We Didn’t Start the Fire

“We didn’t start the fire,
It was always burning
since the world’s been turning.”

Written above is the chorus to the song We Didn’t Start the Fire  by Billy Joel and it’s the only part of the entire song that stays consistent. The other verses, by contrast, name events, figures, or ideologies that have been at the forefront of political and social rumblings since the 1960s.  By reiterating these words repeatedly, the overall message is clear: We didn’t do it, it’s not our fault, it’s been happening since the beginning of time.

I’d like to believe that this song is about the younger generation of America having to inherit a mess and being blamed for it. I’d like to believe that we live in a galvanized society with galvanized politics and a galvanized perspective of the world around us. Because of this and all the wrong happening in the world around us, we are led to believe that we are responsible for it because we are the reckless ones. Interestingly enough, every younger generation is vindicated the same way as the previous was.

And so, for Billy Joel to essentially thrust himself into the public sphere and into the music scene to say that we aren’t the issue, we are just a symptom, is groundbreaking. The world is on fire, yes. But we didn’t start it. But we also won’t be able to end it either.

The Entry to Black Expression

Inside the lobby of the Howard Theatre there are pictures of black singers, subtle light fixtures hanging from the ceiling, and a man at the booth asking for show tickets.
The inside of the Howard Theatre, the lobby, photographed by me.

The lobby of the Howard Theatre. Only one of the booths were open and I waited for the gentleman in front of me to finish talking to the woman working there, but she was very kind and helpful when I told her what I was here for. I think it’s interesting that the inside of the theatre looked much more grand than the outside. It was renovated somewhat recently I believe.

Music is Timeless Here

A signed guitar on display in the Howard Theatre lobby.
A guitar on display inside of the Howard Theatre, photographed by me.

The Howard Theatre has a small lobby exhibit, and by small, I mean really small. Still, the artifacts that were presented in this lobby were stunning. This signed guitar is an example of that. Unfortunately, aside from the signature written, there was nothing written on it. I did receive the contact information for the current manager, and I’ll update this post when I learn more about it.

The District Looks A Little Different Now

An bar/venue, deli, and another building. The area looks run down.
The buildings and area, photographed by me.

These buildings are immediately to the left of Howard Theatre. The building to the right is an African bar/venue, the building in the center is a deli, and I believe the building to the left is an apartment. While I was photographing and after I photographed the statue of Duke Ellington, the man sitting on the bench spoke to me a little bit about the area. I think it’s also important to note the state of the buildings seen. Not the most pristine, unlike wealthier parts of the District.

Ellington’s Mark

State of Duke Ellington playing a piano and sitting on a treble cleff
A statue dedicated to Duke Ellington, photographed by me.

Right outside the Howard Theatre, there’s a statue of Duke Ellington. Washington has statues of famous figures sprinkled all over the city, but especially in Shaw, especially in front of the Howard Theatre, the figures are often black. And it makes sense, this area of DC is known for being the crux of black artists and leaders. Ellington made his name so known here.

Small Building, Big History

A worm's eye view of the Howard Theatre front
The Howard Theatre, photographed by me.

 

The Howard Theatre is arguably one of the most historic places in Washington, D.C., aside from the federal buildings and smithsonians that hold centuries worth of stories. This picture is simply the exterior of the building, the front. I think it’s interesting to note that the building wasn’t very tall, about three stories.

The Real Scandal

“Scandal.”
“Illegally.”
“Given out.”
“Candy.”
“Un-American.”

President Trump is probably best known for speaking his mind and having a more or less direct communication with the American people. In many cases, such direct communication should be sought after, should be celebrated, should be a hallmark of democracy in full effect. However, with the democratic setup of the United States government, such direct democracy may not be looked upon so favorably for the simple reason of preserving the state.

What President Trump does on a daily basis is essentially undermining the agencies and the people that have let the United States not only exist, but flourish for so long. He denies his own shortcomings and places blame where there is none. He destroys the credibility of the American people when it’s just simply inconvenient for him. During the campaign, he and his supporters pleaded for government involvement targeting the Clinton campaign, but now the White House is leaking like a tap and “intelligence” agencies are just giving illegal information like “candy.”

He calls them “un-American.” Coming from the President, “un-American” becomes more than just an adjective. Coming from the President, that is a direct threat to rally a nation against something or someone.

They Made Us Live Here

In City of Rhetoric, David Fleming explores the relationship between demographic characteristics and urban planning. This relationship is explored through “PART TWO: Designing the Twenty-first Century Public Sphere” and is elaborated on throughout four chapters, each of which are specific cases. Prior to beginning his argument, Fleming makes the decision to display several pages worth of photographs of buildings in different locations. At first, these photographs are confusing because the only indicators of what they are or why they’re there are their captions. There is no other given explanation other than the sources that Fleming had obtained them from.

In the first chapter of this part, “Ghetto: Chicago, 1995,” Fleming pulls a quote from another figure. In this case, the quote is by Richard Wright in Native Son and it reads,

“Why they make us live in one corner of the city?”

