Monday, October 09, 2006

Something a bit Different

DSC01467, originally uploaded by cameronduff.

On my last day in Washington I visited the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History to see the dinosaur fossils. I'd heard a lot about the famous dinosaur bones found across the American mid-west in the last two centuries (courtesy of so many David Attenborough documentaries in my student days!) so I was eager to see them. In the main room one is confronted with this perfect and complete skeleton of the mighty Tyrannasaurus Rex - very, very cool!

The Capitol Building

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With so much West Wing under my belt it was great to finally visit this building that I've seen so much of. What's immediately striking about this building is its scale compared to the Whitehouse (which it literally dwarfs). Apparently, the founders always intended for the legislature to retain primacy over the executive branch of government and so they build the respective houses of each branch on a scale to reflect this political commitment. That and a fetish for the architectural grandeur of imperial Rome...

Back across the Mall to the Washington Monument

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General Ullyses S Grant

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This kind of monumental statuary is found on every second corner in the centre of the city so it's easy to become complacent. Yet I loved this great tableau of Grant riding into battle. It stands at the entrance to the Capitol Building as a constant reminder (as if any were needed) of the outcome and the tragedy of the civil war.

The Hirschorn Sculpture Garden

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Walking across from the Whitehouse back to the Capitol building to complete my tour of the National Mall I decided to take a detour at the Smithsonian gallery to wander through the sculpture garden. This was an amazing experience with the vast gardens dotted with over 100 sculptures - some on a small scale whilst others filled a whole corner of the garden. I found this depiction of eros and psyche to be strangely compelling with its echoes of the confusions induced in the clash between love and reason - or something.

I'm guessing you know what this is

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So Andrea told me to poke the occupant in the eye if I got the chance - sadly the opportunity failed to present itself. I considered hurling abuse at the gardener you can see in the foreground tending to the flower bed but the sheer number of burly guards wandering around with automatic weapons slung across their shoulders convinced me of the virtue of keeping quiet. Beautiful building though...

The Einstein Memorial

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Ok so he had nothing to do with the founding of the capitol but this delightful monument lies hidden in the gardens of the National Academies of Science. I was trying to find a short cut to the Lincoln memorial and stumbled across this great scupture. On the floor of the monument (where Einstein's gaze is directed) lies a plotting of the stars and galaxies as viewed from the site of the monument - pretty cool huh?

Inside the Portico

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So these Americans really know how to celebrate their heroes - I hadn't seen this much marble since the Taj Mahal! I picked a great day to visit as I had place practically to myself. I sat inside for quite some time reading all the inscriptions inside the monument.

The Jefferson Memorial

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Once I'd descended from the Washington monument I continued my walking tour onto the Jefferson memorial. This was my favourite I think with Jefferson's immortal words as preamble to the declaration of independence inscribed on each of the internal walls. Stirring oratory still!

The View from the Top of the Washington Monument

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The lift inside the Washington monument takes one up to a small lookout and museum - a tribute to Washington's achievements and a history of the building (or should I say erection!) of the monument. The views are amazing! This is the view to the north of the mall looking down towards the Lincoln memorial in the distance with the World Wars memorial in the foreground. This was a real buzz let me tell you - very fun!

Maybe I'm Mixing My Metaphors...

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Below I said that the central layout of the National Mall resembles the crucifix with the four monuments at the four points of the cross with Washington strung up in the middle. Yet of course the Washington monument looks nothing like the cruciform christ; no there is another metaphor that I just can't seem to place at the moment; hmmm...Anyway, the greatest thing about Washington is that ALL the great monuments, galleries and museums are free to enter. Including the Washington monument which bears an internal lift to a look out some 550 feet above the Mall. This lookout affords magnificent views of the whole district out to Virginia and Maryland. it was a beautifully clear day too - a real highlight!

Department of Justice

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Mr Duff Goes to Washington...

