Tag Archives: washington dc

In Defense of Washington

29 Jul

When I graduated from Georgetown, I made a conscious decision to leave Washington, D.C. I didn’t have a real plan, but I knew one thing. I wanted out. I needed to ground myself somewhere else: preferably back home, where I had some roots. My return to Minnesota, while not always the smoothest of journeys, has largely lived up to my hopes. Two years ago, when I’d attained some distance from DC, I wrote a critique of my time there. I could pick at a few things in that post now—I think I was too uncharitable to many of my Hoya peers, for example—but I still agree with its broad contours.

That post was directed at Georgetown, but Georgetown takes its cues from the city. After all, the university was founded by Jesuits who, in 1789, rushed to create a presence in the newly established American capital. DC, I thought, exemplified what was wrong with American democracy. A giant, distant bureaucratic beast that slowly accumulated more and more power, no matter who was pulling the strings. A city filled with people with more loyalty to ideology or career than family or country or humanity. It was toxic, and while I have plenty of respect for my friends who stayed to fight the good fight (or plan to head back there in the future), I made the right choice for myself.

I still believe that, but times change, and edges soften, to the point where I’ll now offer up a defense of that muddled city that I got to know so well. There’s been a lot of hate directed at Washington, and the “establishment,” from both the Democrats and the Republicans this election season. Much of it is justified. DC is often an elitist cocoon, filled with people who are ignorant, if not downright disdainful, of large swaths of the country. Power will continue to accrue there, no matter who wins this election; the question is simply one of whether it will be continuation of the gradual liberal march of the past eight years, or…well, God knows what the other guy would do.

Still, there are things to be said for Washington, and all it represents. More than anything, I thank Washington for cultivating a strong dose of realpolitik in me. It’s pretty to dream, and we need a few idealists to help frame the debate. But, whether we like it or not, managing a large, diverse country requires the death of some ideals, lest the perfect become the enemy of the good. Dirty compromises and back-room deals can lead to trouble and inefficiency, but they are also the most effective way of moving things along. This is the art of politics, and statecraft has always been a fine art of skillful maneuvers and occasionally yelling one thing while doing something somewhat different in practice. We don’t have to like it, but we can, at least, tame its excesses and funnel it all along on a slow, often uninspiring lurch.

Washington also stands for order, and an established means of doing business. Yes, there has been gross incompetence there over the course of this century, and probably back to the dawn of time. It is often a town filled with ugly backbiting, and the machinery devoted to tearing down its members—the vast majority of whom do earnestly think they’re doing some good, even if they are at times naïve, ignorant, or making sure that they (or their people) are getting a slice of the pie. Whatever advantages or outside help it might have enjoyed, this government managed to oversee a nation’s astonishing rise, and while the U.S. clearly has problems today, good luck finding places that are doing much better. DC is a world of paradoxes, as the government constrains our freedoms in the name of defending freedom. Yet the people want to blow it all up have no idea what forces they might unleash. Revolution is the dream of a leisure class, of people with enough free time and money that they can philosophize new solutions (or simply sit back and be armchair revolutionaries). Effective politicking in a nation filled with people who disagree with you takes a different set of skills.

I watched much of both of the Republican and Democratic conventions over the past two weeks. (Note to the wise: watch conventions on C-SPAN. No spin, no pundits, no commercials; just the speeches, and plenty of awkward dancing during the gaps.) The most memorable moment for me wasn’t Trump’s stark portrait of America, nor the Obamas’ speeches (masterworks of rhetoric, whatever one may think of their politics), nor the sincere relatives of the fallen that both parties trotted out. It was four-star Marine Corps Gen. John Allen, who unleashed a full-throated roar of American exceptionalism with a diverse cast of veterans behind him on the last day of the Democratic Convention. It was a stunning picture of how the parties have realigned themselves—though I’m well-aware that some of the flag-waving was to cover up the boisterous Bernie-or-Bust crowd. Most of the Democrats, however, ate it up, chanting “U.S.A!” as if the clock were winding down on the Soviets in Lake Placid. I normally prefer that idolatry confine itself to sporting events or at least to genuine human triumphs, and I’m a frequent skeptic of American military adventures abroad, whether conceived by Republicans in Iraq or Hillary Clinton and friends in Libya. And yet I found myself pounding the arm of the couch in rhythm.