This quote is especially telling because it serves as a lens through which to view the ghettos of Chicago. Throughout this chapter, he explains several instances in which architecture inadvertently shapes the way people behave. For example, multistory buildings keep parents from watching their children play on streets below and the abandonment of the grid street system prevents people from being able to navigate with ease. Fleming also makes a point that, whether or not these planning issues are intended, even though they may likely be, they have an adverse effect on the people in that location. Fleming also suggests that this is why as soon as people enter ghettos, regardless of whether or not they live there, an automatic understanding is to distrust others. He argues that this distrust fosters the increase in crime and the necessity of someone being able to mind their own business.

The remaining three chapters in this part of the book make similar styles of argument in uniquely separate settings. The other settings Fleming talks about are suburbs, cities, and the most interesting, home. Each chapter, like the first, is also introduced with a quote that serve as a means through which to view these locations from. It’s also interesting that one of the places he had included was home. When Fleming defines home, he defines it as a community, as an area, as somewhere to come back to and problems to come back to as well. Home is what people have made it, and Fleming has successfully established the relationship between demographic characteristics and location.

Not only do we affect places, but places affect us.

The Geography of Politics, the Geography of Civic Identity

David Fleming, in his City of Rhetoric, claims that civic identity and interaction are more closely linked to physical locations than one might think. This claim is grounded in “Part One” of his book which is titled, “The Geography of Politics.”  Fleming further splices his argument into two chapters named “The Placelessness of Political Theory” and “A New Civil Map of Our Time.” In order to make his argument, Fleming first defines the complexity of civic identity and then how it fits into various environments ranging from enormous nation-states to local neighborhoods. In full, his claims speak volumes towards the polarization of the American political climate and the change in day-to-day interactions between American Citizens.

“The Placelessness of Political Theory,” before addressing contemporary political beliefs, aims to first define what it means to be a citizen. Fleming first introduces a standard definition posed by the federal government linking meaning to citizenship, but the definition forces us to “bracket our most fundamental worldly differences when we enter the political arena, our identity there independent of, even transcending, our otherwise divisive particularities” (page 20).

In other words, we are stripped of all of our differences, all of our experiences, and all of the characteristics that govern the way we live. Once we are separated from our uniqueness, only then are we citizens. Fleming then points out how problematic this is when applied to contemporary political beliefs all around the country. The latter half of this chapter focuses on the differences in beliefs of different political parties and how experiences can vary among demographics. If we all followed the same definition posed by the federal government, is anyone in the United States really a citizen?

In the second chapter, “A New Civil Map of Our Time,” Fleming develops his argument by illustrating the way that the unique traits that make up who we are play out within the scope of a specific environment and how physical space can ultimately transform citizen interactions. He argues this by saying, “Territorial publics can be distinguished by how much we know about and are familiar with them; the extent to which we have affinity for and derive emotional sustenance from them; how likely we are to have a voice and be heard in them; how open they are to our differences and conflicts; the extent to which they are independent of other publics; and how effectively they solve their own problems” (page 38).

And thus, we project ourselves a certain way in a certain place and that place affects us in a similar fashion. Once we understand this, we can begin to imagine how different spaces of different physical capacities affect us differently whether positively or negatively.

If people never leave a location where they have spent most of their life in, if they don’t meet others that come from a different walk of life than they do, then what is the point of anything? What is the point of this country? What is the point of democracy? We live in a unique country that affords us the right to speak for or against anything and anyone. If we don’t wish to fracture the republic further, if we don’t wish to destroy our democracy and everything that makes it work, we should at least consider what Fleming is trying to pose.

Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education

A man holding up a sign reading "Public Education is a Human Right!" in both English and Spanish.
A photo taken by me at the Women’s March on Washington on January 21, 2017.

February 7, 2017.

Betsy DeVos was confirmed as Secretary of Education. Many media outlets both online and in print have been quick to undermine DeVos by reintroducing her lack of experience in education and issues about what her financial privilege has done for her thus far. Yet, other news outlets such as Fox News brush aside such issues and focus on why Betsy DeVos would be an exceptional figure in this position.

According to Fox News in this article, DeVos is an excellent choice to lead the Department of Education because she was nominated by President Trump to take on this role. A role that the article suggests she is best suited for due to her extensive history in politics However, it’s important to understand that, while the author, Michael J. Petrilli, is initially consistent with the general reputation of Fox News as leaning conservative, he begins to shift his tone into a more moderate one.

While Petrilli addresses the delight of Trump supporters and people who want to see DeVos succeed, he addresses their victory. He addresses that people have the right to support her because, like this incoming administration, it won’t be consistent with Obama’s administration. Petrilli also addresses the opposition to DeVos’s confirmation, and not in the way that most Fox reporters would. Instead, he writes:

“The grassroots energy around the DeVos confirmation fight demonstrates that Americans care deeply about their schools. That’s good news. The even better news is that parents and teachers can now focus that energy on changing policies closer to home, where the action is, rather than in Washington, D.C. And the U.S. Department of Education can go back to being the sleepy agency it was always meant to be.”

And that is the note he ends on. That the opposition to DeVos is inherently a good thing. It means our democracy works.  It means that our democracy is engaging. That particular section isn’t defending or criticizing DeVos, but rather making a commentary about what her confirmation means to the American people. Petrilli doesn’t just report what happened in whatever angle or agenda he chooses to write to uphold, but he goes the extra mile to write about the very real people the confirmation affects and the very real actions that they set in motion. Although I find myself at odds with her confirmation, maybe DeVos and people like her are what Americans need to start affecting real change in their societies once more.