November 2nd, 2009

Waking up in DC

The whole point of travel as a learning experience is to be surprised, to be confronted by the unexpected. So I will spare you my typical thrill at seeing the real live Capitol and White House and share what woke me up.

My patriotism does not typically swell at the sight of American flags. I often find it to represent bigotry, jingoism, and imperialism and while I realize that I should not let those nasty things co-opt the entire symbolism, they are what immediately spring to mind. Also warmongering. I am particularly upset about warmongering right now.

Seeing a lot of war memorials will do that to a person. All the photos of the Vietnam memorial I have seen have been of the central panels. I assumed the wall was a tall and imposing regular structure. Nope. It’s better. It grows out of the ground as viewers walk down a path, the list of casualties growing and the pit growing deeper. I felt like I was sinking into death itself and it was a bitter climb indeed out the other end. At the World War II memorial, the space is certainly inspiring and full of the majesty of the dead, but what moved me was the living memorial, the collection of veterans, many in wheelchairs, come to honor their friends and comrades.

At the Jefferson memorial, I found myself thinking about Roman Polanski. It is probably because slavery and racism weighed heavier and heavier on my conscience the longer I walked along the mall, as I read Lincoln’s heavily political statements that put the union above the freedom of slaves, as I read the names of so many people of color on the Vietnam wall, as I saw the photos of Marion Anderson singing at the Lincoln memorial. I admire the work of President Jefferson. And yet his abuse of power over other humans sticks deeply in my heart. I said to Brent that both Jefferson and Polanski are extremely talented men who also happen to be rapists. Brent disagreed with my assessment of Jefferson as a rapist, and I admit it might be an extreme way to describe what he did in fathering children with a woman who was his slave, but not by much. The woman really had no functional ability to refuse. All the marble in the world can’t make perfection out of our human clay. I hate that.

And then I saw the Star-Spangled Banner. And I felt patriotic. I felt that even though my country is flawed, with shortened stripes and mangled stars, it is still beautiful, still trying, still working out the promises of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.