One of the great pleasures of being on exchange is the ability to act on the spur of the moment as was the case when a small group of us decided to head on a short road trip to Philadelphia. After a two and half hour drive transformed into a four hour drive by poor navigation and rest stops, we eventually found ourselves in an unassuming room in an otherwise unassuming building near the centr of Philadelphia – old wooden chairs around around tables draped with dusty green cloth, books, pens and papers and frozen at a specific moment in time. That particular moment was the debate and signing of the Declaration of Independence and US constitution, and that building was Independence Hall. We had arrived late in the afternoon, barely able to catch what was the last guided tour of the day through what is arguably the holiest of holy grounds of that great narrative of American democracy.
Stories of nationhood are of course powerful things, embodying at their core a sort of orientation of identity which can keep the collective whole coherent and Independence Hall serves as the backdrop to the great “American Aeneid”. Yet as much as these stories of nationhood weave the notion of a united identity – a sense of distinct and shared values and principles which can bridge divides – the reality is of course always far more complex and more often than not, bleaker and far less romantic. The tour guide ended on an empowering note, something along the lines of modern day American inheriting that great spirit of freedom and equality – two principles which it seems I frequently encounter and seem compelled to draw my focus upon during my time here in the US. The poverty which is so evident in Washington DC is still evident in Pennsylvania and the backdrop loses none of its biting irony – simply replace the National Monuments with the great historical sites of Colonial revolutionary America.
All of the above was drawn into focus by a simple and unassuming display not far away from Independence Hall in an old, decaying prison – a half gothic revival half brutal and pragmatic concrete and steel bar mishmash that is the Eastern Penitentiary Prison. What was once a pioneer of early prison design had been transformed into a well oiled tourist attraction with an exceptionally good self-guided tour narrated by Steve Buscemi. The most memorable point amongst the displays of Al Capone’s prison cell and gift shop was simple diagram of US incarceration rates on a column graph, dwarfing those essentially ever other state in the world – a rate which hovers just below 750 prisoners per 100,000 population. This blog entry is of course no place to tackle the behemoth of the criminal justice and prison system, however, I do have to say that once again, another great city of the US brought about a much greater deal of reflection and thinking than I ever expected it could and more so than anything else, it is the striking and complex contrasts which are evoked which are the most poignant – an unassuming room where the principles of rule of law, fairness and equality are said to have been captured and embedded into a nation and an unassuming diagram which displays the modern issues of justice.