Lincoln at National Harbor: This Too Will Pass

Lincoln at National Harbor

The Lincoln statue was a surprise.

I had biked to National Harbor to look at The Awakening. During this pandemic year, one invents activities to pass the time.

The Awakening is an aluminum sculpture of a giant emerging from the earth. Formerly at Hains Point, it was moved downriver a few years ago to National Harbor, the hotel/casino/shopping complex in Maryland.

The sculpture was blocked off by fences so I took the opportunity to bike around the abandoned streets of National Harbor, idly coasting by shuttered restaurants and stores until I spotted the Great Emancipator.

The rail splitter can be found on American Way, right by South Moon Under,  up the steps from Potbelly. Lincoln overlooks a video screen (“Good morning from National Harbor: Capitalize on it all!”) and a massive Ferris wheel on a pier jutting out into the Potomac.

I just finished Lincoln on the Verge, the powerful and moving story of this common man advancing toward death and destiny.

If his statue in National Harbor, little more than a prop for Instagram selfies, could come to life, what would he think of America in 2020?

I think he would be pleased that we lasted so long.

He would be delighted by people of all races enjoying a stroll along the promenade. The bright colors and carnival wheel would be charming diversions to him. But the old boatman would be most pleased to be within sight of a river.

Plague would not surprise him. Death and sickness were old friends. He often talked with the dead, believing that they existed in a spirit world that was within reach.

Leaving his home in Springfield in 1861, he did not expect to return. Just getting to Washington required providence, as he was nearly done in by overly exuberant crowds and gangs of assassins, as depicted in Lincoln on the Verge. Four years later, he returned home, in a coffin, his route retracing his earlier rail journey.

Unlike other politicians of the era (who remembers anything James Buchanan said?), Lincoln’s words live on because he spoke clearly and directly. We’d call this authentic. To the people of 1861, who had suffered decades of sophisticated oratory to protect the institution of slavery, this was electrifying.

Elites in the cities scoffed at his homespun tales. But if he was liberated from his bronze, and was free to walk around National Harbor, he’d have a comforting story for listeners:

It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words, “And this too, shall pass away.” How much it expresses!

This too shall pass. Lincoln inherited a broken country and in four short years created an America worthy of its ideals. He knew he didn’t have long. But he endured and triumphed. We will too.

Lincoln on the Verge – Book Review

Lincoln weeps for the nation

I’m reading the wonderful Lincoln on the Verge, which beautifully captures Old Abe’s rail journey to Washington after his election.

There were two countries in 1860, the year Lincoln was elected. A free and prosperous North and an aristocratic South where wealth was built by slavery.

Despite having a smaller population, the South had elected most of the presidents during the nation’s history. Congress was run for its benefit. The Supreme Court was stacked in favor of slave-masters.

Thanks to the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision, the long tentacles of Slave Power had spread north as federal marshals hunted escaped slaves in states like Ohio. It was all perfectly legal. And obscene.

Washington was a swamp, literally and figuratively. Filled with half-completed monuments and stinking canals, it was a city controlled by powerful men in the lobby of the Willard Hotel. A new term was developed for them: lobbyists.

The Republican Party was formed in response to this corruption and the endless compromises that kept the slavers in power.

Lincoln was a fresh voice who spoke in simple terms that any person could understand. He said:

A house divided against itself, cannot stand.

I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free.

I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided.

It will become all one thing or all the other.

Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become lawful in all the States, old as well as new — North as well as South.

Plots were hatched to prevent his inauguration.

Parliamentary schemes were proposed of the type that would be familiar to Mitch McConnell. There was talk that Congress, still controlled by the South, would refuse to certify the election.

Conspiracies formed in Baltimore to assassinate the President-Elect.

Armed militias drilled in towns like Alexandria to oppose the federal government.

Lincoln on the Verge depicts how Abraham Lincoln made it to Washington, protected by a nation that wished to reclaim the true American ideals of equality.

More than a century later, the institutions of government are controlled by lobbyists once again. The canals of Washington are long gone but the city is still a swamp. Corporations have been bailed out while ordinary people line up for food banks. The stock market is juiced by a Federal Reserve devoted to printing money, which props up asset-owners while leaving the poor with less.

Once again, as in 1860, we have two nations.

An America of the grift, controlled by the Trump crime family, where favored industries are bailed out and insiders are tipped to dump their stocks before catastrophe.

An America of a precarious working class, one paycheck away from starvation.

Which nation shall prevail? As in 1860, we face a fight.

As told in Lincoln on the Verge, the United States found its champion at exactly the right moment in history. During the long journey to Washington, the people propelled Lincoln forward. They made him as much as he made them.

That is our task now. To fight for our country.

Coronavirus Chronicles: The Science March

Nevertheless Science Persisted

An algorithm reminded me that it’s been three years since the March for Science.

