Hyper-patriotism in the heart of Manhattan: My visit to the 9/11 memorial

 I visited the National September 11 Museum, more out of curiosity, rather than any sense of wanting to know more about the tragedy that struck the U.S. on September 11, 2001. While most of us know the facts – enough to know the bad guys, the heroism of the people involved and the reactions from dubya and what transpired later on, what is not so well known is the narrative of 9/11 and how it is being shaped. While I respect the sentiment with which the memorial was built – to honor the lives of 2,977 people who died on that fateful day- the execution of this vision leaves much to be desired. While the memorial is beautiful, the museum fails on many accounts.

Photos by author.
Photos by author.

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First off, I must lay bare my own normative biases – I am not a huge fan of memorials – of any kind- and in particular those of the type that are particularly nationalistic or jingoistic. The only exception to this is the Taj Mahal, which is also a memorial, but considered a wonder of the world, and with good reason. It is one of the most beautiful architectural pieces in the world. While I don’t consider nationalism to be utter nonsense, but let’s say that I am deeply skeptical of a project built entirely on just one identity – often based on exclusion, false pride and a visceral suspicion of the other. That is just not me.

The museum is somewhat of an aberration. It is based in perhaps the greatest city in the world – New York – a city that I truly believe represents freedom, diversity; but ironically is highly securitized and represents ‘unfreedom.’ A fact that Adam Gopnik highlights in this New Yorker story. The level of securitization just before one enters the museum is quite shocking, and one feels as if one is about to take off on an aircraft, bound to enter the ‘free world,’ except that one is leaving this free world to enter a world where one is quite literally held hostage. To the credit of the museum curators, the exhibits are quite well organized and often detailed with audio recordings – of the people who were trapped in the towers, of the fire fighters who risked, and often lost lives saving those of others and also that of an astronaut, who said something thoughtful about this tragedy from space.

The museum itself is hard to find. I took the subway to reach the closest station, near the Financial district. Walking around, I got lost twice, having passed West Street, from where one can enter the ticketing area. On reaching the ticketing area, I was finally met by a line of about 100 people before me and the possibility of entering the museum three hours later. Given the summer season and high volume of visitors, this was the earliest I could go. I decided to buy the ticket ( $18 for students, $24 for regular adults). As someone who frequented Smithsonians in Washington D.C. ( all of which are free entry), I feel this is too steep a price to pay. Thank the lord that I am a student and can get some discounts, even if it is $ 6 – enough to buy me a falafel sandwich on the street side food cart. A more scathing review of the museum is here.

On a positive note, the memorial itself is beautiful. It stands at the exact location of the two towers, and has water falling from all four sides, into something like a huge square bowl. The water then goes into a smaller square and into the ground- viewers cannot see the entire depth of the water falling. But it is a touching memorial in many ways – aesthetically pleasing and it also bears the names of all those who died on the side walls. This is truly the most positive aspect of the whole experience.

Firefighters – the real heroes?

One fact that came home to me was that real heroes that day were the firefighters – the first responders, who came together to save thousands of lives. The exhibits are meant to give a real sense of the tragedy and they do. The reaction that many people who visited the museum was quite strong – I saw a few young ladies cry as they saw videos of the devastation that was wrought that fall morning. Others just stood there, in a daze, not believing what they were seeing. To me, it was as shocking a spectacle as it was normal – in a sense that the amount of imagery that I have consciously and unconsciously been exposed to has perhaps dulled my senses. I did not cry, but I did feel a strong sense of empathy with all those who died and a sense of respect for those who responded to the call for help– especially the first responders, including the ones from Ladder 3 Company, all of whom perished that day. “They died, saving the lives of thousands. You must remember that there were over 15,000 people in both towers that the fire fighters tried to save. We lost very few, compared to how many were there in the buildings,” pointed out the old lady who was volunteering as the point of contact at the burnt display of one of the fire trucks.

 

The ‘essentialising’ of ‘Islamic terrorism’.

While there is large consensus that Al-Qaeda carried out the attacks and extremists who used the rhetoric of Islamic jihad were behind the planning, there is definitely a problem in the way that ‘Islamic terrorism’ is portrayed in the Museum. Some commentators have taken issue with how the rise of Al-Qaeda is portrayed and the word ‘Islamic’ terrorism is a misnomer and that it is terrorism carried out by those who were claiming to follow Islam. Nothing Islamic about their actions. While this may be a linguistic nuance, and one that I would agree with, vast majority of academics and intelligentsia seem complacent and happy with ‘Islamic terrorism’ and the word has gotten a lot of play. It seems almost banal to bring it up. Except that it is not banal and harmless.

