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Victimology and the 47%

September 19th, 2012

First there was Occupy’s 99%, now there’s Mitt Romney’s 47%.  This the 47% of the country whose mission in life, he says, is to sponge off the federal government.  The 47% who believe themselves victims, entitled to compensation from the other 53% for the real or imagined wrongs they have experienced.  It’s as if the black welfare recipients once scapegoated by Ronald Reagan as “welfare queens” have multiplied, under our black President, into a vast horde of dependents – nearly half the country clamoring for more taxes and more entitlements to salve their wounded psyches and fund their shiftlessness.

Last spring we heard a similar attack from Romney donor Edward Conard, except that his was directed at art-history majors – the .047%??  That’s his derisive term, according to a New York Times profile, for well-educated people who opt out of competitive capitalism and become café loungers.  Add up these assaults and this poor art-history prof is feeling, well, just a little victimized.

But of course Romney’s attack on the victimhood syndrome is just another expression of his own.  He and the rest of the 53% are, by implication, the real victims – victims of Obama’s legions of parasites.

Victimhood all too often has become a game of one-upsmanship, and conservatives have been in the game awhile.  The Victims of Communism Memorial in Washington, D.C. – sponsored by a roster of conservative thinkers and old Cold War hawks, and dedicated by George W. Bush in 2007 – was a direct response to the Holocaust Memorial, with its dramatic new accent on victimization in the landscape of national memory.  We’ll see your ante of six million, the Cold Warriors seemed to say, and raise the pot to 100 million!  This is the number emblazoned on their incongruously small monument, featuring a miniaturized replica of Tiananmen Square’s Goddess of Democracy.  However small the statue, the number is so large that it seems meant to preempt any future competition.

In truth, we do need to have a national conversation about victimology.  As Americans we often focus on our own losses and griefs as if they are exceptional, as if the rest of the world doesn’t know what it’s like to lose job, home, family, and way of life.  Perhaps this is human nature: we only know our own pain, after all, and it’s hard for any of us to see much beyond our own noses.  But if we want to have a politics worth caring about, and if we want to do something about the military and environmental disasters that threaten to engulf the planet, we’re going to have to try to do better.  We need to try our level best to look beyond our own sufferings and honor the values of empathy and reason that should be our guideposts for public rhetoric and action.

Design competitions, part 2

July 18th, 2012

After my last post on design competitions, I got a very interesting response from Paul Spreiregen, who organized the design competition for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial over thirty years ago.  Hearing directly from him helped me understand better why that competition was so exemplary.  He was determined to make it, in his own words, “the best goddamned competition ever run for anything.” His hope was that it would become a model for all future competitions. Pity that didn’t happen.

Spreiregen’s main point was that a competitively produced design is no more or less subject to revision than a commissioned design is.  Both require at least some further development and refinement as the designer works with the client.

The difference, as I see it, is more one of expectation.  A designer working under a commission is basically on hire, serving at the clients’ bidding.  Sometimes that designer is given great freedom, sometimes not, depending on the clients’ wishes. The winning design in a competition has been chosen because it best realizes a predetermined program. The clients’ relationship to that design is different: they have an obligation to respect it, otherwise they shouldn’t have chosen it in the first place.  And yet all too often the clients treat the winning designers as “hired guns” and their designs as little more than pieces of paper to be torn up at will.

Now that I’ve re-read Patrick Hagopian’s excellent, blow-by-blow account of the design process for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, I’m even more amazed that this didn’t happen to Maya Lin’s winning design – and Spreiregen’s competition program.  The world came very close to losing one of the greatest works of art produced in the twentieth century.

In 1982, as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund came under intense pressure to change her design, or even scrap it altogether, they began to negotiate with their opponents.  Both sides got together quite literally behind closed doors in a Senate committee room and proceeded to revise Lin’s design, without her present, adding various elements to it.  One of these elements was realistic statuary of American soldiers.  The VVMF agreed to search through the losing competition designs for an appropriate sculptural composition to add.  This process was a replay of what had so often transpired in the nineteenth century, to the great dismay of architects and sculptors.  A competition would be held, a “winner” would be crowned, but then ideas would be cherry-picked from several different entries and recombined into one new design – a convenient way to satisfy everyone on a committee.  And a blatant exploitation of the designers involved.

In the end we have Carter Brown and the Commission of Fine Arts to thank for rescuing Lin’s design from this back-door process.  The CFA succeeded in pushing the additional elements far enough away from Lin’s wall that it could be experienced on its own, much as she intended.  While the Reagan administration’s controversial Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, did his best to circumvent the CFA, cooler heads in the President’s inner circle overruled Watt and made sure that Lin’s memorial went forward.

No such luck for the winners of the Korean War Veterans Memorial competition and countless others.  One lesson to be learned is that the more complex and multifaceted the winning design is, the easier it is to monkey with it.  Lin’s design was brilliantly simple.  The major lines of the design dispute were clearly drawn and generally well understood.  Even so, it is mind-boggling that a bunch of politicians and powerful insiders could sit in a closed room, fiddle with one of the most brilliant monuments ever devised, and almost get away with it.  No wonder that less brilliant designs so routinely get warped beyond recognition.

