2012

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Letter from the Capitol

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The Confederate battle standard never flew within the Capitol Building — until January 6th, 2021. During the Civil War, that cankered, perfidious, malignant, cancerous cabal of traitors who grandiosely called themselves the “Confederate States of America” had many northern strategic inflection points in which they stabbed into the nation’s body, and because of these, for a time, it seemed as if they might be triumphant. General John Hunt Morgan’s 2nd Kentucky Calvary Regiment raided not just in that unfortunate border state, but in 1863 they pierced into Indiana and Ohio as well. Morgan would finally surrender in Salineville, Ohio, which latitudinally is almost as far north as Connecticut. Even more incongruously and a year later, 21 veterans of Morgan’s Raid crossed over the Canadian border, that land then colonized by a Southern-sympathizing Great Britain, and attacked the sleepy hamlet of St. Albans, Vermont, including robbing the bank and forcing the citizens at gun point to swear fealty to the Confederacy. The most violent (and most famous) invasion of the north was the traitor Robert E. Lee’s campaign in Pennsylvania, the goal of which was to possibly capture or burn down Philadelphia, but which was stopped at the infamous “High Water Mark” of the Confederacy when Union General George C. Meade turned back the Army of Northern Virginia at Gettysburg—a battle that took more than 50,000 American lives in three days. During Lee’s campaign in southern Pennsylvania, free Black women and men had to flee north, as the Confederate raiders would send those they kidnapped into a southern bondage.

For sheer absurdity, among the closest positions that the rebels ever got to the national capital was the Marshall House Inn in Alexandria, Virginia, where a Confederate flag was displayed that was so large and so tall that Lincoln could see it from the White House across the Potomac. A few weeks after Ft. Sumter and Union troops occupied the city, marching down red-bricked King Street where slave markets had sold thousands of human beings less than ten miles from the Capitol Building. When Colonel Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth of the 11th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment ascended to the roof of the hotel to remove the flag, the proprietor of the Marshall House shot him dead, the first Union casualty of the Civil War. Despite being able to see the warped cross of the Confederate battle standard from the portico of the White House, Lincoln steadfastly refused to move the capital to safer points further north, arguing that the abandonment of Washington would be a capitulation to the seditionists.

“Let us be vigilant,” Lincoln telegraphed to the worried Maryland governor in 1864, “but keep cool. I hope neither Baltimore nor Washington will be sacked.” Not for lack of desire, as that same year Confederate Lieutenant Jubal Early would attack Ft. Stevens in the Northwest Quadrant of the District of Columbia, in a battle that would take close to nine hundred men. Long had the secessionists dreamed of Washington as the capital of their fake nation. In the decades before the Civil War some imagined a “Golden Circle,” which would be a veritable empire of slavery, with the South Carolina Senator Robert Barnwell Rhett imperially enthusing that “We will expand… over Mexico – over the isles of the sea — over the far-off Southern — until we shall establish a great Confederation,” their twisted nation stretching from Panama to the District of Columbia. Until last week the Confederate flag never flew within the Capitol.

There the man casually strolls across the red-and-blue mosaic floor of some antechamber in the Capitol, dressed in jeans and a black hoodie with a tan hunting vest; hoisted over his shoulder is the Confederate flag, its colors matching the tiles. It shouldn’t be lost on anybody that his uniform is the exact same “suspicious” article of clothing which Black pre-teenagers have been shot for wearing, even while this man is able to raid the very seat of government unmolested. Because America is many things, but it is not subtle, the man in the photograph is centered by two gild-framed oil paintings. One is of Charles Sumner, the Massachusetts Senator and abolitionist nearly caned to death by an opponent on the legislative floor of this very building, and who denounced the “unutterable wrongs and woes of slavery; profoundly believing that, according to the true spirit of the Constitution, and the sentiments of the fathers, it can find no place under our National Government” before Congress in 1852. The other portrait, almost predictably, is of John C. Calhoun, the South Carolina Senator and Vice President under Andrew Jackson, who in 1837 would declaim that the “relation now existing in the slaveholding states… instead of an evil, [is] a good. A positive good,” and would then gush about what a kind and benevolent slave-master he was. It would be harder to stage a more perfect encapsulation of the American dichotomy than our weekend warrior did on Wednesday, the continual pull between those better angels of our nature and the demons of history, who are never quite exorcized and are often in full possession of the body politic. A power in that grotesque image, the cosplaying Confederate momentarily self-anointing himself sovereign as he casually strolls through the chamber. Chillingly strolled, one might say, for all of these terrorists acted with as impunity as if they had the knowledge there would be no consequences to their actions. It reminds us that the mantra “This isn’t who we are” is at best maudlin and at worst a complete lie.

