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Do the Jefferson

by James Lileks

The marble temples of Washington enshrine our civic heroes in great stone cenotaphs, so that we may gaze up at their Olympian brows and connect with the virtues they embody. Or, if you’re there with your gullible kids, so you can tell fibs. That’s Abe Lincoln’s true size, you know. They say he ate five cows in a single sitting. His burial shroud was a circus tent. This is where the kid gives you a “Yeah, right” look. C’mon. They were just ordinary guys. Indeed: and that’s what makes them so extraordinary.

It’s not always easy to get into the contemplative mood, though; too many tourists, too much traffic noise, swampy D.C. weather, the occasional grunt and scream as the cops tackle people for illegal Monument Dancing. Yes, it happens: At the end of May on a fine spring day, five people were wrestled to the ground and arrested for dancing in the Jefferson Memorial. Cherry on the cake: They were protesting a ban on dancing in the Jefferson Memorial.

There’s something here for everyone, really. If you think personal expression is our most fundamental right, it’s an outrage: No doubt the founding fathers wanted us to trot a gavotte if the mood struck, and banning a two-step in a civic memorial is Puritanism in jackboots. If the founders hadn’t run out of ink, it would have been the Eleventh Amendment: The People shall have the Right to turn a Leg to any diverse Aire.

Others might grant that the police have more pressing issues, but tough toe-shoes, pal: If the law says Thou Shalt Not Jig, then jig not. If a cadre of narcissists bent on attention think they can spoil everyone’s moment of civic contemplation with some terpsichorean moves, then they’re twerps. Or twerpsichoreans, if you will. If they win, then dancing can break out anywhere and there’s nothing we can do about it. Envision the future, Winston: a ballet slipper treading on a human face — forever.

The dancers were originally busted back in 2008 on Jefferson’s birthday, and it’s taken until now for the case to work its way through the system. The court’s ruling said the dancing “stands out as a type of performance, creating its own center of attention and distracting from the atmosphere of solemn commemoration.” The decision was snorted at in the usual places: Dancing is banned? When did the country turn into Footloose? What’s next, puppetry? Mimes? You’re telling me someone can’t stand in the Jefferson Memorial in clownish whiteface, pretending to walk against the wind as a protest against the Patriot Act? And we call this America?

It’s worth noting that some of the Jefferson Memorial Dancers are members of Code Pink, the Westboro Baptist Church of the Left, and believe they have the right to interrupt anyone doing anything with unintelligible shrieking, this being the most effective moral force on the planet. The recent interruption of Netanyahu’s speech to Congress by Code Pink is generally regarded as the impetus for the Jewish state’s decision to disband, for example. But just because they’re annoying doesn’t mean they don’t have a point. The Right may disapprove of protest dances, but what if they realize the only way to force the administration to adhere to the War Powers Act is to jitterbug along the top of the Vietnam Memorial? See how this comes back to bite you?

The memorial has known controversy before; when its design was announced, modernists sniffed at its classicism. Oh, more Roman frosting. How brave. The dead hand of the Roman past. Suppose they’ll want to dedicate the thing with a toe-tapping Sousa march too. It goes without saying that they’ll choose a traditional statue with the eyes on either side of the nose, too, as if Picasso never happened. Apparently the modernists wanted the 18th-century man to stand in something that looked like Buck Rogers’s summer home, wearing goggles and with a ray gun in one hand. A Moderne building would have been interesting, but people associate classical motifs with civic grandeur, and the sleek machine-like lines of Thirties architecture with WPA post offices. There are echoes of Jefferson’s own rotunda for the University of Virginia as well, and you suspect the fellow would have been happy to stand there.

Dancing in his honor is another matter. Jefferson reportedly discouraged celebrations of his birthday: “The only birthday I ever commemorate,” he told some well-wishers once, “is that of our Independence, the Fourth of July.” You can dance on the 4th if you want to, of course — as long as it’s outside. You just can’t boogaloo in the rotunda. Is that so much to ask?

Besides, if you really want to impose yourself on others, you can just yell. Years ago I paid a visit to the Jefferson Memorial in April. Cherry blossoms in full glory; the balm of spring in the breeze. The crowds shuffled through the rotunda, speaking in hushed tones, looking up at the Noble Founder’s Brow — and then a young woman on the stairs yelled OH MY GOD THE RADIO SAYS SAM KINISON IS DEAD! He was a squat long-haired comic who yelled a lot. To this day, Sam Kinison and Thomas Jefferson are welded together in my mind. I look at a two-dollar bill, I hear Sam Kinison scream. Especially when I consider how it doesn’t buy a gallon of gas anymore.

Anyone up for a protest dance over drilling? If Code Pink is on to this, it has to work.

– Mr. Lileks blogs at

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