We all know the U.S. has flaws and ugly histories, some of them glaring. But there’s more to it: it has the capacity to bring about reasonably orderly, careful change when it must, and that is no small victory. Octavio Paz: “Every time they’ve confronted a great crisis, the United States has examined its conscience. The whole world whacks at it, even at its head…then they change.” To make it all work, even a localist will admit that there must be an apparatus at the top to keep things more or less in line. That thing is Washington, warts and all, and for all my criticism, it has a human side that the endless spin machine in the media loses in all its yelling. A republic needs some people to hold the levers of power, and by their nature, they’ll get slapped with the “elite” tag.  That machinery deserves some respect, and no matter who gets elected in November, it will continue its inertia-driven muddle through. Who knows; this depressing election cycle may even encourage a few of the D.C. denizens to get out a bit and see why they’re not so popular elsewhere. If so, I’ll welcome them. We’re all stuck with each other, so we might as well see what we can do.

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Marion Barry, Art Johnston, and the Politics of Personality

24 Nov

Sunday brought the news that Marion Barry, the “mayor for life” of Washington, D.C., passed away at the age of 78. He was a living legend by the time I arrived in Washington, serving on the DC City Council long into his old age. Most people know him for his 1990 arrest for smoking crack. It was an especially awkward incident at the height of the inner city drug epidemic, one that epitomized DC’s dysfunctional government and broken culture, a sorry statement on life in the shadow of the Capitol.

Still, Barry was much more than the Rob Ford of his day. His popularity, from his first election to his final days, was genuine, as anyone who actually bothered to talk to people in Southeast DC would have learned. He was a real Civil Rights movement leader in his early days, and he did things to break down glass ceilings for African-Americans in DC. He had charisma, a winning charm that even allowed him to do well in snow-white Northwest in his first election, and his followers were rewarded handsomely.

I am always hesitant to walk on ground where racial questions loom so large, especially as I write on the night of the Ferguson verdict. But the style of politics Barry practiced transcends race, and has been around since the dawn of time. It is a style that substitutes charisma for institutions, and steamrolls any sense of genuine equity beneath a cynical patronage machine. In the end, the man became bigger than his project, and few things he does can outlive him. Perhaps it seemed the only method available in a city that had long before lost its compass; there in the heart of our imperial capital, where so many succumb to the desire to allow ends to justify means. It allowed him to rise above the rest, yes, but in the end, we are left with a distinctive character but little else. He was hardly alone even among DC politicians in harnessing the political machine; witness Jack Evans, of opulent Ward 2, who uses an absurd campaign war chest to bully any potential opposition into submission.

Barry had his moment, but did not know when to let go, and justified his political comeback in brutally honest terms: he needed power to keep himself sane. It had consumed him. By the end he was a dinosaur from a different era, still playing the same old cards as the DC he once led slipped away. The city’s African-American majority has disappeared behind the forces of gentrification, and will not be coming back anytime soon, barring a drastic change. The new DC is not necessarily a better place, but it is in need of a new champion, not someone whose politics revolves around himself.

***

An over-inflated sense of one’s own role is a common affliction in politics, and it is one I have diagnosed at times in Art Johnston, the embattled Duluth school board member. As the thousands of words spilled on this blog have shown, I’ve struggled to make sense of Johnston over the past year and a half. For the past seven years, he has fought a long and often very lonely battle against a school facilities plan and a number of other perceived failings of ISD 709.