Washington's National Mall provided the obvious starting point for my walking tour of the capitol's monuments and galleries. The Mall stretches over two miles from the Capitol Building at one end to the Lincoln Memorial at the other. To complete the seemingly obligatory crucifix central plan for the new Capitol, the Whitehouse lies at the West end of the Lincoln memorial and the Jefferson memorial (my favourite) at the east. And so one is struck with the spatial metaphor of Christ on the cross in this robust democracy with the Washington monument bang in the middle suspended on the cross between the Whitehouse and the Jefferson memorial to the left and right, with the Lincoln memorial above and the Capitol building at Washington's feet. Fitting I suppose for Washington's remarkable achievements (victory in the 1776 war of Independence, author with Jefferson of the Declaration of Independence, US Constitution, Bill of Rights et al); still the messianic complex is a little off putting! These crazy Americans!

That said, the whole experience was a joy for me. As a PhD in Political Theory you can imagine my geekish delight visiting these iconic sites and coming face to face with so much of the legacy of the United States' democratic innovations. I remember reading quite a bit of US constitutional theory at uni, particularly the work of Jefferson, Madison and Adams who had such a profound impact on Australian progressive politics all the way through to Whitlam, Hawke and Carr. Reading Jefferson's fine sentiments as preamble to the Declaration of Independence inscribed on the walls of his monument reminded me once again of how powerful politics and constitutional law can be as a measure of freedom and human progress. Now lest you all think that I have lost my marbles in all this americo-phile enthusiasm, the whole trip to Washington with endless tributes to the truly great figures who have left their mark on the city was only to remind oneself of how pitiably, woefully inadequate the current occupant of the Whitehouse appears next to these great men and women of history. How a fellow who can barely spell his own name, let alone inspire any semblance of confidence or purpose came to occupy such high office is beyond my powers of comprehension.

Spending time in Washington, even briefly, is also to be exposed to the poisonous and deeply fractious state of current American politics. The cable news channels and the print media reflect a deeply divided, polarised and increasingly strident debate concerning the state of the country and the best way of leading the country in such difficult times. This was reflected even in the conversations I had with American colleagues at the conference I attended: all spoke of this deep malaise in the country, a sense that the moral consensus that must exist to hold politics together - to provide some common ground for debate and the generation of new ideas - is every day being challenged by the polarities of religion, localism and self interest. Religion in particular seems to divide people in a way that is deeply confusing for an Australian; I think we are used to religion being a private matter; something that we can always agree to disagree about if it comes to it. Yet in the States it seems that politicians must pick a side, despite the absurdity of claiming to know the mysteries of faith and the reasons people are drawn to God in the first place. More Nietzsche and less Pope Benedikt I say but then again what the hell do I know!

It is interesting that this kind of deep divide was also discernible in the UK. Whilst religion is no where near as salient in the UK, the collapse of the relationship between Blair and Brown was front page news when Andrea and I were there in September. Again it seems that the war against terrorism has generated in both the UK and the US a polarising yet vital debate about the direction each country is taking and how best to respond to fear and threat. It's a damn shame that our complacent and increasingly self-confident PM in Australia has not been subjected to such scrutiny. For Howard to so triumphantly denigrate the value of open cultural and historical debatein his address at the 50th anniversay of the Quadrant magazine last week was to be reminded once again of how successful that little man has been in encouraging a state of myopic indifference in our country with respect to the most pressing concerns of the age. At least in the states and the UK people are talking about the issues, even if the tenor of the debate is so often depressing. Howard seems to have succeeded in killing the debate altogether. OK so before I morph completely into Robert Manne or David Williamson, I'll leave the subject. Suffice to say that I have been intrigued in my recent travels to witness such profound debate about Iraq, terror, economics and the future in both the UK and the States - debates that seem wholly sidelined in Australia. Perhaps this is both Howard's greatest achievement and his most devastating folly.

Gees a blog really is a soapbox for one's own intellectual vanities isn't it!? Washington was lovely, the conference was fascinating and I'm still missing the love of my life like a musical instrument misses the hands that play it. One is pointless without the other.