Consider this: For all the effort at portraying and including all evidence and narratives, the Museum brochure does include a few languages – to ensure that people from around the world understand what they are seeing. I did see Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and German – but noticeably there was no Arabic script. Are the Museum staff telling something through this omission? I find it hard to believe that they left out Arabic – one of the world’s most widely spoken languages from the brochure, in a city that has a large Arab population and also hosts millions of Arab speakers on an annual basis. And I don’t think it is an unconscious omission. There is more to it than just a slip on someone’s part. I find that disturbing. The museum also fails on this account, of leaving out close to a billion people. And is there a valid reason for this?

 

 

The Art of the Steal and lessons in philanthropy

I watched The Art of the Steal, a documentary about the Barnes Foundation, possibly the greatest private collection of modern art in the world, last night. It was my fourth time watching it and each time I see it, with a different set of friends, I am reminded of a few lessons in philanthropy. But the central tension seems to be  the public vs. private nature of philanthropy’s impact. While the key tension in The Art of Steal is about the execution of Dr. Barnes’ will – that comprised art work worth over $25-$60 billion, and how the city of Philadelphia, with others managed to ‘steal’ it to put it up in a ‘public’ space where everyone could enjoy it, the question of who does art belong to, what is the nature of philanthropy and who is to benefit from it, comes to the fore. The public nature of philanthropy is evident in this strange and perhaps, sad story. In Julian Bond’s words, this is “the scandal in the art world, of the twentieth century.”art-of-the-steal_970x390

While most scholars and practitioners agree that philanthropy, by its being ‘public’ in orientation – in impacting issues in the public domain – can be problematic. Peter Frumkin, Professor of Nonprofit management at University of Pennsylvania argues that this is precisely why it can be effective. “Indeed, one of the central claims of this book is that the special interaction of private values and public interests in philanthropy is what gives giving its distinctive identity and the opportunity to make a significant contribution to the public sphere,” he says in his book Strategic Giving. Earlier on in the book, Frumkin outlines four positions that philanthropy can take vis-à-vis the government:

  1. Supplementary role – Where if there is overlapping work between the government and private sector, this model would suggest adding funds where the government is falling short
  2. Complementary model – This model envisages division of labor between the parties – government and private sector.
  3. Adversarial model – One in which the private donor/foundation actively takes a position in contrast to that of the government. Think of George Soros in former Soviet Union countries. This position put them in a lot of trouble and effectively got kicked out of Russia, recently.
  4. Autonomous position – Thus taking a position where giving is shielded from government initiatives.

While The Art of Steal does bring up the issues of private wishes of an individual, one question that kept going in my mind was: But isn’t Art supposed to be enjoyed by all and even if it exists in the possession of an individual or an educational institution, should it not be widely available? The counter to that would be that the execution of his will, which stipulated that his art work not be sold, auctioned, rented or otherwise moved, in any way. This may seem a tall order, especially if there are no heirs to this vast wealth and all the trustees of the board can be manipulated or art-twisted. The integrity of one man’s ideas can only last till he is alive or perhaps if he/she has a strong heir who will execute them, after one dies. In the absence of this, there will be manipulation by people, whose interests matter more than the will itself.

photo credit : en.wikipedia.org
photo credit : en.wikipedia.org

This brings us back to the central debates about the private intent of Dr. Barnes, who wished to present his art to the ‘common man’ and not the elite of Philadelphia, versus the contrary claim made by the city of Philadelphia, that argued that since the Art was meant for public consumption and it wasn’t sufficiently being cared for, the city had to step in to take possession of the entire art collection. While the film is definitely made from the perspective of Dr.Barnes and his will, the larger question of the nature of philanthropy and its intended purpose remains (in my understanding) in the grey zone. While the actions of all the officials shown – including those of the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Mayor of Philadelphia and others seem manipulative, they seem to be genuinely doing what they think is best for the art world. The only problem is that all of this goes against the will of the individual, who owned it. Given how key the notion of private property is to Americans, this is the sin that they commit – trespassing on another man’s will and taking the high moral ground. In this, they also violate the principle of donor intent.