The siege against the Capitol on the day that Congress met for the constitutionally mandated and largely pro-forma ritual of officially counting the Electoral College votes to certify Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as the rightful victors of the 2020 presidential race can be examined from many directions, of course. Security experts can parse why there was such a profound failure at ensuring the safety of the session; political scientists can explain how social media algorithms has increasingly radicalized adherents of the far-right; historians can place movements like QAnon and the Proud Boys in a genealogy of American nativism and European fascism. Everyone should be able to say that ultimate responsibility lay with the stochastic terrorism promoted by the lame-duck president and his congressional sycophants in the Sedition Caucus, as well as his media enablers with whom he is clasped in a toxic symbiotic relationship. All those approaches to analysis are valid, but I choose to look at the day as a literary critic and a resident of Washington D.C., because those things are what I am. But incongruity alone, even the uncanny alone, can’t quite provide the full critical lexicon for what we witnessed on our televisions that afternoon, the sense that even more than an inflection point, we were viewers of a cracked apocalypse. How do we make sense of an attempted American putsch, the almost-nightmare of a coup?

Because the cultural idiom of this nation is Hollywood, and our interpretive lenses are by necessity through that of the movies, I can’t help but feel that much of what we saw seemed prefigured in film. The terrible logic of America is that our deepest nightmares and desires always have a way of enacting themselves, of moving from celluloid to reality. Look at the photograph of Jake Angeli, the self-styled “QAnon Shaman,” shirtless and bedecked in racoon fur with buffalo horns upon his head (in pantomime of the very people whom this nation enacted genocide upon) with his face smeared in the colors of the American flag, standing at the dais of the Speaker of the House, and tell me that it doesn’t look like a deleted scene from The Postman. Or examine the photograph of a smiling ginger man in a stocking cap emblazoned with “TRUMP,” casually waving as he jauntily strolls underneath the rotunda past John Trumbull’s massive painting Surrender of General Burgoyne holding under his arm a pilfered wood podium decorated with a gold federal eagle, his hero’s adage that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” apparently only to be selectively enforced. It looks like something from the post-apocalyptic movie The Book of Eli.

And then, most chillingly (and disturbingly underreported), there was the painstakingly assembled set of gallows, placed a bit beyond the equestrian monument to Ulysses S. Grant, who with great courage and strength broke the first iteration of the Ku Klux Klan, from which one vigilante hung that most American symbol of a noose. When remembered in light of the black-clad and masked men photographed with guns and zip-ties, it should make all of us consider just how much more tragic this violation, which was already a grotesque abomination, could have been. Horrifying to recall that the narrative conceit in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (and its television adaptation) that allowed for the theocratic dictatorship to ascend to power was the mass murder of a joint session of Congress. Sometimes #Resistance liberals get flak for their fears of fascism, but it would be easier to mock those anxieties if our country didn’t so often look like a science fiction dystopia.

