The customary crisis

Here we go again. And again. And again. ... For in Washington, every day is Groundhog Day. And now, once again, the country is speeding toward the dreaded ... Fiscal Cliff! Not to mention Catastrophe, Chaos and Collapse. Or maybe Stalemate, Train Wreck, Dysfunction or whatever your favorite cliché may be. So quick, get the scare headlines back in type. The Great Tax vs. Spend Debate is on again, if it ever went away. With each side blaming the Coming and Constant Crisis on the other.

. . .

But wait, haven't we seen this movie before? Like in 2011, 2012 and now 2013. Botanists might classify this bloom as a perennial -- if noxious weeds bloomed. To quote that noted political philosopher Yogi Berra, it's deja vu all over again. And again we're all expected to panic. On cue. Almost as a patriotic duty.

. . .

The more Pavlovian pundits stand by to explain in their terribly serious way how terribly serious all this is. They need only dust off their old comments and they've got their lines ready for the news shows and op-ed pages. Doomsday scenarios are rolled out like the latest horror movie, and with almost as much fanfare.

Coming soon to a country near you: The monster from Deficit Creek meets the Specter of 7.9 Percent Unemployment in the Battle of the Century. Well, of the month. Or the week. For this Crisis is regularly scheduled by now -- it's invoked every time the debt ceiling needs raising or federal programs bailing out.

Yet the public isn't lining up at the box office. The End of the Fiscal World no longer seems a Grave Emergency, but a re-run. Despite all this vintage sound and fury, Americans aren't fainting dead away. Not this time. It's as if we'd gotten used to this drummed-up drama. And when crisis becomes customary, it's not crisis any more. It's ritual. It's just how we do things now. Or rather don't do much of anything. Except maybe drift. But with lots of Sturm und Drang, cries and alarums, and mutual denunciations. Yes, it's how Washington does things these days, or rather doesn't.

A story from the old country: The new young rabbi was presiding over his first Sabbath service, sharing the pulpit with the weary old one he was succeeding. When the congregation got to the Shema, the prayer that begins "Hear O Israel, the Lord Our God, the Lord is One," half the congregants stood, half didn't.

Those who had risen looked down and berated those who hadn't. ("What?! You're not rising for the Shema, the watchword of our faith? Get up, you loafers!") But the other half only looked up and shouted back, just as vehemently. ("What?! Where does it say to get up for the Shema? Are you saying it's as important as the Reading of the Law? Sit down, you show-offs!")

The confused young rabbi, worried that fistfights might break out any minute, leaned over and whispered to the old one: "What's the minhag here?" That is, the local custom that is to be followed in such liturgical matters. The experienced old rabbi only smiled wanly, and gave a deep sigh. "The minhag here?" he repeated. And then, with a sweep of his hand to indicate the raucous scene unfolding before them, answered: "That's the minhag here."

And what is the custom in Washington? What ritual prevails in our national counsels? One side of the aisle warns that we're about to fall off The Fiscal Cliff, and gives the country a preview of what'll happen if its spending is curtailed: Salaries slashed, jobs lost, the military crippled, the old and weak abandoned, and, maybe worst of all for congressmen who fly home every weekend, flights delayed! Plus long lines at national parks. A huge Public Relations apparatus is put together to organize/scare the masses, or at least public workers' unions. The End Is Near! Repent and Spend! Or all is lost.

The other side says it was the one that compromised last time and went along with more tax increases; now it wants the spenders to shut up and deal. Or better yet, agree to live within a budget. Or just pass one after all these years.

. . .

But will the Republicans finally stand by their guns, or let the president play 'em like a fiddle again? (Greece, Spain, Italy, Europe ... here we come.) The suspense builds, but maybe only inside the Beltway. The rest of us stifle a yawn; nothing may be more boring than the same old national crisis. Each side is lining up its trained economists to give interviews. They're all over the news shows as viewers change channels in search of something new.

. . .

The leaders of each party weren't even talking to each other till last week. Now they're saying hello. But little more. The clock is ticking away before the automatic, arbitrary, asinine cuts they agreed to -- anything is better than actually deciding an issue -- go into effect. And the show goes on. This is our minhag now: customary crisis. It's a lot easier than governing

(Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer prize-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. His e-mail address is pgreenberg@arkansasonline.com.)

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