Monday, June 10, 2013

The Changing National Self-Image

Not sure if I'm going to get to any regular news posting today and tomorrow, but I've been touristing around Washington all weekend and can at least share a few thoughts on that.

Mainly, on the changes to the Mall. I hadn't previously been able to see the WWII and Korea Memorials; I also hadn't seen the King Memorial, although I had seen FDR already.

I had a fairly mixed view of the WWII memorial...I really don't have much of a problem with heroic, triumphant national self-celebration. Was it specific enough to the conflict? I'm not sure, and I'm not sure that the size was sustained by the content -- it's very large, that is, and yet it's not entirely clear why.

I do find the placement of it, along with the Korea and Vietnam memorials, striking in how it almost completely upends the old feel of the Mall.

When I first visited Washington, none of those were there. The Mall was defined by Washington and Lincoln and, although he's off to the side and only visible from a small area, by Jefferson; what's more, it's defined by Congress, on the other end from Lincoln, and then the White House, also only visible from a small area.

While the Smithsonian museums (fewer then) do take up a large amount of space, the addition of the war memorials does two things. On the one hand, it makes the national self-image seem far more obsessed with all things military. I really don't like that at all. But there's a second part to it: all three of those war memorials are focused mainly (and with Vietnam exclusively) on the ordinary people involved, not on generals and presidents. That's a real contrast with the old Mall of Abe, George, Tom, the White House, and Congress. Add to that a heroic memorial to an advocate for social justice and a very populist memorial to FDR.

So: the theory is that since the 1970s the US self-image as seen in the National Mall is both more militaristic and more democratic.

27 comments:

  1. I agree completely. And if you think about it, the Smithsonian buildings are pretty democratic, too. They really exist for the benefit of all the families that bring their children to visit our nation's Capitol.

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  2. My principal reaction to the WWII memorial is that it suffers from multiplication of symbols--states, theaters of war, battles, service units, fatalities--an enormously grandiose, fussy complexity. It is as if, intimidated by the controversy surrounding the Vietnam memorial, the planners agreed to honor every distinct constituency with its own commemorative element. By contrast, the Vietnam memorial merges the sacrifice of every individual into a single, noble, architectural unity.

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  3. What do you think of the King Memorial? It looked like it would be just as imposing as all get-out.

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  4. Hmm, "militaristic." Well, if that's being used descriptively as focused on military conflict, then yes. But if it's being used normatively with negative connotation, it's harder to say. Certainly the Vietnam Memorial, famously, is concerned with suffering by citizens, not bellicose self-regard. I can imagine more unsavory monuments to the "greatness" of WW2 than the existing memorial. The Korean War Memorial does not stick in my memory, although I have visited it.

    One could say, as you do, that "it makes the national self-image seem far more obsessed with all things military," but hasn't US state engagement in the world and as a collective enterprise since at least WW2 involved more major and prominent military matters than before? Does having the capital reflect that constitute "obsession" or an understandable reflection, thus shooting the messenger, when one's real problem is with US history since 1945.

    (On the other hand, I suppose the lack of Mall or DC monuments dedicated in some way to WW1, the Civil War as such, the wars against Indian tribes, etc. points to how the US public has actively resisted re-interpreting pre-1945 history around the military/war...)

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  5. Are those things "democratic?"

    Something glorifying the sacrifice of the average American for God and country would also seem to fit very nicely with fascism. Yes, it lacks the fetishization of a leader (though, there IS a memorial to our Dear Leader during one of those three conflicts (you know, the one we clearly won?)), but the notion that citizens of the state sacrifice to protect their state during conflict fits perfectly with a number of fascist principles, it seems to me.

    Similarly, the Smithsonian...democratic? Well, they're exclusively located in DC (or, out in the VA burbs if you want to see some more old planes). Thus, they are restricted to only those of our citizenry that can AFFORD to take the family to DC. Given our east coast bias in population, that's a lot of people, but there's still a wealth component to it. (Especially if you want to FEED your family while in said Smithsonian...yikes!) Moreover, the exhibits are open for you to VIEW, but not for you to participate meaningfully. Perhaps this is in keeping with representative democracy. But it also seems to be in keeping with socialism (in that the fruits of the collective produce a good to be enjoyed by the collective).

