Washington DC: Speeches, laws and the Political in the US….

May 18, 2011 by

Washington DC: Speeches, laws and the Political in the US….

To understand America, to get what it’s about and how it started (in short: it’s about politics, but to get what politics this is), you need to spend some time in the US capital. Washington DC is more than a place per se (of lavish greenery, exotic birds, graduating students on a Sunday morning) – Washington is a representation and a symbol.  It’s a word made law, law made politics and politics made grand. That – if you fastforward.

If you stroll at a leisurely pace, across multiple museums, art galleries, presidential and war monuments, you may be struck by (at least) two things:  how accessible they all are, and how much sense they all make. Let me start with accessibility. All museums in Washington are free. More than that – all museums in Washington, or at least the large sample I went to, are fun. Not always in the usual sense of the word – even if the topic is tragic (e.g. the Museum of the Holocaust), it is a unique privilige to be able to go to these museums. The visual, sensory, auditory effects and the multimedia  make each chamber an unusual experience stretching beyond a refular informative visit. A blog entry can hardly recover that experience – you need to come here,  unafraid of contemporary art and random encounters, and follow in footsteps of Woody Allen’s cultured protagonists.

The second thing is that it all makes sense. American history is short: it is a history of modernity, and modernity is based on a rational approach to life and on the Political. In Europe you go to the museums to understand the past and to relive the experience of other cultures or other periods. In America, or at least in Washington, it’s not so much about otherness and difference , but about American identity and continuity of modern history, not about coming out of your current state of mind, but about slipping into the mind of the Pilgrim Fathers, into what it meant to be American.  It’s about understading the reality behind the texts, the buildings and the political procedures.

“These walls will not crush,”  says the narrator in the film that introduces the tourists to the Capitol Hill, the seat of the US Congress.  Looking up on the massive Roman columns of the Capitol Building you almost believe him. Then you realize that in fact the sentence was not about architecture, but about empire; not about strenght of the white marble, but about the validity of economic models. And how they crush. The difference between the era of the Roman Empire, where symbol and architecture were all, and the current globalized and interconnected world of supply and demand is striking.

And yet, Americans insist on universality of their values. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, written in beautifully winding, elegant handwriting in the US Declaration of Independence, are preserved in a remarkably good condition in the Archival Museum. The original document is reproduced in almost every other museum in the capital, in more or less direct form. Presidential speeches echo these principles and so do everyday conversations.

Waiting in the lobby of the hotel we stayed in, I saw  a man in his sixties, in a fancy collar shift, approach the hotel’s bellboy. “Do you know what I did when I was your age, son?” he asked in that comfortably intimate manner that you’d only expect from a gentleman with a pipe and a moustache. He had none. “No, sir” – replied the bellboy. “I was … a plumber!” “Where was that, sir?” “Back in Iowa. And now I’m here.” He tapped the bellboy on the shoulder  ”You gotta do what you gotta do, but jump in there when you can.” The IN was not specified, but was obviously about success. A scene like from Franz Kafka’s novel “America”.  This is the right of pursuit of happiness engraved in American minds and personal interactions, stretching beyond pure text and beyond the Archives.

America is an outspoken country in every possible meaning of that word: its people are direct, its principles written down in documents, its essence  spelled out in presidential speeches. In other countries, like in Britain, many aspects of life and politics are not regulated, but rather work by convention (no constitution).  In the US – a lot works by ratification. Laws and principles that underlie them are not taken for granted – they are deliberated upon and reiterated whenever the occasion arises. Liberty, equality, justice. Hung above most paintings in most galleries – the narrative is politicised and, at the same time universalised. Conventions are products of a given culture in a given place whereas verbalized principles may be seen as universal, and try to be adopted in different cultural contexts. A country based on words has in a way a right to see itself as exemplary – as opening a way for others, through verbal codification of principles and laws, to follow.

America is  a country where a lot is Political. A houshold of the XIXth century, displayed in American History Museum, bears a note: “in the era of X president (have not got my chronology right yet) people were encouraged to work on their morals and discuss them in their housholds, for the sake of their country”. Another chamber, J.F. Kennedy: “Ask not what the country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country!” – most Americans know this and other quotes by heart. In Poland, pupils memorize passages from Romantic poems. This is also political: these poems were about the lost Poland, partitioned by Russia, Prussia and Austria, but the political message in them was not as outspoken, was veiled in the aesthetic. The quotes of American laws and speeches are stripped of the aesthetic – they are simple, often of philosophical depth and political relevancy.

America was an experiment. An experiment in modern thought and politics – meaning, in making this thought organize human life. It was an experiment devised by a modern democratic mind, which combined pratical rationality with religious morality (more on that in de Toqueville). And like any experiment, it had to start with a plan, in academic terms: with an abstract , and thus with words. Only after being to Washington and seeing these words connect all other bits and pieces, sprout institutions and procedures, define speeches and inspire people, do I understand this country and its love of rhetorics better.

During the Cold War, in the world split in half by ideology, words and principles in politics were incredibly important. Nowadays, when there is no one definable opponent and when the “war on terrorism” is too vague to make  people trust it, words might need to be more specific, less grand, and more directly related to policy. But they are still core to American foreign and domestic policy, and a trip to Washington will make you understand how a nation could be founded on a principle, how words could become life, and how they carry on to shape it.

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1 Comment

  1. t.

    Well, well, I can see that You have not wasted Your time in America… It makes sense…

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