Domestic Affairs

Statues in the Swamp: Remembering a City Remembering Itself

“It goes without saying, I believe, that if we understood ourselves better, we would damage ourselves less. But the barrier between oneself and one’s knowledge of oneself is high indeed.” (James Baldwin) 


Maintain eye contact and a firm handshake, of course. Exchange cards if you have them — notice the embossing. Don’t say “getting coffee,” say “informational interview.” Don’t say “nice to meet you,” say “nice to see you.” Don’t say bald, say thinning. Happy hours typically last from five to seven p.m. on weekdays but can stretch from four to eight. Under no circumstance should you turn down happy hour or ingest more than two drinks. People love talking about themselves. Don’t ask for help, ask for guidance. Encourage people to invest in you, make yourself one of their sunk costs. Stay fresh in peoples’ minds by sending periodic emails — maybe a news blurb that reminded you of them. Link an Ezra Klein piece, casually reassert your existence. Don’t forget to Make the Ask. Wear charcoal or navy or nothing at all. Don’t regret your major now, too late, don’t think about bureaucracy for too long. Don’t say networking; think it, always. Offer to pay even if you can’t afford to and don’t fool yourself, you can’t. Avoid making eye contact on the subway, listen to podcasts, buy comfortable walking shoes. 

Keep smiling even if you think it’s coming out as a grimace. 

It is a surprisingly walkable sixty-eight-square-mile shrine to a country’s gleaming idea of itself. You are in the holiest land of the American Dream, for somewhat murky reasons, hoping to investigate. How do we arbitrate the country we make up? How do we choose to remember? How long can I keep up this second person bit? Let’s begin.

Your professor introduces himself and immediately moves on. “There are Four Questions of Observation” he announces:

  1. Where is the money? 
  2. What is shown? Written? 
  3. What is not there? 
  4. What is obvious? 

You hope that this will eventually relate to the memorials you’re standing out here for, freezing in the sloping night beside the Vietnam Memorial. The city’s biggest monuments of war were clustered together, much like the 20th century. This is “Politics of National Memory,” a class without a classroom and now you’re walking to Korea. 

Washington, D.C., is a city built onto the Potomac River, bordered by Maryland and Virginia. It is a specially zoned federal district founded in 1790 and partially incinerated in 1812. It has no representation in the Congress it contains. 

D.C. is a nation’s collective memory made manifest, a multigenerational dialogue branded into city schemas and fading bronze antiquity. It is the battleground where our self-concept comes to an explicit head in columnal walkways and federally funded museums, in symbols and plaques and bureaucracies so massive you can’t hold their totality in your mind all at once. You are here, awash in the data, with the nagging question — how did we choose this?

“Show me a hero and I’ll show you a strategy,” the professor continues as your group rounds the reflecting pool.

“The District” is also one of the most visited cities in the world, hosting twenty million tourists annually — it beams America out like Ellis Island in the swamp. In deep summer heat, it is hazy and provided halation like two projector slides placed imperfectly atop one another. It is a place of perpetual negotiation, its skyline is conspicuously marbleous. It is currently 44 degrees and overcast as you write this from sunny Austin. 

You enter the Holocaust Museum and you can’t turn back. You stare at Lincoln staring at Washington, you observe (a) taxes; (b) several angels, Gettysburg; (c) habeas corpus; (d) sainthood. You find Fala — the only dog on the national mall — at the FDR exhibit, a place of running water and rough stone where his death is glossed over. You think that the National Archives look Greek. The Declaration of Independence sneaks up on you like King George. “The President is the high priest of our American secular religion and these are our Holy Texts.” You can’t see the sun from Sally Hemings’ quarters.

You learn the oddest things — that the Constitution is 4,543 words long and that cloture was invented in 1917. That the story of America is that of the lengthy redefinition of “men” and “equal” — call it syntactic self-improvement, call it progress if you must. That the vast majority of Confederate monuments in the United States were erected amidst segregationist fervor in the early 1900’s — boom times for revanchist legislation, and lynchings. That the plaques look different but every one of them reads YOUR TAXES PAID FOR THIS. 

