America First, Then and Now

America first
Newspaper headline from the Great Crusade exhibit

History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.

– Karl Marx

If the America First mantra of Donald Trump sounds familiar, it’s because it is. The slogan was used by American isolationists to keep America neutral in the face of Nazi tyranny. But the theme, with its small and fearful sentiment, comes from an earlier war.

Woodrow Wilson invented the mantra in 1916, covering the country with America First posters in one of the first modern propaganda campaigns. He kept us out of war, he claimed at the time.

But America couldn’t deny its global responsibilities forever. It had to pick a side in the European conflict. When it did, Wilson needed a whole new propaganda campaign. This time, with the aim to mobilize a reluctant American public to enlist and fight the Hun.

Mass media such as posters, songs and shows drew upon the 1776 spirit, the myths of the American Revolution, to join a total war against the Kaiser. “Lafayette, we are here!” the cry went up, as millions of American soldiers went to save a Continent.

Relive this momentous era in The Great Crusade: World War I and the Legacy of the American Revolution, now on display at Anderson House, the beautiful home of the Cincinnati House on Embassy Row in Washington, DC. It’s a small exhibit – just a room – but looking at the America First headlines and the debates about this country’s role in the world – it feels incredibly timely, as if we’re repeating history that was settled a hundred years ago.

Anderson House ballroom
Ballroom at the Anderson House was designed for inaugural galas and diplomatic receptions

And when you’re done, explore the rest of Anderson House, a Florentine mansion just a couple blocks from Dupont Circle.  Built in 1905, this grand home belonged to Larz Anderson, a wealthy diplomat, and his wife, Isabel, an author and art collector. With its drawing rooms and galleries reminiscent of the salons of Europe, the house was designed to host inaugural balls and diplomatic receptions. Anderson House was to represent the USA to the rest of the world, standing as a confident expression of a country that repudiated the small and fearful philosophy of America First.

As Marx wrote, history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce. We’re living through the farce. But remnants of other eras remind us that we’ve had these debates before – and won them. America is not the fearful, closed realm of Donald Trump but the confident, open and generous country represented by diplomat Larz Anderson, his art collector wife Isabel, and their glorious house on Massachusetts Avenue.

Letter from Washington: Protest Fatigue

a smattering of Trump supporters

The weather has gotten warm, mild May days segueing into June humidity. People still come to Washington to protest, nearly every weekend, but with diminished fervor, everyone waiting to see what happens next in the unfolding story of collusion between Trump and his Russian masters.

A rare event occurred on Saturday – a demonstration in favor of the President, a small band of supporters from Virginia, kids mostly, holding signs and shouting on Pennsylvania Avenue.

You had to really look for them, hidden amid the Segways and selfie sticks of summer tourists that crowd the plaza. Only the presence of TV cameras hinted at the presence of the Trump group, a gaggle of photographers encircling the small protest. At its peak, the Make America Great Again crowd mustered 50 people from the red state across the river.

It was a mostly white crowd, but not entirely. What struck me, however, was how many high school kids and preteens there were, as if MAGA was a form of youthful rebellion, sticking it to teachers and authority figures.

There were counter-protesters, people who had come down early for the March for Truth. They stood a respectful distance away, for the most part not interested in mixing it up with the Trump folks, confident in the strength of their numbers. The one flare-up I witnessed was when a 14-year-old Trump girl began shouting “Build the Wall!” at Trump opponents. “You’re everything that’s wrong with this country!” one responded.

Still, the day lacked the raw tension of Inauguration Day, when you felt that violence was imminent (and it was). The reason is that the Trump people have disappeared from the streets. Nearly every weekend, a massive march has filled the broad avenues of the capital – Women’s March, Immigration Ban Protest, LGBT Makeout Session, The March for Science, Climate March – driving Trump supporters underground. The only time you ever see a Trump hat in DC is when it’s perched on the head of a red state sophomore touring the monuments with a school group.

The March for Truth

The March for Truth, which was not a march but merely a rally under the Washington Monument, had an exhausted quality to it. “Protest is the new brunch!” a speaker announced as the crowd emerged from the under the shade of the cherry blossom trees, as if reporting for duty.