    Yes, this is mostly tongue-in-cheek, but I mean it to raise an actual point: what would it truly mean for a monument or museum to be "democratic?" And, given that the "old" Mall you described was dominated by Congress, Lincoln, the White House, Jefferson and Washington (4 of those 5 positively dripping with democracy, from the inscriptions to everything else--the Washington Monument is just pure "look at us! we built something tall and put something shiny and AMAZINGLY expensive and rare (in the year we built it, at least) on top!") To keep beating on the point of the Mall being more militaristic than "before," I assume you're not comparing it to the mall in the years after WWII, when it was dominated by temporary military buildings.

    I'm not trying to bust your chops; I'm just saying that I'm not sure everything is so neat and tidy.

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  6. I think that the *four* war memorials on the Mall are basically focused not on "militarism" per se but on the veterans of the conflicts (or, in the case of Vietnam, in the fallen). The movement started with Vietnam, then Korea, then the Albert-Speer-inspired WWII tribute to the "Greatest Generation". (Of course, the monument to the DC veterans of WWI is from an earlier time but thematically related.) So that post-Vietnam sense that the vets were disrespected gets translated into national recognition of their service.

    Now that has transmogrified into a kind of hyper-militarism hiding behind "Thanks for your service" respect for veterans. But the monuments are less militaristic, if seen in this way.

    Democratic? There's a battle here b/w Jefferson and FDR. Jefferson's memorial reflects a more democratic sensibility (small-d) (expression of core democratic values). FDR reflects a more Democratic sensibility (focusing on the New Deal and the need for an active welfare state).

    Are the Smithsonian museums "democratic"? In sensibility, I'd say there's a range there--from the Hirschorn and East Building of the NGA, which are all "modern" art (high brow), to the American History Museum, which is very middle brow, all the way to Air and Space (which is accessible to everyone). They are free.

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  7. Having spent a lot of time in Eastern Europe, where in fact I'm writing this from, I would suggest that by comparison, World War II is barely remembered in the US at all. You can't drive down a country highway here without passing three or four aging monuments to the heroic sacrifices of the Patriotic Heroes of the Great Patriotic War. That pipsqueak little WW II monument on the DC Mall (I remember it, for some reason, as not very large) really telegraphs how little -- by comparison -- Americans actually care or think about that war, occasional Tom Brokaw books or Tom Hanks film projects notwithstanding.

    As it happens, I've been reading a lot about WW II lately. What a staggering enterprise -- it was, quite simply, the biggest event in human history, and I suspect will hold that title for centuries to come (let's hope). Oh, but our monument's got a whole separate pillar for each of the 50 states! Wowee. Message: We care! It's kind of sad, really. The Soviet-era kitsch that's all over Eastern Europe isn't attractive, but you do at least get the feeling that something really important happened here. I'm not sure Americans quite grasp that at all, or if they do they have not figured out how to express it.

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    1. @Jeff: agree that we don't spend a ton of time thinking about WWII from a distinctively American perspective, but we sure do get popular culture built around the war in Europe -- unless you don't consider the Holocaust a part of the war ...

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    2. I was saying the converse of that, though: that Americans spend little time thinking about the war from a European (or Japanese) perspective.

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    3. So (I was asking) is thinking about the Holocaust not thinking about the war from a European perspective? That what from this hemisphere seems the dominant, or perhaps near-exclusive, perspective on the war in Europe is only one of many perspectives Europeans take on the war -- is an interesting thing to note! But it's simply not true that Americans don't think about how the war affected Europe. They, we, are narrow of vision on the topic, but far from blind.

      Japanese, yeah. We're stuck on fanatical devotion (kamikazes, divine right of emperors, "huh? there were still soldiers trying to fight WWII twenty years later?") and "oh, my Lord, nuclear bombs are terrible. But necessary? Maybe? But definitely terrible."

