On Monuments

Birdwatching-Washington-Lincoln-Folk Art-Movie Sets-The Invisible Hand of the Market-The Supremes

Lately, I’ve become somewhat interested in two things that I have absolutely no background in or knowledge about: bird watching and architecture. Allow me to make a few completely uninformed statements on the latter.

It’s glaringly obvious that there were no women consulted when the Washington Monument was being designed.

I understand the historical (and Masonic) significance of an obelisk but I think that it shows a total lack of imagination. I know that at this time that this sort of architecture was in vogue and would have made sense for a scrappy young country with something to prove, but even at that…it’s not very imaginative is it? Furthermore, at night, the two red lights on either side give it a rather sinister look that, at best looks like it’s watching you and at worst, I hate to say, looks like an evil cartoon.  Tell me I’m wrong:

I’m told that the Washington Monument is the tallest building in Washington, D.C. (ii) Honestly now…that’s just obnoxious. This, I suppose, is so that if you are in Washington D.C. and suffer a crisis of faith in America, it will always there to inspire you.

Here are two other things that the Washington Monument reminds me of.

-Something sent down from another planet to watch us, a la Kubrick’s 2001, a Space Odyssey.

-The world’s most ostentatious game of Jenga.

-An ambitious flagpole

-That big tower with the flaming eye on top in Lord of the Rings.

I have nothing against George Washington, but overall, I have to give this monument a C-.

The Lincoln Memorial, on the other hand, is really quite impressive. From the Washington Monument, you can see the bright lights kneeling and offering themselves up to Lincoln, who sits on his throne like some sort of benevolent American God. I’m not sure whether this effect is increased or decreased by the frantic and constant non-stop of camera flashes also visible from the WM.

This monument, like so many others in Washington, D.C. makes no secret of its heritage to the classical ideal. This thing is all gleaming white pillars, lofty ceilings and a long, grand staircase leading up to it that re-enforces the feeling you’re walking into a temple. Even though I am no fan of this sort of Beaux-Arts architecture, (iii) it certainly achieved its purpose here, that is, to fill you with a sense of reverence and awe. And that, for me, is the problem. It is hard to imagine a man who less fit the mold of Roman God than Abraham Lincoln.  I’m a big Abraham Lincoln fan, but for me, what I’ve always found so fascinating about Lincoln was just how…different he was. No doubt he was a great man, but he was also tall and lanky, often described as “ugly” in his own time. He was an independent thinker, often accused of deism or outright atheism. He struggled with depression, and coped with this by constantly joking about everything. If there is one thing that I took from Professor Breitenbach’s class on Abraham Lincoln it is that Lincoln was a freak of nature. By that measure, I think that Lincoln memorial achieves what it wants to achieve (reverence and awe), but for me personally, that is a bit far removed from what I (at best an amateur Lincoln scholar) would consider the true Abraham Lincoln. If I was in charge, a Lincoln memorial would be for the people, by the people. What I mean by that is that it would be some sort of weird folk-art tribute that, without diminishing his greatness, also reminded people of just how unbelievable it was that this self-educated, indecisive yokel with a fondness for puns saved the United States and how proud we should be of that. Something that, like Lincoln, seemed truly indigenous to America. Something that was not trying to fulfill some ancient Roman prophecy, but was just as uniquely American and strange as Roscoe Holcomb, Grandma Moses or Clementine Hunter. Maybe a log cabin instead of a Parthenon rip-off. I just don’t see why we should make Lincoln conventionally or classically great and instead celebrate his greatness as it was… “warts and all”. (iv)

Yeah, that's more like it!

Don’t cover up your own bizarre, misshapen heroes America! Quit trying to impress the Europeans! Quit trying to impress that European part of you!

I can’t fully judge the Lincoln Memorial because the reflecting pool was an empty pile of “under construction” dirt when I visited. Which, actually, is fine with me, because I didn’t need to see the Washington Monument, like Narcissus, admire its reflection in the water all day.

