Alex Polkey

The World’s Mightiest City

Alex is a final year student of Politics and International Relations at the University of Bath. He is passionate about working towards an open society based on human rights and healthy democratic dialogue. To this end, he has been heavily involved with Amnesty International and the Corrymeela Community. Recently, Alex has been particularly engaged with refugee affairs, having worked as a legal intern at the migrant rights clinic of Lawyers for Human Rights in South Africa. He is in the midst of researching the securitization of asylum seekers and refugees for his undergraduate dissertation.

Alex Polkey

University of Bath

Politics with International Relations

Work Placement

Host Family
Beth and Trev Dalton

Date Published
June 18, 2017

Not long after arriving in Washington I walked under the J. Edgar Hoover Building. It is a Brutalist citadel that exudes power. Stocky and brooding, the towering concrete challenges you to contest its presence, to do something. It mocks your futility all while the grid of black, sunken windows gaze out knowing and unknowable. It is a inverted panopticon, lacking the compensatory, neoclassical pretension of DC’s more famous structures. An appropriate headquarters for the FBI, such aggressive, dominating honesty makes it one of my favourite buildings here.

As I passed by eating a $3 hot dog I felt consciously small and impotent. Although for me the Hoover building sticks out, much of the city seems designed to make you feel this peculiar disempowerment. Although many cities make you feel small because of they are vast and anonymising, Washington makes you feel so because of the deliberate use of space and architecture. The wide roads, the vastness of the National Mall, the unsubtle, phallic prominence of the Washington Monument; all belabour a single point: this is the world’s mightiest city and you are but an ant scuttling around.

And indeed, a feeling of smallness and powerless has pervaded my time here. That might seem ironic and disheartening, given that I am on a program which claims (if only suggestively) to empower young leaders to figuratively write the book of history. But the irony is only superficial. A certain feeling of minuteness is I suspect an important starting point for anyone who wants to change the world, at pains as I am to use that tired three word cliché. Simply, it is a case of knowing what you’re up against. The cosy circles of university activism, making signs and petitioning sympathetic MPs, are ridden with an atmosphere of anaesthetic actionism which can seduce someone as naïve and egoistic as myself into believing that he is doing something more meaningful than he is. The proximity to power in the past fortnight which I have felt through WIP’s connections to various luminaries, with political leanings ranging from the noble to the despicable, has made me feel more viscerally conscious of the reality of a system that works predominantly against what I hope to see in the world. It has provoked me to consider how to engage this system directly without self undermining optimism. In the same vein it has introduced me to individuals who even in the darkest hour are carrying small torches of hope.

Yet if only it was a mere question of consciousness. When presented with an opportunity as immense and rarefied as this, even the most driven and assured in their aims are bound to feel a sort of paralysis. Perhaps a smattering of guilt as well, as you ponder how others might have made better use of the occasion. Anyone who was a fan of the 1990s game show The Crystal Maze will understand precisely the sensation I am trying to describe. Acting as metaphorical Richard O’Briens (though for the most part less flamboyant), our management team ferry us from place to place, speaker to speaker, opportunity to opportunity. At times I cannot help but feel I am in the eponymous Crystal Dome, grasping frantically at networking opportunities and career-defining experiences fluttering around at a disorientating pace. The program, conscious of its own intensity, has made a tremendous effort to prepare us for such overwhelm through various trainings and debriefings. For that I’m grateful, but I fear no amount of preparation could have prevented me from feeling taken aback by the surreal game show excitement I am currently feeling.

At any rate, even if one knows how to play the game as it were, there are limitations that emerge from your own principles as well as the general watercourse of life. This is something I’m trying to be conscious of while here. Already I’ve found myself charmed by different speakers and individuals who I know at heart do not share my values. Certain opportunities, however tempting, are worth letting pass by. At the same time, you have to keep an open mind and follow paths towards places you would never expect to arrive. Already in my internship I am engaging in research that is out of my comfort zone. This, I am told, is the best place to be.

WIP asks prospective candidates, ‘If history were a book, would you read it or write it?’ With all the above in mind, perhaps there is a better metaphor, more apt for this city. If history were a wide river running through a fetid swamp, riddled with mosquitoes and miscreant politicians, could you keep a steady course without capsizing in the acrid water?

During the last fortnight one figure offered a hopeful answer to my question and I did not meet him on the Washington Ireland Programme. Just over a week ago, this crusty, aging socialist defied all expectations and firmly rebuked a media and political class that had all but entirely written him off. He has few friends in the stately halls of DC and has been mocked for steadfastly adhering to his principles. For me it was a timely reminder that power comes from the bottom. In this country as well, many young people are stirring and demanding a new politics of hope. My perception is that those inhabiting Washington’s corridors of power are deaf to such stirrings. But they can’t be ignored forever. Perhaps, on reflection, the J. Edgar Hoover building isn’t as intimidating as it seems. Perhaps the university sign making wasn’t such a waste of time as I thought. We will see.