The attorney hired by the District to investigate several accusations against Johnston has delivered her report. This past week, the Duluth News Tribune received the redacted version, which tells of Johnston’s alleged transgressions. The ultimate verdict is about what one might have expected. The supposedly racial comment, which always seemed the least plausible of the charges, was not substantiated. In a heat of rage, he did indeed loudly confront Superintendent Bill Gronseth and Board Chair Mike Miernicki at the Duluth East graduation in June, demanding to know why his partner, Jane Bushey, was being shuffled off to a different school. Having seen Johnston’s episodes when particularly incensed by Board proceedings, this is entirely plausible. It is out of line, and makes it easy to understand others’ discomfort in him. Is this bit of discomfort enough to supersede the will of the voters and axe a man from the School Board? That seems extreme.

We’re not done yet, though. The most interesting of the charges coming out of this is the alleged conflict of interest, in which Johnston sat in on many meetings on Bushey’s behalf. It was never entirely clear if he was there a school board member or a spouse, leading to some very understandable discomfort. Harry Welty, Johnston’s erstwhile Board ally, claims it would have been easy for the District to pitch Johnston from these meetings if it so desired; while true, this does not justify Johnston’s actions there.

We don’t have the full account, and may never actually have it. I’ll agree with Welty that the investigating attorney does indeed seem to have her narrative wrapped up awfully tightly. On the flip side, I’m not nearly as skeptical of her professionalism as Johnston’s defenders, whose willingness to believe the worst in people knows no bounds. (It’s been a while since I’ve been accused of having an overly rosy view of humanity.) The self-styled defender of truth in Duluth and his staunch allies remain incapable of getting out of the cave in which their truth exists.

Still, in the end, I’m left exactly where I started when these accusations first came out. I remain sympathetic to Johnston’s willingness to raise serious questions and (based on what I know) would not vote to remove him, but believe he himself has become too toxic to ever be an effective voice for his cause. This is bigger than him, and while the board’s majority may not act justly and should face the consequences at the ballot box, any defender of fiscal sanity or underrepresented voices should also be ready to move on. Johnston’s mediocre accusers may be the ones pulling the trigger, but he handed them the gun all too willingly. I am left only with a few questions for everyone involved, save Johnston, as my experience suggests he is unwilling to listen to somewhat divergent viewpoints, even when carefully qualified. (Nor do I really blame him for lashing out at this point in the saga; what else is he supposed to do?)

To the board majority: is this worth it? Let’s say you do go through and axe Johnston. What comes next? The fight for his cause will go on, you know. Don’t kid yourself; there will be some blowback, no matter what. He has a loyal following and a mouthpiece in a weekly local paper in Loren Martell. Do you really want the next election to be a referendum on this decision? You may find Johnston obnoxious and tiresome, and at times terribly wrong, but is a single voice in the wilderness really a serious threat to your agenda as a board member?

To Harry Welty: well, it’s pretty much up to you to try to get as many answers as you can during the hearing on December 2. Still, let’s say the Board does go through and remove Johnston. Is this really the cross you want to die on? Do you really want to escalate this war, with so many pressing issues at stake in the district? Obviously justice is a worthy ideal, but it also runs the risk of turning into a hopeless circus act. Think Mike Randolph 2.0, since I know you weren’t too fond of some of the perhaps unexpected consequences of that whole affair. Tread carefully.

***

I’m not naive. I know politics is personal, and that it will inevitably lead to results like this. It’s part of the game. But, as I sit here watching things go up in flames in Missouri, it puts things in perspective. For all the madness, for all my acceptance of messy reality…there are situations that just cry for someone to rise above it all. Neither of the men detailed in this post ever did so. I don’t expect it, but the Answer to Everything does allow for it, from time to time. Perchance to dream.

