I had the occasion to go to Washington DC this past weekend. I hadn’t been there in years, so I was really excited to go exploring. Most of all I wanted to have a Mr. Smith moment at the Lincoln Memorial.
For those of you who don’t know, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is, well, one of the greatest movies ever. I can hardly think of any other film that so thoroughly stirs the patriotic heart than Capra’s Mr. Smith. In the film, the newly appointed senator, played by Jimmy Stuart, arrives in Washington and becomes mesmerized by the beauty of the Capitol Dome and moves towards it as if in a dream. He spends the whole day touring the monuments and ends his excursion at the Lincoln Memorial where the camera goes all fuzzy and Smith gazes up into Lincoln’s face as a little boy next to him reads the Gettysburg address aloud. A bit of contrived cheesiness, maybe, but nonetheless extremely effective and tear-provoking.
I wondered as I half-marched, half-skipped up the stairs to the monument how many people felt the same way as Mr. Smith. How many people were equally if not more moved by the grandeur of the place? How many of those hundreds of people that ascend those stairs, read those words, and look into that face come to appreciate the genius, the solemnity, and the significance of this man’s work for America’s history and conscience? I wanted to know what motivates people to make this American pilgrimage to Lincoln.
As I stood inside the monument, analyzing the two speeches carved on each end, I asked why people come, especially in this age where the popular media downplays patriotism and people tend to forget that government representatives only have authority because we loan it to them. Playing the cynic, nowadays, seems easier and easier. I don’t know whether this is a direct result of darkening times, or just seeing shades of grey as I get older, as the Billy Joel song goes. It could also be the case that being a cynic has been and always will be easier than being a proponent. Whatever the cause or causes, it seems that the general trend, particularly as it includes popular opinions of patriotism, is one of cynicism: ‘patriotism is for Bible Belt hicks; I prefer to be a citizen of the world. America is an oppressive power anyway so there is little reason to feel proud of it.’ This view changes with geography, of course, but in New York, where I come from, this has long been the popular attitude. If I showed too much enthusiasm for God and country I was mocked. My experience is not the only testament to this feeling. The New York Times shares this attitude daily. When was the last time you saw the New York Times say something patriotic? And I’m not talking about Obama idol worship. I mean real, sincere claims that the American ideal is something worth protecting. Now, I probably shouldn’t make too many generalizations about The Times, as I try to avoid reading it. Then again, I avoid it for this very reason.
I once took a class called, “Telling the Truth: Skepticism, Relativism and Bullshit.” (I know, awesome right? BS appears on my transcript). In the class we read On Bullshit by Harry Frankfurt. To define his term, Frankfurt depicted a leader of a Fourth of July parade, bellowing out patriotic gibberish in the most enthusiastic of tones while simultaneously not believing a word of it. The very fact that Frankfurt uses false patriotism as a facet of bullshit, I think, communicates the feeling that there is little about the country of which we can truly be proud. Frankfurt was relying not only on the prevalence of speech makers who lack sincerity, but also on the idea that his readers would all relate to that particular example of lacking sincerity. This example, therefore, can serve as an indicator that true patriotism falls by the wayside in popular culture.
In another example, I once saw an interview conducted by the Colbert Report (it might have been the Daily Show or Conan, I don’t remember) of the Code Pink protesters in Berkley. The interview said to them as they stood outside protesting Marine recruitment, “Man, free speech is great. Wouldn’t it be awesome if we had a group of people dedicated to protecting that right?” All the protesters thought that would be a great idea, if only. Dopes.
There are many such instances of Americans living in complete ignorance and/or denial of their liberties and the structures protecting them. This is a real shame. As Mr. Smith says, “Liberty is too precious a thing to be kept in books. Men should hold it up in front of them every day of their lives and say, “I’m free, to think and to speak. My ancestors couldn’t, but I can.”” So my question is this: if Mr. Smith’s way of thinking is not the popular way, then why do people keep coming to see Lincoln?
I took a picture of the words carved in stone. Words Carved in Stone, I thought. That’s a big deal. To carve things in stone is quite a testament to the worth of those things. Someone, if not many people, thought Lincoln’s legacy was worth preserving in monument form. This may seem an obvious point, but it is an important one. In 1922, when the monument was dedicated, there existed a significant quorum of people valuing Lincoln’s ideals enough to construct this memorial and immortalize his image and words. Since then visitors have ascended the steps, also valuing his legacy as well as the beauty of the monument. Every single person I saw the evening I made the trip must have had at least a sliver of sympathy for the values underlying both the building’s existence and the presidency to which it is dedicated. Whether these visitors deconstructed the speeches for their literary value or whether they just like looking into the eyes of the enormous statue, they all saw there something worthy of the trip. If they did not, I cannot conceive of why they would go. Perhaps I make too quick of a conclusion in this, as people do things all the time without finding inherent value in the activity. A teenager, for instance, might easily be too swept up in an attitude of rebellion his parents might have to drag him around the sites of DC. But assuming that people exercise free will, we all have a choice to visit a place like the Lincoln Memorial, and thousands make that choice, consciously, every day of the year. This means that those thousand people must have something in common, namely an appreciation of the beauty of the building, the truth in Lincoln’s words, and the goodness for which he stood. Though reasons for visiting must differ tremendously, I hypothesize that an overwhelming percentage of visitors necessarily value the ideals on which this country was founded and for which Lincoln fought, and an even greater number can at least appreciate some element of goodness, beauty and truth in the monument that gives it its worth. Therefore, regardless of the temptation to speak and act cynically, to downplay the importance of underlying truths or goodness that guide us as people, the fact of the matter is that millions of people visit these monuments, attracted to them because they see in them goodness, beauty and truth. American ideals live, as evident by the throngs of American pilgrims ascending those stairs.
I left the Memorial filled with hope. Regardless of one’s political affiliations, places like the Lincoln Memorial not only attract us through our deep sense of patriotic pride, but they also fuel our patriotism. Whatever tangent the government may follow, veering away from the Constitution and the liberties it protects, the government is, after all, by the people, of the people and for the people. We, the people, have the authority. Lincoln’s words empower us to take part in our society. They also remind us that we need not go along with the flow but speak out for rights, defending them when they need defense and praising them as they deserve to be praised. If ever we feel tempted to get swept up in cynicism, we must only remember that we are not alone in our love of America. Hundreds, thousands of people show this love at the Lincoln Memorial every day.