Essays from Washington

On occasions while in visiting Washington as a Fulbright Distinguished Scholar in April and May 2004, I wrote items, sometimes almost full essays – often with an hour of returning home – about some of my experiences to send to friends. There are published here.

Keywords: Miscellaneous;

The Pro-abortion Anti-Bush(?) Demonstration
Mont Vernon: George Washington’s Farm
The House Agriculture Committee
Yevgeny Yevtushenko
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
The Mayas At the National Gallery
Freedom Park
Shakespeare in America
The Baghdad Times**************************


Was in the Mall yesterday, where 800,000 women – so it is said – (and a few men) marched for abortion rights. As well as posters and (paper and metal) buttons, many were wearing the same T-shirts in bright colours – pink and purple were obviously very fashionable – issued by various pro-abortion organisations. So it looked a bit like the colourful crowd at a super-sevens tournament. – the press photos were misleadingly overemphasising the pink.

They had enormous screens mounted in the Mall, so one could watch speakers (like Whoopi Goldberg) although there was a strange echoing effect especially when the speaker was trying to work up the audience.

The crowds slowly drifted away – some, like me, went into the Aeronautical and Space Museum (well done and extravagant in the best American traditions, although it was reasonably sensitive to other nationalities/countries’ contributions perhaps as a part of the melting pot ideology) and the Freer Gallery (specialising in an American-British artist and Asian works) – leaving a chaos of posters and banners on the ground. Getting into the Smithsonian/Mall Metro was nigh impossible, so I went to another one. Even then, the train was packed.

Among the slogans were:

“Vows of chastity are easier broken than latex condoms.”

“Bush, keep out of mine”


“My bush would be a better president.”

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Yesterday I went to Mt Vernon, the home and farm of George Washington, which he ran as a feudal estate including slaves. He was a ‘scientific’ farmer, experimenting systematically and designing things (not always successfully: the threshing barn doubled the yield, but he could never design fences to fully keep the wild animals out of his gardens). Moreover with the war and the presidency he was away from the farm for long periods of his life. He more or less inherited the farm but its soils were drained by growing tobacco and he had to develop a more sustainable farming, based on wheat as an export (although they also exported fish from the Potomac which the farm overlooks). There was also a lot of self sufficiency, for this was before industrialisation.

Recall this all happened in the 18th century, 200 and more years ago, and I could not help wondering whether his estate -slaves and all – was similar to some of the 19th century Russian estates (say the sort of thing Tolstoy was involved in). It is well known that GW was a slave owner, but I wondered whether the relationship was more like a serf. (Sitting behind this is the frequently unspoken truism that the origins of America was more based on slavery than people like to admit.)

The brick family tomb has George and Martha in concrete coffins, presumably as dust (except for his wooden teeth?). The slave cemetery is close to the family tomb, with its own memorial. However, none of the slaves’ names are recorded. I thought of the universal rights of children which says every child is entitled to its own name. I remember being shocked that it was necessary to say that. I am pondering about the dead – in the end it is all vanities and we return to dust. Perhaps the slaves graves were marked, but the markings perished over time. I rather like the Greek war memorials, which were marked by perishables, and the war (and hence the reasons for the conflict) was forgotten when the memorial disappeared. About people, let me ponder.

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Other than the New Zealand embassy, it was the only occasion I entered an official building in America without having to showing an identity card. For Congress – the American parliament – is insistent that little should come between them and their constituents. (But yes, there was the metal detector.) I was visiting the House (lower chamber) Committee on Agriculture, who have their own committee room, not much smaller than our full parliament, in ornate French colonial style, complete with chandelier. The senior members sit behind desks in an inverted horseshoe with the chairman at the bend, and the reminder of the fifty odd representatives – one black, one woman – between the arms. At the open end is the table for the witnesses, behind them tables for press and officials, and chairs and crushed standing room for visitors (including a New Zealand embassy counsellor).

