The Ground Zero Culture Wars

One of the last crumbs of hope for imaginative, forward-looking urban renewal at the new World Trade Center has just been swept away. On Wednesday, New York Governor George Pataki -- a Republican presidential hopeful for 2008 -- wiped the International Freedom Center from redevlopment plans at Ground Zero.

Pataki's intervention into a project he himself had originally signed off on (together with the increasingly impotent Lower Manhattan Development Corporation) came in response to pressure from Debra Burlingame's activist group, Take Back the Memorial, and the many people they brought on board: nearly 50,000 signatories to an online petition, members of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, The New York Post, and even Senator Hilary Clinton.

These critics feared that the IFC, which would have been a gateway to the underground memorial and memorial museum, would have drowned out the "story" of 9/11 with irrelevant political causes célèbres. Any discussion of the history and concept of freedom, which the IFC proposed to host as a constructive intellectual response to the 9/11 attacks, would have too easily turned controversial, thus defiling the "sacred ground" of World Trade Center.

There were certainly good reasons even for progressives to think twice about the now-extinct IFC: 9/11 would have implicitly stood at the apex of the world's lumped-together freedom struggles, and one has to be suspicious of putting "freedom" in a museum, a place normally reserved for the rare and antiquated. But even with these reservations and risks, it would have been better to build the IFC than not.

The IFC, and the new World Trade Center as a whole, appear to be victims of an intensifying culture war at Ground Zero, which the forces of reaction are winning, hands down. As it did on the national political level, mourning has morphed at Ground Zero into a sense of exalted privilege and unlimited sovereignty for some of the 9/11 victims' families, and into a deep suspicion of placing the attacks into a global context -- even without the slightest intention of excusing them.

Take Back the Memorial and its more extreme supporters seem to want, in effect, to preserve a 16-acre plot of Lower Manhattan as the cemetery Osama bin Laden turned it into. They don't want a vibrant urban culture emerging on the site of so much pain, even though this, alongside a respectful memorial, would seem to be a pretty good response to 9/11.

What remains at the new World Trade Center on paper is the foreboding fortress of the "Freedom Tower," several other corporate castles housing 10 million square feet of office space, a vast and solemn concrete plaza dotted with ready-made instant trees, 500,000 square feet of retail space and a bloated memorial museum that will now also colonize the IFC-less World Cultural Center building. To top it off, Pataki's office just announced the approval of an absurdly baroque new PATH transit hub on the site. If the IFC would have desecrated holy ground, as its opponents claimed, what about all these developments?

Another, less well-reported development at Ground Zero along with the eviction of the IFC also hints at the growing sense of entitlement and isolationism: the New York Times' Nicholas Ouroussoff reported on June 19 that the architects of the 9/11 memorial, Michael Arad and Peter Walker, have acceded to families' demands for private grieving rooms and a private entrance to the memorial.

One can only assume that victims' family members will carry a special key to bypass the tourists and access restricted parts of the memorial. This demand for hierarchy and privacy at the memorial is part of the the same line of thinking that led to the ouster of the IFC.

"Just Don't Fund It"

"There is most definitely a resonance of the culture wars here," Burlingame told me in an interview the day before Pataki nixed the IFC. Burlingame pointed to the lesson of Rudy Giuliani and his fight against the Brooklyn Museum exhibition "Sensation" in 2000. The court ruled that you can't fund a public institution and then withdraw that funding when it features something you don't like -- in this case provocative works by the Young British Artists of the late 1990s.

The obvious takeaway from this ruling, Burlingame said, "is not to fund the IFC in the first place." This turns out to be the only way to fulfill Pataki's stipulation earlier this month that the IFC give an "absolute guarantee" that it would never "disparage" America or risk offending victims' families: you can't ask a museum to censor itself, in advance, in perpetuity. Burlingame said of the IFC, whose board featured human rights and ACLU luminaries: "They want a mini-U.N. down there. They've told us that in advance. So don't fund it." Well, she won.

It's clear that the IFC debate was about more than just the perceived encroachment of a happy-clappy institution on "sacred ground." You could hear it in the tone of voice of the speakers at a Take Back the Memorial rally at Ground Zero on September 10, when they listed with contempt some of the issues the IFC would apparently concentrate on at the expense of 9/11: "The struggle of Tibetan monks, democracy in Ukraine..." You could see it the placard that read: "A shrine for heroes or the whine of zeroes?" and in another one about the "Liberal media."

