I got an email last night, more than two days after the fact, from the nice people (by which I mean overseas-sourced Mechanical Turks) at SPIN scooters, telling me something along the lines of Parking Photo Not Approved. As many of you no doubt know, SPIN is one of the half-dozen providers of urban rental scooters, following in the footsteps of BIRD. What makes SPIN different: they have some sort of backing from Ford, and the scooters are slightly but usably faster than the competition from Lime and elsewhere. (As I noted while leaving a Lime in the dust along the reflecting pool near the Washington Monument: “Lime? More like lame, am I right?”) Beyond that, you are also required to take a photo of your scooter when you park it, so they know you didn’t vandalize the scooter or park it on top of a homeless person.
Which I had done, Saturday at 1:07PM. Now, late in Monday’s evening, SPIN was indicating their dissatisfaction. What was I supposed to do? Find the same scooter, two-plus days after the fact, and photograph it again? Why wait this long to tell me the photo wasn’t good enough? I was reminded of Samuel Johnson’s famous letter to Lord Chesterfield, who had declined to be a patron to Johnson’s Dictionary until Johnson had effectively finished the work: “The notice which you have been pleased to take of my labours, had it been early, had been kind: but it has been delayed till I am indifferent and cannot enjoy it; till I am solitary and cannot impart it; till I am known and do not want it.”
What didn’t SPIN like about the photo? Hard to tell. I thought it was pretty well done, particularly since at the time of photography my Samsung S21 Ultra looked as it does in the image opening this column. Yup, that’s what you call “a thoroughly destroyed $1,799 phone” — and on just the fifth day of ownership? Sucks to be me. But that’s not all.
This past weekend had been scheduled as a four-day mountain-biking trip to the outstanding Highland Park in New Hampshire, but given that my wrist was till cracked it seemed a bit optimistic to hit even a five-or-six-foot drop with a free-floating piece of bone in there. I came up with an alternative itinerary: Go to Washington DC and see the two Smithsonian airplane museums plus the Natural History Museum.
I’ll admit that I had concerns about making the trip. Not to indulge too broadly in hyperbole, but it’s probably not a great idea to be a Midwestern white man anywhere near the “holy ground” of “our democracy” right now. You go there one day, someone holds a demonstration the next day, your cell provider cheerfully hands over your whereabouts to the FBI without even the suggestion of a warrant, and next thing you know they’ve got you locked in solitary and are denying you access to medical care. I told myself that this was paranoid conspiracy thinking and that such a thing had only happened to, oh, a couple hundred people so far this year.
We started at the Udvar-Hazy facility forty-five minutes outside of DC. This is a very good museum, filled with planes, and if you don’t live down the street from the Wright-Patterson Air Force base, as I do, it would no doubt strike you as the very best museum. My son John was fascinated by the Concorde, although he initially thought it was a Valkryie. I had to explain that there were twenty Concordes built but only two XB-70s, one surviving, and that one just happening to live in Ohio. There was something funny about this, like a rich kid thinking a stainless-steel watch is white gold because he has no experience with stainless steel.
Then we headed downtown, parked a mile away from the museums, and acquired a SPIN scooter to ride in their direction. I pointed out the various Smithsonians: the new African museum, the Native American museum. “Is there a German-American museum?” he asked. “Probably not,” was his answer to himself, because he’s twelve years old and like most attentive children of that age he already has the iceberg bulk of understanding how the world works. Imagine being a young middle-class white boy in 2021; you dimly realize that the entire establishment hates you and wants you dead, but you have no idea why. You haven’t done anything!
“Turns out there is a German-American museum,” I quipped, as we stood in the Air&Space building on the mall looking at a reconstructed V-2 rocket and a half-dozen boosters from the space program, “and this is it.” I can’t say I am pleased about the changes that are being made to the, ahem, German-American museum. When I was an East Coast child, my father brought me here once every few months for years; today, almost all of the good stuff that I yearned to see again and again has been sent out to the autist’s outpost of Udvar-Hazy. What remains: massive “interactive” exhibits purporting to teach aerodynamics and rocketry to a moronic mass of lumbering humanity. Nobody reads the walls or interacts with the displays. They’re just here because they’re visiting all the museums on the Mall and this is one of them.
The same fate is in the process of befalling the Natural History Museum; fossils and stuffed animals are fighting, and losing, a battle for Lebensraum with massive “explainer” displays that, from their language and construction, appear to be aimed at people who have an extensive vocabulary but also an extremely, dangerously, low IQ. The Twitterati, I guess. “It’s hard to find the names of the actual dinosaurs,” John noted. “They’re in the corner of the signs, small enough to cover with your hand. But there’s always a lot about the climate.” He’s right. Is this Apatosaurus or Diplodocus or Camarasaurus? The answer can be found in eight square inches at the upper left edge of a more-than-dining-table-sized panel explaining how the climate encouraged dinosaurs to fight or some nonsense like that.
