The first thing we did in Washington, D.C. was fuel up on Starbucks. Then hop onto a double-decker bus. It was a chilly day for Californians, and the trees that arch over D.C. streets came close to whipping us in the face. We felt however that we were on the verge of something big. We laughed, and kept going.
The bus ticket allowed us to get on the bus, and off, and on again, so by the time we came to the Lincoln Memorial, we’d admired prep school boys playing lacrosse, eaten several large burritos, and purchased artisanal soaps and perfume.
I was by then the conceptual equivalent of drunk. I’m not very political, usually, but in D.C. one feels the Founding Fathers’ ideas, like alcohol in one’s veins or celery on one’s teeth. Visceral. Our country’s tagline is, ‘With Liberty And Justice For All.’ We have to make our own meaning. I was struck, instead, by Freedom, Prosperity, and the Architecture of Language. Writ large.
Here’s my thinking. The United States were launched when a group of men decided they didn’t want to be taxed if they couldn’t vote. I suppose it’s possible the Founders mostly wanted to keep their stuff. Prosperity comes first. However, I was convinced in Washington that the notion of Freedom, however derived, stays with us. That it matters, in all its new meanings.
And I was astonished by the role of language in architecting our history. Yes, it is possible for the geeks among us to be intoxicated by documents.
Freedom, prosperity, language.
Does our capacity to engage in armed conflict determine our freedom?
If you stand still in front of the Vietnam War Memorial, noting the temperature of the air, the trees without leaves, the color of people’s down jackets, you remember that fighting is terrifying and young men have to walk a long way with wet feet. No matter your definition of patriotism. Memory is to be honored.
I myself worry more about freedom constrained by our own biases than by foreign powers.
If we use our kindest eyes to understand each other, we see that our desire to make meaning out of diversity leads us to bias. The human mind wants to group people with similar characteristics together. But bias is our enemy. Bias causes us to wear away at Freedom until it degrades into the right to Prosperity. The idea of freedom is better than that. And so, if you don’t mind a brief soapbox, should we be.
The bus let our group out down by the water. We walked up the hill, the boys shoving each other. A form of recreation. I went inside to see Lincoln’s statue, and quickly came out again. I sat on the landing, on the steps, halfway up.
It was impossible not to sit, and look out across the Mall, and think.
A family, mother, father, boys, two girls in hair ribbons, ran up the stairs. The children were bouncing, speaking Spanish, laughing. The sky was thin, blue, long. A father tried to corral his two teens for a photo at the marked spot where Martin Luther King gave his “I have a dream” speech. The teens bitched and moaned and pushed each other. “Calm down you two,” said the dad. Someone down below blew a soap bubble and it floated very slowly up.
The cherry trees would not bloom for another few weeks. But I felt almost tropical with happiness. Lush, in all senses of the word. We wandered up the Mall, towards the Washington Monument, and then in and out of museums.
Washington’s museums provide a free market. For ideas. An extravagance of thought.
Literally, inasmuch as most museums are free, figuratively in that you can enter one at any point, following a stray thought or a lifelong passion. Prosperity at its best. We saw the First Ladies’ dresses, Julia Child’s cast iron pans, and flight simulators. Which make me throw up, so I sat on a bench at the Air and Space Museum, thinking. There’s all kinds of freedom in this world.
Mineral examples of prosperity abound. The Hope Diamond is hideous right now. Excuse me, Mr. Winston? Expensive does not mitigate ugly.
But this was gorgeous. And sparkly beyond reason.
We ate at a food court. Some had tacos. others pancakes, others chicken tenders. The museums and the food courts satisfy similar impulses towards abundance. There’s room, you know, for both knowledge and appetite.
Architected By Words
The next day we made our way up to the Library of Congress. What a gorgeous, over-the-top building. And manageable, sizewise, as a tourist.