The occasion was the review of trade policy. The Republican chairman gave a short speech which said that trade was very important to American agriculture, the senior ranking Democrat said the same thing (so bipartisan was the committee you had to know that Democrats were on the right of the horseshoe and Republicans the left to identify their politics). Then the two witnesses gave brief summaries of their portfolios, followed by questioning from the congress representatives. I got little sense of the Secretary for Agriculture (the equivalent of our Minister of Agriculture) Ann Veneman, who was only asked questions about the major trade disruption from a minor outbreak of BSE. But Robert Zoellick, the US Ambassador for Trade Negotiations (our equivalent is also Minister of Agriculture), was pressed long and hard. He handled a wide range of questions. masterfully, shrewdly combining the national strategic context, the details of a particular negotiation, and a sensitivity to the questioner’s interests.

A congressman from, say, Hawaii would ask (I leave out the ornamentation of how beautiful and important was his state and constituency) about sugar. For while nothing was done for the Australian sugar producers, the Central American trade deal gave them increased access to 1.3 percent of US production, which threatened, he said, his constituency’s farmers. Zoellick patiently explained without sugar there would have been no deal (in contrast to Australia) and so the domestic sugar producer interests had to offset against the gains for other farmers, for the deal meant half of US farm exports (including french (sic) fries) to the region became duty free. Many times over, Zoellick pointed out the losses for some farmers would be more than offset by gains by others. He observed that the beef farmers in Hawaii were better off. One congressman vigorously pleaded that sugar be taken out all future negotiations. Zoellick danced around, explaining that he could not go into an international negotiation with his hands so tied. The congressman rejoined ‘ I would have been pleasantly surprised had you given any other answer’.

Zoellick seemed to know every member of the committee personally, and often their electorate as well. In each trade deal he is not only negotiating with the country involved but with the parliamentarians whose constituents are most affected. This man, who consorts with the trade ambassadors of the world and reports directly to the President of the United States reminded me of Kipling’s ‘If you can … walk with kings nor lose the common touch’.

The underlying message, often lost in constituency detail, can be summarised as follows:
– The future of US agriculture is dependent upon export success;
– The success is threatened by the EU which funds 88 percent of the world’s agricultural export subsidies. (On another measure their trade distorting domestic support annually amounts to $US80b, Japan’s is $US36b, and the US is $US19b – New Zealand’s annual GDP is about $US70b.)
– the US is committed to the Doha multilateral round of which agricultural liberalisation is central.
– however it will not be held hostage to a single negotiation, and so is involved in numerous bilateral trade negotiations with any willing partner (I wanted to ask whether that included us);
– there would be overall wins for American agriculture but some sectors would lose out.
– a particular priority was China, already the fifth to largest US markets, and the fastest growing one. (US exports of agricultural products already exceeded their aircraft sales to China.)

Except for some subdued comments in Zoellick’s paper, there was not a single reference to the case for free trade. The agriculture congressmen are as happy to exploit American consumers and taxpayers as overseas markets. The US approach is old fashioned, self interested mercantilism: agricultural exporting is a good thing, importing is bad. But in that is no different from their European and Japanese competitors.

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It was meant to start at 6.30, but there was some impromptu rehearsals backstage, so it was 15 minutes late. But we got a full two hours, an impressive feat for a man near 70. The Library of Congress auditorium of 1000 was full – almost all white, except the ushers were black. About 100 put up their hands to say they spoke Russian. Apparently there were 50 turned away – they had to call in the police..

Three walked on the stage of the chamber concert hall: the others his son and an actress. Informally dressed – in contrast to his 15ish son – he is not an imposing figure, until he comes alive on the stage. For he does not declaim poems he acts them. Even his first presentation, a formal reading an essay on aging, from a lectern, involved much handwaving. Later he bounced all around the stage.: Henry Irving would have been outpointed.

He apologised for his English accent, and was not always easy to follow. The first poem was ‘Sleep My Beloved’ which the actress read, and then he did in Russian: he was most animated in his native language. It was followed by the ‘Metamorphoses’ of the stages of living which was verse and verse about. Then a poem in which every line began ‘I love thee the more than …’, line and line about. It became increasingly extravagant and so did the Russian presentation. The poor actress, trained in Shakespeare, stood their reading her lines, he lived his. One was struck by the richness of the Russian sounds, which the English could not compare.