I can’t help but think of how fossils were treated two hundred years ago; they were often held to be from the “giants” mentioned in the Bible, and where that didn’t apply they were folded, spindled, and mutilated into Bishop Ussher’s chronology. So it is with our modern theology of F**king Loving Science. The dinosaurs must have a climate story. Of the ten or so panels in the fossil room, just one deals with the actual climate catastrophe of a major asteroid strike. The rest contrive to give a casual observer the impression that T. Rex wouldn’t stop driving his Hellcat Durango to the MAGA rallies and that’s how the theropods became extinct.
To its credit, the Smithsonian has not yet seen fit to mess with the displays that really bring in the foot traffic, namely the gems and precious metals. You don’t have to read about CO2 saturation of the oceans in order to get to the Hope Diamond. You merely walk into the labeled room and wait for it to rotate your way. No dioramas, no explainers. Res ipsa loquitur. The teeming masses of what we used to call “foreigners” but are now probably called “pre-Americans” or something like that don’t need a Lucite panel to explain the appeal of massive diamonds, monstrous sapphires, pounds of gold as found in nature. They all speak that language flawlessly.
In large part, they are on this soil, in this capital city, because of that language, because they arrived as the two generations before mine conducted the greatest yard sale in history, the “yard” in question being the United States of America. Our ancestors got good prices for their junk; starter homes purchased for $50,000 brand new are now worth a million and a half even as they fall apart and people defecate on the street where they are located. If you had put ten grand into a Dow index fund circa 1985 and just left it there, you would now have $197,886. This astounding and historically unparalleled rate of appreciation happened the old-fashioned way: the Greatest and the Boomerest simply opened the gates of the country to foreign buyers and invited them to bid like there was no tomorrow, with citizenship thrown in the deal to boot. And you, their descendant? Did you want something from that yard sale? Grandma’s silver, perhaps? I’m afraid someone from down the street bought it, kiddo; the same someone who owns your rental property and manages you at work.
As we were parking the SPIN scooter, my left hand seized up with some kind of breakage-related nerve drama and I watched my brand-new S21 Ultra fall to the concrete, shattering the screen. It wasn’t the only phone I had; my work iPhone sufficed to navigate us out of the city. But it’s the phone to which all of my accounts are tied in some manner via the ridiculous annoyance of “two-factor authentication”. Can’t use GMail, can’t pay my bills, can’t even watch Amazon Prime Video until the new phone gets here. I’ve never deceived myself that I wasn’t tethered to my phone, not after twenty years of self-employment, but now that tether feels even tighter than before.
Maybe it was my depression at having ruined a very expensive piece of Korean electronica, and the knowledge that I had a replacement policy but there would be considerable hassle involved, but as we left DC I couldn’t help but see it with hopeless eyes. I got the impression that the American capital has been successfully invaded and we are just waiting for the rot to spread. Whether you’re a hard-left type who hates the corporate/Uniparty coziness, or an unapologetic nationalist who thinks that DC should reflect the country around it rather than pay tribute to states beyond the oceans, I can’t see how you couldn’t walk (okay, scoot) these streets and feel any other way. Washington, DC doesn’t feel very American any more.
“Hey, that’s the Lincoln Memorial,” John noted. “we missed it.”
“I wouldn’t say we missed it, I quipped,” but I thought about the President whose name inspired the car I was driving. History tells us that Lincoln preserved the Union. It came at a tremendous cost. An entire generation put through the meat grinder, the whole lineage of ancient families burned and shriveled to nothing, U.S. Grant looking on phlegmatically from a hill as another ten thousand boys in blue and grey die screaming of sepsis on meaningless farmers’ fields. To preserve this Union. A union in which San Francisco can refuse to deport aliens and Texas can make its own abortion laws and Florida can declare the pandemic over even as New York places it at the center of a whole new doxology and theology.
So we drove. Towards Breezewood, the infamous Town Of Motels. Away from the wealthiest place in America. The seamless metal sea of new Audis and Bimmers parted around us, dissolved to the dross of eleven-year-old Impalas and rusting pickup trucks even as the signs for seven-figure attached condos were replaced by McDonald’s, Burger King, Pilot. The political gravity that had gathered all unto itself, that made Fairfax County wealthier than Beverly Hills during the Sacred Administration Of The Most Serene President Obama. It had no pull on us as we drove away. We are not its kind. Not particularly welcome. And ruled by force, with the illusion of consent long shattered. We entered Pennsylvania. Parked at a gas station. Stepped out into the crapsack world of America beyond the beltway. And though we were still hours away, I knew I was home once more.