Overall Grade for the Lincoln Memorial: B+

What’s really funny about all of this, the Lincoln and Washington Monuments, the Capitol, the Vietnam Memorial, and the White House(v) is that they’re all right next to each other.  It’s weird… you almost get the sense that you’re on a movie set that’s just waiting for Roland Emmerich or Michael Bay to come wreak havoc. That illusion is broken only when you realize that this movie set is smack dab in the middle of a busy and normal American metropolis. For example, my dorm is a block and a half from, among other things, the Mexican embassy, which it itself next door to a dry cleaner. I am also no more than a block and a half from the I.M.F and both a T.G.I.Friday’s (vi) and a Johnny Rockets. I think if a lot of people had their way, the grand monuments, war memorials grand buildings inside which the world is being run in a separate part of town from the Starbucks, CVS Pharmacies, and kitschy chain restaurants. However, the free market won out, and what could possibly be more American than that? Despite its attempts at Roman Grandeur, Washington D.C is still a normal American city. I see homeless people sleeping around the National Mall at night (vii).  Kids get high and make out on the train. People yell at each other in various languages outside of the Target.  Washington D.C is just a city. People are just people, and that’s why the Mexican Embassy shares a wall with a dry cleaners.

Oh man, there is SO MUCH cool stuff here that I haven’t even touched on yet. Smithsonian museums, fascinating people, embassy visits, interesting intern work…I guess we’ll have to talk about all that in later weeks. Just one quick story before I let you go. This is a good one.

My fellow National Council interns and I took a visit to the Supreme Court. I’ll spare you my feelings on the Beaux-Arts grand columns, big robed statues, and symbolic friezes both on the façade and in the courtroom of this building, all of which, I might add, were made of marble imported from around the world(viii). Instead, I’ll just say this: insider tours are awesome. Without them, we wouldn’t have gotten to see Justice Sotomayor practicing her softball throw in the gym. This was surprising for a few reasons. I did not know that there was a gym on the top floor of the Supreme Court, nor did I know that Kagan was not the only justice who played softball. I’ll also admit to getting a little bit star-struck… I’m a big Sotomayor fan. Out of all of the current Supremes, she might be my favorite.



(ii) This was told to me by one of the park rangers on duty, a friendly old woman who really, genuinely seemed to love the Washington Monument. Despite our differing opinions on the aesthetics of said monument, which I did not go into with her, I have to say that she, like most park rangers, was a wonderful person. This same park ranger also told me that, at the time of completion, the Washington Monument was the tallest building in the world. Now, of course, the tallest building in the world is Burj Khalifa, in Dubai.

(iii) I think, in general, it reveals something of an inferiority complex that goes all the way back to the Renaissance. When the Middle East and Chinese were looking at the universe, writing poetry, and inventing things, Europe was mostly sitting around misinterpreting the Bible, sitting the mud, and getting the plague. Once the Renaissance came about, the Europeans felt a need to prove themselves, but not wanting to compare themselves to the Arabs or Asians, tried to claim the mantle of the Romans. The (non-native) Americans, who of course, came from Europe, chose to run with this type of architecture because they were also insecure, having just started a new country an all, they needed to not only impress the Europeans, but prove to Europe and themselves that they were just as great as the Europeans imagined the Romans to be. They justified this insecurity with exaggerated connections to “democracy”. I have nothing to back this theory up.

(iv) To quote G.H.W Bush, misquoting Lincoln. Still, I think it applies.

(v) Which I’ll admit to liking, actually. I’m not a communist.

(vi) This T.G.I.Friday’s is literally right outside of my dorm. I’ll discuss the existential terror that this fills me with and my growing appreciation for UPS later.

(vii) I saw a homeless guy with a wooden replica of Captain America’s shield in his cart. This, to me, sums up Washington D.C.

(viii)I’ll save them for this footnote, and instead of sharing my own feelings, I’ll share the feelings of Chief Justice Harlan Stone, who said it was “almost, bombastically pretentious”; the feelings of another Justice who said it reminded him of the Temple of Karnak; another justice who felt that the pomp of the thing made him think it would be more appropriate for the Justices to ride in on elephants; and a New Yorker columnist who hilariously added that “it had nice big windows to throw the New Deal out of”.

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