Abraham Lincoln’s reflecting pool is dry. The much-revered former American president — captured larger than life in dazzling white marble — can still gaze out through the front pillars of his memorial towards the needle erected for his predecessor George Washington, but the large rectangular pond that shows Lincoln the sky has been drained of water and filled with mud and machines.
In the heart of Washington, D.C., within sight of the Capitol Building and within walking distance of both the White House and the Pentagon, it’s difficult not to imagine that every event, every official action, is somehow politically symbolic.
But not this time. Here is a simple case of public works taking advantage of the end of winter to pound piles into the bed of the mid-city reflecting pool for repair and maintenance purposes — meaning there was probably some good reason for doing it.
It might have spoiled Lincoln’s view and disappointed more than a few tourists, but it could hardly stand in as a sign of either good or bad times for the current president — or the current United States, for that matter.
Tonnes of marble
However, if symbolism is needed, symbolism is there to find at the Lincoln Memorial, but it’s not out in the bright Washington air. It’s back in the sheltered space made dark by tonnes of marble, a symbol not so much hidden as understated, a reminder more than an omen.
One interesting thing about the Lincoln Memorial — besides the beauty of its design and the skill of its execution — is that the statue’s big stone hands, one relaxed, the other almost forming a fist, are each poised above a thick bundle of rods tied securely together with a strap. That those bundles should be there is not surprising given that, since Roman times, fasces like them have been prominent state symbols for forging “strength through unity.” Lincoln’s role in the American Civil War makes him a prime mover of the principle.
The original fasces were made about 3,000 years ago by tying more than a dozen wooden sticks together to make an axe handle. Although each stick might be weak enough to break with your hands, the whole bundle together is strong enough to hold a bronze executioner’s blade, sturdy enough to become the Roman symbol for the state’s power over life and death.
The symbolism has changed little over hundreds of years, and fasces have survived into the 20th century to not only appear on monuments all over the world, most notably in the United States, but also to become adopted by Italian nationalists who eventually gave rise to the fascist movement that spread to Germany and threatened to topple civilization, leaving only chaos and murder.
The fasces, one of which appeared on the official flag of the Italian Fascist Party, was always the most suitable symbol for the powerful movement, since it marked the major difference between it and its longtime rival, communism.
In communism, individuals are subsumed into the whole and are meant to lose their individuality in pursuit of the more important common goal.
In fascism, on the other hand, individuals become subservient to the common goal as a way of achieving their individual fulfilment. All for one and one for all — but not necessarily by choice.
This is not to say that the United States is in any particular danger of becoming fascist, despite the profusion of fasces around the capital. If anything, the American system protects the state against a fascist movement by keeping the three branches of government well separated from each other — unlike in a parliamentary system such as Canada’s, which has no such checks and balances.
If, for example, Canadians were to elect a prime minister who happens to have no respect for divergent views, that leader might use his majority to try to cajole or coerce all other players in the Canadian political system — the Supreme Court, the Senate, the opposition parties in the House of Commons — to always support and never oppose the government’s will.
The symbols of fascism are obvious in the United States, but they hold little power there. The real danger apparently lies north of the American border.
Michael Johansen is a writer living in Labrador.