David Brooks writes:
The monuments that get built these days are mostly duds. That’s because they say nothing about just authority. The World War II memorial is a nullity. It tells you nothing about the war or why American power was mobilized to fight it.
As Michael J. Lewis of Williams College has noted, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial transforms a jaunty cavalier into a “differently abled and rather prim nonsmoker.” Instead of a crafty wielder of supreme power, Roosevelt is a kindly grandpa you would want to put your arm around for a vacation photo.
The proposed Eisenhower memorial shifts attention from his moments of power to his moments of innocent boyhood. The design has been widely criticized, and last week the commission in charge agreed to push back the approval hearing until September. ...
Why can’t today’s memorial designers think straight about just authority?
Some of the reasons are well-known. We live in a culture that finds it easier to assign moral status to victims of power than to those who wield power. Most of the stories we tell ourselves are about victims who have endured oppression, racism and cruelty.
Then there is our fervent devotion to equality, to the notion that all people are equal and deserve equal recognition and respect. It’s hard in this frame of mind to define and celebrate greatness, to hold up others who are immeasurably superior to ourselves. ...
But the main problem is our inability to think properly about how power should be used to bind and build. ... The old adversary culture of the intellectuals has turned into a mass adversarial cynicism.
Let me suggest a simpler explanation: our culture has a problem less with authority than with acknowledging the contributions of white male authorities to our history. Dwight Eisenhnower is the epitome of the competent white male authority figure who got a lot of stuff done. He didn't even suffer in combat or from childhood sexual abuse or whatever, so nobody is interested in him these days. So, Frank Gehry has to emphasize that he was an underprivileged farm boy. It's pretty thin gruel for the Age of Oprah, but you have to work with what you've got.
In contrast, the recently unveiled Martin Luther King Jr. statue on the National Mall exhibits no cynicism about black authority whatsoever. The artistic conception would have appealed to Ozymandias.
Brooks, who isn't stupid, knows that the existence of the new MLK-as-Mike Tyson statue undermines his point, so he tries to hand wave it away:
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. memorial brutally simplifies its subject’s nuanced and biblical understanding of power. It gives him an imperious and self-enclosed character completely out of keeping with his complex nature.
Occam's Razor would suggest, however, that the dominant opinion could be reduced to
- White male authority bad
- Black authority good