Further poem, shifting from the romantically personal to the political via one about how the Moscow bureaucrats tried to prohibit kissing on the metro, interlaced with a Chechyan bombing in one. His strident rejection of bureaucracy made him an anarchist, albeit one who believes primarily in love. Then a gothic one about executions under the Tsars, followed by a bullfight in Seville (I think it was symbolic, but too complex for me to follow).

The poem about the visit of Paul Robeson to Moscow started with sound over Robeson singing the Red Army Song (I think it is): the excitement of an American singer and the jazz age coming to Russia, the humour when Robeson said he had a relative in Russia — when asked he said ‘Pushkin’ – followed by another sombre tail of Robeson insisting seeing an incarcerated Jewish poet, which flowed on to Yevtushenko singing the Red Army Song (he has a good quality voice), and then the switching to Robeson again.

We thought that the end and gave him a standing ovation, but ..

He returned to read ‘Laura’s Theme in Tulsa’ (where he lives a good part of the year as professor), in which he began about the impact of the film ‘Dr Zhivago’ on him when he reached America (later he said he thought Pasternak would have liked it too), and then how he recently wrote (Russian) words for the theme. In the middle, a piano accompanist played the tune and a Russian singer hummed it. Later she sang his words (there was no translation), with him joining in. He switched his romantic attention form the actress to the singer – he is a terrible flirt.

The final poem was his son reading the English version of one which contrasted a city of ‘No’ with a city of ‘Yes’. He wandered off into the audience to declaim the Russian version, meanwhile flirting with all the front row ladies, and kissing some.

And we gave him another standing ovation …

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It is Saturday here in Washington and I decided to go to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. I don’t find such visits easy, but it is my way of responding to the ANZAC day promise ‘Less We Forget’. The Museum is not very far from the Second World War Memorial in the Mall. Just opened, its architectural style is what might have been put up fifty years ago – white marble, big, names of battles, quotes from the good and great, all the states are there, but nary a word of the warriors who died. There is ‘no lest we forget’, in contrast to the most moving war memorial I know: Vietnam with its names of all the dead).

And so I torture myself by going to yet another holocaust memorial – so I don’t forget.

Numbers are limited in the main exhibit, but rather than queuing there is a ticket system, so that the three-quarters of hour wait can be utilised by visiting the special exhibits which in a way are more harrowing: one of what happened to Jewish children, the other was on the medical ‘experiments’ justified by the racism of eugenics and which led to gas chambers. Full credit to the Museum for not confining it self solely to the Jews: Slavs, Romany, homosexuals, the mentally and physically handicapped were mentioned, and one exhibit reminded us of Ruanda, Yugoslavia, East Timor …

And so to the main exhibit a long crowded painstakingly detailed description of the rise of Nazi anti-Semitism through to the ultimate solution, and the liberation of the camps: There were quotations: Hitler ranting race hatred; Neimöller about protesting too late; Yevtushenko from ‘Baba Yar’. Three floors of graphic detail, with the audience shuffling in queues like the Jews carted to the camps – indeed they walked onto a cattle wagon – but they are gripped by the horror rather than the lack of prospect. I wanted to wear a yellow star in solidarity, One comes out into the light deeply perplexed about the nature of mankind … that it can be so brutal, that it can be so passive, that it can be so courageous, that it can so forgiving.

And there in the light are a set of about a dozen flags in front of a marble wall – including the New Zealand one. The New Zealand one? There had been no reference to New Zealand anywhere else in the exhibition, The closest was a map of the wold which had Australia, Quite right too in a way, except the bit about how the world gave insufficient opportunities for refugees Jews applies to us too. So when I saw the flag I thought ‘the buggers have mixed us up with the Australians’.

They hadnt. The flags were for the fighting forces which had liberated concentration camps – including a New Zealand squad being among those who had come upon Risiera di San Sabba in Italy. That is all I know about the camp, more than yesterday, but so little.

How many of us know even that?. What are our records of the event. Do we have the memories of the soldiers who were there? Do we have any memories? How can we forget if we never knew?

