The controversies of Washington, DC: government shutdown and no more Redskins

There is mounting evidence that the GOP’s hopes of taking the Senate in 2014, which seemed high a few months ago, are diminishing by the day.

Arriving in Washington, DC to start a fellowship at the Library of Congress, I have found myself a victim of the US government shutdown – locked out of the library and forced to join the ranks of aspiring screenwriters in Starbucks. With most of the furloughed government workers based in the nation’s capital, the effects of the shutdown are more apparent in DC than any other city. National monuments and public parks are shut and joggers who venture in risk being fined by overzealous rangers.

Yet the place is hardly reeling. The bookshops, bars and coffee shops are brimming and native Washingtonians note with pleasure that the traffic is much improved. One innovative federal worker has used the enforced holiday to compile an exhaustive database of happy-hour drinks prices inside the Beltway. Meanwhile, the conservative shock jock Glenn Beck and a team of Tea Party supporters kindly volunteered to clean the National Mall over the weekend, descending en masse with rakes and plastic bags.

The devil makes works for idle hands. The last shutdown, in 1996, was also the occasion of Bill Clinton’s encounter with the White House intern Monica Lewinsky. As the Washington Examiner’s Michael Barone reminded me, though, one forgotten outcome of that saga was that Clinton’s approval rating went up 20 points – albeit only after Republicans began impeachment proceedings.

It is that echo – of an American public fed up with partisan politics going one step too far – that resounds through the current imbroglio. Polling figures make it emphatically clear that the Republican Party is bearing the brunt of the blame.

While the Republican leadership in the Senate (a minority) seems willing to countenance a deal, those in the House (who boast a majority) have been playing hardball. It was the latter’s insistence that they would approve a spending bill only if severe dents were made in Barack Obama’s health-care reforms that first led to the impasse. For the most conservative representatives – referred to by some as the “Hell No” caucus – brinkmanship remains the order of the day.

Obama has responded by abandoning direct negotiations with the congressional Republicans, and now all hopes are pinned on the White House striking a deal with the more moderate Republican leadership in the Senate. The chances of a “grand fiscal bargain” between the parties are remote; this debate is not over and is likely to be revisited in six months’ time. What is most likely in the short term is a sticking-plaster solution, along the lines of the deal that ended the previous crisis over the debt ceiling in 2011.

Essentially, this would involve Senate Republicans agreeing the terms of a new bill with the White House – as seems likely – and forcing it through the House with the acquiescence of a sufficient number of Republican votes to make an overall majority. Those Republicans who do support a deal can expect a severe backlash from the right of the party.

Indeed, the gap emerging between Republicans in the House and the Senate is in many ways a sign of the deeper chasm that has been opening up in the heart of the GOP and threatens to swallow it. In recent years, a redrawing of electoral boundaries in Republican-held districts (gerrymandering, in effect) has created a new dynamic in the party, whereby local Republicans are often well protected from a Democrat challenge but face a hard battle in the primaries, where activists have the initiative and the Tea Party is the most effective mobilising force.

The price of local dominance has become national credibility. The type of uncompromising message that works in a Republican primary does not translate well to the circumstances of general elections, which are usually won on the centre ground. There is mounting evidence that the GOP’s hopes of taking the Senate in 2014, which seemed high a few months ago, are diminishing by the day. If it has been so irresponsible in control of the House, it is asked, how can it be entrusted with control of the Senate, too?

Ruffled feathers

Another ongoing squabble in DC, undoubtedly of more interest to its inhabitants, concerns the town’s beloved American football team – the Washington Redskins. The Redskins’ owner, Daniel Snyder, is coming under pressure to change the name of the franchise on the grounds that it is offensive to Native Americans, for whom Redskin – as opposed to other appellations such as “Chief” or “Brave” – has pejorative connotations. Snyder remains defiant that he will not rename the team and points out that most Native Americans polled say they are not offended. But the issue will not go away. Obama has come out in favour of a change. More important, in a “half-time essay” on Sunday Night Football, the influential NBC anchor Bob Costas made a strong case that the name was indeed offensive and it was time find a new one.

In a bifurcated city – with affluent suburbs but some of the most deprived neighbourhoods in the US – what does unite Washingtonians is their football team. The downtown bars were packed on Sunday night as the Redskins attempted to kick-start their stuttering season against their great historical rivals, the Cowboys, in Dallas. Hopes were pinned on the star quarterback Robert Griffin III (affectionately known as RG3), who continues his comeback from reconstructive surgery on his knee. Despite glimpses of his former brilliance, RG3’s game collapsed in the final quarter and Dallas held on for a victory.

However, the rising star on the DC sports scene is a real “football” player: DC United’s goalkeeper, Bilal “Bill” Hamid. Despite being in a team cut adrift at the bottom of the table, he was superb against Philadelphia Union in a rainy Saturday-night game at the RFK Stadium. He will be in the English Premier League before too long.

The US Capitol building in Washington, DC. Image: Getty

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book, Realpolitik: A History, is published by Oxford University Press.

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Austerity Pope

Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
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Ruin porn: the art world’s awkward obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture

Deserted fairgrounds, disused factories and forgotten military bases may look cool, but are we fetishising the remnants of such a cruel history?

Armenia, where one side of my family is from, was one of the first members of the USSR, annexed by Russia in 1922. A few years ago, when I visited this little country that perches precariously in the south of the Caucasus, I was struck most by its Soviet architecture.

