Desecration in Washington

An art and architecture critic, Phillip Kennicott of The Washington Post, examines yesterday’s disturbing image of troops at the Lincoln Memorial:

Who in the Pentagon, or the leadership of the National Guard of the District of Columbia, thought this was a good look? Who thought what America needs now is a viral image of the American military in camouflage and body armor occupying a memorial that symbolizes the hope of reconciliation, that has drawn to its steps Marian Anderson to sing for a mixed-race crowd during a time of segregation and Martin Luther King to proclaim “I have a dream,” and millions of nameless souls, of all races, who believe there is some meaning in words like “the better angels of our nature”?

A photograph of members of the District’s National Guard on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial began racing around Twitter and other social media Tuesday, as the country was still digesting a violent assault by Secret Service, police and guard troops on peaceful protesters outside the White House on Monday. The photo showed troops standing resolutely, perhaps provocatively, on the memorial’s wide and inviting steps, as if they owned it. To many, it symbolized the militarization of Washington, of our government and country, and the terrifying dissolution of old boundaries between partisan politics and the independent, professional military….

Anyone who has photographed the Lincoln Memorial knows that it is hard to find a spot sufficiently distant to include the whole thing in the frame. That, in part, may explain some of the of ominous power of one of the images that circulated widely Wednesday, taken by Getty Images photographer Win McNamee.

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That picture was taken from the side of the steps, such that the cornice and frieze of the memorial, emblazoned with the names of the states that Lincoln helped stitch back to political unity, plunge precipitously at an angle to the lower left of the frame. A soldier looms large in the foreground, his face covered by a mask, his eyes hidden by sunglasses, his thoughts and his humanity obscured by a carapace of military resolve and inscrutability.

Throughout the crisis of the past week, there have been images, scattered but reassuring, of National Guard troops and some law enforcement officers joining in expressions of common purpose with protesters, speaking respectfully, even taking a knee with people who have flocked to the streets…

The image of troops arrayed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial only added to the sense of crisis and civil disintegration. No matter their intent and purpose, the D.C. Guard looked not like protecting sentinels, but possessive custodians. Ultimately, their orders came from the president, and so it is inevitable that many people will see their presence there not as protective, but aggressive, as if they are facing off with the city and its residents, whom they are meant to serve.

The District, which is not a state, has long been at the mercy of the federal government and opportunistic politicians, despite having no voting representatives in Congress. The guards, who were local troops, looked like outsiders, like a colonial force.

Given the volatility of the current moment, images like this suggest that a worrying trend — of the military being co-opted into partisan politics — is accelerating, from the president signing Make America Great Again hats on an Army base in Iraq, to last summer’s display of military hardware during a traditionally nonpartisan Fourth of July celebration at the Lincoln Memorial, to new concerns about Trump’s plans for another display of the military during a pandemic, this coming Independence Day.

The decision of Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to march with the president across Lafayette Square, which had been violently purged of peaceful demonstrators, and the participation of Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper in a religious-themed photo op at St. John’s Episcopal Church, is yet more worrisome.

The power of the image is also directly connected to the fraught power of the Lincoln Memorial, which is architecturally one of the most beautiful in the country….

The bulk of the memorial’s substance and content is about who goes there, the history of who has stood on its steps, facing the Capitol in the distance, and the obelisk devoted to George Washington, simultaneously the founder of the country, the American Cincinnatus and a slaveholder. The memorial is about the concerts and speeches and protests that have transpired there, about the continuing impulse of ordinary Americans to make it a pilgrimage site.

But one dark truth of the memorial, accidentally amplified by this image of soldiers on its steps, is: For many white Americans, it symbolizes a fantasy of society made whole by Lincoln, of a country that skipped from the trauma of civil war straight to the reconciliation and healing that was adumbrated but not achieved by him, nor any of his successors…

Now we have an image that suggests that raw, naked power — old-guard, old-style, patriarchal military power — has taken possession of something that is already a fragile cultural symbol. To many people looking at this photograph, it seemed to say, “they own it,” not us, not we, not the people.

