Unbronzed truth

Posted: Jan 18, 2002 12:00 AM
An observer at the anti-PC Wall Street Journal, Tunku Varadarajan, has taken conservatives to task for their response to the proposed bronze sculpture of firefighters in New York City. And his thoughtful critique deserves a response. To memorialize the firefighters who died on Sept. 11, the city of New York has commissioned a statue in bronze based upon the now iconic photograph snapped by Thomas E. Franklin of the (N.J.) Bergen Record. The photo, which bears a moving resemblance to that of U.S. Marines planting the flag at Iwo Jima, caught three firefighters in the act of raising an American flag in the midst of the rubble of the World Trade Center. The statue, which is to stand at fire department headquarters, will not reproduce the photo faithfully, however. Instead of the actual men who performed this simple yet ennobling act, the sculpture will depict one black, one white and one Hispanic-looking man (whatever that may be in bronze). A fire department spokesman explained, "Given that those who died were of all races and all ethnicity, and that the statue was to be symbolic of those sacrifices, ultimately a decision was made to honor no one in particular, but everyone who made the supreme sacrifice." Critics of the department's decision could not resist pointing out that 343 of the firefighters who perished on Sept. 11 were white and about a dozen each were Hispanic and black. But that misses the point entirely, and as Varadarajan objects, it "suggests a bean counting shrillness of the sort often shown by the left." I don't know whether some conservatives have been, as Varadarajan says, "a touch too bitter" about the proposed statue, but I can imagine reasons why bitterness is understandable. One is that people are so, so tired of the truth being distorted to save some favored people's feelings. The statue at the FDR memorial shows him in a wheelchair to placate the disabled community -- though he spent a lifetime displaying a different image. It also removed his trademark cigarette. Hollywood alters history in a thousand ways, suggesting that President Kennedy was assassinated by the CIA and that the United States provoked Pearl Harbor. To take just the most recent example, the president of Harvard stepped afoul of the enforcers when he forgot that we cannot tell the truth about black professors. They are always to be cosseted with fulsome praise, and never to be criticized in any way -- even if they deserve it. Beyond bitterness there is deep sadness that in sacrificing truth we are also sacrificing true equality and unity. In today's inflamed racial climate, black firefighters cannot be expected to simply take it for granted that a statue made from a photo with white firefighters of course symbolizes
them, too. Unless a ticket-balancing representation is observed in each and every ceremony, program, picture, document, speech and committee, someone is said to be excluded and ignored. What is more discouraging -- if we are all committed to the ideal of one America -- is that it elevates race and ethnicity to pinnacle of identity. Surely it would be more encouraging and the nation would be less irritable if a black firefighter could see himself as a father, a New Yorker, a Protestant, a black, a firefighter and an antique car lover -- perhaps even in that order. And such a person (mythical, I admit) could gaze equably at the statue that arose out of the worst day in New York's history and say to his son, "Yes, that was the day we lost so many brave brothers." By brothers, he would mean colleagues, friends and fellow Americans, not just blacks. Everyone in America was moved by the unity demonstrated among all races and ethnic groups in New York in the days and weeks following the tragedy. It is possible in this country to transcend the terrible tribalism that afflicts most of the rest of humanity. But it isn't easy -- and the diversity police only make it more difficult. If all the firefighters in the photo had been black, it would not have altered its appeal one bit. It happened to be those three particular men who raised the flag. It happened that way. And the truth has power that good intentions can never match.