National Fantasies

Todd R. Ramlow
"Constitution Avenue"
Photo: John Cochran

In the US Capitol, multiple 'realities' and 'fantasies' coexist, creating a schizophrenic existence. It is a place of 'real world' politics as depicted by the mass media. We think we 'know' this city from so many movies and TV programs we've seen. It is our national site for pilgrimage, shared with people from other countries who bring their own historical understanding to this monument. And, it is home to a disenfranchised population with minimal representation in its own country, as if the people who live here are virtually non-existent.

If postmodern life is best described as schizophrenic (as scholars like Jean Francois Lyotard, Fredric Jameson and Jean Baudrillard have asserted), then living in Washington, DC is a precisely postmodern experience. That is, characterized by an increasing difficulty in distinguishing between "reality" and "fantasy". Perhaps more so than the vertiginous and fashionable consumerism of New York, or the sun-drenched "beautiful life" of Los Angeles and Hollywood, Washington, DC represents and promotes, through mass-mediated power politics and nationalist fantasies, the pomo schizophrenia of late-capitalism in the US.

To be sure, to speak of postmodernism at this late date (the summer of 2004 as I write this) seems more than a little bit outré. Pronouncements of the death of the postmodern have regularly been made over the last decade. Nevertheless, these edicts have been more than a bit hasty. Remember the after-math of 9/11, which was supposed to have signaled the end of "irony" (always a "buzzword" for/of postmodernism) and ushered in a new age of "seriousness" in American cultural and political life? How long did that last? For reasons that will become clear below, it seems that in fact we have never been more postmodern in the US than today, and to which life in Washington, DC continues to be testament.

The distinction between fantasy and reality is, of course, a question of epistemology. How do we know Washington, DC: what it looks like, what it feels like, how it functions, what it represents, etc.? Is Washington, DC a "real" city, or is it merely shorthand for the federal government and national(ist) symbolics? When you think of, for instance, the Oval Office and the White House pressroom, what comes to mind? Presidential addresses and Press Secretaries reporting on the abuses at Abu Ghraib during the Iraq War, or similar (if not exactly simulacra) images from the television drama The West Wing? When we think of the relationships among ourselves as citizens, the Capitol, and the possibilities of participatory democracy, what do we recall? The mass(ive) media coverage of the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings? or the long history of "crisis of citizenship" narratives in popular culture that begins, at least, with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)?

What is the difference between these mass media representations of "real world" politics and these popular cultural imaginings of the nation as embodied by Washington, DC? Can we even make any constitutive or significant distinction between the two? For those who live outside of the Beltway, knowledge of Washington, DC is intimately and primarily shaped by (even founded upon) these multiple narratives. And undoubtedly this is true for many within the greater Washington metropolitan area, despite the contradictions these fantasies present daily in DC, some of which I will raise below.

As Frankfurt School philosophers and cultural critics Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno might have said, in and of Washington, DC, everything is made to pass through the filter of the culture industry, only thus is the city made "real".

The breakdown of distinctions between the fantasies and the reality of Washington, DC is not limited to mass media and popular culture, but is furthered and complicated by the status of DC as a major national (and international) tourist destination. Every spring and summer thousands of students of all ages from around the world descend upon DC for school trips and family vacations. Their experience of the city doesn't range far outside the familiar boundaries of the National Mall and Georgetown. In The Queen of American Goes to Washington City (Duke University Press, 1997), Lauren Berlant has written how the "pilgrimage to Washington" functions within our national imaginary and real lives as essential to the formation of "competent" citizenship. What "we" must learn on this pilgrimage is the history and status of the nation, as embodied by the Capitol, told in the National Archives, and collected in the various museums and memorials that cluster around the National Mall.

This pilgrimage, of course, teaches only a very limited "history" of the Capital and the lives and experiences of Washington, DC. How many people "learn" or "know" that DC is an historically African American city; its nickname has long been "Chocolate City"? Or that slavery in the District was abolished on 16 April 1862, a year before the Emancipation Proclamation and three years before the end of the Civil War? Who learns of the diverse contemporary reality of DC, which is made up of, in addition to the majority African American population, significant Latina/o, queer, and Black African communities? Or, that even though Black Americans are the majority in the city, in a quasi-apartheid environment, the needs and interests of the predominantly white and wealthier residents of the NW quadrant are routinely over-represented in municipal politics and policies? As Marita Sturken has noted in Tangled Memories: The Vietnam War, The AIDS Epidemic and the Politics of Remembering (University of California Press, 1997), in the national imagination, the Mall is a "particularly circumscribed narrative of nationalism." The "reality" of contemporary life in Washington, DC is, then, materially and figuratively "white-washed" in the glittering white dome of the Capitol and the neo-classical architecture that lines the Mall.

Outside of field trips and family vacations, the other common experience of Washington, DC is of political activism. I must admit that one of the best things about living in the District of Columbia is that its proximity to the federal government, Capitol, and major international organizations like the World Bank and IMF gives ample opportunity to witness and take part in activism of all sorts. As summer in DC is far too hot and swampy for mass political mobilizations, spring is the time of year that I have come to think of as "Protest Season".