Note San Sabba, near Triest, was Italy’s only concnetration camp. The one reference to it in Google-New Zealand reports that in 2002 a group from the Maori battalion visited the place.

“At Risiera di San Sabba, a former concentration camp that several of the veterans had helped clean up during liberation, the group performed a special service to honour the dead. Afterwards, the Italian custodian of the site thanked them, saying: ‘The restless spirits of those who were tortured and killed in this place were at peace for a while.’”

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Sunday I went to the National Gallery in Washington to hear a lecture on Caravaggio. The lecturer, from Princeton’s Institute of Advanced Studies, was extremely knowledgeable about religious iconography of the times, but his presentation was appalling, and a good number of people walked out in the middle. Perhaps he thought it being a Sunday it was appropriate to read – badly – long excerpts from the bible.

After, I looked again at the cubist paintings Deigo Riviera did when in Paris in the decade to the middle of the First World War. I almost did not go in because I did not like them the last time, but it was only one room and I thought a quick walk around would not hurt. In fact second (and third) time around they were much more engaging – which tells me something about getting my eye in.

However I spent more time at an exhibition of ‘The Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya’, a civilisation existed in the south end of the Mexico going into deeper Central America in fifty or so warring city states, which collapsed some time in the ninth century CE (perhaps from ecological exhaustion or climate change).. Until recently all that was known of them was their relic stone buildings covered by dense tropical rainforest, and their formidable astronomy. With the deciphering of their writing in the last few decades, there has been major progress.

I was struck how the art of the Maya courts had little of the intimacy of the human condition: it was very public art. I cannot recall a single instance of a child or mother with child. Were they as abrasive people as the court pictures implied. Is the West fortunate that the ‘Madonna and baby’ meant we have long had images of the tenderness in our lives as well as the arrogance?

At the heart of their religion, and life, was the Maize god who went through an annual cycle of death and rebirth, just like the maize (American corn) which was the foundation of the economy.. There was a pantheon of gods. God L (a scholarly label for its glyph has not be deciphered) was the god of the underworld, of trade and commerce, and a trickster. So much for a private commercial economy.

The paintings suggest that the city-states warred. Although there are few illustrations of battles. More often there are pictures of the victors’ homecoming with tribute and captives. If the wall paintings are to be believed – and there is a tendency to exaggerate such things – the victors did some unspeakable things to the defeated enemy. I looked around the visitors and wondered whether they were thinking, what I was: that a thousand years later, victors still did some unspeakable things to their captives.

There was no sign. My impression is that Americans are numbed by stories coming from Iraq jails, perhaps unable to believe them, perhaps frightened of what the full story is, deeply puzzled how they – their people, hometown girls and boys – could be so ignoble. Their response is a deeply introverted one. I have seen almost no discussion on how America has to present itself to the world, who must be as deeply shocked (or in some cases feeling much vindicated about the hypocrisy of the West). The debate – such that it is – is one about responsibility at the top (and the technical of release of further pictures and the trials of those involved). There is no public heart-searching that I have seen – yet – about what this tells us about America,

Perhaps it is not surprising that the American viewers saw no parallels between the Maya and the US – and that a foreign visitor did.

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Just outside my building is ‘Freedom Park’ a raised walkway about 20 metres wide, which crosses a number of street. and curves around a building which houses an international journalist’s union, The peak of the walkway is a monument to journalists who died in the course of duty, but one of the ramps up from the street level celebrate various instances of freedom.

At the bottom there is a section of the Berlin Wall. Further up the ramp there is in turn commemorations of Tiananmen Square – a copy of a statute that was raised there, South African independence – Nelson Mandela and pictures of people voting, the collapse of the Soviet Union – a headless 3m stone statue of Lenin fallen on the ground, and cobblestones from the Warsaw Ghetto.

Above them are three American examples. The lowest recalls the jailing of Martin Luther King. In the middle is women getting the franchise in 1920. The highest is a copy of the statue of Freedom on the top of the Capitol, the house of parliament in Washington. Its explanation includes that originally it was to be capped by a headgear of slaves, but Jefferson Davis, then Secretary of War and later President of the slave-supporting Confederation during the Civil War, insisted the headcap be a roman helmet.

