How a jog around the National Mall inspired thoughts of national and personal pride


It's become a thing with me to get in at least one run when I'm out of town. I find this habit rather bewildering. In my head, I'm still living in some basement apartment in Brooklyn, cradling a one-year old, wondering at my fatherly qualifications, and scarfing ridiculous amounts of sugar -- in all forms -- like so many Scoobie Snacks. My 20s could be aptly labeled, with two major exceptions, a bad time for the empire. That being the first decade of adulthood, I just assumed that I was being offered a preview of my life. Perhaps I was.

I think of Michael Kinsley here...

It is a treasured corollary of the American Dream that most people who are successful in midlife were losers in high school. As you enter adult life, values change and the deck is reshuffled. You get another chance, and maybe, if you're lucky, the last laugh. But it isn't the last laugh. The deck is shuffled again as you enter the last chapter. How long you live, how fast you age, whether you win or lose the cancer sweepstakes or the Parkinson's bingo--all these have little to do with the factors that determined your success or failure in the previous round.

And there is justice in that.

...and stand humbled.

Whatever goodness has found me in my 30s -- and I have had a share -- is no more predictive than the evil of my younger years. Disease happens. Addiction tracks you down. Nothing is promised; death is the only contract that binds. Still, there are times when I know, at least for this moment, something has changed and the chaos has briefly broken my way.
Those moments mostly find me in bright shorts, a white shirt, and New Balance, waddling through some strange city -- down Austin's Colorado River, up San Francisco's killer hills, across the pebble path of the Capitol Mall. I am, in no sense of the word, "fast." My technique is to sleep in my gear, rise as early as can be deemed respectable, lumber along for some number of miles, and then return overly pleased in the fact that, at least on that day, I have done something.

This is how I found myself, at the end of last week, breaking through the dark, Union Station in the background, making my way past the Capitol, back (I think) around the Supreme Court, down to the Washington Monument, and then turning to complete an impromptu circuit. For me the benefits of running have always been more mental, than physical. It is the time alone, and the quasi-meditative state, I reach after about 20 minutes. Things that I can't process sitting at a desk assume a sort of clarity in the miles, and questions I had not thought to ask about, everything from the personal to the professional, come into focus.

My cynicism has been dulled by my excursions into history.
Out there, on the Mall, among the monuments, in this state, it all came at me -- the recent readings of American history, my own movements through life -- and it congealed into the oddest thing: an intense pride in country. I spend much of this blog discussing race and teasing at the problems of American history. I think that it would be easy to see in that a scornful, pessimistic and cynical view of the country. On the contrary, I was much more scornful and pessimistic in my nationalist days. It's easier to attack the alleged fallacies of American democracy in the abstract. I've found it increasingly harder to do when measuring the country against the breadth of human history. My roots are radical and nationalist. I regularly depend on the skepticism gifted to me by the radical/nationalist tradition. Still, my cynicism has been dulled by my excursions into history.

I don't know if "American Exceptionalism" means much in this age, but it did, once. In The Feminist Promise, Christine Stansell notes that in 1850, America was the last standing democracy in the Atlantic world. That claim must be qualified by the broad swath of Americans -- blacks, immigrants, women -- who were disenfranchised. At the end of the 19th century, Stansell notes that Utah and Colorado were two of the only places in the entire world where women could vote. The hackneyed notion that "America is a beacon for democracy" is usually deployed in arrogance. But in the time of Abraham Lincoln, it was a demonstrable fact.

I think of my parents born into a socially engineered poverty, and I think of their children enjoying the fruits (social mobility) garnered by the nonviolent, democratic assault on that social engineering. And then I consider that for centuries, over the entire world, if your parents were peasants, you were a peasant, as were your children.

I think it is proper to be proud of that change. I would not argue for a pride that insists America has worked out all of its problems, and evidences that work by exporting its institutions via tank and bomber. I would argue for a studied pride, a gratitude, that understands all that was sacrificed, that we could have easily tilted the other way, that the experiment is still, even now, fragile, and remains in constant need of the lost 19th century concept of improvement.

I didn't make it to the Lincoln Memorial, which is sad because I think Lincoln, more than any other president, was forced to grapple with the fragility of democracy. But here is what I did see at the end of my circuit--the oft-overlooked memorial to Ulysses Grant.

The sun was coming up. The city had just begun to shine. I took this awful picture. Then I kept running.