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Sunday Age

An Icon To Unity Shocks New York Back To Normal: TR Made The U.S. A Colonial Power

By Roger Franklin

January 20, 2002
Copyright © 2002
John Fairfax Group Pty Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Unlike Washington, where national myths always need polishing, New York has never been big on statues. In lesser locales, stern men on stone horses tend to be hagiographic exercises in civicself-esteem. In the city on the Hudson, however, where the skyline and teeming streets are seen as the real celebrations of Gotham's grasping soul, public monuments get short shrift.

True, there are statues in many public spaces, but their lot is to be largely ignored. At George Washington Square, for example, few passers-by spare a moment of sympathy for the father of their country, whose sandstone face has been pock-marked and eroded by acidic auto fumes. Further downtown, tourists posing beside Wall Street's snorting bull are seldom aware that it was placed there by its frustrated sculptor, whose tribute to aggressive capitalism had been repeatedly rejected by the city fathers. Only when nearby brokerage houses sprang to the bull's defence did City Hall drop plans to have the work cut up and carted away for scrap.

Given the lack of affection for monumental stiffs, the enthusiasm that welcomed plans for a statue honouring the firemen who perished beneath the World Trade Centre was seen as one more indication of just how much the terrorist massacre changed locals' thinking. The tribute would be, we were told, an exact recreation of the famous photograph of a trio of dirty, exhausted smoke-eaters raising the Stars and Stripes atop the funeral barrow of downtown's debris.

Except that is not quite the way things worked out. When the city announced that the yet-to-be-cast statue would be installed outside the Fire Department's HQ in Brooklyn, officials revealed they had made a couple of slight changes. Instead of the three white firefighters who actually raised the flag, the monument would feature one white man, one black and one Hispanic.

It was a small change, or so those who commissioned the work innocently believed.

Many things have changed in this town since the attack, but it is now obvious one has not: the legendary capacity of some New Yorkers for instinctive, unthinking rudeness.

Outrageous, snorted one conservative commentator, sarcastically suggesting that future textbooks describe the hijackers as Swedes lest any retelling of the truth inspire disrespect for Muslim fanatics. An outraged white firefighter branded the plan a ``just horrible'' surrender to political correctness. The controversy kept TV gabfests and talk-radio on the boil through the week.

All of which misses several points.

Skin colour mattered not a jot on September 11, when the tumbling towers crushed the life out of black and white alike. In the days following the attack, pigment had no chance to become an issue simply because, more often than not, if a firefighter, a cop or a medic seemed white or black, it was because each was caked in either pale ash or black soot. Race didn't count then. Why need it do so today?

And another reason. There is already a city statue of three figures, a work equally offensive to some, that has gone largely unremarked since men wore spats.

On the steps outside the Museum of Natural History, it depicts Theodore Roosevelt (president 1901-09), gazing jut-jawed and resolute into the wilds of nearby Central Park. It is a fair likeness of the man who saw all of life as a Darwinian struggle; a ruthless fellow who snatched Panama from Colombia so that he could build his useful canal. It does not capture the blood-and-guts gusto for war that made him a hero of the conflict that took Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines away from Spain and made the US a colonial power.

No, the elements that might shock the sensibilities of a modern observer are the figures clinging to the girth strap of Teddy's charger: on one side a black man wearing an expression of simple, wide-eyed wonder, on the other, an abject native American. If Rudyard Kipling had cast his ``white man's burden'' in tin and copper, rather than couplets, he could not have said it better. Yet nobody in this town complains about Teddy and his benighted savages.

If the tin Roosevelt can be forgiven for being out of step with modern sensibilities, why can't the howling critics grant three multicultural metal firemen another dispensation?

Alas, New York's fire commissioner now says he is against the proposed statue and is considering new options for a ``fitting memorial''.

New York life must indeed be getting back to normal. What's the point of investing a moment's reflection on the deeper meaning of a worthy tribute -especially when there are so many insults and angry words just itching to be uttered?

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