Watching the shutdown from London

It’s always interesting to follow the news at home from overseas. A year ago, I watched images of a storm-ravaged Paramus, New Jersey beam from my television in a momentarily calm Cairo. It felt like the definition of surreal.

This time, I’m watching the drama over the government shutdown from London with a mixture of an outsider’s wry amusement and a touch of dismay at the cataclysm to come if the debt ceiling isn’t raised in a fortnight.

The Brits, for their part, are understandably flummoxed by it all. I saw a friend of mine who works for the BBC last night. She conceded that their coverage had been a tad underwhelming so far. The idea of shutting down the federal government to make an ideological point just seemed so…foreign. I imagine it’s a bit like what Americans feel contemplating the Italian parliamentary system. Or the rules of cricket. I was told the BBC producers spent much of their day trying to answer some eminently sensible questions like would the rubbish still be picked up? (They never did figure that one out.)

The papers this morning echo the incredulity. The lead story in the Independent begins, “And so—absurdly, shamefully and almost incomprehensibly—it has come to this. The legislature of the richest, most powerful country on Earth, that likes to present itself as the model of democracy and good sense, has failed in its basic task of providing funds to keep the federal government running.”

I suspect that these ridiculous and unbearable political soap operas the US regularly stages explain in part why I consistently balk at any suggestion of moving back to the States, especially as that would presumably involve writing about this very sort of bullshit. Not that Egypt and Ivory Coast and Britain don’t boast their own absurdities. I was particularly amused by at least one Egyptian’s attempt on Twitter to draw an equivalency between the shutdown and the July coup. (Points for effort, but our petty, if global economy-threatening, squabbling has absolutely nothing on your military coup-turned-mass civilian slaughter.) Still, there’s something reassuring in knowing—or at least maintaining the illusion—that your country could never succumb to whatever the latest craziness is that you’re covering.

It all made me think back to my visit to the States last summer from Egypt. It was right around the peak craziness period of the (US) presidential campaign. I met up with a political reporter friend in DC who was covering the campaign. I’d only been home a week or so but was already finding the election build-up insufferable. I wondered how she did it. “If you just kind of pretend that it’s all not actually real, then it’s not so bad,” she replied.

Which I suppose you can do. Or, you know, flee the country.