It’s my suspicion that pop culture — that literature — is capable of picking up on some sort of cultural supersonic wavelength, those deep historical vibrations that diffuse in circles outward from our present into both past and future. There is something incantatory about those visions generated in word and special-effect, so that the eeriness of seeing marauding fascists overtake the Capitol grounds feels like something we’ve seen before. Think of all the times we’ve watched the monuments of Washington D.C. destroyed on film. Last week — while half paying attention to a block of cheesy apocalypse movies on the Syfy network that were supposed to count down the days left in the year — I saw the U.S.S. John F. Kennedy aircraft carrier pushed into the city by an Atlantic tsunami where it rolled across the National Mall and crushed the White House in Roland Emmerich’s godawful 2012. I’ve seen the executive mansion punctuated by bombs and dotted with bullet holes in the spectacularly corny Antoine Fuqua movie Olympus Has Fallen, and according to Thrillist the Capitol itself has been laid waste in no less than nine movies, including Day After Tomorrow, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Independence Day, Olympus Has Fallen, Superman II, White House Down, and X-Men: Days of Futures Past. Probably the impulse to watch this sort of thing is equal parts vicarious thrill and enactment of deep fears. I remember that when I saw Independence Day (also by Emmerich, the Kurosawa of schlock) after it came out, the 1996 theater audience erupted into cheers and claps when the impenetrable wall of exploding alien flames incinerated its way across D.C. and shattered the white dome of the Capitol like an egg being thrown into a fire-place. Was that applause an expressed opinion about Newt Gingrich? About Bill Clinton? Something darker?

After the terrorist attacks on 9/11, now almost twenty years ago, there was a profoundly shortsighted prediction that the hideous spectacle of Americans seeing the World Trade Center collapse would forever cure us of our strange desire to see our most famous buildings, and the people within them, destroyed. A perusal into the Olympian corpus of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (seemingly the only entertainment which Hollywood bothers to produce anymore) will testify that such an estimation was, to put it lightly, premature. French philosopher Guy Debord could have told us this in 1967 in his Society of the Spectacle, wherein he noted that “all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation,” to which it could be added that the inverse is also accurate – everything that has been represented has seemingly moved into life. Which doesn’t mean that scenes like those which we witnessed on Wednesday aren’t affecting – no, the opposite is true. People reach to the appraisal that “it looks like a movie” not to be dismissive, but rather because cinema is the most powerful mythopoesis that we’re capable of.

What’s needed, of course, is a vocabulary commensurate with what exactly all of us saw. A rhetoric capable of grappling with defilement, with violation, with desecration, but because all we have is movies, that’s what we’re forced to draw upon. They gave us the ability to think about the unthinkable before it happened; the chance to see the unseeable before it was on our newsfeeds. If the vision of the screen is anemic, that’s not necessarily our fault — we measure the room of our horror with the tools which we’ve inherited. Few square miles of our civic architecture are quite so identified with our quasi-sacred sense of American civil religion as the grounds of the U.S. Capitol, and so the spectacle of a clambering rabble (used as a Trojan Horse for God knows what more nefarious group of actors) calls to mind fiction far more than it does anything which actually has happened. That’s the cruelty of our current age — that so frequently our lives resemble the nightmare more than the awakening. The Capitol siege was very much an apocalypse in the original Greek sense of the word: an unveiling, a rupture in normal history that signals why all of this feels so cinematic — though it’s hard to tell if it’s the beginning or ending of the movie, and what genre we’re exactly in. As Timothy Denevi writes about the assault in LitHub, “What is a culmination, after all, except the moment in which everything that could happen finally does? Where are we supposed to go from there?”