I am not suggesting that the culprits in this case were necessarily acting with malice.  Some of them were, but others probably thought they weren’t really changing Lin’s design, just adding some bells and whistles.  But that cluelessness is itself part of the problem.

It’s an age-old problem.  Designers have ideas and expertise that others don’t have.  The public has opinions.  Both need to be respected.

Design competitions, in theory and practice

June 20th, 2012

I’m sympathetic to a recent piece by Sam Roche on the HuffPost blog which argues against the “closed competition” process used by the Eisenhower Memorial Commission to select architect Frank Gehry.  After all, if not for the open, blind-juried design competition organized for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1980, Maya Lin wouldn’t have created her design and the most important public monument of the late twentieth century would never have been conceived.

But it turns out that the issue is not as simple as it appears.  I had a few misconceptions about design competitions before I started to examine how they actually work.

First, we tend to think of the winning design as a final product when in practice it is only the beginning of the design process.  Usually the winning design is a just a concept, with many important details still left to be decided.  There are the inscriptions, for example, which are crucial to the overall message of the memorial.  Most of the time the winning designers have nothing to do with the choice of texts inscribed on the monument’s surfaces.  Even the indomitable Maya Lin, who wanted no text on her walls other than the names, was overruled and had to accept a pair of didactic inscriptions where the two walls meet. Typically, also, sculptural and landscape elements are added later, often by a new set of artists and architects.  The winning design for the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, by the design firm ROMA, did not include a portrait statue of King.  This was commissioned later from a Chinese sculptor, without a competition, and the 30-foot mega-statue has become the most dominating element of the entire design.

The second misconception flows from the first.  While we like to think of open design competitions as a fair and democratic way of choosing a design, when the rubber hits the road many of the most important design decisions are actually made by committee, without public input. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is the rare case in which the winning design was actually executed faithfully according to the original plan (despite great pressure to alter it significantly).  More often the final monument is so changed that it is unrecognizable, even antithetical to the winning design. The most notorious example is the Korean War Veterans Memorial, where the winning architects became so fed up with the changes made by the advisory board that they sued in federal court, and after losing the suit disavowed the final design.  It’s not unusual for crucial design decisions to be made without the winning designers’ input or approval, much less the involvement of the public.  The design process that follows a design competition is hardy transparent or fair.

Ironically, in high-profile monuments where the designer was hand-picked without competition (as in the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials), he ended up having more control over his design.  With some notable exceptions, design competitions tend to yield to design by committee.

In the end there’s no easy solution.  Designers should be allowed to take the lead, but other stakeholders in the process must have their say too.  How do we balance good design and public involvement?  One way is to hold multi-stage competitions (whether open or closed) in which the public is invited to respond and comment at every stage.  This is time-consuming but it has the advantage of opening the process to public debate while important design decisions are being made.  The recent “ideas competition” and design competitions for the National Mall exemplify this approach. But even with an exemplary process there’s no guarantee that powerful stakeholders won’t hijack it in the end.  That’s democracy in our times.

Monuments and vanity

June 13th, 2012

A century and a half ago, the great conservative critic Thomas Carlyle railed against the statue-monuments going up all over Britain – “black and dismal” he called them, “like a set of grisly undertakers come to bury the dead spiritualisms of mankind.”  But despite their ugliness the statues for him were not the real problem. They were nothing more than symptoms of an underlying anarchy in the modern world. Mankind had so lost sight of the truth that “Supreme Hero and Supreme Scoundrel are, perhaps as nearly as is possible to human creatures, indistinguishable.”

In his latest column, David Brooks tries to channel Carlyle for the 21st century. We build lousy monuments, he argues, because we have lost the ability to follow “just authority.”  The cancer of rebelliousness started among intellectuals and has since spread to the masses.  Now we don’t honor any authority because we all think we’re better than everyone else. In our vanity we can no longer conceive of heroes or build convincing monuments.

Brooks has probably been spending too much time around his fellow pundits, who, after all, are paid to be vain and to pretend that they’re smarter than everyone else.  I’ve spent a lot time around public monuments over the past thirty years, and I think it’s fair to say that most people actually want to honor them, even when the monuments don’t deserve it.  For better or worse we still crave monuments and the myths that support them.

Not only are public monuments going up as often as ever, but they are getting bigger and bigger.  No longer is a mere statue sufficient as it was in Carlyle’s time.  Now we give our heroes several acres. Were we to take up Brooks’ suggestion and follow Eisenhower’s example, we might start by building more modest monuments, attuned to the original spirit of our democratic experiment.

