U.S. Capitol

The tiny little people at the very center of the fresco at the top are 17 feet tall.

Reading this week:

  • To the Central African Lakes and Back, Vol II by Joseph Thomson
  • African Europeans by Olivette Otele

Yesterday, both as I am writing this and potentially as you are reading it, my super amazing fiancée had managed to get us tickets to go on a tour of the U.S. Capitol and so we went! She got the tickets three months in advance but it seems like if you’re lucky enough you could just walk in as well. She also learned on a recent training she did that it turns out you can just wander into the office buildings and harass Congresspeople(‘s poor underpaid staff) at will (democracy!), and even though I am under the impression you see less artwork that way that might suit your particular needs better than a guided tour.

Anyways let’s get some of the technical aspects out of the way. First off as a preface I had an excellent time. We have been trying to be diligent about being good DC tourists and seeing all the historical stuff in the area and the U.S. Capitol building is certainly historical and entirely stuff. This leaves us with only the Supreme Court to visit, but as we all know the Supreme Court sucks. The tour begins with an extremely uncritical video of the general history of the Capitol building and the U.S. Congress. Then you head out and go on the guided tour. Our tour guide was very chill and immensely knowledgeable. His former job was as a schoolteacher and he later mentioned some tour guides have their Ph.D., which, you know, interesting comments on the U.S. school system there. The tour is about 45 minutes long but not very extensive. You start in the crypt, which is a little lame because unlike other places there are no actual dead people there (that we know of). Then you head up to the rotunda, admire the extremely tall ceiling (see top photo) and the paintings, and then it is over to the National Statuary Hall. The tour ends after that, though you can visit the small museum they have before exiting via the gift shop, where you can satisfy all your candle snuffing needs.

Hall of Cancleables

There are two major points I want to make about the Capitol tour, the first more general and the second more specific. As we continue to view all these sites important to the U.S. historic canon, it is increasingly a little bit weird to me the specific sorts of things and time periods we elevate. And more specifically how we like to keep them absolutely stuck in these particular moments in time. Both the White House and the Capitol were built in the 18th century, and as far as the public tour goes at least both are mostly monuments to themselves. The Statuary Hall used to be the House of Representatives, and the tour guide informed us that in a structurally questionable decision the original and literal House floor is preserved under the current marble. Into that marble are plaques where former Presidents sat when they were Representatives. Like I said the intro video to the tour is as uncritical as you can be, using scenes of Congresspeople chatting amongst themselves to portray an unbroken line of thoughtful, critical debate of laws on their theoretical merits. But what do you get when you crystallize and elevate all this as the core memory of American society, to the near exclusion of the next two centuries of development? The peaceful, independent, agrarian society that Jefferson dreamed of but which never existed becomes the norm and everything else – the lived America of the vast majority of its citizens – is a deviation that can and should be corrected. It gives a concept like Originalism moral weight as though divining the intentions of white enslavers for a society they could not have conceived is a good thing to do. Every time I see these set pieces I think we need new monuments so we can let the old ones whither.

What a loser.

Which brings me to my second point about the Capitol tour. When I say we need to let the old monuments whither, hoo boy do I have some very specific ones in mind. I was peripherally aware there have been ongoing discussions about what statues are in the Capitol, but man actually looking at some of these things is shocking. There I was, having a pleasant time seeing some cool folks like Norm Borlaug when suddenly I find myself face to face with fucking Jefferson Davis. He is there courtesy of Mississippi. And man. Just what a fucking loser move. He is there of course because of the successful effort in the first part of the 20th century to repaint the Confederacy as a noble lost cause that somehow wasn’t about slavery. So Mississippi sends a statue of Jefferson Davis to the Capitol. Jefferson Davis, you will recall, was a lame-ass loser that became President of the Confederacy because everyone was suspicious of everyone else and they all agreed Davis was too unambitious to pose anything resembling a threat. And then, you will also recall, the rebellious, un-American, entirely racist Confederacy lost their war which killed more Americans than any other conflict in history. And so when the Capitol asks the states to send up some statues to decorate the Capitol, the absolute best person Mississippi could put forward from their long history is this loser to the nth degree Jefferson fucking Davis? What does that say about Mississippi? Clearly Mississippi could do better than this (their other guy was a Confederate loser as well). One rule is that the person has to be dead, but they have Harry Cole! Oh or you know Elvis! Mississippi could have a cool-ass statue of Elvis strutting his stuff in the Capitol (or any number of Black musicians!) and yet they send not one but two pompous-ass racists. There is an angle here where it is oppressive and offensive to Black people, but for one last time I want to emphasize that it is just such a lame, sad, loser move, Mississippi. But not to just pick on them, an arguably even lamer move is sending the Vice-President of the Confederacy (Georgia), John “Slavery is a Positive Good” Calhoun (South Carolina), more random Confederate losers (South Carolina again, North Carolina, Alabama), or even Ronald Reagan (California). We gotta do better as a country in deciding who we look up to. In the meantime though, the Capitol is still probably worth the trip. It is a very impressive building.