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Ben Kirby: The shutdown debate that wasn’t: This was not about two sides

On behalf of rational thinking people everywhere, I would like to call for a formal and official end to the news media and societal malpractice of false equivalence. The government shutdown was never about two equally aggrieved sides trying to find common ground. Certainly this is evident as the bipartisan Senate accord to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling effectively calls the bluff of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and his tea party ideological brethren in the House of Representatives.

If one good thing has come of the shutdown, perhaps it will be the death of “both sides do it,” an unceremonious burying of “a pox on both their houses.”  This is a lazy and persistent practice unrepresentative of what actually happened in Washington, D.C., over the course of 16 days.

The prompt for this call to action was the tea party-led “march” in Washington last weekend.  In hindsight, this will almost assuredly be viewed as a turning point in this cynical exercise. The idea was to protest closed war memorials and have protest leaders — like former Alaska Gov.  Sarah Palin and Cruz — “open” them for visiting World War II veterans. The closure of memorials became a sort of cause celebre for conservative members of the Republican caucus. Two questions were raised as this political minority voiced objection:

First, if keeping the memorials to war open and available to the public and to veterans is so important, then why did they not simply pass the “clean” continuing budget resolution — or, heaven forfend, an actual budget — and open the government?

Second, why memorials? Why war memorials over, say, food assistance programs for needy children and families? Understandably, poor children and families have never made for good photo opportunities. But then why war memorials over the processing of Social Security checks? Guarding Social Security and helping the elderly is always politically popular.

Indeed, why the cause of memorials honoring those who served and those who died in wars instead of the cause of living veterans who fought in those wars, who served in the U.S. military? The Veterans Administration said a prolonged shutdown would affect benefit payments. How were the barricaded war memorials more important than the living veterans who have honorably served their country, and now rely on its services?

They closed the government, and then protested the closure of the government. Even in this they perpetuate the falsehood that memorials were open during the last government shutdown. They were not.

But working to close down the federal government, then protesting that parts of the federal government were, in fact, closed down, is not in and of itself false equivalency. A false equivalency, of sorts, did come into play when the facts were finally reported: the Department of Interior had already agreed to let participants in the Honor Flight program visit the World War II Memorial.

That simple truth was buried seven paragraphs into the linked CNN story, in which it was also reported that Larry Klayman of FreedomWorks told President Obama, via remarks before the crowd, to “put down the Quran.” For many reasons someone might ask why Mr. Klayman had a platform to speak at all. But in particular, one might wonder why this was even a story if the memorials were never actually closed to the visiting veterans.

It is difficult to have a conversation about the passage of a federal budget, the funding of the Affordable Care Act, raising the national debt limit, and governance in general when leaders on one side believe that the president of the United States is not the president of “we the people.”

Several days ago, Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute’s Sense-Making Project spoke on WUSF about how we have framed this “debate” all wrong:

“Journalism has an obligation to accurately describe what’s happening,” McBride said. “And when you call it a showdown or a stalemate or an impasse or gridlock or deadlock or a stare down … none of those are accurate. They imply mutual responsibility. They imply that two sides simply couldn’t come together on an agreement.”

The shutdown was not about two sides who could not reach agreement. It was not a debate. It was not “both sides do it.” It was not “a pox on both their houses.”  It was embarrassing, hackneyed political theater so that a second-rate politician could win a meaningless straw poll. He ended up with his hometown paper retracting its endorsement of his campaign last year.

The shutdown was about the inability of a vocal minority to accept the results of a national election. It was about the inability of an even smaller vocal minority to accept the passage of a law, upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

It was about an apparent willful ignorance of a small (but growing) population.

It was about racism, and loathing a president because of his race. It was about a war we thought was over 150 years ago, but the flag of which still flies against our government today.

How can we reasonably absorb any of this and still suggest, with a straight face, that President Obama and the Democrats needed to sit down at some negotiating table? A Confederate flag outside the White House? Not the president of “we the people”? I struggle to understand just what sort of deal, in their world, was supposed to be reached.

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