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Mid-week roundup

Mid-week roundup:

  • More on the Eisenhower Memorial: The Washington Post has a favorable review of the proposed memorial, hailing architect Frank Gehry for his innovation, playfulness (“Gehry has produced a design that inverts several of the sacred hierarchies of the classic memorial, emphasizing ideas of domesticity and interiority rather than masculine power and external display…”), and democratic style (the focus on Eisenhower’s childhood shows that while “Eisenhower was a great man, […] there were other Eisenhowers right behind him, other men who could have done what he did, who would have risen to the occasion if they had been tapped…”). If you’re looking for a view on the memorial different than the ones we’ve presented thus far, this review is worth reading.
  • Continuing our citizenship lessons from abroad, Program Director Gary Schmitt has a post remembering Vaclav Havel, the former president of the Czech Republic who died on Sunday. As Schmitt recounts, “The fact that Europe today is virtually ‘whole and free’ is in no small way due to the life’s work of one man, Vaclav Havel.”
  • Harvard’s Institute of Politics has some new polling data on Millenials’ views of politics and public service.
  • And finally, the Washington Post reports that military voting has increased since 2006, and found that 77 percent of troops registered to vote in the 2010 election–compared with 65 percent of Americans at large who registered. Despite these gains, though, more than 112,000 military voters never received the absentee ballots they requested for the 2010 voting cycle.

“We have some serious concerns”

We’ve written before about the criticisms of the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial, and hinted at controversies to come regarding the proposed Dwight D. Eisenhower memorial. Well, come they have.

In last week’s Washington Post, Katherine Boyle describes the Eisenhower family’s reaction to the proposed memorial: to quote granddaughter Susan, “We have some serious concerns. […] I don’t think my grandfather would be comfortable with the scale and scope of this design.”

As you may remember, the design, by Frank Gehry, features 80-foot woven steel tapestries and large steel columns, 11 feet in diameter, that will outline the four-acre park. Gehry takes inspiration for the park’s theme from a homecoming speech Eisenhower made in 1945, in which he began his talk by saying that “because no man is really a man who has lost out of himself all of the boy, I want to speak first of the dreams of a barefoot boy.” Eisenhower’s boyhood was spent in Kansas–and so, therefore, the giant tapestries will show images of Kansas in winter.

As Jim Ceaser has written, monuments act as one of the main forms by which we as a polity seek to foster the memory of acts–and people–passed. If this is true, and if, as Susan’s sister Anne Eisenhower posits, that “any memorial should memorialize the person who, in theory, is being honored,” it’s difficult to to imagine exactly what memory or idea of Eisenhower this memorial holds up for posterity.

It’s interesting that when one visits the Eisenhower Memorial website, one is greeted by the picture that we have here: General Eisenhower speaking to men of the 101st Airborne Division before they parachute into France as part of Operation Overlord on June 5, 1944. It’s a moving, emotional scene–the last photograph, undoubtedly, for some of the men pictured–and it’s no wonder the memorial website chooses it to welcome visitors. It’s striking that the proposed memorial carries none of its gravitas.


Sizing Up America’s Memorials

Joining a long line of criticism of the new Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial–finally dedicated a couple of weeks ago after Hurricane Irene delayed the ceremony–Jack Carlson (Clarendon Scholar at Oxford University) and Eric Wind (National Civic Art Society) have penned another critique of the monument. Writing in the American Thinker, the duo go beyond most other criticism (which tends to focus on the poor execution and lack of realism of the monument) and argue that one reason the memorial fails is its complete break from Classical antiquity: “for the idea of a ‘monument’ (from the Latin monumentum) as it has come to us, and in the built environment of Washington, DC, in particular, is classical.”

“It is not closed-mindedness,” they continue, “that compels us to suggest that the King and Eisenhower Memorial designs are inapt: the tradition of public contribution followed by public recognition in this way was virtually unique to ancient Greece and Rome, and it is bound up inextricably with our own nation’s architectural, political and cultural heritage. It is this tradition that we have received, and the classical idiom remains the lexis by which we are able to engage with honorific monuments…The hallowed built environment of our National Mall mirrors our nation’s heritage, history and highest ambitions.”

Carlson and Wind don’t mention that one of the most popular memorials on the National Mall is the decidedly anti-Classicist Vietnam War Memorial. However, they are right to point out that a thoughtful discussion is in order about what, exactly, the purpose of memorializing events and people is–and whether a link to or bifurcation of our shared past is necessary to properly memorialize anything. In a thoughtful article in Commentary in 2001 (when it was the World War II Memorial that was attracting all the controversy), Michael J. Lewis made a similar point.

In discussing the flurry of (disappointing) memorials that were built after the success of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Wall, Lewis identifies the problem somewhat differently than Carlson and Wind–as a failure to think allegorically:

The fear of leaving someone or something out is hostile to the allegorical impulse, which seeks not to itemize but to generalize, and to speak not specific truths but great truths. Without allegory, however, it is difficult to make a memorial truly monumental.

At first glance, this critique (levied mainly at the  FDR  monument) seems at odds with many of those of the MLK Memorial: the latter, it is argued, is too metaphorical, showing a poor resemblance of the civil-rights leader emerging from a giant rock (the “Stone of Hope”)–itself cut from the “Mountain of Despair”–with arms folded, in a Socialist Realist style.

This would be missing the point. Carlson and Wind–and Lewis–aren’t arguing for allegory-for-its-own-sake, but rather for an allegorical connection to something real: like the actual Martin Luther King, Jr., or our shared past of looking to antiquity for wisdom. Indeed, as Lewis writes, “in some cases, it must be said, no allegory at all would have been preferable to the simplistic and hackneyed symbolism with which we are confronted.” Here, Lewis is talking about the Korean War Memorial, but the criticism could just as easily apply to the MLK statue.

This, in fact, shows precisely why the Vietnam War Memorial is so successful: its allegory was real and exceptional. Its minimalist restraint, its unfamiliar and unsettling form, its polished black granite that disappeared on either end into the earth was, in Lewis’s words, “the war itself, overwhelming and incomprehensible.” The Wall fits and describes its subject in a way that the MLK memorial simply doesn’t do.

The next memorial to be built on our National Mall, for Dwight D. Eisenhower, is planned to consist of a modernist collection of 80-foot-tall concrete columns and stainless steel mesh screens. Wind’s National Civic Art Society has opposed this design and has hosted a competition for a counter-proposal using more Classical elements. Regardless of what the Memorial turns out to be, Carlson and Wind and others should be complimented for their efforts to spark a conversation about how we as a nation want to commemorate and memorialize our national heroes.


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Bradley Lecture: Walter Berns on Patriotism

Patriotism means love of country (patria, in the Latin) and implies a readiness to sacrifice for it, to fight for it, perhaps even to give one’s life for it. In the traditional, or Spartan, sense, patriots are those who love their country simply because it is their country–because it is their birthplace and the mansion of their fathers,” as Alexis de Tocqueville put it in his Democracy in America. It is a kind of filial piety.

But no one, not even a Spartan, is born loving his country; such love is not natural, but has to be taught, or inculcated, or somehow acquired. A person may not even be born loving himself–the authorities differ on this–but he soon enough learns to do so, and, unless something is done about it, he will continue to do so, and in a manner that makes a concern for country and fellow countrymen–or anyone other than himself–difficult if not impossible. The problem is as old as politics, and we Americans are not exempt from having to deal with it.