Americans certainly believe in ‘freedom’ which, with ‘justice’, was a key cry during the American Revolution. But there is a tension here, captured on one of the walls by the inscription which went something like ‘The powerful only give up their freedom when it is demanded.’ (Sometimes it takes a bit more than simple demands.) In every instance the freedom illustrated on the ramp involved an oppressive state which had to – one way or another – be confronted.

Yet the most powerful state in the world says it will give freedom to others. Its rhetoric is peculiarly unaware that states one cant give freedom. In each case it has to be demanded – to be seized. In a curious way Americans should celebrate the insurgency occurring in Iraq demanding freedom from the American occupying forces.

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Amartya Sen says Beethoven is an Indian. So is Shakespeare. He is an American too. It is not just that aside from the American Indians almost everyone’s ancestors came to America after Shakespeare died. Most Americans are hardly of British origin, although the romantic discovery of Shakespeare at the beginning of the nineteenth century made him a European. Certain persons brilliantly express ideas so universal – so fundamental – that they belong to all of us.

In a more material way Americans have adopted Shakespeare by acquiring and preserving many of the objects of his era. (It was an American who inspired the rebuilding of London’s ‘Globe’ theatre.) As a result there are a number of Shakespeare repositories in America, one of which is the Folger Library in Washington DC.

Outside the building is in the standard American neo-classical style – elegant and boring. Apparently the architect was constrained by regulations, and Washington is the worse for the decision. Inside it is a luxurious Tudor style of wood panels, high vaulted ceilings, and the reading room surrounded by bookshelves with balconies (and Washington is the better for it). Its small theatre is designed as a cross between a medieval inn courtyard and the Elizabethan theatres which developed from them. In the vaults below are an extraordinary collection of manuscripts books and artefacts, including over a third of the world’s first folios of the printed Shakespearian plays collected by the Folger couple whose donation formed the foundation of the Library. (Why the replication? In 1623 each printing was done separately with corrections between, so each folio is unique, and scholars can trace their evolution and gain insights into the original lost texts.)

Although next to the Library of Congress, the Folger Library is not a government institution, but a trust funded by donations of from individuals and private foundations. (I left a ‘Hamitonian’ in the box – the US ten dollar note with Alexander Hamilton on it: one day I’ll tell you why.) Despite it being private, it is located in line through the Washington and Lincoln memorials, and the US Capitol, home of Congress. I guess they were trying to say something. Apparently US Presidents do not visit I the Folger. I thought of at least three New Zealand prime ministers since the Library’s founding in 1931 who would have revelled in the opportunity, had the library been in Wellington – not to mention others who would have welcomed the photo opportunity. (The main hall would be a super place for a book launch.)

Its small bookshop sold few scholarly books on Shakespeare (I probably have more), surprisingly given the Folger is one of the great sites of Shakespeare scholarship. But there were the usual mementos for the passing tourist, including the inevitable t-shirt. Its printed motif – recall this is a building a block from the Supreme Court – comes from Henry VI, part 1: “First thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”

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Each Washington morning I stick 35cent (say 60 NZ cents) in a machine (or pay 37 cents in a store if I dont have the exact coinage, the difference being tax) to acquire The Baghdad Post. Or that is what it seems like, for most days there is far more about Iraq on the front page, and often throughout the main section, than anything else. It is said that there is an election campaign underway, and often about page four there appears a story about a Senator John Kerry. But he seems irrelevant to the main obsession, although Baghdad may be very relevant to his future. There are some other stories: bit of a ruckus about same sex marriages, and the price of petrol is rising, the commemoration of the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision to integrate schools. And once a story about the Indian elections strayed onto the front page.