The era of the mass protest is over. By filling the streets with hundreds of thousands of people for weekends in a row, the point has been made: we outnumber you.

Now, it’s up to the institutions. The men and women in the Congress and the courts who are entrusted to preserve our precious democracy. We wait for former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony on Thursday. Our system of government was explicitly crafted by men like Hamilton, Jefferson and Washington to prevent the rule of a tyrant. We’ll see if our current leaders have a fraction of the courage that these great men displayed.

Take One Home: The Community Collective Photography Show

field school
Blue bus on 15th St – my photo in the show

No cherry blossoms. No sunsets. None of the postcard-pretty Washington, DC, that you’ve seen a million times before.

Instead, ballerinas at rest. Shirtless men outside liquor stores. And a blue bus that catches the eye of a photographer who bikes everywhere.

It’s the Community Collective Photography Show, opening this Saturday at the Capital Fringe Festival. 48 photos of the people and places beyond the monuments, organized by Jarrett Hendrix and Karen Ramsey, and selected by a panel of local judges. Dozens of visions of the real DC, featuring perspectives on city life that will surprise even long-time residents.

The master at work
Jarrett Hendrix carefully hangs photos in the Fringe bar.

photos hanging at Capital Fringe
The photos are framed with white space to draw the viewer in. We want you to get close.

Did you know that the city of Washington used to be square? As conceived by Congress, it was a ten miles on each side, a hundred square miles in total, extending out into Virginia. Sadly, DC lost this territory in 1846.

The photographs in the Community Collective show are all presented as squares, attractively framed, and carefully hung in the bar of the Fringe Festival. Maybe it’s a nod to DC’s past  – or maybe it’s just an Instagram thing 😉

I have a photo in the show. And I’m glad to know many of the other photogs, who I’ve met through InstagramDC. It’s amazing to see their diverse perspectives of the city, every one of them choosing to focus on a different aspect of urban life.

Take one home! The photos are for sale, with a portion of the proceeds going to support Fringe. With the prices quite reasonable (my print is $100), it’s an opportunity to add a little square of DC to your walls.

Community Collective Photography Showcase
1358 Florida Ave. NE Washington, DC 20002
Saturday, April 8, 7-11 PM

Letter from Washington: A War We Must Win

Greetings, comrades! Glory!
Greetings, comrades! Glory!

There was a moment during a recent demonstration. A crowd had gathered outside the White House to protest immigration policy. Standing in front of a chain-link fence, a young Honduran woman described fleeing the violence in her country. She loved America for saving the lives of her children. People applauded, including a 94-year old Holocaust survivor who had insisted on attending the demonstration. Stooped over, her eyes flickered with life.

At the edge of the crowd, a middle-aged couple approached, the female half in a Make America Great Again hat. They saw the demonstrators protesting Trump’s treatment of refugees. The woman snuck into the crowd and made a mocking peace sign so that her husband could get a picture. They laughed.

My friend Pippa is conducting dinners with Trump supporters. She feels that if only we all knew each other a little better, it would be easier to get along. Results have been disappointing. Breaking bread doesn’t change political opinions.

I was not a political person until this year. Living in DC, I had the opportunity to work on Capitol Hill. I declined, feeling it to be a waste of time, disliking the passion people brought to even the simplest of issues. A pragmatist at heart, I voted for Republicans and Democrats, always seeking the candidate who would do the least harm.

But Trump is different, representing an assault on democratic institutions, something that every American should oppose. Evidence is growing that he colluded with Russia, part of a Putin strategy to use fake news and select leaking to influence the 2016 election. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the former Secretary General of NATO, warned:

“It is Russia’s aim to undermine the political cohesion in Western institutions.”

Putin seeks is to divide and weaken the West, to discredit democracy itself and restore the old Soviet Union. He wants to end the Pax Americana that has kept the world free of global wars for more seventy years. It’s a dangerous moment, as America wavers, the prospect of a new wave of conflict on the horizon. A global war would mean the end of the connected world that we know and enjoy.

Encouraging these end times is a selfish con man, Donald Trump, a dupe who is willing to go along with Putin’s schemes and court international disorder if it will benefit his family of grifters.