My Washington

23 Mar

Spring (or the lack thereof) is by far the most miserable season in Duluth, and by late March, it’s not hard to flash back to those four brilliant springs I enjoyed in Washington, D.C. By now everything is abloom, midterms are underway, and Georgetown basketball has already made its annual embarrassing early exit from the NCAA Tournament. Bouncyball angst aside, Georgetown is such a vibrant campus that one can go all four years without venturing far from M Street and the handful of streets that feed down into it. I can hardly describe it to Duluthians without resorting to a string of bubbly clichés. The neighborhood is a storybook village, the brick and pastel rowhouses lining the cobblestone streets interrupted by old trolley lines, a historical plaque on practically every building. (My personal favorite: one that read “On this site in 1897, nothing happened.”) The Georgetown Bubble is a college student’s pleasure dome, and few are called to venture out into the wider city: classes consume us, special events abound, and on Friday and Saturday nights, a short walk to The Tombs is all we need.

Of course, everyone gets out for at least one Monuments Tour at night, goes and stands before Lincoln and Jefferson in awe, or in the memorials to Vietnam and Korea in reverence. This time of year, the FDR Memorial is the place to be: its lights shine through the waterfalls and illuminate inspired quotes, the whole scene robed in the soft luminescence of the cherry blossoms, a full moon gazing down on the Tidal Basin. And then, of course, there are the Smithsonians and their various friends, usually toured with a group of friends or visitors from back home, though every once in a while on my own, freeing me to stand transfixed in front of Magritte’s “La condition humaine” at the National Gallery for as long as I choose. The sprawling Mall, where everything looks closer than it actually is, the grassy avenue fading away toward the Capitol, down past that spot where I stood as Barack Obama took the oath of office. Across the Key Bridge in the Virginia are more markers of the past, perhaps less visited but no less impressive: Roosevelt Island, Iwo Jima, the Netherlands Carillon with its peerless view of the city, and Arlington Cemetery.

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Today, though, I write not about the DC of monuments and museums and marble at every turn, but instead of the world beyond. It’s a city of both beauty and sorrow, one that encompasses both the best and the worst of the nation ruled from its center. It was never home, but it became a part of me, its little corners tugging me back and inviting a second look.

First, there is Northwest DC, a common haunt for a Hoya with aspirations of calling himself a runner. Quiet, leafy streets, well-tended homes, and the occasional tasteful business district slipped in to make it all walkable. Just behind campus lies the Glover-Archbold Parkway, an avenue of green that heads five miles north through all the bustle, up toward American University. A side trail leads to Battery Kemble Park, an old Civil War artillery outpost atop a hill, where I’d keep watch over the dog-walkers from a picnic table, free to study away from the cloud of stress hanging over the Georgetown library, away from the distractions of campus life. Further along, another site in the ring of forts protecting the District, this one now a reservoir: Fort Reno Park, a windy expanse where I’d flop in the grass and drift off, jolted to life only when the students of Woodrow Wilson High poured out into the sunlight at the end of their day, spray-painting prom invites on a weathered wooden stage and taking me back to afternoons on the lawn out in front of the old Duluth East.

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Shifting west, the city becomes more unique, more authentically DC. There is the Naval Observatory, its daily bugle calls audible from my off-campus house on R Street; the bars of Glover Park, underused by Georgetown students. Beyond that rises the monolithic Russian Embassy, and then the National Cathedral, a Gothic marvel, and one of the few American houses of worship that can rival anything in Europe or Latin America. Its nave could hold the Washington Monument on its side, but its beauty comes out in the details as well: the quiet chambers in the crypt, the contemplative Bishop’s Garden, and the preppy St. Alban’s campus unfolding below. In the midst of the urban jungle, a refuge where no one will ask any questions.

To the east of campus lies a world of great wealth and aesthetic beauty. Down the brick sidewalk past the Argentine gelato place (now sadly shuttered) one comes to Dumbarton Oaks, a walled estate whose very name suggests grandiose affairs. The name does not lie: it was here that, in 1944, the Allies laid the groundwork for the United Nations. It is a wonder to this day, its sprawling gardens offering romantic allure at every turn, tempting the young to hop its walls with a wine bottle after dark and settle along one of its pools or masterfully manicured courts. Behind its grounds are public parks, filled with flowers and woods and babbling streams, with a footpath snaking its way along Rock Creek up toward the giant parkland separating east and west DC. Beyond it is Embassy Row, its stately avenues filled with little monuments: the Khalil Gibran Memorial, Gandhi in stride, a Brazilian aviator, the Bard of Ukraine, the memorial on the spot where Chilean dissidents were killed by a car bomb. The Spanish Steps, plucked out of Rome and shrunk into a shady cul-de-sac with a fountain that never works. Some of the embassies bustle with enthused energy; others hide behind bars and gates, guarding the secrets of statecraft. This is the DC that dreams are made of, its well-heeled families parading about with their perfect children, its shady streets a short walk from the bustle of Dupont Circle.