This past spring has been particularly active in terms of the politics played out on the streets of DC, and three actions in particular describe the possibilities and limitations of public political participation in the US today. On 25 April 2004, DC saw the National March for Women's Lives, which, according to NOW, drew over a million participants. Originally envisioned as an umbrella action representing many issues of concern for women's lives, health and safety, domestically and internationally, the March for Women's Lives was an exhilarating example of what progressive political activism can look like today. Even if most media outlets characterized the march merely as one for "abortion rights" (which wouldn't be a bad thing at all, though the tone of much of the coverage tried to imply some sort of ideological shortcoming).

On the same weekend, the annual meetings of the IMF and World Bank drew the attention of, according to various sources, some tens of thousands of activists. Media coverage of these events was overshadowed by the activities on the National Mall, and much of that coverage continued to be largely dismissive of anti-globalization activism as unruly, disorganized, and even potentially violent (the black-clad anarchists are routinely depicted to drive this home). Even though DC police did not react to the IMF/WB demonstrations with the unnecessary force (2002) and mass illegal detentions (2003) that they have in the past, anti-globalization activism continued to be demonized in the press and in the halls of power in Washington.

More recently, on 5 June 2004, anti-war activist groups from around the country organized a demonstration to take place simultaneously in Washington, DC, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. While attendance in these other cities was up in the tens of thousands, in DC the event drew only a few thousand. Despite the fact that the Iraq War is increasingly unpopular across the country and that historically, DC has been the place to publicly and nationally represent that dissatisfaction, anti-war activism in DC and the US has been strangely, for the most part, invisible.

What I find telling, after having participated in all three of these demonstrations, are the processes by which certain social and political issues and dissension are enacted within DC, legitimated by and given representation within the media, and within fantasies of national identity. This is in no way to downplay to vital importance of women's health and safety, and the significance of the National March. Yet I am left wondering just what power politics are at play in the sorting and hiearchizing of these political demonstrations, individually, locally, nationally, within the media and within the government. To return to the question of our ongoing schizophrenic postmodernism, what constitutes "real" political activism, dissent and participation, on the streets of DC and in our national fantasies, and who decides? The DC Metropolitan Police Department? The mass media? Congress?

It seems I have said a lot (and not nearly enough) about the experience of Washington, DC as it represents nationally and as it is imagined by and for individuals and communities across the country and around the world. But I haven't said much about the very local experience of being a DC resident or how one negotiates the local and the national in this particular context.

So, what is it like living in Washington, DC in the first few years of the 21st Century? Well, much like living in any other major metropolitan area in many respects. The roads suck and traffic is some of the worst in the nation. After many years of urban flight the city has been experiencing a "renaissance", which is both good and bad. More residents means more dollars for city coffers, but it also means increasing gentrification, sky-rocketing real estate rates, and the pricing out of lower income and working class folks who have lived for years and often generations in their neighborhoods. Public schools are failing, while tuition rates at private schools continue to grow, challenging and sometimes exceeding tuition at the private universities in town.

The one thing that is radically different about living in DC and which cannot be replicated or experienced in any other city in America (and perhaps the world), is the fact of being a resident of the nation's Capital, yet a de facto and de jure second-class citizen of the United States.

We all know the story; or, at least within the US we've all been taught the story at one point. Created from swampland "donated" by the states of Virginia and Maryland in 1802, the District of Columbia was envisioned and established as an "administrative zone"/ The District was to be, in perpetuity, non-autonomous and dependent upon and overseen by the federal government. This separate status was, so the logic went, to keep the federal seat of government free from the partisan politics of statehood. Of course, as US history has demonstrated over and over, "separate" never means "equal". The "reality", of course, is that it is precisely partisan politics that routinely halts municipal functions and denies DC citizens their democratic rights, as Congress directly oversees the city's budget. For instance, in the fall of 2000 the House of Representatives rejected the District's budget proposal over "controversies" surrounding a new Metro stop to be built in a largely African American and working class neighborhood in NE, and over a privately funded needle-exchange program. And this past spring of 2004, while national debates and legislation over gay and lesbian marriage proliferated, the DC City Council, well-versed in how the District's left politics come up against federal regulations and petty Senators, refused to even make a public statement supporting queer matrimony in the District.

The disenfranchisement of District residents is furthered by our status within the Capitol and national political life. Even though allotted the right to participate in presidential elections by the passing of the 23rd Amendment in 1961 and granted "Home Rule" by Congress in 1973, residents of DC continue to have no representation in Congress. Well, we have representation, DC delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, but she may only speak on the House floor: she may not cast a vote on any federal legislation, even legislation that directly affects the District and its residents. In something of a surprise, on 22 June 2004 House Government Reform Committee Chairman Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) introduced a bill that would grant DC voting representation in Congress, a significant move towards enfranchisement. We've been this close before though, only to be kept in our second-class status. Nonetheless, this particular bill wouldn't require a Constitutional amendment, seems to have decent chance of success, and demonstrates that Congress is becoming conscious of the contradictions and hypocrisies of DC's legal and political status. But of course, even this bill is motivated by partisanship, as one of the riders to DC voting rights in Congress would be that the state of Utah be given back the House seat they lost after the 2000 Census by a mere 86 residents.

Here again is another breakdown of distinctions between "fantasy" and "reality" in the lives of DC residents. Are we citizens of the United States or subjects of the federal government? How is it that the residents of the nation's capital could become, and stay for so long, so totally disenfranchised from political participation? Indeed, DC statehood, now!

In any case, what all of these national fantasies and schizophrenic contradictions attest to, and what living in this place at this time, Washington, DC, demonstrates, are the difficulties and limitations to political participation in 21st century America.

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