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System Shutdown and the American DNA

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Once upon a time yours truly was obsessed with the movie “Blade Runner”. Still love the film to this day. But in graduate school, I was absolutely fixated.

At some points I’d watch it several times a month. Perhaps that was back when the poor college kid in me only had a dozen DVDs to my name. Whatever the case, the idea of the perilous tension between new replicant android beings seeking more life and the old guard humans taking extreme measures to respond to what they saw as a threat was viscerally compelling.

One of the more fascinating conversations in “Blade Runner” occurs between a leader of the replicant androids and his creator, where they run through possible ways of getting around the androids’ four-year lifespan, a genetic safety measure meant to protect humans from potential uprising and usurpation.

For each genetic alteration option the replicant mentions, his creator responds that it is impossible to alter the fundamental nature of a life form once it’s life has begun, as any changes will result in a mutation that will prove fatal to the life form in question.

As the current government shutdown marches on, one devastating day after another, the question of trying to alter existent DNA has been on my mind a great deal of late.

The current government shutdown purports to be about a wall, but it seems to really concern three layers of significantly more existential questions.

At the first layer, we are faced with the question of the President’s future. If he ends the shutdown without securing funding for the wall, the base of voters whose support has been insulating him from public accountability is likely to abandon him. Without the protection of his base, the President will not only be rendered unable to advance any policy agenda for the duration of his term, he will also be substantially more vulnerable to impeachment in the House and even conviction in the Senate.

The President knows this and has consequently turned the shutdown dispute into the ultimate zero-sum game, where self-preservation gives him every personal incentive to stick it out and keep fighting as long as he can, no matter how many people he hurts, no matter how much of our government and system of protective norms he damages or even destroys. We’re not just dealing with a bull in a china shop; we’re dealing with a bull that knows the slaughterhouse awaits if he’s ever successfully taken out of the china shop.

At the second layer, we are faced with the question of popular sovereignty, the principle that “government is created by and subject to the will of the people”, an idea championed by no less than Benjamin Franklin as central to the American experiment.

In the current budget dispute, we the people are deciding whether it’s appropriate to try to extort appropriations that Congress would otherwise be unwilling to grant using a shutdown and the prospect of harm to hundreds of thousands of people as leverage. At stake is the knowledge that once Congressional opposition starts giving in to extortion, even once, the extortion will never stop and the democratic process and our system of checks and balances will be permanently broken. 

Without popular sovereignty, the people are no longer empowered to meaningfully decide through their votes and representatives what their government does. Instead we will have become a nation of tyranny, presided over by a brute force authoritarian who is backed by a brute force minority indifferent to the will of the people. We are literally watching popular sovereignty fight a grudge match with tyranny. Most depressingly, if tyranny wins, even once, popular sovereignty dies. If popular sovereignty wins, the spirit of tyranny still lives to fight another day.

At the third and most troubling layer, we are once again faced with the question of white supremacy. The current government shutdown is a paralyzing, potentially destabilizing event for the republic. At its core, the events and choices that brought us to this very traumatic destabilization were set in motion by the thought of non-white people immigrating to United States in large numbers and accelerating the demise of white political, social, cultural, and economic hegemony.

Enough white people reflected on said potentiality and felt threatened to the point that they were willing to make disastrous civic choices. So far our frightened compatriots have demonstrated a willingness to back tyranny over popular sovereignty, a foreign adversary over our own intelligence and investigative bodies, and a criminal agent of a hostile foreign power who conceals presidential communications with said foreign power over their domestic political opponents. Too many have proven too willing to destabilize our republic in the name of not ceding supremacy.

The aforementioned supremacy struggle brings us back to “Blade Runner” and the question of the American DNA. Throughout the United States’ history, the most tumultuous and destabilizing times in our nation’s history have consistently been sparked by challenges to white supremacist power structure. Which to my mind suggests perhaps that white supremacy is somehow essential to the stability of the United States’ republic.

Ta-Nehisi Coates has written extensively on the subject, going so far as to cynically wash his hands of all hope that we will ever get past it. If his insights are as true as they seem in light of current events, are we who are not favored by the white supremacist power structure unwittingly aiding in our own oppression by working to keep the American experiment alive?

I say “too many have proven too willing to destabilize our republic”, but if some among us are willing to shut down the government and hurt people rather than let others among us have a meaningful say, is this really *our* republic at all? If not, it may soon be time to ask what exactly we have to gain by continuing to prop the system up with our civic support and taxpayer funding.

The problem on display appears to be well entrenched in the republic’s DNA. As much as I personally tend to gravitate towards hope, political optimism, and the constant push for social and policy progress, it’s seeming increasingly credible to suspect that any attempts to really change the DNA of the republic may leave it dead on the operating table. Perhaps that’s what the shutdown really is, the system reacting with a violent norm-breaking mutation in response to attempts to alter its genetic coding. At some point, we may need to gird ourselves psychologically for the possibility of letting this patient die in the name of joining together to build something new, something in OUR image.

One of the promises enshrined in our Constitution’s Preamble was a commitment to “secure the blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity”. Our kids. I can’t speak for anyone besides myself, but I for one don’t feel good about the brand of “Liberty” the United States is currently offering on its menu.

The country’s taking a lot of my tax dollars but what it’s giving me in return doesn’t feel like it was meant for me and mine. The preambulary shortcomings don’t stop there. It doesn’t feel like we’ve established justice or are anywhere close to it. To the contrary, with a thoroughly delegitimized judiciary, we’re actively moving further away from justice.

Our compatriots have undermined the common defense against foreign adversaries at the expense of the general welfare. A society that felt like it was once at least seeking to form a more perfect union is now so unrepentantly divided that domestic tranquility itself is becoming an open question. What we’re seeing right now is no kind of inheritance we should want to pass on to those who come after us. I wouldn’t feel like I’d been “blessed” if I was among our Posterity.

No single mind could credibly presume to lay out the mechanics of what something new would look like or how such a thing might come to pass. But if more than a few minds are as frustrated as mine, we should probably think about trying to build something better for our heirs. As the Founders themselves once did when faced with unsatisfactory DNA. We may owe it to ourselves to think and candidly discuss, if not for our heirs than at least out of respect for our own legacies.