“You cannot begin to talk about modern Germany without talking about the Holocaust. Now, American slavery…” 

You learn that memory is selective and imposed, that power enshrines legitimacy. Where were you for 9/11? For Abu Ghraib? How do you sing America? We are a nation helplessly lashed together and in need of answers — where we are going, where we have been. Rote data is not enough, the power is in the canonizing. The winner clutches the pen and chisel. The stakes are permanent and our civic combat reflective. 

One telling of our story sounds like this: 

“We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America… (Ours is) the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs; the hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores; the hope of a young naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta; the hope of a mill worker’s son who dares to defy the odds; the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too. The audacity of hope!” 

The Senator from Texas says socialism is a manifest failure. The Democratic nominee from 2004 says we are in a daily constitutional crisis. The Constitution says We — along with 4,542 other open leads. 

You learn that we have a high priest with a vision of who we might be and China has a hole where Tiananmen Square should be. Censorship, imposed misremembering, precludes a shared understanding of a shared past — it is the State’s story with no oxygen for dissent. “Are we better than them? How will posterity judge us, what are we missing?” 

You see that we subscribe to worldviews that confirm our preexisting beliefs. We try to argue our version of America into being. The impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump will be remembered by two countries ingesting two factstreams forging two cultures, two segregated internets, two houses recalled and no People’s Party necessary. 

“Plato says that democracy almost always ends in tragedy. Every generation must fight for it anew.”

You start packing for your flight home. You have learned to pack a formal winter coat, to use a sharpie on your scuffed shoes, to mourn and move on from H-E-B. You have given in and networked until your eyes twitched. When you arrive home you will tell people that DC is what it is because it’s the best you can muster. You have almost lost hope, watching cable news. You have nightmares of McCarthy. You worry that you’re being indecipherable. 

Washington etched-over, renegotiated, iterated forward by the tumble of its people, a city and its namesake endlessly redefined. Nothing is static here, thank God — there are ghosts to be exorcised, statues to be selectively contextualized or finally brought low. The Berlin Wall tells you that nothing you assume to be permanent, is. 

Your overwordy reading of our story sounds something like this: we created a purportedly egalitarian society founded on laws, liberty, and lies. We repeat ourselves, factious generations moving us closer to the realization of our unattained aspirational rhetoric. We wrangle constantly with our centrifugal forces and catastrophic presentism. We are guaranteed nothing; we could abolish the Constitution this afternoon. 

But we’re still here.

The great challenge of the Greeks was to see life as it is, and as beautiful, at the same time.”

You know that we have enough heroes to choose from by now, that it’s just a matter of curation. You learn about anti-majoritarian policy and entrenched tribalism and sometimes you see the coming strife as insoluble. You know that your efforts are matched daily by trolls schlepping stories about great replacement and American carnage and you can’t stop them. 

You hope it meant something, your darkening months spent brushing up against the unrefined dream of a city armed with your black notebooks and endless scribbling, against fallible humans bustling up and down a hill all vibrant and internal as yourself. You know teleology is myth and the moral arc of the universe is uncertain but that we remain multiple and contain multitudes, we are equally, totally human and able to know ourselves as such — if we decide to. You see opportunities for more human stories in every marbelous nook and publicly funded crevice. 

You learn that as long as it stands, unfinished, you can still chisel a more perfect Washington —  even one erected on the crumbled marble of all that came before. 


“I know now that all people hunger for a noble, unsullied past… I know now that that hunger is a retreat from the knotty present into myth and that what ultimately awaits those who retreat into fairy tales, who seek refuge in the mad pursuit to be made great again, in the image of a greatness that never was, is tragedy.”

(Ta-Nehisi Coates)

1 reply »

  1. Very thought provoking. I liked the juxtaposition of our founding fathers’ intentions with our current divided reality.


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