Bubblers & Civic Virtue

I went down to Washington to meet Chrissy for lunch and took advantage of being there to see some of the memorials.   

Washington is a truly beautiful city.  There is a lot to see and it is all free. I corrected a German tourist who I overheard saying to a fellow European, “Americans have so little history that they have to make a bigger thing of so short a time.”  I pointed out the truth that we Americans enjoy the OLDEST continuous government in the world after only the UK.   We have not had a radical or violent overthrow of our government since 1776 and we have lived under the same Constitution – never suspended – since 1788.   I asked him just to think about it.  I didn’t point out that Germany was not a country until 1871 and that it went through some interesting changes after that.

Below is the new office building where I will work in 2009, although I bet I won’t get a good view of the Potomac.

Below is the same building in April.  They are making good progress.

Many Europeans have a different and, IMO, mistaken view of history.  They fix on places and traditions instead of people.   Some people live close to old things but no “people” or culture is older than any other.   My mother’s family left the new Germany soon after Otto Von Bismarck’s unification thing in 1871.  My father’s family left Poland (then subject to the Russian Empire) soon after.  I am glad they did.  When they came to America, they didn’t just set back the human clock to zero and start over.  They added to America’s in a shared heritage.  I have been to Germany.  We make better sausages in Milwaukee, but they still make better beer. 

BTW – I hear my great-grandfather used to imply that things were better in Germany.  This made him unpopular during World War I.  Of course he was not telling the truth.  ALL immigrants think that America is better than the places they left, otherwise they would be there and not here.  It is true even if they don’t want to admit it.

Below – Washington still has many big and beautiful American elms.

There is no such thing as a culture outside its human carriers.   It is not resident in old buildings, the land or anything else non-human.  Parents pass their culture on to their children and some cultural traits can be astonishingly long-lived, but each transition produces an imperfect copy.  This is great.  Otherwise the culture would be as dead as a rock.  No two individuals have the same understanding of their culture.   We talk about culture as thought it was something palpable, but it really is just a chimera and a very ephemeral one at that.  Better to adapt the best things you can find rather than stick only with the adaptations that worked for your grandparents.  Even the best things must be adapted.  Living people adapt and so do living cultures.  I think America does this well.  I love our traditions and still feel a kind of excitement when I walk around the Capitol Mall, even though I done it literally hundreds of times.  On the other hand, I would not want to be limited to the skills of Washington’s dentist.

Above is WWII memorial from behind.

Of course, I didn’t bore the European tourists with all that either.  Germans usually have good teeth. 

I thought of change and persistence as I walked past the World War II memorial.  It is a new memorial, but it is so very well done and fits perfectly into the Mall that you would think it had been there forever.   It commemorates the courage of my father’s generation.   Each year there are fewer and fewer of them.  Their courage is something worth passing along.

There is one simple tradition that seems to be disappearing – bubblers.*   There are still bubblers on the Mall.  There used to be lots of bubblers around generally, now not so much.   I suppose they are trouble to maintain.  Vandals break them or put gum in the spigots.  But I think the culture has taken a small wrong turn in not keeping those things around.   A bubbler is an obvious symbol of civic virtue.  Everybody gets to have something everybody needs and it is available to all.  The symbolism is one of the reason that separate bubblers were so offensive during the time of Jim Crow.   Now people sell bottles of water.   Everybody carries a bottle of water around to “hydrate”.   I would rather have the bubblers.

*Drinking fountains to people not from Milwaukee