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    4. Seems to me that the 'problem' with WWII, illustrated in this subthread, is that it is hopelessly irreducible. For example, I knew a guy at school who was Japanese, and we talked the war a couple times, during which (as a coarse fellow), I argued that while "nukes = bad", unless you believed Japan would ultimately win WWII, then the alternative likely would have been worse for Japan. He agreed that was true and at the same time vehemently disagreed, if you know what I mean.

      Or the Holocaust: do we mean the forced labor (with awful prospects) in concentration camps to support the overstretched Nazi war machine, or the Eastern European ghettos, cleared out and sent to be killed in the surrounding forests? The two (as well as many others) are essential and similar parts of the Holocaust, but in other respects they are very different.

      So if we tried to capture all this in a discrete manner, and failed, well, I'm glad we tried, anyway.

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    5. Let me put it this way: the Holocaust was itself one of history's most important events -- arguably the single most important thing that ever happened within such a short time span -- and yet was one very sorry chapter (or, as CSH says, a group of related chapters) in an overall event, the war, that was an order of magnitude larger. Which speaks to the incredible size of that larger event.

      So, let's assume for the moment that with the various Holocaust museums and memorials around America, the movies and miniseries and popular-culture depictions, and the other little remembrances here and there (like the intersection in Los Angeles named for Raoul Wallenberg, but if you blink you'll miss the sign), the Holocaust is appropriately remembered. I'm not saying it is, maybe there should be much more, but for argument's sake let's take this as a baseline. If one part of WW II is appropriately remembered at this level of memorialization, what would be appropriate for the war as a whole? I think this is, implicitly, what I was wondering when I toured the WW II memorial. A memorial that was truly right-sized or "to scale" would need to take up the entire Mall. (And yet, somehow, not look like an Albert Speer monstrosity. Tricky assignment. Maybe you could get Frank Gehry to design it so it looked like a wadded-up piece of tissue from his wastebin, i.e. like every other Frank Gehry building.)

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    6. @Jeff -- that's not true, either -- the Stata Center at MIT, so far from resembling wadded-up tissue, on the contrary suggests a Dr. Seuss design executed by someone who never really got over the "bedazzling" fad (you know, randomly adding shiny things to other things). -- Which is way preferable to the simultaneous overwhelming size and visual blandness of its yet-more-recent neighbor the Koch Institute.

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    7. Wow. Thanks for that link. I thought I was just seizing a chance here to take an unrelated cheap shot at Frank Gehry. But no, I see in Googling around a bit further that Gehry has actually designed a WW II - related memorial, i.e. the proposed Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial, which the Eisenhower family and many other critics want scrapped and replaced with a design chosen in a more open competition. There's a site devoted to the controversy here:

      http://www.eisenhowermemorial.net/

      And from the linked report of the National Civic Art Society, these choice quotes:

      "The Memorial’s only statue of Eisenhower depicts him as a life-size barefoot young boy, a shrinky-dink tikey Ikey. It is a travesty that cuts a great man down to size. ....The design of the boy Eisenhower statue is being advised by an an artist famous for his sculpture 'Oh! Charley, Charley, Charley,' in which multiple fiberglass flesh-colored mannequin-like naked versions of himself engage in an orgy."

      Of course, they say "flesh-colored naked mannequin orgy" like it's a bad thing. "Tikey Ikey" is a great phrase, though. Personally I wouldn't object to a boyhood statue (they call it "kitsch" and a "Happy McMonument"), but I do have to agree that these associations sit a bit oddly with a memorial to Eisenhower, the very embodiment of strait-lacedness. For which reason I'm also frankly baffled that of all the "starchitects" out there, the sponsors of a memorial to Ike would have picked Gehry. But then, what do I know, it baffles me that anybody ever picks Gehry.

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    8. I would take Gehry easily over coming to work daily in (or near, as I do) THIS triumph of architecture!
      http://psych.fullerton.edu/internship/childrenteens.html

      (Image is at the top of the screen. How bad is the architecture on my campus? I can only find terrible pictures embedded in other websites; nobody seems to PURPOSELY show these pictures!)

