgia-Pacific or Investa):

    Toilet Paper:
    Angel Soft
    Quilted Northern
    Soft N, Gentle

    Paper Towels:
    Brawny
    Sparkle
    Mardi Gras

    Napkins:
    Mardi Gras
    Vanity Fair
    Zee

    Food Service:
    Quik-Rap sandwich paper
    Quilt-Rap insulating sandwich wrap
    Food Shop sandwich wrap
    Menu tissue

    Packaging:
    Color-Box
    MulitKraft

    Investa
    Lycra
    Cool Max
    Tactel
    Solar max
    Polarguard
    Dacron
    Thermolite
    Comforel
    Antron
    Stainmaster
    Cordura

  3. Here’s an analysis of our present mess that notes the relevance of Emerson’s “little statesman”:

    http://benjaminsmess.blogspot.com

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