My DC political pilgrimage

A small portrait of the translator

November 19, 2008 @ 13:47 UTC

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Barack Obama
Government & Politics, Activism & Protest

It was has become something of a post-election tradition of mine, I spend a day walking along the Washington Mall: visiting monuments to past presidents and the current seats of political power; reflecting on the election results and what it means. 


This year was no exception.  Like last time, glorious sunshine accompanied my stroll through DC’s famous sites.  But unlike 2004, the political climate was substantially changed for the better.  Then I was coming to terms with the depressing reality of not just 4 more years of Bush, but extended Republican control of both Houses of Congress, and a Supreme Court that was likely to become more more conservative.  I was looking for glimmers of hope where ever I could.   This time, hope seemed to be radiating brightly: from the steps of the Lincoln Monument, all the way along the Mall, and even to the railings of the White House. 

And not just hope, but progressive activism too.

Overlooking the Reflecting Pool, on those famous steps, Avaaz had set up their boards for people to write their “yes we can” messages of goodwill to Obama and reminders of the global change that hopefully his victory will herald. 

Less than 3 days before, and apparently spontaneously (and without precedent), a crowd of over a thousand DC residents had gathered by the famous White House railings to celebrate Obama’s victory.  Now outside the White House, students were marching up and down the street calling for American foreign policy to be more proactive in halting genocide in Darfur.   And at the far end of the grassy Mall, by Capitol Hill, a ‘tent city’ had sprung up.  Again the issue was Darfur - which has far greater prominence than here in the UK; where the Aegis Trust and its student groups are some of the few who are very active on it.  These tents had been bought and decorated by groups across the US and were to be sent on to provide shelter for families in the Darfur refugee camps that have sprung up for those forced out of their homes and villages.


My pilgrimage was a restorative one.  It was also a chance to marvel at the historic achievement of Barack Obama and everyone who had supported him.  Everywhere I went, to slightly misquote Tony Blair, “the hand of history was on my shoulder”.  Here were the memorials to the great Presidents and one day Obama might join these figures. There were two really emotional moments for me.  The first was sitting on the Lincoln Memorial steps, close to the spot where Martin Luther King gave his ‘I have a dream’ speech.  The second was at the railings of the White House, thinking that shortly an intelligent guy, an inspirational speaker, a pluralist - and yes - a black man whose father was African, was about to become President and occupy this building, a seat of global power.  “Yes we can”. “Yes we did”. Indeed.

However, there was one thing that did trouble me on my trek through DC.  And it was the same in 04 too.  The Lincoln Memorial.  The secular, pluralist nature of my political pilgrimage clashes against the religious and authoritarian symbolism of the building.  The Memorial is treated as a  ’holy of holies’, a venerated shrine, a temple.   You ascend these vast steps to pay homage to a towering figure seated on a throne.  Lincoln as god’s presence here on earth, it almost seemed to be saying.  The ultimate in (non)separation of church and state.  Try unpicking that one!  But the aspect that made me feel most uncomfortable is the hallowed, reverential atmosphere inside; the closed, dark interior; the relative lack of space (physical and metaphorical) or light for questioning, for different views. 

If the Lincoln Memorial seems to represent one major strand of America, then the Jefferson Memorial represents another.  A more democratic building in every sense: rounded; open on many sides; light streaming in; different paths, entrances and perspectives for people to take.  The building, and the words of Jefferson inside, convey and inspire the tolerance and pluralism of the nation. 


Fittingly, as the sunset over the unmistakeable DC skyline, my journey came to an end.

NB. A slideshow of all these photos and more can be viewed here


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