Factual correctness supercedes statue

Posted: Jan 18, 2002 12:00 AM
Well, it's back to politics as usual. No, not Washington politics - that's still dismayingly lovey-dovey. I'm talking cultural politics. Specifically, this new brouhaha over a proposed statue depicting New York firefighters raising the American flag amidst the rubble of the World Trade Center. The statue is intended to commemorate the firefighters who died in the Sept. 11 attack. You've probably seen the famous picture that inspired the statue: three firemen lifting Old Glory much like the Marines at Iwo Jima. The controversy stems from the sadly unsurprising decision to make the statue "look like America," as the saying goes. Instead of depicting the three white guys who actually did the deed, the statue will show a white guy, a Hispanic guy and a black guy. Forest City Ratner, the firm commissioning the statue, explained through a spokesman, "The figures in the statue have not been sculpted to resemble those firefighters but instead have been rendered as composites intended to symbolize the entire FDNY." The script is all too familiar. An FDNY spokesman explained to the Associated Press, "... those who died were of all races and all ethnicities (and the) statue was to be symbolic of those sacrifices." Kevin James, a member of the Vulcan Society, a black firefighters group, added, "I think the artistic expression of diversity would supersede any concern over factual correctness." Well, if "factual correctness" is such a non-issue, why not have a Muslim woman in a floor-length burqa, a Chinese guy in a wheelchair, and a whole passel of midgets of various hues and nationalities? We could mix up a real rich ethnic cocktail if the artistic expression of diversity supercedes any concern over factual correctness. Hell, why even make them firefighters - or humans. Why not have a police dog, a fire hose and a superpatriotic hairdryer raise the flag? That would certainly rally the abstract art-lovers out there. OK, I'm having a bit too much fun, but such statements capture a whole mindset that deserves, mightily, to be mocked. That said, don't get me wrong - I'm not opposed to diversity. And, truth be told, the New York City 94 percent white fire department could use a lot more of it. But "factual correctness" matters, too. If the pols and bureaucrats in city hall and the FDNY want to build a statue to commemorate the heroic sacrifice of the 343 firefighters who died - including 12 blacks (the FDNY has not answered whether any of the 9-11 deceased were Hispanic) - that's right and proper. But, if "factual correctness" isn't an issue, why make it look like the picture at all? After all, the three white firefighters who raised the flag didn't die in the tower collapse. Isn't that simultaneously the most relevant and factually incorrect aspect of this entire controversy? If it isn't, it should be. Why not erect a statue showing white, black and Hispanic firefighters bravely running into the World Trade Center as civilians run out? That would capture the heart-wrenching heroism of those who died a lot better than the flag scene, and it would be more accurate to boot. Once you buy into the argument that historical facts must be rewritten in the colors of the rainbow, you take a big step down the road of cultural buffoonery. Already, it is more than a bit rude in certain circles to point out that the 9-11 hijackers were all Middle Eastern. My favorite example: When the FBI released it's new "Most Wanted" list to account for the worst attack in American history, an Egyptian intellectual was respectfully quoted by the Reuters news service lamenting: "Why pick on Arabs? Are there no South Americans, Irish, Serbs, Japanese among the most wanted?" The same logic that says we should change the race of the heroes demands that we also change the race of the villains. Why not make the hijackers a group of Swedes and Germans, like in the movie "Die Hard"? There I go again. Look, what infuriates a lot of people, especially rank-and-file firefighters, isn't the effort to be inclusive but the absurd way the city is doing it. "We have no problem with our African-American and Latino brothers being represented, just not with that image," firefighter Kevin McCabe told the New York Daily News. "That image is sentimental, and to change it is to tamper with a part of the fire department's history." "Questions about race or ethnicity played no part in the brave deeds firefighters performed on Sept. 11, and it does a disservice to the memory of the thousands lost on that day to raise such issues," said Bruce Ratner, president of the company that commissioned the statue. That's exactly right. But it's his statue that raised the issue of race, not those who criticized it.