L. Neil Smith's
THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 293, October 17, 2004
The Triumph Of Mediocrity
More Than Words
Special to TLE
Recently, I took a brief vacation to Washington, DC. I've been to the capital before, but I try to make a point of seeing different things every time I'm therethere's so much to see, and never enough time to visit more than a fraction of the many sites and attractions. I admit that I did duplicate a couple of stops from previous visits this time around. But despite that, I saw something different anyway. Actually, it might be better put to say I saw something differently. Let me explain.
The first time I went to Washington was some years ago. At the time, I prioritized a list of things I wanted to see from the substantial possibilities. A few sites were more important than others as far as I was concerned. Among those things at the top of the list was the National Archives where the original Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights are displayed. Seeing what the Archives calls the Charters of Freedom was an incredibly moving experience for me. I remember other things from that trip of course, including my disgust at walking past the building housing the Internal Revenue Service just a couple of blocks away, but the visit to the Archives stands out in my memory to this day.
Washington DC is an amazing place to visit. Whatever your politics, the sense of history and import is palpable there. If you ride the Metro (the DC subway is, believe it or not, largely a model of efficiency, cleanliness, and safety, and I can't say I recommend driving downtown) and disembark at the Smithsonian stop, you'll see a stunning view of the mall and the US Capitol Building when you reach the top of the exit. Turn around, and there stands the Washington Monument (something I've not yet seen up close myself since my timing for being in the area is apparently closely linked to various construction and improvement projects there). To your right is the distinctive original Smithsonian building, often referred to as the "red castle," and just a few buildings toward the capitol you'll see the gigantic Air and Space Museum. A block to your left and across the mall are more Smithsonian museums; one block more and you'll find a whole line of buildings on Constitution Avenue boasting marble statues and pillars enhancing their impressive edifices. One of those is the National Archives.
This time around, I visited a couple of other places before I headed over to the Archives. I saw the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum for the third time (ostensibly the most visited museum in the world, its contents are awe-inspiring and its IMAX and planetarium shows both educational and entertaining). I went shopping at the Museum of Natural History (aside from dinosaur skeletons and gemstones, exhibits which I also stopped to visit briefly, the museum store there has a very nice selection of jewelry which I'm forced to confess I can't resist). Then I crossed the street, walked up the block, and... but wait!
Yes, the IRS is still housed not far from the National Archives, and yes, I was still disgusted. But what apparently didn't sink in the last time I was there is any consideration of which government entity resides in a building even closer to the Archives. And that, my friends, is the US Department of Justice. I stopped dead on the sidewalk and stared at the signage. The current Department of Justicethe one with so little apparent respect for the Constitution and Bill of Rightsis barely a hop, skip, and a jump from the building housing the originals of those admirable documents! I was stunned at the obvious implications.
I walked the next half block in a fit of pique. And then I stopped walking again because another revelation occurred to me. Just a short distance away on the other side of the National Archives is the US Capitol building. You know, the place where most of the rest of the people in Washington who have no respect for the Constitution spend much of their time. And I was appalled. In fact, I was so unhappy about it that I resolved to ask a few questions of Archive employees once I got inside.
The National Archives is currently being renovated (18 months agothe last time I visited Washingtonthe building was closed entirely), so you can't enter by climbing the impressive wide marble steps and walking between massive pillars to the main entrance. But onobtrusive side doors offer entry to the building, and an interior staircase will take you to the rotunda where the Charters of Freedom rest in dimly lit air tight glass cases. Security guards flank either side of a strip of the five pages comprising the original Constitution. Tourists, despite having small children with them, are uniformly hushed and respectful. The rotunda of the National Archives is very much a shrine of sorts, and it seems even foreign visitors are affected by its gravity.
After offering a brief and silent homage to the Declaration of Independence, I walked slowly past the parchment pages of the Constitution. And when I reached the end of that short distance, I looked one of the security guards right in the eye and said, "So, like, do any of the politicians from down the street ever come here to read any of this stuff?" (Yes, that's really what I said; no, I don't really talk that way under normal circumstances.)
