Monday, October 09, 2006

Department of Justice

DSC01405, originally uploaded by cameronduff.

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.



At 2:13 AM , Anonymous a said...

miss you too handsome


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