As I settled into my seat for the flight to D.C. I was struck by the notion that wishing to get closer to Americans was perhaps a little premature. This was most likely due to the outstandingly plump child seated before me, weighed down by huge, gold aviators that he had to keep pushing back up his little, fat nose, and the huge, gold watch that he had to keep pushing back up his little, fat arms. That, or the outstandingly plump brother to this child, who had seated himself in the seat next to me, as well as mine. As I wondered about the possibilities of changing seats, an outstandingly camp, Hispanic air steward made an announcement of some sort. As I could not understand a word of what he was mincing, I decided to hunker down for the brief flight from Boston, it was only an hour.
With the flight still in my mind, wandering through Washington's imposing buildings and cavernous museums, strolling down its massive central mall, it is impossible to ignore the fact that Americans cannot do anything unless it is outstanding. I like Washington, I like its grandeur, its sense of purpose and its obvious air of business-like intent, and the way that it takes itself seriously. Perhaps too seriously, though; almost all the buildings are weighty, thick edifices with enormous columns and defiant, hard edges. In an effort to recall the seats of ancient democracies, the architects of Washington's greatest monuments and museums fashioned exaggerated, neo-classical monsters. The best example of this is the National Archives Building, an enlarged Pantheon sporting a stepped pyramid on its summit. For a country so young (at the time of construction), to emulate two ancient structures, and then brashly conflate them in a building housing the country's relatively meagre history, is amusingly, amazingly proud. The quasi-religious significance is intentional; this is the structure housing the United State's most sacred texts: the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence.
Though the whole city is faintly ridiculous, and only faintly, it is extremely hard not to get involved. Walking along the mall, sitting atop the Lincoln memorial, taking the tour of the Capitol and watching the movie about the United State's creation, it made me proud to be American. Which was a bit weird, obviously. It is near impossible not to get sucked in. The USA is one nation, under God, but by taking in all of Washington's literature I was struck by the idea that that god is the Union itself. The reverence for the creation that the American people are makers and members of is almost cult-like; they love it when it works, blame it for their difficulties, owe it everything but have their own independent wishes that work against it. "After God, the next most important thing is your country", say a young marine in a conscription video replayed in the National Museum of American History, "opinions are considered, and considered again", say the voiceover in the Congressional guide. Democracy is difficult, it is a vocation, if not a mission, a crusade. Freedom, as they say (repeatedly), is't free. It needs you heart, your body, and most clearly of all, your soul.
Walking away from the pantheon of statues in the Capitol building (two of each state's greatest figures), down past the pagan phallus of the National Monument, the National Archives and their darkened crypt where the national treasures are guarded, the pure white temple where their highest leader resides, and the memorials to patriots, fallen in Korean, Vietnam, and World wars, you eventually reach the Lincoln Memorial, clearly modelled on the Temple of Jupiter. Looking over the mall though, and all the glory that America can assemble, the only people there are tourists, and only a handful of them American. Then again, who really though that Washington was ever designed to impress American citizens? As a foreigner, looking on, it is ridiculous, it is pompous, and it is a little grotesque. But, as the pictures show, it does look lovely, and you can't complain about that.