Most of all, you could see it in the refusal to acknowledge that a museum focused only on the single day of 9/11 was also a deeply ideological gesture, just as the IFC would have been -- Burlingame was correct -- an ideological gesture. There was no way to avoid being political with the memorial museum and the IFC.

Burlingame, whose brother was the original pilot of the hijacked plane that crashed into the Pentagon, told me she wasn't against the IFC in principle. "Do I want somebody to stand up on a soap box and talk about America's foreign policy leading to 9/11? Personally, that would be painful for me. But yes, they can do it. Just not there. This is about respectful boundaries," she said. "Some people are so narcissistic that that they think they can impose their opinions anywhere."

If all these battle-lines in the Culture Wars -- neutrality, offense, sanctity, free speech -- are wearyingly familiar, one interesting new feature is the way Burlingame and others on the right have taken the arguments about competing and comparing narratives and turned them to their own ends. The IFC was "lumping together historical events and diminishing their meaning," Burlingame said. "It's an anti-intellectual way of understanding history. You can't make the Holocaust into a human rights issue of tolerance."

For Burlingame, it was all about "stories." In her Wall Street Journal op-ed that launched the anti-IFC movement she said: "9/11 is not only a story of loss, it's an uplifting story of decency triumphing over depravity." It's strange to hear talk from the right about 9/11 as if it's a story just as much as a real event, especially since this implication carries with it the now-annoying lefty idea that everything is a text, open to contestation.

In a New York Times interview on August 12, Burlingame delivered the same message, but with an interesting addition: "They're trying to hijack the meaning of 9/11; we're trying to rescue it. It's not just a story of death and loss. It's a love story of human decency triumphing over human depravity." What's weird here is how the dominant narrative -- the one espoused by the president and the mainstream media -- is apparently under threat from a subtly violent attempt to stifle its legitimate means of self-representation.

But the reality is that the "story" of 9/11 that was apparently being drowned out by the IFC was always going to be told next door to the IFC in the memorial museum, a separate institution. It was never the zero-sum game that the opposition painted it as. The memorial museum, which was never going to be replaced by the IFC anyway, was originally designed larger than either the Whitney or the Guggenheim. Such was the vulnerability of the simple, local 9/11 "story."

Now that the IFC has been evicted from the World Cultural Center building next door, the governor's office has announced that this space will also be occupied by more 9/11 memorabilia. So now the memorial museum will probably be bigger than the Whitney and the Guggenheim combined.

Private Grieving

The proposal of private grieving rooms is difficult to verify, incidentally, since no other reference has been made to it apart from one Ouroussoff article in the Times, and since the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation refused to grant an interview with the memorial's architects and failed to respond to multiple requests for a fact-check. But even if the concept only exists as an idea, it is still significant, and also plays into this myopia, albeit much more ambiguously.

In her book "Precarious Life," the theorist Judith Butler laments how an event that violently, horribly, revealed our inescapable global interdependence became a general cause for hunkering down at home and lashing out abroad. Vulnerability was not something to be acknowledged and explored, and maybe shared more evenly. Instead, we would try to eradicate our vulnerability.

The new World Trade Center, perhaps with a semi-privatized memorial and certainly sans the IFC, and with an array of skyscraper-castles devoid of any public or progressive programming -- like theaters, apartments, or rooftop wind turbines, for example -- seems to encapsulate this mentality.

The introduction of exclusive areas at a public memorial suggests something more than a necessary, sympathetic privacy for family members who have no cemetery to visit. This need should be met somehow. But we also have to recognize at the same time the dangers of this proposed private grief, and its perhaps unconscious motivations. Although it's something hard to question without sounding callous, the idea of private rooms at the memorial carries with it a subtle, but palpable, sense of a velvet-rope mentality, a quieter version of the elevated entitlement and bullying bluster that did away with the IFC.

But 9/11 was a horrifically public atrocity that affected all people; even if they were outside of New York or didn't lose family members or friends. To imply there's a place in the memorial where some can feel grief more profoundly and purely than in the public areas -- and to imply that grieving is more valuable if done alone -- does a disservice to the millions that will visit the memorial.

Just as the defunct IFC proposed to invite people other than those directly affected into the "story" of 9/11, so a fully public memorial would acknowledge the fact that some suffered more than others. It would also defend the idea that access to grief, and the possibility of unlimited empathy, is universal. Otherwise, the message that's given at the memorial, and perhaps at the new World Trade Center is: you wouldn't understand, you weren't there, this is my tragedy and only mine, and nothing positive can be made from it.

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