Although its landscape is a hotchpotch of medieval Orthodox churches, a smattering of Persian-era domes, and brutalist concrete, it was the latter that particularly stuck out. From unfelled statues of Stalin to giant tower blocks spelling out the letters “CCCP” from a bird’s-eye view (well, half spelt-out – construction stopped partway through, with the fall of the Soviet Union), I’ve never forgotten it.

Perhaps it was so compelling because such stark physical symbols make recent history all the more tangible. A history still profoundly affecting the country of my ancestors (and all post-Soviet and communist states). But also, it just looked really cool.


Mixed air corps, Mongolia. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Eric Losito

It’s a bit passé now to mock the hipster obsession with reclaimed industrial detritus, exposed pipes and bare concrete. An aesthetic – that of a post-industrial wasteland, but a chic one – which has gripped western cities for years, and crept worldwide.

But it could be this tendency to find disused stuff visually intriguing, and a morbid fascination with cruel regimes, which has led to the art world’s obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture. A whole wave of artists and photographers have been poking around the eastern bloc’s architectural graveyard in recent years.

Late last year, we saw the hugely popular disused Soviet bus stop series by photographer Christopher Herwig, echoing photographer Sergey Novikov’s equally absorbing collection of abandoned Soviet cinemas from 2013.

Following Russian filmmaker and photographer Maria Morina’s “Atomic Cities” project four years ago, London-based artist Nadav Kander explored the “aesthetics of destruction” in his exhibition, Dust, in 2014, snapping “radioactive ruins” of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The same year, Moscow photographers Sasha Mademuaselle and Sergey Kostromin travelled to the disputed region of Abkhazia, capturing fragments of its deserted infrastructure.


Fighter aviation regiment, Mongolia. Photo: Eric Losito
 

And photojournalist Anton Petrus’ now iconic pictures of Chernobyl’s abandoned amusement park have long been an internet favourite, as have numerous haunting images of Pripyet – the city famous for lying deserted following the nuclear disaster.

Jamie Rann, a lecturer in Russian at Oxford University, has written that the quality and technical accomplishment of most of this photography make the style more “ruin erotica” than “ruin porn” (the tag being used by some critics), but argues: “The enormous online popularity of this genre . . . combined with their voyeuristic, almost exploitative feel, certainly has something porny about it.”

The latest exploration of Soviet society’s skeletons can be found at the Power & Architecture season at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation. In an exhibition called Dead Space and Ruins, we see abandoned military bases and formerly mighty monuments, forgotten space ports freezing in the tundra, the ghost of an entire unused, unfinished city in Armenia lying derelict.



The unfinished "ghost city" built in Armenia to house earthquake survivors (water added by artist). Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Vahram Aghasyan

The works are beautiful, but do they feed in to this zeitgeisty lust for Soviet ruins?

One of its curators, Will Strong, laments this trend. “I was keen that this didn’t become like a kind of ‘ruin lust’, ‘ruin porn’ thing; this slightly buzzwordy term that there is at the moment, this kind of fetishisation of dead space,” he tells me.

“This history is incredibly loaded, and it did not end in 1991. To sort of fetishise it in the very bourgeois western way of, ‘oh yeah, look at all this wonderful Soviet architecture, isn’t it fantastic?’ Obviously a lot of people who lived in that time hated it . . . a lot of people were very miserable under these regimes, so it’s important not to forget that.”


Gym at the Independent Radar Centre of Early Detection, Latvia. Photo: Eric Losito

He adds: “It’s more a point of reflection on how buildings were designed, what their legacy is, what their narrative is, and who the people are who live with that story. This show looks at the aftermaths of when utopia hasn’t been delivered.”

This view is echoed by the Moscow artist, Danila Tkachenko, whose work is featured in the exhibition. “It is rather a metaphor for the future, not the past,” he says. “It represents an image of a possible future. When there is a visualisation of this issue [utopia], it evokes a response in people; they see this utopia in their lives . . . There is disappointment in all utopias.”


The world's largest diesel submarine, in Russia's Samara region. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko

His Restricted Areas series explores great behemoths of European communism left to lie forgotten in the tundra of remote regions in and around Russia and Kazakhstan: the world’s largest diesel submarine, like a beached whale in the snow; a giant satellite, thatched with antennae, built to communicate with Soviet bases on other planets some day; the deserted flying saucer-like communist headquarters in a region of Bulgaria. The structures hover in blank, white space, making the photos appear black-and-white.


Deserted observatory, Kazakhstan's Almaty region. Photo: Danila Tkachenko
 

Anton Ginzburg is an artist who grew up in St Petersburg in the Eighties as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. He believes studies like his film, Turo, of disused modernist constructions in the post-Soviet bloc, appeal to people’s connection to history. After all, picking through the architectural carcasses of former societies isn’t exactly a new thing:

“Russian culture is still haunted by its Communist past, and constructivist architecture is a decaying shell for its ghosts. It is an active reminder of the recent history,” he reflects. “Perhaps [its appeal] is a mixture of memento mori, with its thrill of beauty and destruction, along with a Romantic tradition of contemplation of Greek and Roman ruins.”

(Anton Ginzburg Turo teaser from Visionaireworld on Vimeo.)

The Power & Architecture season is on at the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, from 10 June-9 October 2016. Entry is free.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.