The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The (snow)quest for crisis

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There is a kind of awful genius to the clumsy word “snowquester.” A bland budgetary term is beheaded and capped with a meteorological prefix, and the resulting three syllables capture our lazy addiction to crisis. The government has driven itself to the budget-related brink, artificially. The capital gave itself the day off, artificially, on account of Wednesday’s weather, or anticipation of weather. “Snowquester” embodies our obsession with combative panic, wherein we overreact by underreacting, or vice versa, or whatever. If we’re not careful, this kind of addictive behavior could send us head-first into a furious debate about inaugural lip-syncing, or a tizzy over migrating to a different kind of work e-mail, or a blind march into a misbegotten war, or a useless spate of writing about the snowquester.

Let’s start with the first syllable: “Snow.” The weather. The weather exists in Washington so that we may talk about it, and out-rage one another. It’s snowing where you are, in Clarendon? It’s not snowing where I am, in Petworth. You’re crazy; I’m crazy.

“It’s so hot,” you say in the summer, to which I reply, aghast, “It’s summer.”

Snow falls in Washington so that Bostonians and Buffalonians can flex their hardiness, because it makes us feel — what? Superior? (Yes.) One time in high school in Buffalo I had to ditch my car in the middle of the street because the snow was accumulating too fast to drive, and here you are, with your day off, because it’s raining. Without Wednesday’s weather, I could not have tweeted “Can you imagine if Generation #Snowquester had had to fight World War II? I’d be on my way to my desk at das Propagandaministerium.” (Nevermind that half the country already thinks I work at das Propagandaministerium; file this also under “O” for “out-rage.”)

Wednesday morning Matthew Cooper in The National Journal posited that Washington’s weather wussiness results from its “learned helplessness” and its itinerant, Mason-Dixon-straddling citizenry and, naturally, its stubborn attachment to Marion Barry. These hypotheses are decent but unprovable. The wussiness is really theatrics; it’s Washington being the queeniest of drama queens, because everything’s always at stake. Blame brinksmanship. Blame the media. Blame yourself.

“Summer is God’s way of telling us not to dash about like headless chickens,” wrote the late Washington Post writer Henry Mitchell in a brilliant 1984 essay on D.C. weather.

I submit a corollary: Winter is God’s way of telling us that we really are, when it comes down to it, headless chickens.

Now, the second two syllables: “quester.” The budget. The budget exists in Washington so that — well, look. Some of us can’t even pretend to understand the budget or the sequestration. The budget, to us, appears to be just a shell game, a MacGuffin, a political pinata with no candy inside. But we can look outside and see actual snow falling, actual drizzle drizzling, actual clouds that look like they may contain actual precipitation that may actually shut down the operational center of the greatest nation the world has ever known. We’ll find our crisis and our outrage somehow, somewhere, on the Hill or in the sky.

But no sooner had the snowquester started than everyone began to cry foul. By Wednesday afternoon the snowquester was a “no’quester,” or a “fauxquester” and the peanut gallery’s attention turned to another spectacle in the making: Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who was hours into a filibuster to protest John Brennan’s nomination as CIA director.

The Internet started calling it the “filiblizzard.”

There is a Nordic festival at the Kennedy Center right now, as we endure winter’s last gasp. Can you imagine what visiting Faroe Islanders might say about us? I bet they’d say nothing, because they probably don’t value hysterics like we do. But can you imagine what they’d think? Translated from Faroese, it would probably be: “These people, with their funny little words that say so little and explain so much.”