That is only one of the city’s many faces, though. Much of downtown DC is a drab wasteland of government buildings and everything that comes with them, a sclerotic mix of government and contractors and the echo chambers of K Street. This is the heart of L’Enfant’s city, but his plazas are now mostly a home for the homeless, a reminder that all is not well, even as the capital’s wealth overflows. At night, all is dead. Even vibrant Chinatown further along is a bit manufactured, but there is at least some life here: the bars, the restaurants, the National Gallery, and the Verizon Center, home to Georgetown basketball. (Let’s please not talk about this season.) There is the government center where we endured Zoning Commission meetings on a proposed campus plan, plus the National Building Museum, where I once spent an evening with Ann Coulter. (Ask Uncle Chuck about that one.) And, to the east, Union Station, its great atrium modeled on the Baths of Diocletian, the site of many of my DC comings and goings, plus that final senior ball the night before I walked across the stage.

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For more interesting environs, head north. To Adams-Morgan, with its bar-lined cosmopolitan boulevard, a pleasant break from the pretension of M Street, though the creep of gentrification looms. Indeed, that is a theme all across the north side, from Hispanic Columbia Heights to the historically black corridors of U Street and H Street Northeast, with a vibrant Ethiopian community mixed in. The food is delicious, the diversity is real, the rents aren’t through the roof—but one suspects they will be soon, and with them will go the vibrant city. But for now it is a delight, teeming with life, melting seamlessly into the bourgeois Northwest by the National Zoo before drifting into the part of the city that is still uniformly African-American. Wedged between Adams-Morgan and that Latino nonprofit in Mount Pleasant where I once doused myself in silvery paint while brushing up a balcony lies Meridian Hill Park, among the greatest of DC curiosities. Up top, a stately lawn reminiscent of a European capital; below, a sprawling fountain and a memorial to the not-so-memorable James Buchanan, to say nothing of the statues of great American heroes like Joan of Arc and Dante. It has a little of everything, attracts some of everyone, though that rare mix may prove fleeting.

To the east lies a DC few outsiders visit, though that is changing, as the money flows in and developers snap up the real estate. The District’s black population, no longer its majority, is drifting eastward into Prince George’s County. The southeast riverfront looks nothing like it once did, with Nationals Stadium and its crisp sightlines rising up on the banks of the Anacostia. RFK Stadium, once the main attraction on the east side, is on its way out, with its last tenant—the DC United soccer club—headed for a soccer-specific stadium near Nationals Park in the not-so-distant future. To the north, one monument stands unchanged while DC shifts around it: the National Shrine, the nation’s largest Catholic church, and one unlike any other with its exquisite Byzantine look.

Across the Anacostia’s polluted waters lie a few sites worthy of a visit. The Anacostia Community Museum, exiled far from the rest of its Smithsonian brethren, and the Fredrick Douglass House, sitting stately atop a hill. Parts of Southeast aren’t nearly as blighted as conventional wisdom would have you believe. Yet the troubles persist. The projects and planning schemes have amounted to nothing; even Marion Barry’s patronage machine couldn’t do much to change the fate of his home ward. Just past the corner of Martin Luther King and Malcom X sits Ballou High, where I spent part of a semester in a class that had us trying to instill some civic engagement in a struggling, all-black public school. Through the metal detectors, down chaotic halls, into a classroom where maybe half of the kids would show up—and these were the survivors, the seniors, the thirty percent who’d made it through from freshman year. Midyear we were thrown from the school, ostensibly for lack of communication, but more likely because we were witnesses to the shock therapy imparted by Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee.

