Vindictive Shutdown Theater

by The Editors

‘I just don’t know what they’re trying to accomplish.” So says Jim Hagen, South Dakota’s secretary of tourism, about the federal government’s blocking off not only the entrance to the Mount Rushmore monument but also roadside viewing areas outside the park. “They won’t even let you pull off on the side of the road,” he says, noting that this particular act of shutdown theater is damaging his state’s tourism economy and ruining the plans of countless travelers. Shutdowns are strangely labor-intensive things: After setting up traffic cones to block off the Mount Rushmore viewing areas, the feds had to pick them up again because of a blizzard, but apparently had plans to put them right back down again after the plowing is done. Perhaps Mr. Hagen has too gentle a cast of mind to appreciate just what the Obama administration is trying to accomplish: It is an act of political theater, a gross and possibly illegal abuse of political power, an assault on private property, and a wanton subjugation of responsible governance to the political interests of President Obama and his party.

Consider the case of Ralph and Joyce Spencer, 77 and 80 years of age, respectively, who were evicted from their home on Lake Mead in Nevada by an officious park ranger who told them they had 24 hours to vacate the premises. The Spencers own their home outright, but it sits on land leased from the federal government. A lease is a legal contract, and the government shutdown presents no legitimate reason for the violation of that contract. Even if it did, the place to settle such a dispute is in a court of law — not through the arbitrary exercise of federal police power. This is not a blunder: It is the malicious harassment of private citizens in their own homes by an administration intent on creating hardships and then using them for propaganda purposes. You own your home right up until the moment when that the fact becomes inconvenient to President Obama.

Likewise, monuments that require no federal oversight — being, as they are, open to the public — have been barricaded by the federal government as part of the shutdown theater. The government has even ordered the closure of state-operated parks that sit on federal land. Anna Eberly, who manages the Claude Moore Colonial Farm in McLean, Va., one such shut-down park, says: “In all the years I have worked with the National Park Service, I have never worked with a more arrogant, arbitrary, and vindictive group representing the NPS.” “Vindictive” is the right word: It takes federal action to close the sites and none to keep them open. This is not what an inactive government looks like, but a spiteful one.

Likewise, federal websites have been shut down rather than left alone, with the selection of blacked-out sites being “bafflingly arbitrary,” in the words of Ars Technica. The Amber Alert site at the Department of Justice was taken offline, but the first lady’s “Let’s Move” campaign remained up and running. As with the case of the roped-off monuments, it takes more work and resources to black out websites than it does to simply leave them be. The administration is willing to do a great deal of work for a political stunt, but apparently takes a nonchalant view of the situation of abducted children.

Or veterans. After closing off the World War II Memorial in Washington, the administration partly reversed itself, declaring the site open for “First Amendment activities.” In the United States, having a thought in one’s head or a word in one’s mouth is a First Amendment activity. We do not exercise our rights at the sufferance of the federal government; Washington is named after a man who fought for that principle, an irony apparently lost on Barack Obama.

The point of this federal propaganda exercise is obvious: The administration seeks to gin up ill will against the Republican-controlled House of Representatives for refusing to crumble when Obama and the Senate peremptorily refuse to even consider its proposals. But there is a bit more to it than that. The Obama administration cleaves to the notion that “government is the only thing we all belong to,” as the Democrats put it during their 2012 convention, and it seeks to put the state at the center of national life. That the government has resorted to turning old people out of their homes suggests a level of ruthlessness that is shocking if not surprising. The Democrats have called their opponents “hostage-takers” in this matter — but they are the ones conducting seizures.

This may simply be an extreme version of the Democrats’ usual strategy of closing the Washington Monument, but it is notable extremism: throwing people out of their homes and forcing the shutdown of non-federal facilities. It is, if anything, an excellent illustration of why conservatives believe that the tentacles of the federal government are too long and too many.