Every country has national symbols - monuments to great events in their history, to heroes and heroines of the past. But attached to each of these monuments is a set of ideas, ideas whose significance to be reflected in the size of grandeur of the monument.
When Hessler visited the Great Wall of China, he went to a part of the wall that hadn't been rebuilt for the awe of tourists, but had declined naturally over the centuries. Of course, he didn't come to the wall with no pre-conceived notions about what it stood for. He felt that the Ming dynasty had wasted an enormous amount of labor and resources; he felt it showed, "how far the Chinese could go with a bad idea" (Hessler, 2001, p.192). Also, Hessler associated the wall with isolationism. But after he saw it, and saw how other Chinese viewed the hall, he changed his views somewhat. He realized that:
despite its original failure [to keep invaders out] the wall now had
great value. It had become perhaps the most powerful symbol of national
pride, and nobody connected it with negative qualities like isolationism
and stubborness. ... [But] even as a metaphor for Chinese isolationism
it lost its force, because every foreign dignitary was taken to view the
Great Wall near Beijing, and every waiguoren tourist visited it. It was
... a bridge rather than a wall... It had taken an extra five hundred
years, but finally the Chinese made something useful out of the Great
Wall (Hessler, 2001, p. 192-193).
Hessler's view of the wall certainly changed with his visit; the wall for him meant isolationism and wasteful expenditure. But he came to see that it wasn't all a waste; the Chinese were making handsome profits showing their "bad idea" to Westerners and fellow Chinese alike.
Interestingly enough, Hessler saw hypocrisy in the Great Wall's status as a symbol of national pride, particularly when he saw a TV commercial with national minorities, singing "Love My China", and celebrating the wall. Hessler aptly commented, "Your China built that wall to keep you people out" (Hessler, 2001, p. 192). The irony is compounded by the fact that national minorities, especially the Tibetans, suffer from massive discrimination at the hands of local government officials, most of whom are of Han origin. But Hessler's criticism of this hypocrisy does not stop at China's borders; he observed that "children [in the U.S.] celebrated Thanksgiving with traditional stories about the wonderful friendship with the Pilgrims and the Indians. ... both countries were arrogant enough to twist their greatest failures into sources of pride. And now that I thought about it, I remembered seeing Indians dance more than a few times on American television" (Hessler, 2001, p. 192).
I had a similar experience in hypocrisy when I visited Washington, D.C. with my eighth grade social studies class. We also visited Gettysburg, I didn't really seek to get a whole lot out of the trip - I was more concerned with having a good time with my friends than with seeing how wonderful America really is, how much ordinary people sacrificed for freedom, or whatever patriotic nonsense that sort of thing is supposed to inspire in you.
To be honest, I've never been a patriot. I've never loved this country any more than any other. I'm even less of a patriot now, because I understand that the rich run the show here (and everywhere else), they don't care about ordinary people, and they will stop at nothing to increase their wealth and power. Most people would call me "un-American," and one person here at Geneseo has called me that for my opposition to the present war. Ironically, one of the things that made me so "un-American" (whatever that means) was my trip to Washington.
As our bus navigated the tiny residential streets of Washington, I could see the Washington Monument, as well as other national landmarks. But as I looked at the neighborhood we were driving through, I couldn't see one slab of pavement without cracks, I couldn't find one house without chipping paint, or boarded up windows. The neighborhood was extremely poor, and most people were black. All the cars were smasll, cheap, and broken down. I had a hard time believing this was our nation's capital, the pride and glory of America. What kind of system prioritizes monuments to its own power and righteousness while there are beggars and slum not even a mile away? I later learned that Washington, D.C. has one of the highest poverty rates and one of the highest crime rates in the country. Also, the residents of Washington do not really elect their mayor - the mayor must be approved by Congress. This scam ensures that lots of money goes into keeping the Capitol building clean, to keeping the floors polished for the high and mighty in the halls of power, instead of meeting the need of the people. Whatever happened to "no taxation without representation"?
Outside of these impressions, I didn't really think much of Washington. I looked at the Washington Monument, and I think I visited Lincoln's statue. I remember visiting the Viet Nam Wall, but I don't remember too clearly what I thought of it at the time. Being half Vietnamese, and having parents who were deeply involved with the movement against the war (I went to picnics with the Viet Nam Veterans Against the War as a small child), I thought the war as a whole was a colossal waste, of the 58,000 American lives and the 4 million Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian lives as well. I remember thinking, "How long would the wall be if it had all the Vietnamese who died?"
