The picture at the top of this post is of the barricade that the National Park Service has presumably placed across the entrance to the parking lot of Roger Williams National Memorial in Providence, Rhode Island, as part of its nationwide effort to make Americans feel the pain of the (very) partial shutdown of the federal government. Following the link on the memorial’s name while the shutdown remains in effect brings one to a notice that “all national parks are closed and National Park Service webpages are not operating.” A call to the park’s phone number brings one to a message that the memorial is closed for “the duration of the government shutdown.”
The national Democrats and their allies have been working to present the Obama Administration’s decision to blockade and evacuate land that the government owns and to actively disrupt American life in other ways as the fault of Congressional Republicans who won’t approve full funding for the federal government unless the Affordable Care Act (commonly known as ObamaCare) is at least delayed. For their part, Republicans have been presenting proposals to fund individual parts of government that have immediate and emotional consequence, like the funding of cancer treatment trials for sick children, which Senate Democrats have blocked.
The political question, then, which is at this point a litmus test among those who are politically engaged, is which party is currently holding the American people hostage. The barricades to the Roger Williams parking lot give an important bit of context: If withholding of funds is the problem, which is the only thing for which Republicans can conceivably be blamed, then the consequences should be the sort of things that happen when one has no money.
If parks aren’t being cleaned, that is a consequence of not having money. If people start getting flat tires because the government cannot sweep scenic overlooks along highways, that is a consequence of not having money. Paying guards to physically push people (who are leaving anyway) out of park memorials is not a consequence of not having money.
In fact, trespass a few yards onto the federal memorial land in Providence, and one finds a light turned on, illuminating the noontime pavement:
Leaving the lamppost aside, the question of “who is to blame” is bigger, still, expanding to the breadth of political philosophy. A cached version of a Web page on the National Park Service site explains that “National parks are special places saved by the American people so that all may experience our heritage.”
There are many ways for the American people to accomplish its objectives, whether preserving land, investing in research, making their neighborhoods safe, or developing a safety net. The preservation of memorials and historic sites is a good example of how government can become the first resort because it can be the most expedient: utilize government to buy the property, declare it “ours,” and leave it to political process.
What the American people are learning, during this shutdown, is that government purchase of land does not make it the people’s land, but that of whoever controls the government.
Trespass a bit farther onto the land that Roger Williams once purchased from the Narragansett tribe, and you’ll see the following plaque, proclaiming the colony to be “a shelter for persons distressed,” where (in his famous phrase) individuals would engage in “a lively experiment” in community living.
A shelter is a place. A community is a group of people. The fact that we all vote for some small portion of the employees of the government, and the fact that it is empowered to take money away from us in order to fund itself does not make the government and the people the same thing.
It’s a moral that Rhode Islanders and Americans of all ideological persuasions and political parties should take to heart now, because the lessons can and will become much more painful.