The memorial was being sponsored by the company that manages the New York City Fire Department headquarters in Brooklyn. Though many rank-and-file firefighters were fuming, the fire department initially went along with the plan. Its statement said: "Those who gave their lives that day were of many races and ethnicities, and the decision was made to honor everyone, not any specific individual or individuals."
But if the idea was to honor everyone, a different type of memorial should have been planned, one that did not require the falsifying of historical reality. A generic, free-standing firefighter or an abstract memorial would have done that. The image of the three men raising the flag at the World Trade Center is burned into the brains of Americans, perhaps as deeply as the famous flag-planting at Iwo Jima was during World War II. Would anyone tolerate political revisionism of the Iwo Jima statue to get more diversity?
By now most Americans are sick of the racialization of everything. Here a powerful real-life image wasn't accepted as expressing national sentiments unless it was run through the ideological mill of one-from-each-column multiculturalism. If all three firemen in the photo had been black or Hispanic, would the picture have somehow failed to express the defiant patriotism of planting that flag in the rubble at a moment of such national shock? If not, then what sense would it have made to falsify the act because the men involved happened to be white?
Part of the problem is that the diversity movement comes in two versions: a soft multiculturalism that simply wants recognition for all of America's cultures, and a hard version bristling with hostility to whites and white "hegemony." On campus the soft version (extend the curriculum to include other cultures) faded quickly into the hard version of bitter assaults on any study of "dead white males."
The hard version was on display last week when Brooklyn's new borough president, Marty Markowitz, announced that diversity required "taking down the old white guys." So he removed a portrait of George Washington from his office. Earth to Markowitz: Trashing George Washington is not the answer. Just add portraits of heroes and achievers from minority cultures.
Removing two white guys from a famous image is not quite in the same class as removing the father of the nation on grounds he is overly white. But the equality of imagery in the proposed bronze statue (one white, one black, one Hispanic) distorted the reality of what was essentially a display of heroism by multiculturalism's villain class, white males. An estimated 319 of the 343 firefighters who gave their lives at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 were non-Hispanic whites.
Inclusiveness is good in general but wretched when it means altering historical reality to impose proper quotas on past events. Retro-quotas are an old story in schools, textbooks and the art world. Museums are under pressure to produce "gender-fair" exhibits with half the works by women, even in shows about eras in which virtually all painters were men. Out of concern for the self-esteem of minority students, history texts routinely do the same false balancing act, mugging the truth so all cultures end up with at least as much achievement as the West, preferably more.
Along the way, a level of comfort with dishonesty has been reached. This helps explain why tinkering with the Sept. 11 flag-planting seemed like a small or nonexistent issue to backers of the diversity movement, including the media. The model of the statue, presented on Dec. 21, drew virtually no press attention until conservative commentators discovered it three weeks later.
But it's worth taking seriously. Doctoring images and removing or adding people for political purposes is what backward and repressive societies do. Part of the amusement of watching the Soviet empire was seeing officials being airbrushed out of old photos taken during parades in front of Lenin's tomb. Reality was unimportant. Images were at the mercy of politics. Do we want our images to go that way too?