Last week I was in Washington, D.C. for work. My trip there was both difficult and good. I learned many lessons during my travels and during the time I was in the city. One of the lessons that I am still processing is about the intersection between pre-existing stereotypes about a place and the actual spirit of that place. It’s not that I have a clear understanding of this issue yet, but I still think that it’s worth discussing publicly in the hopes that you can process the ideas with me.
It all started as we were driving up to D.C. on the Friday before the event I was there to run. At some point along the drive I noticed a change in myself. I was agitated and annoyed with the other people on the road and the imagined inhabitants of the buildings near the freeway. Something in my head had processed the fact that we were in the area around the capitol where lots of Federal employees live and work. I mentioned what I was feeling to my friend and said, “It’s just that I feel like this is where they are messing up the country.”
That’s a horribly unfair thing to say or even think. So much of what the Federal government does is vital and decent and good. I’ve seen some of that work first hand while working a temp job as an assistant at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission many years ago. That office was filled with people who were passionate about what they were doing, who truly cared about social justice. And what of the people in the Health and Human Services department that I have worked with in the last year? Or the folks at the much maligned FEMA who I’ve met who are busting their backsides doing their best to help people recover from disasters like Superstorm Sandy or the Oklahoma tornadoes?
But fairness didn’t come into it. Even as we got closer to D.C. and I discussed my thoughts, the feelings did not subside. The overwhelming sense I had was frustration with the lost opportunities and with power plays that people make within the belt to improve their own little empires at the expense of the rest of the nation, even at the expense of the Constitution itself. For all the great work that’s going on in the Capitol area, my mind was focused squarely on the failures there and the losses in education, freedom, privacy, and social justice that have tainted the last two decades.
While I was in D.C. I got some important things accomplished with a team of people that I’m really proud to have spent the week with. I also had the chance to meet some excellent open source developers at an after hours mixer from a completely different event from the one I was in town for, including one who is a D.C. native and who pointed out many amazing and wonderful things that can be found in the town. During my stay people were mostly excellent. We had a most fantastic server at our table at Farmers Fishers Bakers on the one night my coworker, our couchsurfing host and I went out. Complete strangers smiled, said hello in the street and complimented the (ahem) unusual colors of our hair. Even so, my annoyance with D.C. drivers and many of the anonymous strangers I ran into never subsided.
This was my third visit to Washington, D.C. The first one was when I was six, and I have wonderful memories of that trip. My father took me to visit pristinely cared for monuments and museums, and I came away with a sense of the greatness of the American Experiment. In 2006, I returned to D.C. on a visit with my father, my brother and his family, and my two teenage children. That trip was terribly disappointing as the Capitol I saw was a mess. The grass in the National Mall was torn up. Rangers walked right by a broken irrigation pipe and didn’t even look concerned about the spreading flood. Monuments were in disrepair. Others looked to be under construction, but the area was a mess. I was horrified that this was a place where foreign dignitaries would come. This time, things weren’t as bad as in 2006, but some of my impressions of the place were worse. I can’t help comparing D.C. to other capitols I have seen, and especially comparing the disaster that was the National Mall in 2006 to the clean and well cared for parks of London and Paris.
I love the political mythology of the United States. I love the fact that we have a written Constitution and a Bill of Rights. I believe in the power of the People to govern themselves through the institutions we’ve created, and specifically in the power of Dissent to push back on the institutions when they get out of line with our highest ideals.
I can’t help but wonder what it was I was feeling in D.C. last week. Was it just an overflow of my personal dissent regarding specific political issues in America? Was it stereotypes based on the divisive media messages I consume? Or is there something more profound there? I really don’t know.