And that raises an even deeper fear, one that recalls memories of the National Guard at Kent State and atrocities committed by U.S. troops in its wars overseas…. It exacerbates a fear that Washingtonians feel keenly, as more troops pour in, military hardware rattles through the streets, helicopters shatter the calm of night, and as the president’s bellicose rhetoric continues to spew like a fire hose. It’s a simple fear, and a question every soldier, no matter his or her rank, must answer: If the president tells you to shoot us, will you do it?

A Look at the President’s Promenade

A fashion critic, Robin Givhan of The Washington Post, evaluates the president’s attempt to appear presidential:

The president could have opened the Bible. He could have read Psalm 23. The Lord is my shepherd. Federal law enforcement had just fired tear gas at peaceful demonstrators, pelted them with rubber bullets and chased them away on horseback. Txxxx now had the secured space to stand in front of cameras in front of a historic church. And he couldn’t even be bothered to crack the spine on the holy book.

Instead, he corralled members of his staff for a photograph that, in its nightmarish awkwardness, revealed all the ineptitude, cowardliness and pettiness for which the whole charade was a grotesque cover.

After a law-and-order speech in the White House Rose Garden, President Txxxx strode across Lafayette Square to the unassuming facade of St. John’s Episcopal Church. He didn’t go inside. Instead, the structure loomed behind him — a lemon-yellow, three-dimensional set for his tortured stage play.

The president was accompanied by a throng of staff, but the person who stood out in the blur of dark suits crossing the square was his daughter and adviser Ivanka. Always Ivanka. She stood tall on her stilettos. She rose, golden-haired, above the group. She was dressed in black cropped pants and blazer. She was toting a very large white handbag and later was wearing a matching face mask with tiny metallic stars.

Ivanka long ago perfected the art of playing the part, of moving through life like an Instagram feed made real. Over the weekend, she’d tweeted a Bible verse. That was followed by an acknowledgment of Pride Month with a rainbow line of heart emoji. And now she was in the park just violently cleared of peaceful protesters. She was surrounded by police in riot gear. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark A. Milley, was in camouflage.

If other members of the administration were trudging across the plaza to a kind of doomed publicity stunt, Ivanka looked as though she were just gliding through — on her way home after a busy day in a comfortable corner office doing important things. As one of the few women in the group, she already stood apart. Her mask made her a laudable loner. The handbag clasped in her right hand announced that she was not sticking around. She was there, but not committed — not to empathy, not to the militaristic display of strength, not to this gamesmanship, not to the horrors of this national stress test, not to anything but the Ivanka-ness of her public image, which is always about being power-adjacent.

Ivanka doggedly inserts herself into the center of photographs and conversations where she does not seem to belong, but this time she remained on the sidelines when the posing started.

Attorney General William P. Barr, national security adviser Robert O’Brien and White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany were among those pulled center stage with Txxxx. Barr stared slack-jawed in an open-collar shirt, no tie. His jacket was open. O’Brien was buttoned up in a gray suit with a pale blue tie that was a shade lighter than the president’s, which trailed below his waistband as usual. McEnany was in a closefitting double-breasted blazer with gold metallic buttons and skinny trousers. She was perched atop a pair of stiletto pumps — a style of footwear that this White House, all on its own, may be keeping in circulation.

None of them was wearing a mask, because that would remind everyone that the world is still facing a pandemic, and besides, the masks would ruin the picture. Everyone stood apart, but not six feet apart. They didn’t lower their head in prayer or silent tribute to George Floyd — the man whose death after nearly nine minutes under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer sparked this uprising. Their arms dangled at their side. No one seemed to know where to look or what to do or how long to stand there.

In some of the photographs, one can see Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, as well as Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper. They don’t elevate the images; they only make them more desperate — just two more faces looking blankly into the distance.

The photographs in front of St. John’s captured the president’s fundamental discomfort with what it means to exist out in the open where people do not soothe him with flattery, where brute force is an accelerant, not an answer, and where imperfect lives spill outside their borders. Txxxx worked so hard for his flaccid, sanitized photograph: a man standing with nothing but white bureaucrats — most of them men — on the plaza in front of a neatly boarded-up house of worship. Txxxx isn’t even really at the church; he’s in its vicinity.

