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E Pluribus Unum? Yes

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 Being unemployed in Philadelphia has its advantages.  For one, I can visit our many tourist destination sites on weekdays, thus avoiding the crush of culture-seeking humanity that packs these places on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon.  Better still, admission usually costs only half as much as I might spend on alcohol to wash away the memory of an afternoon applying for jobs I don't really want, and won't get anyway.  Drink up to guilt-free escapism.

And so I found myself on a recent rainy Tuesday afternoon in Old City at the National Constitution Center.  Just me, my girlfriend, and a group of children in matching green tee-shirts.

Like the handful of tourists in attendance, we were there because we had been everywhere else already.  And, we hadn't yet reached the level of boredom that drives people to the U.S. Mint next door.

That said, the Center is well worth a visit.

The building's exterior is impressive and modern as befits an institution dedicated to the founding document of an impressive and modern democracy.  Inside at the admissions desk, we were promptly ignored by two employees who were busy talking to each other, but the line moved quickly thanks to one clerk who apparently had nothing to contribute to the discussion.

The main gallery is a sensory overload--a cavernous, semi-darkened room that resembles the inside of a spaceship with literally dozens of recorded voices shouting Constitutional trivia from the interactive exhibits.  It reminded me of my visit to Epcott Center when I was a child, except here I followed the passage of the Sherman Anti-Trust laws rather than walking with dinosaurs.

Many items are what any hardened visitor to cultural exhibits might expect, but there are definite highlights.  I spent 20 minutes perusing what I call the Web of Faces.  Television screens depicting important American figures (most of whom I did not recognize) are attached to long steel tendrils that shoot upwards. At the base of this modern sculpture sits a bank of touch screens from which one can choose a face and read a brief description of that person's relevancy.

Along a very long wall, we followed the Constitutional timeline.  We particularly enjoyed playing the "Are You Eligible to Vote in this State?" game at various strategically placed touch screens.  Although we knew that women did not receive universal suffrage until 1920, some states, such as Wyoming, did allow women to vote much earlier.  A kind of competition developed between my girlfriend and me to see who could vote in any given state first -- a woman or a non-land-owning white male. 

You can guess who won that game.

To the Center's credit, the exhibits do not over-indulge in blind, optimistic patriotism.  Our historical and ongoing failure to Founding Fathers.jpgprovide the freedoms and rights guaranteed in the

Constitution to all Americans is thoroughly addressed.  Dissenting or marginalized voices are given their due, much to my surprise.

However, beware the red-shirts.  At every step of our journey, red-shirted employees watched us with the steely eyes of department store detectives.  A red-shirt stood sentinel just behind the admissions desk.  Another waited outside the exhibits gallery to ensure that we were wearing the American flag wristband that signified that we'd paid our $12.  Inside, red-shirts lurked everywhere; enforcing the rules of Constitutional Jeopardy, guarding the replica Supreme Court Justice robes.

In a small alcove beside a room containing life-size bronze statues of the Constitutional Congress, one can view an original edition of the first newspaper to publish a version of the Constitution that included the Bill of Rights.  My girlfriend and I slipped away from the crowd of tourists gawking at the founding fathers, to view this precious document. 

A red-shirt quietly followed us and stood just feet away, arms behind his back military style, eyeing us until we left.  I interpreted all this as yet another indication of the post-9/11 police state that has become a legacy of the Bush administration.  My girlfriend naively suggested that perhaps they were merely eager guides, poised at arm's length to answer any questions we may have about the exhibits.

Although I believe I have a right to be cynical and paranoid while visiting a Federal government-themed attraction, one moment did fill my disenchanted heart with warmth.  Beside the Civil War Amendments segment of the Constitutional timeline, two elderly red-shirts engaged in an un-self-consciously loud discussion about what America should look like today.

That moment proved to me that the National Constitution Center is not just a multi-million token gesture.  The dialogue continues about just what America should be, and thankfully, there are still independent places in this country that inspire such talk. 

 

Seth Steinbacher is unemployed in Germantown.

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