Trump’s supporters have told me that he can do whatever he wants, because he is the President. They’re willing to throw away the Constitution and their own hard-won democratic rights in pursuit of vengeance against people like me. “We suffered under Obama. Now it’s your turn,” I’m told.

After the election, I was ambivalent. I even wrote an award-winning short story about my mixed feelings, Victory Party, in which a waiter receives the election news with something approaching happiness.

But since Trump’s American Carnage speech (“That was some weird shit,” George W. Bush), it’s clear what he and his supporters want: revenge. They don’t want to build a new America; they want to punish America and are willing to work with the Russians to do so.

“Since when are you a liberal?” a friend of mine jokingly asked me. I’m liberal in the classical sense, as someone who believes in free speech and free markets. I believe in the West, in freedom from tyrants under a system where every person is equal before the law. That marks me as an enemy of the state, at least this state, for Trump and his supporters seek to turn this country into a soft dictatorship, Putin light, where an autocrat makes all the decisions, without the pesky impediments of the Constitution.

“There was a very serious effort made by Mr. Putin and his government, his organization, to interfere in major ways with our basic, fundamental democratic processes. In some quarters that would be considered an act of war.”

Who said that? Dick Cheney.

The war began last year, when Trump’s entourage colluded with Russia to subvert the election. It’s a war against democracy itself – and one that we weren’t even aware that we were fighting until recently.

No amount of gentle conversations around a candle-lit dinner table will budge the hate and envy in the hearts of Trump partisans. Sorry, Pippa! No accommodation is possible with people who would collaborate with a foreign power to snuff out democracy in America.

Trump and his Russian backers declared war on America during the last election. It’s a war that will be fought in the streets, courts, legislatures and media. The majority of the country voted against Trump. We did not choose this war. But it’s one that we must win.

There is Money in Coworking

WeWork Creators Awards

There is money in coworking…

That was my thought upon entering the vast Mellon Auditorium on Constitution Avenue in Washington, DC. Located within view of the Washington Monument, this building with its Doric columns is such a classic of the DC genre that it has filled in as the Capitol in TV shows such as Veep and The West Wing.

Inside, you walk though a 20-foot tall arch and onto the marble floor of the lobby, where I was immediately served a drink, a delicious concoction of grapefruit juice and tequila. Black-clad waiters approached with bite-sized empanadas and spring rolls.

I was at the WeWork Creator Awards. The coworking company has committed over $20 million to empower creators around the world. Applicants pitch their ideas for grants to incubate, launch and scale their businesses. I went because techies always have the best parties.

Inside the auditorium, with its marble columns stretching upwards and a DJ playing, attendees got what was described as the full WeWork experience: educational workshops, job fairs, pop-up markets, live entertainment, and plenty of inspiration.

And plenty of drinks, as this crowd of PR people, entrepreneurs, WeWork members and creative types (like me), mingled and purchased items from local vendors. Entering the hall, I was handed a $50 chit to buy stuff which I used on a couple of t-shirts from No Kings Collective.

Half-drunk on tequila, with a bag full of free swag, it hit me: there is money in coworking. We’re talking 1999 dotcom money or SXSW excess, both of which I witnessed as a web person working on the content side. The WeWork party, with its open bar and air of excitement, reminded me of SXSW parties in Austin, circa 2008, when social media was on the rise. This time, the new new thing is coworking, which are shared workplaces where you can rent a desk or an office on a monthly plan.

I talked to a young woman from another coworking company who said WeWork was a billion-dollar company, which stunned me. How could renting office space be so profitable?

But her figure was wrong. WeWork is actually a $16 billion dollar company! Investors are betting big that coworking is the future.

Having spent far too much time in the beige cubicles of government offices, I see the attraction of coworking. A few weeks earlier, I visited WeWork White House, which looks like a Hollywood set designer’s idea of a workplace rather than the Office Space environments that are norm in America. It’s a big, beautiful, bright space, set across two floors, including a coffee bar and a roofdeck with a view of monumental DC. A dream office, in other words.

