I recently visited Washington DC for only the fourth time in my life.
The first time was more than 50 years ago, when several of us went to a vigil outside the White House on the aniversary of the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki. We all were Quakers, and that’s the kind of issue our variety of Quakers cares about.
My memory of the event is a bit hazy. We were outside the fence on one side of the White House, and I think the area on the other side of the street was residential, not commercial. We had eaten breakfast in a restaurant (an unusual experience for me then) before making our way to the vigil site. I remember our driving past the Pentagon on the way out of town.
I didn’t visit again until the 1980s, when a friend was working at the Smithsonian Institution for awhile. We missed connections the night I got there, so I found a place outside of town to park, and spent the night in my car. Getting into town the next morning was difficult, as the freeways resembled parking lots. Eventually I got there, connected with my friend, and spent time talking and looking around the Smithsonian. I was also surprised, when I found where he was staying, to find iron bars on all the windows and doors. I hadn’t encountered that before, since I had lived in only a few big cities, and those some years before.
Just two or three years later I was there again, but didn’t spend much time in the city. We stayed at my companion’s sister’s place somewhere out in the suburbs.
This time the impression was more powerful than I remember from the first three. Lots and lots of traffic, for one thing. I came in from the south, exiting probably on 14th street, as I drove past the White House on my right and the Washington Monument on my left.
Just beyond that area is real city: all monumental architecture, cars and people all over, and apparently 2-3 parking garages each block. This crystallizes some of my worries for my country and the world: way too many cars, too much high tech, all powered by petrochemical fuel, which I think more and more to be a bad idea.
Most everyone I saw was busy, too. Not everyone looked important. There was a man playing a tiny version of a guitar on a street corner (and quite well too), but many people did look busy and very well dressed.
Washington has existed in my consciousness mainly as an abstraction, and it was intimidating to see it right in front of me, and imagine the many men (and some women) in expensive suits discussing just how things ought to go in the country. It’s a city where it must be difficult to avoid feelings of self-importance if you have any official position at all, and even more difficult as you ascend the ladder of success. I imagine people there talking about meeting challenges “realistically” in an environment that must distort consciousness simply by existing. As a center of power it draws many many people, and the kind of people attracted to power are often not very nice, or so I imagine.
That conclusion is drawn from the political news we all hear. Much of politics seems to be resistance to things that need to happen, like changing our way of life to live in harmony with ourselves, each other, and nature as well. The solution to those problems won’t come from politicians, most of whom are followers of their constituents, who seem to become a narrower and narrower group as money becomes ever more important, and the restrictions on political donations are repealed.
One member of a discussion on the recent Supreme Court decision on political contributions said that the decision was based largely on reluctance of the Court to limit free speech. That sounds fine in abstract, but in practice it means that the speech of those with money gets heard, while the speech of those without does not. That view was ironically echoed on DC license plates I noticed while being frequently lost that weekend: “Taxation without representation”. I was surprised, and looked several times for a “No” preceding that sentence, but couldn’t find one.
I was in town to meet an internet friend who is a prominent poet from Iran, and is currently touring in this country. Since I managed to spend most of the day being lost, we didn’t meet until much later than intended, but she was very kind, giving me several gifts from her country, food, reading some of her work to me, and letting me read some of mine. Regrettably, I wasn’t at my sharpest that evening, and couldn’t intelligently comment on what she read, but am grateful that she was so willing to spend time with a writer much her inferior.
Her name is Rosa Jamali, and anyone interested can find some of her work at Poemhunter.com. I hope some reading this will take the time to do so.
From what she said, I don’t think she cared much for Washington either, saying that she had done previous tours in Europe, where people were more polite, and the tours much better organized. I hope her tour is going better now. The bigness of Washington may not have struck her as negatively as it did me, since she lives in Tehran, which is also a big city.
She told me that when she travels people like to ask her political questions, which she prefers not to answer. Of course our mutual governments dislike each other, but that doesn’t mean that individuals of both countries can’t be friends. So she prefers to talk about artistic matters, which are, after all, her area of expertise, not only as a writer herself, but also as a teacher.
She comes from a oountry with a very ancient history, particularly compared with the USA. She said she’d like to see more attention paid to that history, but wasn’t too specific about in just what way. Iran, as most of the Middle East, had a much higher culture than did our European ancestors in the Middle Ages, and most in this country fail to realize just how much her country and the rest of that region influenced our own history.
Idries Shah, an Afghan writer, traced a number of these connections in The Sufis, pointing out how Muslim thinkers influenced Medieval Christian thinkers partly through the Crusades, when Christians and Muslims came into contact on a fairly large scale (and Christians in general didn’t behave very well), and partly through Spain, much of which was under Muslim control for almost 800 years. Shah cited the Troubadours as a phenomenon originating in Muslim countries, and pointed to Saint Francis as having been directly influenced by Sufis.
But she and I didn’t discuss that in any depth the night we met. I’d enjoy the possibility of meeting her again when I could better hold up my end of the conversation, but I doubt her schedule would allow that, even if she wanted to.
I was fortunate enough to stay with friends in the area–the trip would have been difficult if I’d had to stay in a motel. He and I were friends in high school, though never particularly close, so it was fun to find out more about his life, and to meet his wife for the first time. I greatly appreciated their hospitality and the discussions we had.
Impressions carried away? Washington is a city that seems to live by the idea that bigger is better, which I find dubious. It’s a very American concept, but one that doesn’t necessarily serve us well. One of my concerns is the powering of our civilization by petrochemicals, which are not only a finite quantity, but cause environmental damage both in their mining and in their use. Washington is probably little different from other big cities in their use, but add in its being a political power center, and there’s an electricity in the air that I suspect to be intoxicating and a frequent cause of bad behavior. At one point during the Bolshevik takeover of Russia, Vladimir Lenin remarked, “Es schwindelt,” meaning more or less, “It makes one dizzy.” I suspect many powerful occupants of Washington experience that frequently.
Technology builds on technology, as bureaucracy builds on bureaucracy, and our means of powering technology narrows the foundation on which on our lives depend: the ecology without which we could not live, but recklessly damage for short-term gain. A large majority of scientists agree that climate change, if not directly caused by human activity, at least severely exacerbates it. It’s not hard to extrapolate that it will take catastrophe for us to rethink our way of life, and begin to find a better way to live. The threat, though, is that millions, if not billions, will have to die to make the point clearly enough for people to agree, and try to find that better way.
The Hindu concept of Maya suggests that the world is real, but we do not perceive it accurately. When we base our politics and lives on power and possessions we are not following our best ideals, and that in itself distorts our perceptions. That’s not an easy habit to give up, though, having been the pattern of all human history that we know.
So my trip to Washington was unusual for me, and interesting both as an experience and philosophically. It is, of course, a city in which power is on display, though much of the behavior associated with power is probably located in the shadows, where few are able to observe. As such, it probably isn’t a lot different from many major American cities, except in being the center of government in this country (not just A center of government).The experience may prompt further thoughts, so thanks to everyone who made my trip possible.