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The government shutdown is, sadly, a reflection of the closing of our minds

Everybody in the United States is talking about the government shutdown, that is, the partial closing of the government for the last month. Few, if any, however, talk about the full closing of the American mind for the last three decades, as described by American philosopher Allan Bloom.

Even if we are not in agreement with everything Bloom said in The Closing of the American Mind in 1987 (and, by the way, we are not in agreement), we do agree, based on our own experience of several decades teaching at college level, that many people lack “points of reference” to develop critical thinking skills or to understand current events.

Or, to paraphrase what it is said Goethe once said, if you don’t know 3000 years of history, you are just walking around the world with no knowledge or understanding of what is really happening.

For Bloom, that lack of knowledge, that “traveling the world without critical thinking”, leads to an “American-style nihilism”, that is, people living with “strong, fanatical opinions”, and, for that same reason, without thinking.

In Paulo Coelho’s novel Adultery (published in 2012), the leading character, a female journalist, says 15 pages into the book that, “I fell asleep thinking. Perhaps I really do have a serious problem.”

I want to be clear I am not talking here about politics. This is just a superficial and ephemeral attempt to talk about philosophy. From that perspective, the government shutdown should lead us to move beyond the shutdown itself to think what is/was already closed, hidden, and forgotten before this shutdown took place.

For the government to be closed, something is had to close before. And whatever it is will remain closed, hidden, and forgotten, even after the federal government reopens. As vapor emanating from the Lethe river, an invisible and permanent cloud of forgetfulness and oblivion is already preparing the next shutdown, and the one after that, and the next one, until everything we know will be closed, hidden, and forgotten.

At that moment, nobody will talk about anything being closed or forgotten, because forgetting somethings implies you remember you forgot. And hidden something reveals that something is hidden. And closing something means it can be opened. Yet, if we forget who we are and who we were, and if nobody remembers us, our shutdown (closing) will be permanent.

Ancient Egyptians, in the context of their believe in eternal life, found a way to ruin the eternal life of already-deceased people. They simply erased from monuments and walls the names and faces of those whose afterlife they wanted to damage. With nobody left to remember those persons, the dead themselves will soon forget their own identities.

Today we are facing a similar situation, but, as philosopher Byung-Chul Han, we are imposing to ourselves our own loss of memory and identity. We look at the mirror and we don’t recognize ourselves or even remember our real names. Something important was completed shut down decades ago and we already forgot it.

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