Update: I sent an email to Mr. Fallows and he actually responded to politely explain that the comment was meant as a joke. In my defense, it did not sound like a joke in context and I doubt other listeners interpreted it that way either. But he did also send a link to his post about the 4th of July Parade in the Palisades.
James Fallows’ use of sarcasm notwithstanding, I do think that the problem of DC voting rights and autonomy and the disregard surrounding the issue in the rest of the country is exacerbated by the way DC is talked about in the national media. Which is, typically, as the seat of the federal government and not much else. So the rest of my argument stands. Except for the part about James Fallows. Turns out sarcasm is as difficult to discern on radio as it can be on the internet.
I was disappointed to hear James Fallows, during a recent appearance on Marketplace, casually dismiss Washington, DC, with the phrase, “I’m from Washington, DC, now, where there’s no local pride at all.”
We’re all used to hearing people say “Washington” when they’re really talking about Congress or the federal government. But his specific phrasing got under my skin. He wasn’t talking about the government. He was talking about the city itself.
Full disclosure – I recently relocated to New York City after living in DC for seven years. I realize my recent departure may make me an unlikely candidate to defend the city. If anything, though, the process of leaving has made me realize how much I love DC. And it has made me that much more defensive about its lack of representation, whether in the halls of congress or in the national media.
During my time in DC, I worked for several small arts non-profits that focused on supporting local artists and the local arts community. I met amazing people who have chosen to make DC their home, often for reasons that have little to do with federal Washington. While it may not be visible to outsiders, the city is full of artists, young and old, emerging and established. Many of them work day jobs in the city’s prominent museums, and then spend their nights and weekends working in their studios and showing at the city’s many non-profits, galleries, and artist-run spaces. In 2011, local artist and DC art world impresario Kristina Bilonick started a project called DC Cheer, a volunteer cheerleading troupe that appears at openings and other events to celebrate the artists, art supporters, and galleries that call DC home. I’m not sure what more evidence I could give of local pride.
I could go on and on about the city’s local art scene because that was a large part of my experience in the city. I’m not qualified to explain, with any depth, Hand Dance, Go-Go or DC’s punk scene. I wasn’t there to witness U Street when it was known as the Black Broadway, I never lived in a collectively run group house in Mt. Pleasant. I’ve been to the current 9:30 Club, but not the original F Street location. But I can say that all of these things are part of DC’s cultural legacy and points of immense local pride. Like anywhere, the city has had dark days and is not without tough problems and conflicts. But it also has over 600,00 residents and, I assure you, many of them are proud to call it home. Need more evidence? Name another city where so many residents have tattoos of the local flag that there’s an annual day to celebrate the practice.
This may seem like an excessive response to a throwaway line in an unrelated story. But the total dismissal of DC as a place of its own, beyond the shadow of the federal government, has serious local repercussions. It’s no wonder that the rest of the country is either unaware of or entirely unconcerned about DC’s lack of voting rights or budget autonomy. They’re constantly given the impression that the city’s only residents are soulless bureaucrats, power-mad congressmen, and the family at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Fallows’ statement, on a nationally broadcast radio show, that DC has “no local pride at all” only reaffirms this impression of DC as one big gray cubicle, an empty vessel for our country’s so-called leaders.
In the meantime, DC’s local government is prevented by the federal shutdown from using the city’s own locally collected tax dollars. It only adds insult to injury that DC residents don’t even have voting representation in the legislative body that forced the shutdown. Despite the use of reserve funds to keep the city government partially open, local non-profits that provide crucial services have already been forced to cut back programs and furlough employees. The city has stated publicly that, if the shutdown continues through the end of the month, it may no longer be able to pay public school teachers.
DC’s situation in the national media is strikingly similar to its relationship with national political power. It’s full of Congressmen and Senators, but they all represent other places. It’s also full of writers and pundits who reach a national audience. And they routinely use that reach to explore the complexities of other places, while thoughtlessly bashing what’s right in their own backyard. It may be true that the Washington James Fallows lives in has no local pride. But that couldn’t be further from the truth for the DC I know and love. Most residents of this DC don’t have access to national media platforms. But they should at least get two senators, a voting congressperson, and the right to pay the city’s school teachers when politicians sent in from other places have shut the government down. Casually dismissing the city and its residents only makes it less likely that they will.