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The status quo was untenable, but the vicious cuts and relentless turnover didn’t make much of a difference. Five years later, not much has changed, save for the changes brought on by the eastward march of urban renewal schemes. A few heroic teachers and community leaders battle on, trying something, anything, that hasn’t been tried before, but one senses that Black DC is slipping away, scattering through suburbs off toward Baltimore. The new District will be beautiful, and offer ideal urban living—for those who can afford it. It will continue to attract the best and the brightest, those who believe they’ve outgrown wherever it is they’ve come from, a transient city for the ambitious of all political stripes. I could have been happy there, in among the interesting neighborhoods and people, perhaps living in a grand old house, raising children amid all that cultural wealth while still being able to show them the other side, and to do what I could to keep the vibrancy alive.

And yet I made no effort to stay in DC after I graduated from Georgetown. I left in part for reasons my old professor and fellow ex-Washingtonian, Patrick Deneen, describes here; in part for more personal reasons. Distance, however, has eased some of my jadedness, and I can now remember all those little details with unburdened fondness. I no longer reject Washington; it left a mark I cannot deny, and in many ways it was a positive one. I’ll happily go back and dip my feet in from time to time. But it was also just one chapter in a much longer book, and the strength of those chapters is measured not in my closeness to power, nor in my rejection of it. It will come instead, I think, in how fully I lived in each of those years, what I learned from them, and how I took those lessons and used them to write the later chapters. In that, Georgetown proved an excellent guide—but it couldn’t have done it without its city, one whose streets my mind will forever wander.

Realizing Dreams, 50 Years Later

28 Aug

Fifty years ago today, when several hundred thousand people marched on Washington, D.C., I wasn’t anywhere close to the world of the living. I grew up on the whitest end of a town that is over 90% white; questions of race were, by in large, something that happened somewhere else. Imagine my shock when I ventured into The Bronx during a visit to New York late in high school, when my father and I were the only non-black people on a crowded shopping street. It wasn’t fear or discomfort; it was simply recognition of being distinctly different. Perhaps because of that lack of experience with other races, I have never found dialogues on race easy. Indeed, I’ve read that white Northerners can often be cagy to the point of excess when confronted with the topic, and I am probably guilty of that.

Even so, it is hard to think of any Americans who inspired more reverence in my childhood than Martin Luther King, Jr. MLK is ensconced in America’s civic religion, complete with a monument on the National Mall and a statue that, while not without its controversy, does capture his deep, searing eyes. He is as much of a hero as we’re likely to find in American history, and deserves so many of the plaudits he receives. But in the worship of past figures, there is a danger of sanitizing people; of turning them into saintly icons rather than the human beings they were. MLK was a complicated man who stood for many things that went far beyond race.

Fifty years later, where is his dream? It’s hard to say. There have been monumental advances in some fields, and in simple, basic civility. But at the same time, African-Americans lag behind whites in any number of indicators, and some cities look just as segregated as they did fifty years ago. Things are more difficult to measure, however: blatant racism is much less common than it once was, and the forces complicating things are invariably more subtle than Southern segregationists of the 1960s. The public policy initiatives used to combat racial inequality in 2013—affirmative action, forced school desegregation, various education reform plans—tend to be crude tools that oversimplify the problem. Ending the single greatest contributor to systemic racism in the current U.S.—the war on drugs—will come with some serious trade-offs; and while I think the benefits outweigh the costs, the costs do exist, and will have to be confronted in a careful manner, if and when the war is drawn down. Rarely are racial issues as clear-cut and morally obvious as they were in the 1960s. From the Trayvon Martin debate to the case of a local black principal sloppily removed from her job, I struggle to believe the motives at play were as vicious as some claim: too often, they seem to assume the worst in other people, and seek to pass blame—something that does not strike me as terribly MLK-ish. (Admittedly, MLK’s willingness to forgive sets a very high bar, and it probably isn’t realistic to expect most people to meet it. We have to work with the world we live in.)

