I met him at a festival in the mining mountains. I do not know that he was from there, but he fit in well. I did not get to know him in any capacity accept to notice his shirt, have my picture taken with him, and tell him that I have socks with George Washington’s likeness. He responded: “He’s a fucking Rockstar! He’s our founding hero,” and the two of us peeled off into the mass.
It’s true, of course. There is no United States of America without George Washington. Quite literally the states united behind him: first by giving him troops and resources to fight the British, then by gathering to form a Constitution that bound themselves under one executive --- him. The capital city is named after him, as is its central phallic symbol. He established precedence that acted as what philosopher’s call “The Singular,” founding moments that are within themselves examples of themselves. They are what they refer to, and all forms of verification come back to themselves. They are Singular. He was Singular.
There is much to make of the image this young man bore to celebrate his star. The shirt itself is a sheen polyester as used for sports jerseys, and it is cut into the shape commonly seen for basketball (open sleeves, relatively thin straps around the shoulders, loose fit). The visage is of a smiling George Washington holding a Gatling gun in one arm, and an eagle on the other, while he surfs down a river of blood.
It’s true, of course: there is much blood under Washington’s feet. In his earliest days as a British captain during the French and Indian Wars, he was not only killing his opponents (French, and natives aligned with the French) but also troops that threatened desertion. As the leader of the Continental Army he presided over the endless deaths of his own men (perhaps more than died as his rivals). These deaths were of various kinds: disease and the elements because he simply could not get the resources he needed, battles gone awry, public executions designed to scare off deserters, and (of course) exterminating whole native villages that were in the way … and how about his slaves? I’m not sure I ever heard that he executed any of them, but he encouraged strict and fearful domination of them, which certainly involved whipping, and which certainly included blood.
But that smile? The satisfied grin?
I’m not sure. Maybe this is just wishful thinking of those biographers whom I have read (because to tell you the truth, I never met George Washington), but he is always portrayed as a thoughtful, restrained man. In fact, I am often struck how quotable his journal entries and letters are – by all accounts he was a good writer, and a good thinker. I think it’s only because his contemporaries were people like Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton that we don’t think of him as a great writer, but I certainly enjoy reading him in his own voice. And in this voice he wrestles in the blood, and the muddy dirt that lies under the monuments and history that have brought the country where it is today. If only we had another path to working out sovereignty to the colonies, if only the natives could be bartered with more equitably, if only someone else could end this peculiar institution of slavery. Washington did not saver on his power … he held it at bay and wrangled it with fearful trepidation. Power from violence is real, it is dangerous, and it comes with tremendous responsibilities which must be taken seriously.
No, this smile is not Washington’s smile – it is Trump's. It is of someone self-satisfied with their power, and thinking that they are due everything it brings them. It feels that those who suffer in its wake are not victims, but the natural detritus of the progress of the righteous. It is a power that brags about itself, aggrandizes itself, and feels its vulgarity should not be apologized for, but enjoyed. The excesses of Rambo, and toy soldiers, comic books, and lame-stream hip-hop; but real, and lived, and frightening.
What does it mean for Washington to have this smile? Well … we are at a festival. Here things are all perverse and extreme. They are absurd. I could easily be wearing that shirt. In many ways … at least he is saying something … and in this place where it’s so hard to hear, because of all the bass.