This was one of several huge protests that occurred after Trump’s inauguration by a people desperate to show their resistance to the cruelty and stupidity of the new regime.

It was a rainy afternoon and I went to take photos. I looked for people I knew in the march – I’d spent years working in science communications for NOAA and The Nature Conservancy.

On that Earth Day in 2017, I thought that the attack on science was a tragedy.Hurricane forecasts would be less precise, cancer treatments would be delayed, basic research would get defunded.

The know-nothingism would harm the country, of course, but would not impact me personally.

Now, I live in an abandoned city. My only contact with other humans is through webcam. I scrounge grocery stores for toilet paper among mask-wearing shoppers terrified of catching disease.

I just finished watching The Plot Against America. The HBO series is based upon Philip Roth’s novel of the same name, depicting an alternate history where Charles Lindbergh becomes president, persecutes the Jews and allies with Hitler. Yet, the forces of democracy resist.

The series ends with a beautiful montage expressing the hope and horror that is America. Sinatra croons as people of all races, creeds and beliefs line up to vote. Then the screen dissolves to ballot boxes being burned. The Levin family anxiously listens in to their radio for election results.

Unlike the novel, the ending is ambiguous. You can decide for yourself whether the country chose fascism or FDR.

Last week, I was on a Zoom call with friends. After an hour of gloom-and-doom talk, I had to drop out. I could not take any more Coronavirus news and speculation.

Back in 2017, around the time of the Science March, I thought I had problems. Compared to today, these were not problems.

The Obstacle is the Way was an enormous comfort to me. The book popularizes age-old Stoic ideas with examples drawn from history. Rather than bemoaning your fate (plague was common in the Roman world of the Stoics), you should do what you can with what you have available. Action is the way to overcome anxiety. In other words:

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
– FDR

I do not have control over the pandemic or the government’s fumbling response to it.

But I can act.

I have set up monthly donations to Joe Biden and the Florida Democratic Party. We have to win Florida to rid ourselves of Trump.

Together, we can wrench this country back to the right timeline.

The Coronavirus Chronicles: We Are All Soviets Now

the end of days at the Lincoln Memorial

Before, one of the highlights of my month was the Third Thursday #BikeDC Happy Hour. People who bike in the greater DC area would get together for beers. We just restarted the happy hour at Glen’s Garden Market in February; now it’s on hold, like everything else.

The need for companionship is still there, however, so we did the happy hour virtually on Google Hangouts. I showed up wearing a helmet. You can never be too safe, even in your own home.

Primarily, we talked about food. What grocery stores were open. Where to find fresh produce. Has anyone been able to find pasta or toilet paper?

When I bike the deserted streets of Washington, DC, I carry a bag with me, just in case I spot a store with consumer goods.

In the old Soviet Union, they called this an avoska, a luck bag. People would carry one around in the hopes that they would get lucky and find some meat or butter in the shops.

Somehow, we defeated the Soviet Union and become them. We are all Soviets now.

The shortages even extend to books. The Little Free Libraries in my neighborhood used to be overflowing with them. Now, these little book boxes have been picked clean by a desperate population eager for entertainment in a city without bars, restaurants or nightclubs.

Maybe this is a good problem. It’s forced me to read all the books that I have at home.

Goliath: The 100-Year War Between Monopoly Power and Democracy explains the economically-fucked state we’re in, where millions face unemployment, shorn off by a heartless corporate state that treats employees like serfs.

Why do they have power and you don’t? After the 1929 market crash, New Dealers curbed the power of banks and corporations, binding them with laws and regulations. The worst of the malefactors, like tax-cheat Andrew Mellon, were prosecuted while big monopolies like Alcoa (which controlled aluminum) were broken up. This was done to curb speculation and strengthen democracy.

Over time, however, the financiers were let out of their box. Free to devise new ways of fleecing the public, they engineered the 2008 credit crunch. This should’ve lead to populist reform. Instead, the banks got bailed out while the rest of us still had to pay our bills.

A couple weeks of coronavirus shutdown and the airlines are running to the government for help. Marriott just laid off most of its staff. The cruise lines demand a slice of the pie, too.

The fact that American-style capitalism can’t survive a short spell of economic turmoil without federal relief demonstrates that it’s not a sustainable system that should be preserved.

What we call capitalism in this country is a financial scheme run by the connected (like Senators with insider information) designed to benefit themselves with no obligation to anyone else. And when it fails, they walk away, leaving the rest of us to foot the bill.

We were taught that capitalism is a fair competition. The company with the best product wins. But as Matt Stoll highlights in Goliath, monopolies like Facebook, Conagra and Boeing rig the system through legal strategies and corporate lobbying to squash smaller rivals and keep consumers powerless.

Against these giants, the ordinary person – the person with the avoska looking for meat – doesn’t have a chance.

In 2008, we missed the opportunity to reform American-style capitalism to make it fairer and more equitable. Let’s not make that mistake again.