There are separate sections on local events, style, sports, business, and classifieds (and a myriad of free and local newspapers I dont get.) I usually read my copy on the metro, where there are very few rubbish bins – the ones there are, are sheathed in concrete: I take it is a security precaution – but the Washington folk are tidy. By the end of the trip I usually have bits and pieces of paper all over the place. Sunday is particularly disorganised for the paper expands to the princely sum of $US1.50 (say $NZ2.50) plus enough advertising handouts to fill one’s letter box, had I one.

I dont give the back sections much attention, although I do go through the three pages of comic strips. Doonesberry is the best, although I cracked up over a ‘Boondocks’ of a man trying to return an item to a store, and the black salesman patiently explaining why he could not. Over the days they morphed into Bush and Powell, with the return item of Iraq. Sadly there is not the despicable ‘Alex’, so I have not the foggiest idea what is happening in the city of London. I doubt Baghdad cares much.

I read the business pages, which are very factual compared to the Herald’s of Dominion’s, more concerned about transmitting information than running a policy line. The result is one has a lot more confidence in the material, for the New Zealand equivalents are so often ill-informed one wonders about the competence of those who prepare the news. Of course there is an op-ed page facing the editorial page in the main section, which offer a diversity of perspectives (including on the economy), not all of which are ill-informed. The editorials are weightier than New Zealand’s, perhaps they are on weightier matters. Additionally, there are some super features. The impression is that the up-market American papers dont challenge the sound-bites of broadcasters, and instead offer the long, informed, and thoughtful pieces which televison cant.

When I first got The Baghdad Post I felt it was running an editorial policy on Iraq in its news pages. While I was not adverse to the general drift, I like the facts separated from the opinions. So later in the day I purchase The New York Times at $1.00. No, its is not The Jerusalem Times: it is almost as obsessed with Iraq. On reflection, perhaps the southern paper was not running a policy in its news column, so much as the torrent of news leads to a policy conclusion quite different from the direction of public policy. Or perhaps events are now so tumultuous it no longer has to interpret them.

Position can be helpful. The story a day or so after some Iraqis beheaded a US business man on television was right next to a story of how the US Army was giving military decorations to the private contractors working with them in Iraq. No comment that if the US cant tell the difference between a civilians and soldier than how can one expect the Iraqis to? Leave that to the readers.

And it was The New York Times which called for Rumsfield’s resignation before the The Baghdad Post. (On the same day had Kerry not made up his mind. On the following day he threw his caution to the winds and demanded the resignation – reported on page four – because by then the demand was widespread.) Features in the newspapers have told of the grave political problems a president would suffer from a resignation in election year. Even so, I think Rumsfield should have resigned voluntarily, not just because I am a fan for the ritual resignation where the honourable go on a matter of principle. The world needed a sign that what happened in Abu Ghraib (and probably elsewhere) was totally unacceptable. An apology was not sufficient, there had to be a ritual sacrifice. (Bush’s vigorous promise to hunt down the beheaders may be for the domestic market only, but it contrasts with the wet apology.)

But even the great American papers I read each day (sometimes with The Wall Street Journal, The Baltimore Sun, and USA Today – I am a total news junkie: on occasions my newspaper bag weighs more than my shopping bag) are so American focussed I have seen only one feature article which addressed the reaction of the world. The papers practice a Monroe doctrine of isolationism outside their hemisphere, although the hemisphere today includes Iraq. This must be the most powerful selling point of the internationalist (albeit pro-American) London Economist with more than half its copies read in the US.

Does the ‘hemisphere’ include Israel and Palestine? The papers religiously report events there, but there is little sense of the linkage to the Arab World, to Iraq. One is left with the impression that those preparing the news think that the US is in a terrible mire with no way out. (I doubt Kerry has a solution, but I cant think of any president elected in my lifetime who, were he to return, would do much better.) The thought is too awful to contemplate by Americans readers from a culture so wonderfully optimistic it believes there is solution to every problem. And so the wading forward continues. I just wish they were a little more aware of their offshore friends who on higher ground see the bog more clearly, and keep saying ‘dont’.

P.S. About the time that this was written The New Yorker claimed that Rumsfield was more involved in the terrorism in the Iraqi jails than he had acknowledged. If the claims are true, he may be regretting missing the ritual resignation, which would have kept his honour intact.

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