WeWork White House - Lobby

I thought coworking was just for freelancers. It’s also for small nonprofits and companies wishing to provide flexibility to their employees. At the WeWork White House, I met a woman working for an international organization with headquarters overseas, as well as a small business offering babysitting services. They had an office set up to do headshots for babysitters.

It was a happy place. And no wonder. With more control over their environment and a sense of community from working in a hive of creative folks, coworkers derive a stronger sense of meaning than cubicle-dwellers.

But what’s the attraction for business? Setting up an office is hard. A friend of mine looked for more than a year to find space for his young company. And once finding the space, had to retrofit it to make it ADA-compliant and fight with the local telecom for months just to get online.

In contrast, a coworking space offers you the ability to just move in and get to work. The WeWork White House is ideal for companies that want a Washington presence without the hassle of renting real estate in DC.

It’s big business. More than a million people will cowork this year, according to a survey by Deskman. By the end of the year, around 14,000 coworking spaces will be in operation worldwide.

Coworking is more than just shared office space. It’s a worldwide movement away from boring cubicles and into more flexible and fun space led by companies seeking to save money and freelancers searching for a sense of community.

There is money in coworking, as WeWork demonstrates. It’s the future – hopefully – for all of us who seek creative space and support to do our best work.

The Rich Are Different Than You and Me

Spanish steps in DC
Spanish Steps in the snow

It was a very wet snow, typical for DC, one of those storms lingering on the edge of the rain/snow line. A damp, cold and miserable day.

But I went out anyway, not being one to sit inside, no matter the weather. Perhaps that’s why I love photography so much – it gives me an excuse to get out and explore the world.

Ice formed on the hood of my jacket as I trudged up Massachusetts Avenue. When it snows, I enjoy doing a loop around the historic mansions of the Kalorama neighborhood.

In my photography, I like classically-framed compositions. I like strong lines and contrast. I like photos that tell a story, ones that you draw you into the frame.

Which is why I love the Spanish Steps so much. With wet flakes falling on the marble steps, and one streetlight golden, the scene looked like a fairy wonderland. I took off my gloves, pulled out my Canon Rebel, and took this photo.

One of the benefits of being an amateur is that my photos are for myself. I took this photograph with no expectation of anything other than producing a pleasing image.

A couple of years later, I was walking through Mitchell Park, the green jewel that sits atop the Spanish Steps. There was a flyer for a photo contest, sponsored by the Friends of Mitchell Park. Free to enter, prizes unspecified. Remembering my photo in the snow, I entered it into the contest.

Several months later, I received an email telling me that I won one of the categories and would I come to a reception at the residence of the French Ambassador. Sure! There I was trudging up another hill in Kalorama, this time to a Tudor mansion, after a couple of $4 beers at Glen’s Garden Market

French Ambassador's residence
Residence of the French Ambassador, a Tudor-style mansion in Kalorama.

Inside, it was like a scene from the Great Gatsby, though the crowd was older, as supporters of the park enjoyed champagne and canapés. The French Ambassador gave a short speech, thanking those present for their support in making Mitchell Park such a special little park. DC parks often depend on outside financial support for their operation.

The other two winners and myself were then recognized and given prizes. Mine was a wine tasting for six! That’s way more than I expected from a free contest.

I won!
Me and my photo.

The rich are different than you and me, according to F. Scott Fitzgerald. Mitchell Park has some illustrious neighbors, including the Obamas, Ivanka Trump and Jeff Bezos. Topics at the reception included speculation on how much the Amazon founder paid for his mansion. While the Mitchell Park supporters were not as wealthy as Bezos or Trump, they were a world away from my $4 beer lifestyle.

But money can’t get you everything. Money can’t buy the experience of pulling on your boots and venturing outside in terrible weather. All the riches in the world won’t put you in front of the Spanish Steps on a snowy afternoon, as you line up the perfect shot, your fingers slowly freezing. That’s something that you have to do for yourself.

Letter from Washington: We Don’t Need Any Stinking Credentials!

IMG_1931

We’re winning. That was my thought watching a dozen women make out in front of the Trump Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue. A right-wing blog called the protest “sparsely attended.” Which was true. Participants were outnumbered by a crowd of viewers, which included photographers, police, tourists, friends and security guards.