What we are witnessing here is the collision of American meritocracy with ongoing cycles of poverty and culture that leave African-Americans, as a whole, on unequal footing. King said his dream was “deeply rooted in the American Dream,” but as James Baldwin noted in a famed 1965 debate with Bill Buckley, for all its claims of equal opportunity, the future-oriented American creed is not well-designed to redress lingering legacies of the past. (I say this simply as a statement of fact, not as a call for revolution. I don’t know what a better alternative would look like.) No one encapsulates the tension between the American Dream and the past better than President Obama himself: whatever one may think of the President’s record, it is now clear he never had a prayer of re-orienting the national debate on race. Even though his election was a sign of racial progress and the possibility for anyone to achieve something, it didn’t erase the past. Ross Douthat’s Sunday column points out how the “post-racial” Obama era has seen more questions of race than most other recent administrations, with affirmative action and voting rights and  profiling issues coming back to the fore (to say nothing of the racial alarmism around the President himself). History prevents us from ever getting rid of these questions.

In a sign of the oddness of our times, Douthat’s column went on to argue that both parties have much to gain from a cross-racial coalition of working class Americans who have been left behind by the business and technology interests that are now deeply embedded in the political establishment. Yes, that’s right: the New York Times’ “conservative” columnist is making what is, essentially, a Marxist argument. Across the spectrum, political pundits are trying to find some source of a sustainable majority in American politics. Some have said the Republican Party will be dead unless it can increase its appeal among minorities, and while this is in essence true, I think it is also a horribly reductionist way of thinking. Aligning parties along racial lines is identity politics at its worst, and is not a recipe for societal health for either party.

Still, I’m skeptical of Douthat’s solution. One of the great lessons of the failure of Communism was that uniting the underclass against entrenched interests didn’t work particularly well. I’d be intrigued by populist candidates who try to lead insurgencies on behalf of Middle America, but even if those candidates should start to win, they would find a hostile environment in Washington. Reading some of the retrospectives on the 1963 March, it is astonishing to see how much the nation pulled together for such a display of collective conscience. Perhaps even more striking is trying to imagine that sort of rally in 2013 America, and failing miserably. Sure, there have been marches on Washington (Tea Partiers, Occupiers, and so on), and as a D.C. resident at the time, there was definitely something different about Obama’s election and inauguration. But the election alone was mostly symbolic in nature, and the militant political movements are a far cry from the unity preached by Dr. King and his fellow travelers.

This nation is deeply fragmented, and I’ve written on here with some sympathy for people who worry about this. Whether it’s the result of self-segregation in suburbs, the atomizing effects of technology, or the failures of the political system to inspire much confidence, some parts of this country seem further apart than ever before—a curious fact, considering how much more interconnected things are due to technology. The few forces that can hold things together—popular culture, national news networks, a handful of sporting events—often appeal to the lowest common denominator, and rarely offer us much in the way  of deep insights or patient reflection.

But, rather than bemoan our fate, I’m going to look for some bright spots in this apparent lack of national unity. The failures of the political class may lead people to hate national politics, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into complete alienation: as I’ve said before, politics need not go through formal institutions, and re-focusing on things we actually can affect can be quite gratifying. For the first time in a very long time, the American public is deeply skeptical of embroiling itself in foreign wars; whether due to the excesses of the Bush years or the lack of a real existential threat, that skepticism is a far cry from the blind patriotism behind past American military adventures. From localist liberals to communitarian conservatives, there are growing groups of people who find little to like in the crony capitalism/corporate welfare that has become so prevalent. At some point, they may even realize they have something in common, even if it never coheres into a national movement. Keeping political movements on a smaller scale allows for more nuance and attention to particular cases, rather than trying to slap a one-size-fits-all approach over a wildly diverse country of 300 million.

