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J Michael Kearney

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Truth Triumphs Over Political Correctness
by J Michael Kearney   

Last edited: Tuesday, February 04, 2003
Posted: Friday, January 18, 2002

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The debate over the misrepresentation of the firefighters who raised the flag at Ground Zero is over. An "inclusive" statue could've been modeled form rescue workers searching and digging, but misrepresenting an actual historical event was not just a bad idea, but an abomination.

The politically correct controversy over the plan to change the faces from the now famous photograph of firefighters Eisengrein, Johnson and McWilliams, raising the American flag at Ground Zero, in the name of ethnic diversity, is over. There will be no statue, and that is fine with the rank and file of the FDNY.

The bronze statue sponsored by Ohio businessman Bruce Ratner, would have had one white, one Hispanic and one black firefighter raising the flag. Those who supported the plan asked, “What’s the problem? It’s not about these three men, it’s about the overall event?” While those who opposed it countered, “If it’s about inclusion than don’t pick an actual event and change the faces of those who made history.”

Indeed, if the idea was to create an “inclusive” depiction of the events of 9-11, then why was there no woman, no Asian? The raising of that flag was done by three specific men. If the racial composition of the three is unrepresentative, so is the racial composition of the men who raised the flag at Iwo Jima. If the goal was “inclusion,” then the statue should’ve been a composite of rescue workers digging – that way every group, including women, Asians and the handicapped, could be included.

Look, if it’s OK to change the faces of those involved in a specific event, why not take the Medals the Fire Department hands out every year for extraordinary efforts, some of them posthumously, and dole them out along similar lines? With the present composition of the FDNY being 94% white and male, there are often years when there are no minority group recipients of Medals and as far as I know, no woman has ever received one. Look, if these Medals merely represent the Fire Department’s efforts, the Fire Department's bravery, then who cares if the Medals go to those specific members who carry out those acts or simply any member of the FDNY “family?”

OK, so only a complete dolt would even consider giving honors earned by one individual to another individual who didn’t earn them, simply to make things “look representative.” The same logic applies to the actual flag raisings at Ground Zero and Iwo Jima. These were real acts, carried out by specific individuals, changing the faces of those involved is an affront to the truth, as it obscures the accuracy of the event for future viewers.

The proposed changes created such an uproar that the statue was ultimately shelved. Mr. Ratner had already spent $180,000 on the cast of the proposed statue and the cost of a recast would be considered prohibitive. A massive letter writing campaign directed toward Mr Ratner, major media exposure over the last few days and the possibility of a lawsuit from the three firefighters and the Bergin Record, which owns the copyright to the famed picture combined to sink the miscast statue.

Sadly the entire controversy could have easily been avoided had the sculpture been created out of an amorphous event, say a sculpture of various rescue workers digging. In fact, the sculptor could’ve used the flag raising with the real likenesses of the actual firefighters who raised it, with rescue workers of various races and genders surrounding them digging.

Saying you don’t care whether an actual event is portrayed accurately is the kind of lazy thinking that would also accept handing out Medals, not to those who carried out exceptional deeds, but to a broad and representative cross-section of people who “look appropriate.” Just as you won’t see a woman or a wheelchair bound person included in future representations of the Iwo Jima flag raising, the Ground Zero flag raising deserves the same respect.

Misrepresenting a specific historical event was a bad idea from the start. All that was necessary to address the diversity concerns was to either depict a statue of various rescue personnel digging, or to surround the flag raising with a diverse spectrum of other workers.

The fact of the matter is that at this time, the FDNY is overwhelmingly white and male. Why is the current make-up of the FDNY (2.7% black, 3.2% Hispanic, 0.2% female and 94% white/male) embarrassing, when the U.S. Postal Service, the NY Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) and the NBA are all disproportionately black and few people complain about that? It's odd that so many of those fond of saying, "Race and gender aren't important," are the first people to count by race and gender at every opportunity.

The objections over this statue had nothing to do with diversity concerns, they centered around the misrepresentation of an actual event. Another scene could have and should have been portrayed if "inclusion" was the goal of the artist's rendering.

It’s too bad the people involved in this project didn’t give it a little more thought.

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Reviewed by Hanley Harding 1/20/2002
Aah, yes... everyone wants his/her/its piece of American pie...

Reviewed by Michael McGowan (Reader) 1/19/2002
I see a lot of good points, although I have to argue with the use of the term "political correctness" since all PC was was a political movement stemming from West Coast academia and is now long dead (as a movement, at least) and does not represent the views of intelligent liberals. That being said, I see where you are coming from in the need to combat token attempts of "inclusion" based on now other reason than guilt. I am reading a lot of comments now about the film "Black Hawk Down," how some critics are blasting it for not having enough African-Americans on the U.S. side, despite that there were only two on the ground in Mogadishu. Cultural openess is a goal of the future, however to claim it in sacrafice of fact is Orwellian to the Nth degree.
Reviewed by Lisa Williams 1/19/2002
I wondered where I'd find you next! Great and informative writing as usual. You are the most compassionate person I've ever read.
Reviewed by Will Brown-Linders 1/19/2002
Fighting the fire and rescuing the victims are the heroic acts to be memorialised. Raising the flag is not a heroic act in itself. It has become a symbol. So far as I can see, though not the best aesthetic solution, changing the faces on the statue is an insignifigant alteration of history.
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