But the protest was just one of a dozen that took place in Washington, DC, over a very mild President’s Day Weekend. Or, as it was called here, Not My President’s Day Weekend.

Despite the small size, there was a joy in the LGBT Makeout Against Trump protest that would overwhelm even the most bigoted heart. Protesters distributed mints and gum to the crowd. Funny signs were shared. Selfies were taken, as the thump of Nicki Minaj reached up the face of the Old Post Office.

My anaconda, don’t

My anaconda, don’t

Security guards delicately looked away as women grinded on the other side of the barricade. Two men paused in front of the Trump sign. And kissed, as the cameras whirred, recording their contribution to the resistance.

The interesting stuff always happens on the margins of these protests. In the middle, you have a hard core of organizers and participants – the people who make the signs and lead the chants. Surrounding them are supporters, friends and media. Beyond them, you find people passing by, drawn in by the noise and excitement.

And there’s always one or two who come to yell at the crowd, like Canute trying to hold back the waves. During the Muslim Ban March, there was a woman who shouted at the streaming throngs from her balcony, filled with desperate madness and fear, yelling until she went hoarse.

The LGBT dance party was no exception, one middle-aged man giving a young AU student a hard time. Her offense? Trying to interview him. She was a journalism major and was seeking opposing opinions for her video. “Where are your credentials? I need your credentials!” he kept demanding of the blonde girl, his face full of aggro.

But, if the election of Donald J. Trump has taught us anything, is that no credentials are needed. His election has inspired millions of people to do things they previously thought unthinkable – writing their member of Congress, organizing rallies and even making out in the street. You don’t credentials to be a journalist. Or a protester. Or the President. That’s what truly makes America great.

Letter from Washington: Another Day, Another Protest

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No Muslim Ban protesters in front of Charlie Palmer’s, where Paul Ryan was having lunch.

Anti-Trump demonstrations are a constant now in Washington, DC. They happen multiple times a day, the residents of this city and beyond having a limitless appetite to protest Trump’s Muslim Ban and other outrages.

You run into them in random, unexpected places – like Charlie Palmer Steak on Capitol Hill. The word had gotten out that Speaker Paul Ryan was having lunch there. A very well-organized protest appeared, marching past the windows of this high-end joint. Lobbyists chowing down on $60 Wagyu Strip Steak watched a parade of women bundled-up against the cold demonstrate against the Muslim Ban.

Who are you going to stand with? Lawmakers who send Syrian refugees back to war zones while they enjoy expense-account lunches? Or ordinary folks like those who came to protest?

IMG_1890

I am jaded, cynical, having seen scores of protests in DC. But the Trump protests have a different quality to them, attracting not just the young and disaffected but plenty of middle-aged, middled-classed people.

That was evident on a freezing Friday when another protest took shape across Constitution Avenue from the White House – one of at least three that occurred that day. The wind chill was in the 20s but that didn’t stop demonstrators signing a wall rejecting Trump’s bigotry.

That you can draw a crowd on a cold and dark Friday afternoon speaks to the strength of the anti-Trump forces. It’s supply and demand. Everyone wants to come out and protest so demonstrations occur on every day of the week. I talked to people who came out to this protest because they couldn’t make last weekend’s march. They felt compelled to show up for foreign friends and coworkers that were terrified by Trump.

We Reject Trump's Bigotry
An open letter to Trump, rejecting his bigotry.

It was cold. I biked home, going by a protest on the other side of the White House, demonstrators pressed against the fences, chanting into the dark night, though Trump was hundreds of miles away, brooding and tweeting from his Palm Beach mansion.

A few blocks away, a third protest was gearing up, a dance party that would take over Pennsylvania Avenue. Thousands would dance in the streets while thousands more would watch online. The revolution will be live streamed.

Resist banner and Washington Monument
Cyclist carries #Resist banner in the freezing cold.