I re-visited Washington after eighth grade, both times for protests. The first protest was against the International Monetary Fund and World Bank meetings on April 16th last year. Basically the IMF/WB are global loan sharks, pushing cuts in government spending, privatization, and union busting policies all over the Third World in order to increase corporate profits. This was the first protest after Seattle, which marked the beginning of th global justice movement. There were riot cops all over the place, and they had shields, clubs, and wore no badges. They had armored personnel carriers (APCs), tear gas, and horses. All of this was pretty intimidating, but also very symbolic. Here you have thousands of young people demonstrating on behalf of the poor and the oppressed in the Third World, and the cops are protecting the robber barons, the police are protecting the bankers from the people. If anything, they ought to be tear-gassing and clubbing the CEOs for exploiting their workers (American and otherwise), not us.
The second time I re-visited Washington was to protest Bush's inauguration. The International Socialist Organization single-handedly organized an entire bus of people from Rochester, N.Y. to go to Washington to protest the new "Commander-in-Thief", who had stolen the election through massive disenfranchisement of black voters in Florida. The security in the capital was even tighter than during my last visit; every six feet along the parade route there was a marine, in addition to the five rows of riot cops standing between "the people" and the President, a thif who didn't even win the popular vote. The spirit of the protest was one of angry defiance; and here again, who were the police protecting? The rich, the privileged, and their man Bush who stole the White House through thoroughly undemocratic means. They were protecting him against "the people", "the rabble", who didn't elect him. Snipers were stationed on the roofs of the buildings, and the police searched the protestors before they got to parade route. One of the slogans of the global justice movement, "This is what democracy looks like!" was slightly modified; after the first verse, we'd point to the police and add, "That is what autocracy looks like!" Of course it was a bit wordy, but the point was well understood.
On that frigid, rainy day in Washington, all the rich and well-off Bush supporters stayed off the streets and sought refuge in their posh hotels as protestors appropriated their bleachers. There were about 5 solid blocks of protestors, and throughout there was a spirit of solidarity, of togetherness; perhaps the cold encouraged this spirit, as people crowded together for warmth. I caught snatches of a speech made by a member of the New Black Panther Party, and saw many people straining to hear to their words. A total stranger offered me some cheese and carrots because I was hungry; luckily, it happened to be jalapeno cheddar, my favorite. There was no jostling for space, no angry words between protestors, no grumbling except for complaints about the weather, and about Bush of course. As Bush's motorcade rode by at 30 miles an hour, with breathless Secret Service agents trying to keep up, chants of "All hail the thief - Commander in Chief!" descended into booing, 5 solid blocks of booing by almost 30,000 protestors. It was like something we read about in history class while study the French revolution, especially since some people carried signs denouncing, "King George II". This is even more amazing considering the fact that Bush today has something like 90% approval rating.
Although the president's inauguration is not a "world class monument" (he's certainly not a "world class" President), it is supposed to symoblize everything that the monuments in Washington, D.C. symbolize. They are supposed to symbolize all that is good about America, the fact that we have freedoms, the fact that we have always had a "peaceful transition of power"; and when ordinary Americans see these symbols and get these ideas in their heads, they are supposed to link these virtuous ideals with the policies of the present government, the current President, and the status quo as a whole. Monuments, generally speaking, are built by ruling classes to celebrate their power and prestige; their social function is to encourage patriotism and loyalty to the government. This is true in China, America, and everywhere else in the world.
What a person gets out of seeing a monument depends mostly on the notions they bring to it. Sometimes the purpose of a monument of backfires; imagine what kind of message the people who live in the decaying streets and crumbling projects of Washington get when they look out their windows and see a spotless, magnificent Washington Monument. During the Tiananmen Square protest, workers and students sang the Internationale - a song used by the Chinese government to convince the masses that it represents their interests, that "Liberation" really was liberating. But the reason it was sung in the Square was not because people felt that the government represented them in any way; it was sung at the government. When they sang, "Arise ye prisoners of starvation/Arise ye wretched of the Earth," they weren't referring to Mao's army, they were referring to the workers and students of China, and they were calling for genuine Liberation. This symbol, stolen by the Chinese government from the international working class movement, was taken back in the streets.
In crushing the demonstration in Tiananmen, the regime inadvertently created a new symbol of resistance - the image of a single man standing in front of a tank, forcing it to swerve - a symbol which is known and revered all around the world. Perhaps someday, someone will build a monument to him, and the millions of people in China who risked so much to stand up for their rights.