Behind the Curtain


There is little leisure to be found in Washington, D.C. — unless you count the sprinkling of homeless that line the National Mall, or the occasional bored security guard. Barring those exceptions, everyone always has somewhere to be, something to sell, or something to do.

Flustered, sweaty tourists back their way into each other’s pictures. Others erratically weave their hired Segways between checklist-points on the Big Must-See List. A vast gang of menacing, unshaven men peddle refreshments from battered coolers — ice-cold water, man, git some ice-cold water on every corner. In the World War II Memorial Fountain a gaggle of foreign infants runs squealing and splashing past signs that say “Please Respect the Memorial: No Wading, No Coins”. Over at the Lincoln Memorial one hundred goofballs stand grinning into selfies with the man himself aloof in the background.

This feverish celebration runs in parallel with something else, which is functionally opaque but visible to the casual outsider. Luxury sedans shuttle Very Important People between underground parking lots. Harried looking men in slacks and wrinkled polo shirts stare sadly at ryebread sandwiches outside Department of Something headquarters. Bristling radiomasts twinkle atop gargantuan, thick-walled Classical buildings.

And everywhere the crowd is veined by fast-moving, earnest young people jogging in tight-fitting workout clothes. Side-partings for the men, ponytails for the women. Are they interns? Lobbyists? Baby-faced congresspersons? Nobody knows, and this is the essence of the machine. All you can really tell is that they are damned serious, and they are fit and vibrant and driven, and they are going somewhere.

The comforting drum of their shoes hitting the pavement allows the sightseeing to flourish, the grand celebration of… well, what, exactly? Most tourists seem to be in D.C. for the classic reason that men climbed Everest: because it’s there. How could you possibly return to your humdrum life as a HVAC salesman in Butte without a picture of yourself in front of all the familiar sites? The White House, the Lincoln Memorial, the Capitol, none of these things are truly real until you have a snapshot of yourself hunched in front of them for scale.

Meanwhile, the essential business of governance goes on behind closed doors, and the elbows of the beast that jut out give us all the warm fuzzies.

The weird secret is just how shallowly the current of administration runs. The bustle belies the fact that all of this hustling is largely reactionary. So who is driving the machine, really?

If you’re of a credulous bent there are a hundred different shadowy cabals (the most common kind of cabal) upon which to place the weight of the whole business. The Illuminati, for example. Realists, on the other hand, attribute the course of history to an anthropomorphized version of the Constitution, the magical beast that pulls the levers and pushes the big red buttons. All things, eventually, must face the approbation of this mystical document, more vital than the Bible and more flawless than the Kohinoor diamond.

The idea that maybe we are all just doing stuff and the whole thing is held up on hot air, like an enormous balloon city, is untenable.

Once you try out the thought-experiment that there isn’t as much behind the curtain as you’d prefer, it becomes applicable to so many of the little scenarios we imbue with underlying agency. For every vast conspiracy that we construct in our fertile imaginations, there is a worried man behind the scenes suffering from chronic imposter syndrome and wondering why the whole thing is still running.

I’m not saying there isn’t meaning to be found in even the most dull of interactions, and I’d be perjuring myself if I said I didn’t think there were definite forces underpinning the frantic scramblings of human civilization. But would the whole world collapse if we found out no one was pulling the strings?

Interesting, what we choose to believe on faith.

An earlier version of this article was slightly different. I took it down because I didn’t feel that I really made my point properly. But once a thing is out there… alas, there is no taking it back. So I’ve reinstated it.