If there is a vanity in our built memorials, it is the vanity of American exceptionalism, the vanity that says our authority is just simply because it is our authority.  The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is one of our few war memorials that isn’t vain in this way.  It is indeed tragic, as Brooks laments, but for good reason: in our hubris we thought we knew better than the Vietnamese themselves what kind of leadership they should have.  We showed the same conceit in the Phillipines in 1903 and in Iraq in 2003.  Brooks is right that our institutions weren’t markedly better a century ago. When it comes to war, our national vanity has been remarkably consistent.

Carlyle understood something about authority and vanity. He believed that “just authority” had to be demonstrated and earned, not merely asserted.  But we live in an age, like his, in which civic discourse has become so debased by marketing and mendacity that even legitimate authority is thrown open to question.  In an age of manipulation it’s hard to tell the difference between a hero and a scoundrel.  And in such an era, ironically, we crave monuments more than ever.

“His Bible, knife, fork, and spoon were found upon the field…” Memorial Day, 2012

May 29th, 2012

Yesterday my daughter and I ended up in Frankfort Springs, Pa., in Beaver County, a mostly rural and working-class county in western Pennsylvania that voted for McCain in 2008. In the nineteenth century Frankfort Springs was a thriving resort town known for its mineral waters and its prep school. Today it’s a mostly forgotten place, its grand old architecture faded but still surviving.

On the side of the road was a small but immensely moving Union monument, erected in 1888 in the town’s heyday.  Just a short stone obelisk, marked with sixteen names and an inscription that reads, IN MEMORY OF OUR HEROIC DEAD WHO SLEEP IN UNKNOWN GRAVES. The obelisk, it turns out, had been moved from its original location on the grounds of the school (now defunct), its base cut down from the original seven-foot pile, and the names re-chiseled. But like the rest of the town, it has hung on.

A Memorial Day document from 1911 explains that one of the local townsmen wanted particularly to erect “a suitable memorial to those patriots whose bodies lie far away from loved ones.” One of the most common, and poignant, tragedies of the Civil War was the disappearance of so many soldiers’ bodies.  Many of the soldier monuments erected in the first quarter century after the war served as markers for the dead in the absence of graves that family could visit.

Most of the men listed on this little shaft had volunteered in the 140th Pennsylvania, a famous regiment that saw action at Gettysburg and almost every major battle in Virginia. They fought Lee’s army countless times, sometimes more than once over the same ground.  Six of the men on the monument died in one battle, on May 12, 1864, near Spottsylvania Courthouse in the horrific Battle of the Wilderness.  First-hand accounts of the carnage there still shock.  The men had to march into position in the middle of the night, in “thick darkness and pelting rain,” and then at 4:30AM, a little before daybreak, they launched a surprise attack against the dug-in Confederates, who were just waking up behind their fortifications of earthworks and wooden spikes.  The 140th Pennsylvania, along with several thousand other men on the front line of the charge, were ordered not to stop and shoot but instead to fix their bayonets and charge right through the Confederate entrenchments.  To get there they had to survive three volleys each of rifle and artillery fire which “took effect in the heads and shoulders of the advancing men.” Those who made it through the fire and the wooden spikes found themselves face to face with the enemy. The commanding officer who personally led the charge wrote that “it was the first time during the war that I had actually seen bayonets crossed in mortal combat; it was a crash and a terrible scene…” He went on:

“The ground was fought over by the troops charging back and forth for ten hours of that day, and presented a spectacle of horror without a parallel. Probably on no other one field of like area of the great Civil War did as desperate fighting and heavy loss occur. During that time the infantry fire was so terrific that standing trees were cut down by musket balls alone, and one solid oak, twenty-two inches in diameter, was cut down entirely by the infantry fire during the engagement… [Artillery] Batteries attempting to go into action were completely disabled and thrown into a disordered mass by the drivers and horses being killed, and the bodies of men who fell, killed or wounded on the ramparts were riddled by scores of bullets. It was the only ground that I ever saw during the war that was so completely covered with dead and wounded that it was impossible to walk over it without stepping on dead bodies.”

One of the dead was William Purdy, who grew up on a farm outside Frankfort Springs. He was ill with measles at the time, being nursed by his brother John, but was ordered into the charge anyway. After the battle “no word was had of him.”  All that was left of him was “his Bible, knife, fork, and spoon,” which were found on the battlefield and returned to his family.

William Purdy. His name is the fifth listed on the front face of the obelisk. Without that simple inscription in stone, William Purdy’s name along with his remains would probably have been lost to us by now.  What does the name tell us? We don’t know how he died, or what happened to his body, or what he believed about the Union cause, if anything. If the measles story is true, we can guess that in his weakened state he must have fallen early in the battle, his body probably subjected to repeated depredations by both friend and foe as they battled back and forth over the same small stretch of ground. I wonder how long his parents on their farm back home held onto the dream that he might one day reappear.  How long after the Bible and the utensils came back to them did they give up the last remnants of hope?

Nothing on this modest monument explains his death, or glorifies it, or minimizes it. William Purdy was sick, but the nation needed his body anyway and he gave it, and then that body disappeared forever. All that remains of him is a simple cut stone, a profound testament to the irreducibility of each human tragedy that war exacts.