At one point, standing alone, he’s holding the Bible not like it’s a source of enduring comfort but like it’s a soiled diaper.The choreographed group picture captures none of the agonizing emotion of this moment. But it was out there, in the wild, and Txxxx had to pass by it. The pain was scrawled in jagged, vulgar graffiti on the walls abutting his path, on walls that couldn’t be scrubbed clean for his benefit.

The picture he orchestrated shows no hint of a commander in chief rising above or binding up anything. The photograph doesn’t convey power or competence. From every angle, in every iteration, it’s an image of a whitewashed group turning a deaf ear to a country convulsing over racial injustice.

Before Txxxx crossed the street, he announced with great fanfare to the American people that he was going to “pay my respects to a very, very special place,” one that was [slightly] damaged in a fire Sunday. But it wasn’t a building that was calling out for care.

“American History Isn’t a Fairy Tale”

“With a guaranteed happy ending.”

Words spoken by Joe Biden this morning in Philadelphia. This is the way a real president would speak to a troubled nation.

Look, the presidency is a big job. Nobody will get everything right. And I won’t either.

But I promise you this. I won’t traffic in fear and division. I won’t fan the flames of hate. I will seek to heal the racial wounds that have long plagued this country – not use them for political gain.

I’ll do my job and I will take responsibility. I won’t blame others. I’ll never forget, I promise you, that this job isn’t about me. It’s about you. It’s about us.

We Can All Ignore the Next 18 Months

Thousands of articles will be written. Hundreds of millions of dollars will be spent. There will be interviews and debates. There will be speeches and rallies. There will be polls and predictions. Strategies and personalities will be analyzed. Policies will even be discussed.

We can safely ignore it all.

The only question regarding the presidential election in November 2016 is whether we should elect a Republican or Democrat. If you’ve been paying attention at all, you already know how to vote.

Paul Krugman explained why last month:

As we head into 2016, each party is quite unified on major policy issues — and these unified positions are very far from each other. The huge, substantive gulf between the parties will be reflected in the policy positions of whomever they nominate, and will almost surely be reflected in the actual policies adopted by whoever wins.

To paraphrase the differences Krugman points out:

Any Democrat elected will try to maintain or strengthen Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act. Any Republican will try to do the opposite.

Any Democrat will seek to maintain or increase taxes on the wealthy. Any Republican will do the opposite.

Any Democrat will try to preserve regulations on Wall Street and the big banks (she or he might even try to break up banks that are “too big to fail”). Any Republican won’t.

Any Democrat will try to limit global warming and make it easier for immigrants to become citizens. It’s pretty clear that any Republican won’t.

I’ll add that any Democrat will try to stimulate the economy and create jobs by increasing infrastructure spending. You can count on any Republican to protect the wealthy at all costs.

And any Democrat will nominate reasonable people to the Supreme Court. On the other hand, well, how do you feel about Scalia, Alito, Roberts and Thomas? 

Professor Krugman continues:

Now, some people won’t want to acknowledge that the choices in the 2016 election are as stark as I’ve asserted. Political commentators who specialize in covering personalities rather than issues will balk at the assertion that their alleged area of expertise matters not at all. Self-proclaimed centrists will look for a middle ground that doesn’t actually exist. And as a result, we’ll hear many assertions that the candidates don’t really mean what they say. There will, however, be an asymmetry in the way this supposed gap between rhetoric and real views is presented.

On one side, suppose that Ms. Clinton is indeed the Democratic nominee. If so, you can be sure that she’ll be accused, early and often, of insincerity, of not being the populist progressive she claims to be.

On the other side, suppose that the Republican nominee is a supposed moderate like Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio. In either case we’d be sure to hear many assertions from political pundits that the candidate doesn’t believe a lot of what he says. But in their cases this alleged insincerity would be presented as a virtue, not a vice — sure, Mr. Bush is saying crazy things about health care and climate change, but he doesn’t really mean it, and he’d be reasonable once in office. Just like his brother.

There are a lot of big books around the house I’ve been meaning to get to. If you have any time-consuming projects you’ve been putting off, the next 18 months will be a great time to get going.

Krugman’s whole column is here.