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My, How Far We've Come

My, How Far We've Come

by Evan Maloney emaloney@nyc.rr.com

It's an image that gave hope to a battered nation. It became an icon for American resilience. It's been called a modern-day parallel of the flag-raising at Iwo Jima. And now, thanks to political correctness, it's being used to divide us. It's now emblematic of everything that's wrong with how we as a nation deal with issues of race.

On the day of the attacks, Thomas E. Franklin, a staff photographer for The Record (Bergen County, N.J.) snapped a picture of Dan McWilliams, George Johnson, and William Eisengrein, a picture that's now known worldwide, a picture likely to grace the pages of history books a century from now. It depicts the three firefighters hoisting an American flag above the rubble-covered mass grave at the tip of Manhattan that used to be known as the World Trade Center.

To commemorate the Ground Zero flag-raising, the Fire Department of New York planned a statue to be displayed in front of their Brooklyn headquarters. In December, the Fire Department held a press conference to unveil the model of the statue, and announced that it will be forged this coming April. The model was an accurate depiction of the actual event, except for one difference: whereas in reality the three firemen happened to be white, in the statue to be built, two of those firefighters will be replaced, one by a black, another by a Hispanic.

I don't know what exactly what would have happened if two people belonging to any other demographic were to be removed from a statue depicting an actual event, but I would imagine that the word "racist" would be flying around like gnats on a humid day, and rightfully so.

Is This Correct?

For years, there's been a creeping tide of political correctness in this country, one that expands under the various guises like diversity, sensitivity, and acceptance. The stated goals of this movement are ones that I would not argue against. After all, we should be exposed to people of many backgrounds, so that we can learn from them and appreciate their art and other contributions to our common culture. In polite society, we should be sensitive to those with differences, if only to save ourselves the embarrassment of accidentally offending someone and being thought of as rude. And we should be accepting of others, because we all inhabit the same earth, and given that we must all live together, we might as well try to make the best of it while we're here.

But the stated goals of political correctness seem to get lost in the implementation. Often, we find that political correctness defines diversity quite narrowly, that diversity allows for a wide range of appearance but not a wide range of thought. We find that sensitivity need only flow in one direction, that we ask some people to take into account the feelings of others and then tell them not to expect the favor to be returned. We are asked to accept the differences of others, but then find that we can't even expect some to accept a depiction of reality without modification.

Where have we come as a nation that this quest for political correctness has led us to believe that it is unacceptable for three white firemen to be shown as white? Where have we come that we will put reality under the knife lest the simple conveyance of that innocuous reality offend some? And those who would be offended by reality, how can they not see that a large segment of society is greatly insulted and offended by the removal of the two white firefighters? Is it not permissible to ask them to practice little sensitivity and acceptance of their own?

Racial Profiling

You may know the name Mike Moran. He's a New York City firefighter whose brother, also a firefighter, was killed in the September 11th attacks. In a classic display of New York swagger, Moran brought the crowd to its feet at the Concert for New York by announcing, "Osama bin Laden, you can kiss my royal Irish ass!" Of the decision to remove the white firefighters from the FNDY statue, Moran said, "It makes me feel like maybe some of us aren't good enough. Maybe next time they show the faces of firemen who died at Ground Zero they ought to leave out those who don't fit the profile they want."

If there are people deserving of a little sensitivity right now, it's people like Mike Moran. But apparently he doesn't fit the profile.

Back in the days of Dr. Martin Luther King, the goal of the civil rights movement was to achieve a color-blind society, and he and his followers worked hard--and gave their lives--to fight for the worthy goal they believed in. Dr. King lived in a society where many believed that blacks should be segregated, that it was acceptable for them to be denied the dignity of a job, an equal education, or to be addressed as subordinates. Today, we live in a society where these views are held only by a few on the fringe of societal thinking, a fringe that the average man-on-the-street would acknowledge as hurtful, hateful, and racist.

Great progress has been made in achieving Dr. King's vision. But we have failed Dr. King's dream of a society that would judge people on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. Decades after the famous speech, we find ourselves living in a society that obsesses with race and all too frequently dismisses his request that we assess the individual instead of his or her group affiliations.

This Statue Honors No One

In attempting to explain away the FDNY's decision on the statue, spokesman Frank Gribbon said, "Given that those who died were of all races and all ethnicities and that the statue was to be symbolic of those sacrifices, ultimately a decision was made to honor no one in particular."

He's right about one thing. Those who died were of all races and all ethnicities. They should be honored, and undoubtedly will, in whatever form the WTC memorial ultimately takes.

But to disfigure a moment in history in order to satisfy ephemeral political concerns is not only an insult to the firefighters who raised the flag, it cheapens our nation's historical record by turning it into a mere simulation.

Evan Maloney maintains the Brain terminal site.

Copyright 2002 by Evan Maloney