This doesn’t mean an end of attention to national politics: given the state’s power, it can’t be totally ignored, and there are some problems that can only be solved on a national level. Inertia is a powerful force, and the national media isn’t going to change the narrative anytime soon. It will be hard to limit ambition, and many successful local politicians will heed the call to climb the ladder in search of some “greater” opportunity. Still, the untapped potential in local energy for improving everyone’s lot in life is enormous.

Focusing on the immediate also keeps with a key tradition within the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. King’s words in front of the Lincoln Memorial are what we remember most, but so many of the key moments in the Civil Rights Movement took place in towns and cities across the South, carefully coordinated by civic groups and churches confronting an ambivalent or hostile national political scene. We should remember 1963, but better societies do not come about just because some people decided to hold a march, or because of a great speech or two. The important work is far more mundane.

Two Articles Worth Reading

19 Apr

Distractions have slowed my blogging pace, but here are a couple of articles I enjoyed. One came out today, while the other is an old one that I found myself revisiting after writing my last post on here. They are not all that related, though they do both express opinions that I would have frowned upon just a few years ago, but have come to appreciate since.

First, from the British newspaper The Guardian, an article telling us to stop reading news. (Ironic, no?) http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2013/apr/12/news-is-bad-rolf-dobelli?INTCMP=SRCH

I’m not sure I could ever cut myself off as the author of that piece did, but there’s a lot to think about there, and I can certainly relate to some of his sentiments. It’s easy to convince oneself that reading lots news is one’s duty if one wants to be an informed and intelligent person, when it is often merely a somewhat more enlightened form of procrastination. I’m all for a healthy dose of vicarious living and sounding intelligent at cocktail parties, but following the news can easily get out of hand. This isn’t without its problems, especially when things do directly affect us, and it’s also difficult to know what the author considers “news”–does that include, say, op-eds? A longer analysis piece in a news magazine? Personal essays? This blog? Still, I agree there is a certain freedom in not being chained to the news cycle.

The idea of slavish devotion to the news was already in my mind this week; when I first heard of the Boston Marathon bombings, my first instinct was to glue myself to a news feed and follow along. But then, as I often do in such moments, I flash back to 9/11. I was at school that day, and while they told us what had happened, they never turned on the TVs. When I got home, my dad–a college professor and generally very well-informed man–wasn’t glued to the news and worrying; he was gardening. Even as an 11-year-old, I was in awe of such composure during a crisis. My understanding of that day was not hurt by not seeing video footage of the falling towers until weeks afterward; in fact, it may have let me think through it better–as well as I could at that age. In a certain way, that was our own little victory over the terrorists: there was no terror in our house. Instead, there was some sadness, some reflection, and then we all got on with life.

Fr. James Schall, a Jesuit priest and recently retired Georgetown professor, always told his students to “never major in current events.”  Such narrow focus, he reasoned, led us to ignore the bigger things. Sometimes I wonder where I’d be if I’d heard his advice as a freshman or sophomore, instead of as a senior–but that’s all water under the bridge now, and there were different rewards to following the route I did take.

Fr. Schall also serves as a good transition into the next piece, which was written by another former Georgetown professor. I had the pleasure of taking a class from Prof. Patrick Deneen in what was the final semester in Washington for both of us; I’d suspect he generally shares Fr. Schall’s disinterest in current events, though I’m afraid he’s the main reason that several of those news links are on the right side of this page. In this essay, he explains his decision to abandon a tenured position at Georgetown to seek out a different opportunity:

http://www.frontporchrepublic.com/2012/10/leaving-washington/

Prof. Deneen and I come from fairly different places in life, but when it comes to leaving Washington, we have a lot in common. The essay captures much of my own jadedness with D.C., and though coming home since has not been without its frustrations, it was also rewarding on many levels. I may not be able to stay in Duluth long-term, but even if I don’t, localism is (funnily enough) something that can be useful anywhere. As with the news, I’m not sure completely cutting oneself off is the way to go, but there is certainly some wisdom there.