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It's Just Too Hard To Keep Fear Alive: The Resumption of Sanity

photo by Maria Helena CareyLet’s face it, it feels good to be scared. The warm rush of anger, the burst of camaraderie when you find others that feel as you do, the single-minded focus at being mad as hell, and just not taking it anymore. Sure, we’d all like to curl up in a warm blanket of fear and not have to get out of bed and put our feet on the cold floor of sanity.

But sooner or later, we all have to go to the bathroom, and tackle that cold floor. So it is with our nation. No matter how deep the abyss of fear is, we always manage to pull ourselves out sooner or later. Cold comfort, perhaps, for those on the wrong side of hysteria, but a sign of underlying resiliency in our national psyche.

And so, while my friend Robert’s fear-mongering tour of Washington, DC’s dreadful past showed the legacy of fear, eventually each of these stories were turned about, and we as a nation have become stronger for surmounting them. Let's take a look, shall we?

1. Washington Monument: There’s no denying the line that fear has left on the Monument to one of our greatest Presidents. But it’s a distraction, a mere smudge. The real story is in the completion of the Monument.

Decades after the Know-Nothings were an embarrassing memory, the Monument remained un-built, a silent tribute to the visceral anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant fear of the time. Granted, the nation was a little busy in the 1860’s, but in the following decade, as the nation stitched itself together, renewed attention was paid to completing the Monument.

The Federal Government, yes that organization which is routinely vilified as incompetent, less capable than the free market, etc., stepped in to take over from the privately run Washington Monument Society. Handing it off the the Army Corps of Engineers, workers spent almost a decade fixing the structural defects of the initial attempt and raising the Monument to its complete height of 555 feet, 5 1/8 inches. And, while attempts were made to match the color of the marble, stone from another quarry had to be used, resulting in the color break. And that's all that's left of the Know-Nothing Party, a few lines in a history book and a fun little story about the Monument. Best told over a Guinness, by the way.

2. Emancipation Memorial: There has been, of course, no easy fix to the complex pathology that was American slavery. While near riots like the Pearl affair that Robert described were contained, it would take the death of over a half million Americans to finally bring the institution down.

But that doesn't mean there aren't places where we can highlight the struggle to do so. I'd like to use a place relatively few tourists visit, Lincoln Park, due east of the Capitol by about a mile. Standing prominently in the Park is the Emancipation Statue, once referred to as the Lincoln Memorial, until that other one was built exactly 3.5 miles to the west.

Now, the art isn't great here. The statue shows a benevolent Abraham Lincoln freeing a kneeling and subservient slave modeled after Archer Alexander. Alexander was an ex-slave that instead of being passively freed by President Lincoln, boldly escaped slavery along with his wife after helping Union soldiers to avoid sabotage by Southern partisans.

And it's not just in recent years that some have criticised this aspect of the Memorial. Frederick Douglas remarked at the dedication in 1874 that it "showed the Negro on his knees when a more manly attitude would have been indicative of freedom."

I like to look past the bad art and unfortunate composition of the statue, and focus on the story behind the construction of it. Funds were raised almost entirely from ex-slaves, of whom a significant portion had borne arms for the Union to help win their freedom. And so it was through their contributions that less than ten years after the Civil War that an ex-slave could speak at the dedication of a new Memorial with the President of the United States in attendance.

And even better, that's not the end of the story. While Washington and Capitol Hill is hardly without racial tensions to this day, children of all races are found in the shadow of Lincoln slowly but surely putting the ghosts of slavery to bed.

3. The Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism in World War II: Sure, we’ve had some war related hysteria in Washington, DC. Mostly, we look back at it today and laugh. The idea that an elderly brewer and his family was tunneling under New Hampshire Avenue tickles our funny bone, and they certainly seemed to be none the worse for wear, but war hysteria proved more traumatic for a different group of Americans.

I speak, of course, of the rounding up of Japanese-Americans on the west coast during World War II. Looking back, it can be difficult to understand the fear that allowed us to wantonly disregard our Constitution, but we've struggled to come to terms with it, and make amends. An apology on behalf of the United States Government by President Reagan and an attempt to provide some compensation to those victimized does not erase our hysteria, but it shows we can learn from it and seek to avoid it in the future.

And here in our capital, a short walk away from the seat of our legislature, we can contemplate that at the rather unwieldy named National Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism in World War II (sure we didn't want to squeeze a Federal in there, guys?). We choose to remember, right here, not just our failings to live up to our ideals, but also the bravery of those who were subjected to cruelty but choose to fight with us instead of against us.

4. Lincoln Memorial: When last we left her, Marian Anderson was enmeshed in the racial prejudices of Depression-era Washington; an internationally acclaimed singer seemingly foiled by the small-minded values of the day. But fortunately for all of us, that wasn't the final word. Along with thousands of other members, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the Daughters of the American Revolution, unimpressed with their explanation that they were simply complying with local mores. Furthermore, Eleanor enlisted her husband and persuaded Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes to offer another venue for the concert: the Lincoln Memorial. On Easter Sunday of 1939, Marian Anderson sang for 75,000 people, far more that would ever have fit in the DAR's Constitution Hall.

But perhaps nothing surmises the resumption of sanity more than the DAR's own postion on the matter, when they note: "Our organization truly wishes that history could be re-written, but knowing that it cannot, we are proud to note that DAR has learned from the past."

5. Russell Senate Office Building. It is indeed curious how aggressive and personally many Americans such as J. Edgar Hoover and Joseph McCarthy have taken the fight against Communism. What is, in essence simply an economic and political philosophy has seemed to strike a disproportionate and unseemly terror into the hearts of so many of our countrymen.

Of course, I say this as someone who grew up as Communism crumbled about us. By the time I was in college, the Berlin Wall had fallen and the Soviet Union was rapidly crumbling as even a concept. To fear Communism today is as rational as to complain of a scratch by a declawed cat.

But in different times, as our monopoly on the Bomb collapsed and China went Red, it took a great deal of moral courage to assert our values in the face of prevailing wisdom. Fortunately, some among us did just that, personified best by the Army-McCarthy Hearings, where the Army's counsel, Joseph Welch famously challenged McCarthy with "Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?" 

Indeed, it appears McCarthy did not, and eventually the Senate saw fit to condemn one of their own with a vote of 67-22. With sanity in some small way breaking out, McCarthy limped along for another couple of years, a drunken shadow of his former self. Indeed, freed of his antics, President Eisenhower remarked that McCarthyism had become "McCarthywasim". We could choose to highlight his death of hepatitis at nearby Bethesda Naval Hospital for out little tour, but instead I prefer the Senate Caucus Room on the third floor of the Russell Building. Let's not give that small, sad man any more attention, but instead focus on the actions of those who were willing to stand up on national TV and work against him.

And so it goes for much of our history. While fear has been a real part of it, with real victims and real consequences, we can also look back with no small sense of pride at those who didn't succumb to it, and preserved just enough of a kernel of sanity that the rest of us can enjoy it today.

Reader Comments (1)

The think that causes me the most fright is the Republicans controlling the House and spending the next two years on a sit down strike. Of course, if they do that, the President can run against the Congress and that should be a successful tactic in getting him reelected.

October 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLauren Kahn

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