      Recognizing how ugly our campus is (and in need of space), they just bought THIS building across the street.

      http://news.fullerton.edu/2012fa/images/Law-Building-hr.jpg

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    9. Great stuff, Matt. I can beat it, though:

      http://wesscholar.wesleyan.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1287&context=etd_hon_theses

      I spent a year teaching at this appalling architectural disaster, BEFORE the modest improvements of recent years. (The style is actually called "Brutalist." Actually called that.) Then I spent two years in therapy recovering.

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    10. Is it possible to tell whether you're above or below ground when you're within those buildings? Yes? Then congratulations, it's a more humane working environment than (my current set-up) the CUNY Graduate Center. No link because the building looks nice, in spots great, from the outside -- it used to be the B. Altman department store -- but the ONLY windows I've found on floors 2-7 are in disused stairwells.

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  8. Are Washington and Lincoln really not "militaristic?" They did after all preside over the two most important wars in American history.

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  9. The grandiose style of the WWII monument seems fitting when you consider the war's role in ushering-in an age of American dominance. So maybe it accurately reflects that we are indeed a modern Rome. But monuments aren't so much about who we are but what we aspire to be. American world dominance is a fact and in most ways inevitable, but it doesn't define what we were fighting for (at least for the men on the ground).

    The WWII monument is also unique in that it suggests a political message at all. The Korean and Vietnam memorials focus on the fighting men, leaving political interpretations to the viewer (at least to my eye).

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  10. I would dispute very much that the Vietnam Memorial has no political message. It's lack of any heroically posed statues, triumphant arches, etc; it's somber black stone; the focus on names of the fallen rather than individual or units who took part--it clearly communicates mourning rather than national pride. Given the conflict it memorializes, that's rather appropriate, but it is also a fairly political message.

    Monuments can't avoid offering some interpretation of what they memorialize--an observer ignorant of American history could guess that we won World War II and lost in Vietnam.

    Regarding the WWII Memorial, I never quite understood the scorn that was heaped on it by some critics. It has a plainness on concept that leaves it inferior, I think, to the U. S. Grant Memorial at the foot of the Capitol, but it's nice to have something pleasantly neoclassical and somewhat unassuming in the center of the Mall, content to complement the existing vista.

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    1. Anon, I don't see a political message in honoring individual sacrifice. But once national pride becomes the focus, you're introducing an inherently political question: What are we proud of?

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    2. No tin honoring individual sacrifice, but in the way we honor it, and the fact that individual sacrifice is the only thing about that conflict we choose to honor. Was Vietnam a victory or a defeat? A noble struggle or a mistake? Those are political questions. I think it's clear from the monuments that we feel very differently about Vietnam than we do about the Civil War or WWII.

      When the Vietnam Memorial was built, several veterans' groups and otehrs hated it. Why? Because what it memorializes about the war wasn't what they wanted to be memorialized.

      If the WWII memorial were nothing but a black wall with the names of those who died (and not those who fought and lived), would anyone think that it accurately captured what we remember about that war? I'd venture to say no--what about the defeat of evil regimes? What about the heroism of those who fought and survived? What about the principles for which we fought?--those are the sorts of questions that would be raised. With Vietnam, those aspects aren't there. They aren't there because we mainly don't think those aspects apply.

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    3. Some of us who objected to the location and scale of the WWII memorial liked the pleasantly unassuming existing vista just fine as it was.

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    4. If the WWII memorial were nothing but a black wall with the names of those who died

      They'd have to create stone microfiche with that death count.

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  11. MLK's "Stone of Hope" is conspicuously Maoist.

    But I guess that's "heroic" to people who always seem to forget that he was the biggest murderer of the 20th century.

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    1. I'm probably about as far from backyardfoundry as it's possible to be politically, but to my surprise I have to agree. I Googled some more pictures of the Memorial, just in case my impression was skewed by the camera angle of the photo in the Economist piece. It wasn't. King's pose and facial expression on that statue practically ooze totalitarianism. I really wonder who thought it was a good idea to commission a Chinese sculptor for the memorial.

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    2. I'm probably about as far from backyardfoundry as it's possible to be politically

      Nah. You're not pro-communist.

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