Harper's Magazine has gazed deep into the soul of Washington and concluded that we Washingtonians have got the blues. Also the willies. And maybe the heebie-jeebies, too.
The magazine's diagnosis of our fair city's psyche comes in the form of a "Letter From Washington" by local writer Wayne Biddle, whose conclusions are subtly foreshadowed by the letter's title: "Anxiety, Anonymity, Amnesia: Day to Day in the Nation's Capital."
Here's how Biddle begins his eccentric epistle:
"It's all one story and there is no other story. Al Qaeda, anthrax, smallpox, camel pox, West Nile, malaria, Iraq, Iran, the snakeheads, the sniper, the war, whatever comes next. Whether or how these things are factually related doesn't matter. The president will not sort it out, Congress can never sort it out, the television makes money by making it worse."
A few paragraphs later, Biddle reveals that he won't be sorting this stuff out either: "What these events say about American foreign policy or the domestic viability of an advanced capitalist state awaits the clarification that comes gradually with memory loss."
What? The clarification of memory loss? Huh?
Biddle's first bit of evidence of Washington's anxiety, anonymity and amnesia is this little factoid: "The Good Soldier" -- the classic 1915 novel about passion and infidelity by British writer Ford Madox Ford -- "has been riding a swell of popularity among the book clubs of Cleveland Park and Chevy Chase."
Well, that's proof enough for me. I guess I should be nostalgic for those wonderful days when the book clubs of Cleveland Park and Chevy Chase were reading "I'm OK -- You're OK" or "Dow 30,000."
Biddle is an erudite fellow. He can drop high-culture names with the best of them, citing Nietzsche, Woodrow Wilson, Henry James, Henry Adams and Chingachgook. He also lapses effortlessly into various foreign tongues, muttering "les gens dans la rue" and "Menschliches, Allzumenschliches," whatever that means. But he obviously doesn't know doodly about the Washington area. He goes into a tired riff on how "Washington is still a fashionable apartheid city" and he identifies Northwest D.C. and Montgomery County as places where "the Third World is held at bay."
Really? Wayne, have you ever been to Montgomery County? The local public schools serve kids from over 100 countries and my own children's class photos are festooned with cute little tykes from Egypt, El Salvador, Iraq, Honduras and Thailand, among other Third World locales.
But Biddle never lets the facts get in the way of a snide generalization. He describes Virginia as a place "where you can buy a combat rifle or execute a teenager as easily as join a church." He mentions that Republicans run "everything worth running." (The District isn't worth running, he explains, and he doesn't even mention the Democratic Maryland General Assembly or the Democratic Virginia governor.) And here's how he explains the appeal of Republicans:
"Below the Mason-Dixon it is still always, always, a vote against the wog, as above the Old Line it is forever a vote for lucre."
Really? Couldn't it be just a wee bit more complex than that? I thought some people voted Republican because of their views on abortion or gun control or simply because they're fed up with the sneering strain of elitist liberalism that Biddle seems to embody.
Biddle launches a tired attack on the suburbs -- "every intersection presents the same vista of identical franchises" -- then, without even a transition, segues into the surreal: "The Department of Homeland Security will discover that in order to save America it will have to destroy it."
Huh? How so? He doesn't explain.
Finally, Biddle launches into his stirring rhetorical conclusion, a bleak description of our wretched lives: "filled with jobs that are here one day and gone the next, friends who are happy one day and divorced the next, children who get A's one day and flunk the next . . . politicians who are Democrats one day and Republicans the next, doctors who save someone one day and kill him the next."
Whew! Biddle's Washington sure sounds like a hellish dystopia. Fortunately, it exists only in Biddle's dyspeptic imagination.
The Coldest War
If Biddle is looking for a really wretched place, he should travel to the mountains of Kashmir, where India and Pakistan have been fighting the world's highest -- and coldest -- war for the last 19 years.
Last September, writer Kevin Fedarko and photographer Teru Kuwayama trekked into those 20,000-foot mountains, and their amazing account of war in a frozen hell appears in the February issue of Outside magazine.
"Minus 50 at 21,000 feet -- it's beyond anything the human body was designed to endure," an Indian officer told Fedarko.
Many soldiers don't endure: "At least twice a week, a man dies," Fedarko writes, "occasionally from bullets or artillery, but more often from an avalanche, a tumble into a crevasse or a high-altitude sickness -- perils usually faced only by elite climbers."
Indians and Pakistanis have battled over Kashmir for half a century, but it wasn't until 1984 that each side started seizing the high mountain peaks so they could fire down on their enemies. Now the two armies have established more than 100 tiny outposts, some consisting of just a few fiberglass igloos and some artillery pieces. There, they struggle to live in the horrific cold while attempting to kill each other.
"Soldiers talk of men losing their minds and leaping from the posts to their deaths," Fedarko writes. "And then there's the story about the platoon killed in an early battle . . . whose bodies froze into such grotesque positions that their corpses had to be hacked into pieces before they could be placed in helicopter panniers and brought down."
Fedarko's chilling story is just one of several excellent pieces in Outside. There's a lyrical essay by novelist/naturalist Peter Matthiessen on Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which the Bush administration hopes to open for oil drilling. Also, a piece on the Australian cassowary, a bird that's "the size of an NFL wide receiver, with razor-sharp talons and no qualms about kickboxing humans."
Quote of the Month
"If everyone could spend some quiet time with a ferret, the world would be a better place."
-- Richard Bach, author of "Jonathan Livingston Seagull," in Modern Ferret magazine.