Important to remember that everything which could happen has already happened before, at some point. That’s what the bromide about this not being who we are gets wrong — this is, at least partially, who we’ve always been, albeit not in this exact or particular way. What happened at the eastern edge of the Mall this week has shades of the Wilmington Insurrection of 1898 in which an conspiracy of white supremacists plotted against the Black leadership of the North Carolina city ushered in Jim Crow at the cost of hundreds of lives (and then untold millions over the next century). The assault on the Capitol has echoes of the Election Riots of 1874, when members of the White League attacked Black voters in Eufaula, Alabama, leaving behind dozens of wounded women and men, and seven corpses. These are two examples of hundreds of similar events that shamefully liter our nation’s history, albeit most citizens have never heard of them. Hell, most people didn’t know about the Tulsa race massacre of 1921 — still less than a century ago — until HBO’s Watchmen dramatized it. The issue is exactly the same: White supremacists think that only their votes count, and will do anything to enforce that conviction.

That the supporters of the man who currently occupies the Oval Office believe any number of insane and discounted conspiracy theories about election fraud — claims rejected in some sixty lawsuits and a 9-0 Supreme Court decision — is to in some ways miss the point. Listen to their language — the man who instigated Wednesday’s riot emphasizes that he simply wants to count “legal” votes and ask yourself what that means, and then realize why the fevered rage of his mob focuses on places like Detroit, Philadelphia, and Atlanta. If the only people who’d been allowed to vote for Trump were white people, then he would have won the election in his claimed landslide — that’s what he and his supporters mean by “legal” votes. The batshit insane theories are just fan fiction to occlude the actual substance of their political belief. Such anti-democratic sentiment is also an American legacy, an American curse. The connection between what happened on Capitol Hill and in Wilmington, Eufaula, and Tulsa; or Fort Bend, Texas in 1888; or Lake City, South Carolina in 1897; or Ocoee, Florida in 1920; or in Rosewood, Florida in 1923 (you can look them all up), or any number of other thousands of incidents, may seem tangential. It isn’t.

When I lived in Massachusetts there was a sense of history that hung thick in the air, all of those centuries back to the gloomy Puritans and their gothic inheritance. Historical markers punctuated the streets of Boston and her suburbs, and there was that rightfully proud Yankee ownership of the American Revolution. Our apartment was only a mile or so from the Lexington battle green where that shot heard around the world rang out, and I used to sometimes grab a coffee and read a magazine on one of its pleasant benches in what was effectively a pleasant park, battle green thoughts in a green shade. Part of me wanted to describe this part of the country as haunted, and perhaps it is, but its ghosts seem to belong to a distant world, a European world. By contrast, when I moved to Washington DC, the American specters moved into much clearer focus. If Massachusetts seems defined by the Revolution, then the District of Columbia, and Maryland, and Virginia are indelibly marked by the much more violent, more consequential, more important, and more apocalyptic conflagration of the Civil War. In his classic Love and Death in the American Novel, the critic Leslie Fiedler described the nation as “bewilderingly and embarrassingly, a gothic fiction, nonrealistic and negative, sadist and melodramatic — a literature of darkness and the grotesque in a land of light and affirmation.” Our national story is a Jekyll and Hyde tale about the best and worst aspirations at conflict within the Manichean breast of a nation which fancied itself Paradise but ended up somewhere points further south.

Because I have a suspicion that poetry is capable of telling the future, that everything which can or will happen has already been rendered into verse somewhere (even if obscured), a snatch of verse from a Greek poet accompanied my doom scrolling this week. “Why isn’t anything going on in the senate?” Constantin Cavafy asked in 1898, “Why are the senators sitting there without legislating?” I thought about it when I first heard that the mob was pounding at the Capitol door; it rang in my brain when I saw the photographs of them parading through that marble forest of statuary hall, underneath that iron dome painted a pristine white. “Because the barbarians are coming today,” Cavafy answered himself. I thought about it when I looked at the garbage strewn through the halls, the men with their feet up on legislators’ desks, cackling at the coup they’d pulled. “What’s the point of senators making laws now? Once the barbarians are here, they’d do the legislating.” For a respite, it seems that the barbarians have either been pushed back or left of their own accord. In that interim, what will be done to make sure that they don’t return? Because history and poetry have taught us that they always do.

Image credit: Pexels/Harun Tan.

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