The ceiling is painted with last names of the greats. Here you see Dante, Milton, and someone else who I’ve forgotten as the euphoria retreats. I wrote my senior thesis at Princeton on epic poetry. One more moment when I felt connected to the early thinkers of America. Of course, the names are all men except for Sappho. Women in those days served, at the political level, largely to decorate. Generally, our breasts had to participate, clothed or unclothed.
We saw an exhibition of documents related to the founding of America. Here’s another thing. If you’ve ever worked in an organization, public sector or private, you have to respect the process required to produce the United States. And I don’t mean our commerce, or the military, although they’re both impressive. America’s early documents astonish. Writing by committee is well-nigh impossible, but my goodness what a team of like-minded people can produce.
Personally, I was heartened that a talker like Gouverneur Morris could have had such an impact amongst the fighters, and the counters of money, and the sellers, and the choppers of trees. At least back in the day.
He wrote this.
We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
More perfect. How great is that? Not perfect. Just more perfect. Think of the hope in more perfect.
Which brings us to political infrastructure. Washington D.C. illuminates, like nowhere else, the three-legged stool of American politics, in all its white marble glory. The Congress, in the Capitol, the Supreme Court, in the, um, Supreme Court, and the President, in the White House. The city is intoxicating precisely because the architecture represents so clearly the founding ideas.
That said, I feel badly for Capitol Hill today. Their teams have gotten so big and so polarized. I imagine it’s like managing established companies in times of slow growth, Everyone wants to be heard, and there’s more fear of losing than hope of winning. I admire any with the stamina to stick it out. They should, however, pay attention to language. Expand the meanings of terms, cease to subvert them for political gain.
We visited the Supreme Court too. Again, structurally brilliant and dependent on language. The Supreme Court may be polarized but it cannot be bought. The good names of most Justices are too valuable. Here prosperity is paid in reputation. Talk about market incentive for justice.
They even save seats for us.
And then, of course, the White House. It’s smaller than the Capitol Building. My friend, whose parents are British, said, “This is not a palace.” It is not. It’s a big white house. Really big. But not a palace. We chose government without king, and we meant it.
Time to go home.
As I stood in line at Dulles, waiting to get on the airplane, a very tall, distinguished older man talked to me a little bit. I didn’t recognize him. Once we were seated, he in my row but several seats away, I saw someone stop and bend over to say, “Senator. So good to see you. Thank you for (mumble), hope to have you again (mumble).”
I asked the flight attendant who it was. “Senator Simpson.” Republican from Wyoming, Senate Majority Whip, supporter of LGBT and abortion rights. 79 years old and didn’t even nap on the plane ride.
When I had picked up my suitcase from the baggage claim, and turned, head down, to leave the airport, I almost bumped into the Senator’s belly. As I said, he’s tall. Imagine that during this entire exchange I’m smiling, almost bobbing my head in a curtsy, but interrupting repeatedly. I so badly want to tell him what I’ve just been through that I’m blurting out facts in a rush. Much as I want to tell you now.
LPC: Oh, Senator, I am sorry I didn’t recognize you.
Simpson: *laughs* I could have been king, you wouldn’t have recognized me.
LPC: Sir, I just got back from my first trip to D.C. could I tell you a brief story?
Simpson: *clearly practiced at this but deeply polite* Of course.
LPC: Well, I have an ancestor who signed the Declaration of Independence (incoherent stuttering) Gouverneur Morris.
Simpson: Oh, Gouverneur Morris…
LPC: And I’m a lifelong Democrat, and I was so impressed by Washington.
Simpson:*pulls out answer #153 of lifelong politician* Oh yes, it’s very…
LPC: The thing is sir, as a lifelong Democrat, I just wanted to thank you. It’s you. People like you. Who serve. And it’s so much work, and I wanted to thank you.
Simpson: *surprised. authentic.* Thank you. That is much appreciated.
And off I went to find my RAV4 in long-term parking. Changed by the experience. I just can’t help having hope.
*In fact Gouverneur Morris didn’t sign the Declaration of Independence. His half-brother Lewis, did. If I’m going to get drunk on history, family and otherwise, best to have my facts straight.
Images: me, via ShakeIt on the iPhone