“You’ll love D.C. It’s like a celebration of democracy,” Angela,* the woman with whom we shared a taxi into the city, declared with a grin. She was visiting her daughter, who was studying at Georgetown University. “I lived abroad for a number of years, and each time I come back to D.C., I’m reminded of how great it is.”
The taxi driver also joined the conversation, telling us about his experiences as an immigrant in the U.S., as we approached the National Mall at twilight.
“What a beautiful way to see it for the first time,” Angela exclaimed, as we passed the White House on our way to our hotel.
Over the next several days of our whirlwind tour of the city, others would also tell us how D.C. is a “tribute to democracy”, or even “the center of democracy.”
And yet, the portrait of the city that emerged for me was far more intriguing: it is one of the key narratives through which a nation has chosen to represent itself, to its own people, and to visitors from abroad.
D.C. is a place of Roman or Hellenic aspect, resonant with echoes of the Athenian, democratic city state and the Roman republic of old. The National Mall and its surrounding monuments embody elegant austerity on a vast and grandiose scale. But, most fascinatingly of all, the core of the city, with its monuments and sites, manifests and narrates the mythos that a country has created for itself. Against the backdrop of the vision of a secular nation (even if that secularity seems somewhat elusive these days) and the separation of religion from state, I wondered whether this mythos had been created in order to facilitate a bridging between theology and ideology. It was almost as if at some deep level, the nation-building designers of the city had known that new saints and magnificent, heroic mythologies had to be created in order for people to resonate deeply, and align themselves with the patriotism of the growing nation.
As we walked the precincts of the District of Columbia, I couldn’t evade the impression that the monuments were like shrines along a secular pilgrimage (“…and this was where Lincoln sat–we have recreated the box to look as it would have at the time… afterwards they took him across the street to the house across the way–you can visit there next–and that’s where he breathed his last…”): lives of the saints and narratives of martyrdom and sacrifice to the great father nation–the patriotic cause. Continue reading