An Evening of Bike Touring at The Bike Rack

biking past tulips on the Metropolitan Branch Trail

Do I want to bike across the United States? I’m fascinated by stories of people who have done it. I bike nearly every day. Sleet, snow, rain, polar vortex – I’ve been out in every kind of weather, either on my Specialized Sirrus or Capital Bikeshare. I’ve done a metric century. I’m reasonably healthy. Why not?

Colin O’Laughlin shared his experience biking across the country in a recent talk at The Bike Rack. His blog is fascinating, a day-by-day account of his epic trip from DC to the West Coast. It goes into a tremendous amount of detail and honestly includes the ups and downs of the trip. Plus, it’s got a detailed map and equipment list.

What I found inspiring was how little training he did for the ride. A biking newbie, he did fewer miles than I do in a week before setting off on the C&O Canal trail in April of last year. His approach was to learn along the way. He ditched gear he didn’t need (like front panniers) and learned to listen to his body – when it’s 115 degrees, you need to get inside or die.

In contrast, Natalie Chwalisz is a planner. A veteran of several bike tours, she trained extensively on group rides with The Bike Rack before her cycling expedition. She did miles and miles around the DC area on the bike she would take to Europe. She had a serious purpose for her trip – investigating the plight of migrants from the Middle East – but most of her trip looked like heaven as she biked on trails along the Elbe and Danube.

The lesson from these two talks is that there’s no one way to conduct a bike tour. You can set off, like Colin did, on a friendly trail like the C&O and see how far you get. Or you can train for hard miles ahead of time. You can power through the endless plains of Kansas or leisurely cruise between European capitals.

The USA is a big country. I’ve driven across the vast and unforgiving spaces of Kansas. That was enough. Instead, I’ll take the biking between storybook towns on the Danube, with time for leisurely lunches and photo opportunities. That’s the bike tour for me.

 

Letter from Washington: Hope at the Women’s March

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Inauguration Day ended with me running in fear down K Street, as the DC police fired “flash-bangs” to clear the mob of anti-Trump protesters.

Anarchists had set a limo on fire and were trying to stop the fire department from putting out the blaze. The explosions made me jump but it was being in the middle of a crowd that suddenly turned tail that was so frightening. It was run, or be trampled.

I needed a large bourbon when I got home.

The next day was the Women’s March on Washington, the first stirrings of opposition to President Trump. No one was sure how many people would attend.

The crowd turned out to be three times the size of the inauguration, nearly half a million people crammed into the streets of DC. The march was so large that they couldn’t march, the route being filled with people from mid-morning until night.

Women's March

Not being a fan of crowds, I was going to meet some friends after the march. But they couldn’t get to me and I couldn’t get to them, separated by a few blocks and a couple hundred thousand people.

On Inauguration Day, I rode my bike down H Street, virtually alone. Now, a day later, tens of thousands of people streamed down this street by the White House. Rounding the corner on 15th St, I ran into a vast and immeasurable horde of women in pink hats pouring up from the Mall. I’d never seen anything like it, not even during the Obama inauguration of 2009.

I wanted to get to Freedom Plaza so I could get a photo of Pennsylvania Avenue and marchers stretching to the Capitol. But I couldn’t get there, feeling like a salmon trying to swim upstream. A never-ending crowd marched down the inaugural route, doing their own alternative parade, cheered on by protesters occupying the bleachers lining the route.

Women's March on 14th St

I dipped into one little corner of this vast throng, before turning to go back up 14th St. There’s a little crest on the street. Looking behind me, I could see the crowd stretching down 14th all the way to the Mall, where thousands more were marching. More people than I’ve ever seen in my life. Every few minutes, a vast cheer would rise up, echoing off the office buildings.

In contrast to the Inauguration Day protests, everyone was happy. There were no arrests. No one was masked. People smiled, took photos together and laughed at the signs mocking Trump.happy protesters

The celebration went on into the night, demonstrators with signs parading around the White House for hours after the official end of the march.

I met friends for dinner afterward, going to an Irish bar a dozen blocks away from the protest. Far enough where I thought we could get a table. Wrong. Every seat of the bar was filled with women in pink hats. The TV was turned from a basketball game to CNN. When the broadcast showed video from the march, the crowd cheered, their voices filling up the bar, the sound of a vast protest movement coming to life.