Saturday, October 23, 2010

Time Standing Still

Serendipity took my family and I to our nation's capital city,Washington, DC, ostensibly for a family holiday. My son was taken by the shiny metal and technology of the Air & Space center, while my daughters preferred the Smithsonian Natural History museum. I was keen too, since although I had spent reasonable amounts of time in DC with friends who worked the political circuit, I'd never actually been a tourist. So I was quite excited to visit the ground-zero of politics: The Capitol.

While I'd always been deeply interested in politics, an overtly political career never appealed. I skirted it via academia and applied research, my studies in economics, and philosophy, but had little lacked the convitction, missionary zeal for bottom-up activism. For every time I thought I knew for certain what was what, I would without faily later  discover how much I didn't know. This is not to fault those with vision, or those fighting for causes with obvious benefit for the public interest, though I remain suspect of those with too much zeal on issues where the ratio of concentrated parochial gain is large in comparison to that of the public interest.

With a tour arranged via the internet booking system - one that worked well enough to temporarily silence critics of governement ineptitude, we set out. I had few preconceptions of what to expect insude the halls of the Capitol, outside the idealized images  remaining from civics class, which had somehow displaced the more realistic and sordid images of K-Street lobbyists at their most insidious. I did imagine that we would be met by a knowledgeable guide, who would focus their considerable enthusiasm and proximity to power to enlighten the visiting public about the political process as it is - even if sugar-coated.

Once past security, our guide began their show. Yes they annoyingly spoke to us as if we were idiots. Mind-numbing detail about the physical building, the statues, the paintings, the cornice work - everything EXCEPT politics. Amazing. Here we were in the center - and everything was form, not function. Perhaps I was unrealistic in my expectations. No visit to committee rooms. No view of the big chambers despite the absence of congressional sessions.  No descriptions of torture methods employed by whips tto tame party rebels. Nothing of what makes Washington Washington.

Two images stuck in my mind. The first was a lunch visit to the Longworth Office building which houses offices of members of the House. Somehow (wrongly) I imagined (or wished) our leaders and their staff more elightened, but what I witnessed in the cafetaria was perhaps unsurprisingly a reflection of the nation: fried chicken, hamburgers, slathered in ketchup or mayonaise accompanied by a 20oz bucket of Coca-Cola. No wonder healthcare costs are 18% of GDP for non-universal coverage. Sure there was lip service to healthier food, but these lines were short to non-existant in comparison to the fried wings, french fries, ribs, and the like. No wonder logic and pragmatism seems unable to assert itself and unseat parochial interest. How can lawmakers and their staff - nourished as such, fight the focus their better nourished lobbysists.

The second was that while civic and administrative life in Washington itself seems to function beautifully  - transport, cleanliness, gentrification, zoning, sufficiently so to challenge the convention wisdom of administrative ineptitude, I couldn't help but notice that in the Capitol building itself, two of the three large ornate clocks were broken - freezing time. And I couldn't help thinking just how emblematic this is of American politics. A bold experiment in its time, now ossified, incapable of introspection, or evolvultion beyond the prevailing sad state of wholesale capture by those who can. On the lower floor, beneath the rotunda sits the exhibit I was expecting from the tour itself. A history of laws, documents displays of important laws enacted in our nations history along with the embellishing colour to ehance one's understanding. But like the broken timepieces, this proud timeline of legislation - from emancipation, womens, suffrage through to civil and social rights  - trails off dramatically as we approach the 21st century with increasingly abusurdly-named acts like "The No Child Left Behind Act" or insubstantive focus like steroid-use in professional sports, or banning assault weapons from public schools. The US must surely be alone amongst advanced nations in misusing the people's resources for such legislative folly. Where are the adults. Who will fix the clock, so the important matters of State facing our nation can be tackled and discussed pragmatically as citizens who share a common nation and common reality, rather than as two species inhabiting entirely separate realities - one characterized by Murdochian Fox, and the other resembling some L. Frank Baum inspired Land of Oz, where the responsibility is wholly-separated from the individual.

This may sound jaded and harsh, and unfairly focused upon what I wanted to see. Yet the problems facing this nation require a pragmatism -  free from dogma - such as we've rarely seen for many decades. And not just at the Federal level, but at the State and municipal level too. And if we were as a people, the least bit curious and introspective, we would see other nations and people that are already wrestling with the issues we face, challenging the parochial interests to re-examine what we've promised and what is feasible, what is desirable. Even hear, other nations seem farther on the road to viewing the world of the possible and plausible through similar eyes. I can nly hope we fix the clocks, and begin to approach the problems through a common reality.


joe said...

cassie: This may sound jaded and harsh, and unfairly focused upon what I wanted to see. Yet the problems facing this nation require a pragmatism - free from dogma - such as we've rarely seen for many decades. And not just at the Federal level, but at the State and municipal level too.


Don't worry; you'll get change. The public is angry about the Bernanke/Geithner/Obama/Bush43/Paulson policies that they'll keep throwing out politicians until you see a bunch that shake things up. However, I doubt you'll get the kind of changes you want to see.

I mean, honestly, a lot of the serious people want to impose fiscal austerity on the young to pay off IOU's that old folks wrote themselves. That kind of thing doesn't work. It is why professional firms with a lot of old-timers with big draws end up causing firms to implode due to young producers leaving, or end up axed in an insurrection by the young producers.

Common Schlemiel said...

Big C,

I nominate you for the tasks you describe. You have already done what no other in Washington has-you noticed there WERE clocks.......

Anonymous said...

We can succeed only by concert. It is not "Can any of us imagine better?" but "Can we all do better?" Object whatsoever is possible, still the question recurs, "Can we do better?" The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.

Fellow-citizens, we can not escape history. We of this Congress and this Administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance or insignificance can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We, even we here, hold the power and bear the responsibility.

Anonymous said...

Grammar check: should read: "Serendipity family and [me]."