Pop quiz, hotshot: is Washington, D.C., in the United States of America?
Think carefully, and take a look at the word “States.” Sure, it may be semantic nonsense, but D.C. residents face this thought experiment on a semi-regular basis. The existential dread we feel thinking about our place in the US of A resurfaces whenever, say, the Internet posts another list of state-by-state rankings. Blogs and various desperate web-centric news orgs love a good ranked list to squeeze out a few click-throughs—and pitting areas of the country against each other will never go out of style. And with what I assume is a goal of national comprehension, the Internet now teems with lists like “America’s Top 50 States for Business” and “50 States, 50 Burgers.”
These pentacontagon catalogs strike me as something less than an inclusive snapshot of the nation’s capacity for local industry or cheeseburger grilling or whatever. The annoyance of occasionally not being included in national rankings isn’t a huge deal—I’d probably put it somewhere between not having voting representation in Congress and the continued insistence of Google Maps that our city is named “Washington, D.C., DC” (seriously; just start typing it). But the sporadic treatment of this city as something separate from the rest of you—like the butter knife that you very rarely use for spreading butter but feel you should keep because it came with the set—may carry some larger import.
Fittingly, our separation dates back to the Founding Fathers and their approval of Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution. That’s the passage that calls for the establishment of a “District (not exceeding ten miles square) as may, by cession of particular states, and the acceptance of Congress, become the seat of the government of the United States.” Thus was created not a capital city within the brand-new United States, but a district isolated from them. The separation was no joke. True story: it wasn’t until 1961 with the passage of the 23rd Amendment that folks here could vote in presidential elections.
Now, not being a “normal” city would be strange enough, with our district-ness conjuring up the sort of grimily unappetizing connotations suggested in the movie District 9. (I’m choosing not to make a politician/prawn-alien comparison, but know I thought about it.) But the fact that we’re the epicenter of the country’s oft-malodorous politics makes us something else entirely, something inherently distinct from the rest of the country. It’s easy to imagine professional Washington as a kind of arcology, a city in a bubble, walled off from America, the inhabitants comprised of only those sadomasochistic enough to surround themselves with the evil banality of government life.
This isolationism is bad for business. There’s a reason why members of Congress sprint home every chance they get, to show off the bridge they got funded and to excoriate other congressmen for wasting funds on their bridges. They need to re-enter the United States, and remind voters that despite working in Washington they remain human. This abasingly opprobrious soft-shoe that passes for peace in a representative democracy has more or less worked for our elected officials for many years. The District (not exceeding ten miles square) turns out to be a fine safehouse.
At least, it used to be. The last year or so has seen our sequestered city under attack. The soft susurration of discontent that Washington hears on a daily basis has been amplified into a cacophonous, galloping assault by the histrionic assemblage we know as the Tea Party. And the faux-comity created by Washington’s standard remove has been serrated by the anger on the right. Because, ultimately, what scares the left about the Tea Party is that they give a shit. Their passion—a fury blended by myopic naïveté and a potent brand of brazen chutzpah that demands immediate, radical change—is a historical anomaly. We here in D.C. know how the politics game is played. We’re cynical towards the possibility of change. We know the institutions of government seldom bend, and they hardly ever break. But the politically doctrinaire apocalypticism from the right gives us newfound pause. Some people—more than some, really; a veritable army in American flag dress shirts and/or bolo ties—are suddenly angry enough to stop knocking at our door and instead are kicking the damn thing down.
That’s the power of a movement. It’s a force that the month-old Occupy Wall Street doesn’t quite have yet. What’s happening in Lower Manhattan and around the country is finding its toehold in the public consciousness, to be sure. And even as hacky conservatives try to paint the protestors as some kind of begrimed outgrowth of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, there really should be no doubt that full-throated rage against economic injustice is good. (I do, however, believe drum circles are best used as a powerful emetic—just for the record.) But when I read about the demonstrative clamor echoing amid the lofty buildings around Zuccotti Park, it occurs to me that the din in D.C.—where protesting is arguably more directly relevant—doesn’t quite compare. This is not to say that the Occupy D.C. folks aren’t doing amazing things, but they do seem to blend in with the everyday public grievances of Washington. I had a chance to see Occupy D.C. in action the other day and while it was impressive it was also indistinguishable in size and volume from the nearby protest of the Keystone XL oil pipeline issue that I’m willing to wager is news to you.
But Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party and unaffiliated citizens by the bushel will continue to remonstrate and denounce. Last month, the newspapers reported that one yardstick of national displeasure rose to its highest peak in 28 years. The “misery index”—and if you’ve got a more ominous name for a barometer, I’d like to hear it—factors in unemployment and inflation to compute just how unhappy Americans are. The citizenry is historically miserable, and Washington is surely going to keep hearing about it.
After the East Coast earthquake a few months back, jokes about the absence of damage quieted when it was revealed that the Washington Monument had suffered a four-foot crack. The National Parks Service closed it for repairs and the damaged obelisk, the tallest entity in Washington, offered up perhaps a fairly obvious metaphor. But the image I like more is the snapshot of the engineer and his ropes standing astride the top of the monument, inspecting the fracture. He seems busy, attentive to his duty, but I wonder if he should lift his head and look out to the horizon if he might be able to see the hordes howling at the gates.