"Huh," said the guard. He looked up at the ceiling. "Uhm," he said.
"I mean," I added, trying to clarify an apparently confusing question, "it might be good if some of them actually knew what this stuff said."
"Well," answered the guard, finally looking directly at me, "I think there was a Congressman here last week."
"Really?" I asked, a little surprised.
"Yes," the guard responded, a little more sure of himself now. "He was from... Arizona? I don't remember. He was tall and had glasses."
"I, uh, I'm not from Arizona," I told him, "and I don't really recognize anyone from that general description, but..."
"Okay," the guard agreed, "but he was here."
"Why?" I had to know, just to see if there was at least one politician who worked down the street who showed some interest in knowing what it was he'd sworn to uphold.
"Press conference," the guard told me.
Gee, what a surprise.
"He was here," continued the guard, "when Congress was talking about the Pledge of Allegiance and the 'under God' thing. He was looking for all the places it said 'God' in the Constitution."
Now, having actually read the Constitution, I snickered at that point. But the guard gave me a bit of a dirty look as he went on, "...and he said that, if mentioning God is unconstitutional, then the Constitution is unconstitutional!"
I actually doubted myself and my own memory for a moment. "I think it might mention 'creator,'" I ventured, "but I don't think it says 'God' anywhere..." ("Creator" is, of course, the terminology from the Declaration of Independence, but I was reaching here, so give me a break.)
"Oh, yes, it does," the guard nodded his head sharply. "At the end, it says 'in the Year of Our Lord!'"
Somehow, I managed to mumble my thanks to the guard and move on before either rolling my eyes or laughing. For those few of you who don't get the joke here, the letters "AD" often seen following the designation of a given year are the abbreviation for the Latin "anno domini," or "year of our Lord." Just as calling one month in the summer "July" or "August" no longer honors Julius Caesar or Caesar Augustus, so, too, has AD entered into such common usage that even the most litigious of atheists has not (at least not that I'm aware of) thought to sue any entity for the use of the designation. Saying "in the Year of Our Lord" is just a fancy way of saying "AD." (Science began some years ago using "CE" meaning "current era" rather than AD, but most of the general public remains accustomed to seeing the latter, and I suspect many neither know nor care what it actually translates to mean.)
I was too amused and too wary of getting into an argument in a building I was searched before entering to ask any other questions (yes, most places in Washington now search your bags and use metal detectorsalthough, strangely enough, the Metro doesn'tbut that's the subject of another essay for some other time). If I'd had the time and the nerve, I might have continued my line of questioning with, "So, like, does anybody from the Department of Justice ever come here to read any of this stuff?" But it was becoming obvious to me that even the men guarding the precious documents weren't clear as to what they said, let alone those men (and women) who work a whole block or two away on either side of the building, so I didn't pursue the matter.
Instead, I found my sight blurred by tears as I considered just how faded and now largely illegible the original Declaration of Independence has become. I swallowed past the lump in my throat as I replayed in my mind the sight of those documents that were to have been instrumental in establishing an unobtrusive federal government and preserving our liberty for posterity. And I felt an ache inside at the careful preservation of the Bill of Rights that, while the paper exists in surprisingly good shape, has seen the sentiments written there become as faded and oftentimes illegible as has become the ink on the older Declaration.
On my way back to the Metro station, I found that I was still disgusted when I walked by the Internal Revenue Service building. But walking by the Department of Justice actually made me feel ill. I was, to be honest, astounded at just how sickened I was. I stopped briefly to stare at the building and fully appreciate the feelings, unpleasant as they were. If the irony of the proximity of the Department of Justice and the National Archives doesn't make you feel queasy, surely the hypocrisy must.
For just a moment, I pondered strolling over to the door. I considered finding a security guard and giving him a business card with Lady Liberty's name and mission statement on it along with a polite request to deliver it to Mr. Ashcroft's office. But only for a moment. Rational thought prevailed when I realized the guard would likely just throw the card away and, even if he managed to get it where it was going, Mr. Ashcroft would surely ignore that little piece of cardboard just as cavalierly as he's ignoring the old parchment down the street.
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