Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Jefferson Memorial Fascist Jackboot Controversy

Jefferson Memorial

There's been a big libertarian outrage over the Jefferson Memorial dancing controversy this last weekend. "' Footloose' vs. Fascism" is how "The Other McCain" characterizes the story.

Yet, as today's Washington Post points out, the libertarians haven't quite accurately nailed down Jefferson's ideals:

It is just before midnight at the Jefferson Memorial, and as the celebrants dance in honor of the founding father's birthday, wind whips across the Tidal Basin and spotlights gleam off the towering bronze statue in the echoing sanctum of the monument.

Suddenly, in a video and audio recording of the event, a shadow looms and a voice commands: "You gotta go. Leave. You're acting disorderly."

"Why?" a voice asks. There is a commotion. Protest. Cursing. A woman, a former ambassador's daughter, is handcuffed, arrested and taken away. And within moments, an event that participants say was a simple libertarian celebration of Thomas Jefferson's birthday turns into a tense encounter between police and the public.

This was Saturday, and the face-off between the celebrants and the U.S. Park Police and private security guards has splashed across YouTube and the blogosphere. It has also prompted complaints about what some say is a trampling of the individual rights that Jefferson championed.

The author of the Declaration of Independence would have been appalled at the conduct of the police, the celebrants say.

Not so fast, says one noted Jefferson scholar: The country's third president would more likely have been angered at the civic disobedience of the revelers, which he would have seen as a threat to orderly democracy.

The Park Police, for their part, say the group was violating a federal law that prohibits disturbances in the sanctuaries of hallowed memorials.

"They were dancing and just generally making a distraction, and the chamber is posted that you are to remain quiet so you don't disturb other visitors," said Sgt. Robert Lachance, a Park Police spokesman. "The chamber of the Jefferson Memorial is a restricted area for demonstrations or causing any kind of activity that could distract other visitors . . . [in order] to preserve a spirit of tranquility and reverence."

Jason Talley, 33, of Crystal City, whose recording of the incident quickly landed on YouTube, denied that the group was being disorderly. He said the late hour was picked to avoid disturbing others: "We were there to celebrate Thomas Jefferson and his ideas. We were not prepared for a police action...."

"So you're saying the state is going to reject us?" Talley says. "It's Thomas Jefferson's birthday. We're here to celebrate that. And the state is throwing us out. There is something wrong with America when we get thrown out of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial when we're silent and peaceful and celebratory!"

"Thomas Jefferson's looking down, and he'd be very dissatisfied," Talley says.

Quite the contrary, says Peter Onuf, Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation professor of history at U-Va.

"What they're referring to here is Jefferson's endorsement of popular resistance to tyrannical authority," he said yesterday. "What these folks were involved in was provoking authorities into having to enforce the law. Jefferson was very anal about obedience to the law.

I love that last line.

I wonder if it's possible to be anal before the psychological concept was invented.

Photo Credit: Washinton Post