2002-01-19 / Columnists

From the Editor’s Desk

By Howard Schwach

By Howard Schwach

When government or other institutions do things because they are "politically correct," it sometimes annoys me to the point of distraction. When history is changed to allow for individual groups to "feel better about themselves," it gets me livid. When the two are intertwined, it really moves me to write about it.

Such is the case of the memorial statue to firefighters that will soon be built with private funds outside FDNY headquarters in Brooklyn.

You remember the scene. Three firefighters, including Firefighter George Johnson from Rockaway, raise the American Flag over Ground Zero. It has become an icon for the city’s recovery from the terrorist attack and, in many ways, as important as the picture of the marines raising the flag over Iwo Jima during World War II.

That image, however, is not good enough for the bureaucrats in the Fire Department nor for Forest-Ratner, the corporation funding the statue and that owns the property where it will be placed.

Instead of depicting the three white firefighters who actually raised the flag, the 19-foot-tall bronze statue will depict one White, one Black and one Hispanic firefighter.

If that is not being politically correct and rewriting history to do it, I don’t know what is.

Many firefighters and survivors are angered by the planned statue.

"It’s an insult to those three guys to put imaginary faces on that statue," Tony Marden of Ladder 165 in Queens told reporters. "This is not a racial thing and it shouldn’t even be an issue."

While the three firefighters in the picture refused comment, their attorney says, "They are disappointed because it has become something that is political as opposed to historical."

"They’re rewriting history," says the mother of one of the firefighters lost in the World Trade Center. "They are trying to achieve political correctness and it is wrong."

Petitions are beginning to show up in firehouses across the city, asking firefighters to sign and let Mayor Bloomberg know what they think about the statue.

"We have no problem with our African-American and Latino brothers being represented, but not with that image," says one of the firefighters who started the petition drive. "That image is sentimental. To change it is to tamper with the fire department’s history."

"This wasn’t done for Iwo Jima and it shouldn’t be done for the World Trade Center," said a union official.

I wonder how the powers-that-be chose what kinds of faces to put on the statue. I know that the sculptor has hired models for the three figures. While they were at it, why not increase the number to a dozen figures and add a woman (there are many woman firefighters), a Jew (there are certainly many Jewish firefighters) an Asian and a Muslim (that would really be politically correct).

How about an openly gay firefighter or a firefighter in a wheelchair to represent the handicapped (oops, did I use the wrong word), I mean the physically challenged.

The fire department, besieged by calls from within the department and from civilians, will only say, "We have been taking a hit on this, but we are not going to reverse this short of a court order."

Where does it end?

One firefighter has suggested a second statue, one that shows members of the department, "all races and all genders," digging at Ground Zero. He believes that would honor everybody yet still keep the integrity of the flag-raising statue.

The leader of the Vulcan Society, a group of Black firefighters, likes the idea.

He told reporters that "the monument should depict all firefighters, not just the ones that raised the flag over the wreckage."

"The symbolism is far more important than representing the actual people," Kevin James told reporters.

James is obviously wrong. What is important is that history be represented realistically.

Had the flag raising never happened, the fire department could have a statue depicting any groups they wanted.

The new statue nearby the Vietnam Memorial in Washington is such a statue. It represents the myriad groups that fought in the war.

This really happened, however, and it is incumbent upon the FDNY and Forest-Ratner to depict it as it actually happened. The symbolism is not more important than the reality.

There are a number of other events in the same realm that point to the way political correctness has spread as well.

Right after the September 11 attack, a doorman at a building on West 114 Street in Manhattan put two American Flags over the entrance to the building. By October, several members of the co-op building had complained to its board about the flags. In early December, the board ordered that the flags be removed.

"This is a very patriotic time," one co-op owner wrote. "But the flag represents to me the big, bad army of America is coming to get you. This flag is something that I don’t want to participate in."

"A flag means different things to different people," another wrote. "We should respect everybody’s feelings. If one person does not want it, we should take it down."

The co-op will soon hold a vote on whether it is appropriate to show an American flag.

Then there is the case of Catherine, Queen of Braganza, of whom Queens is reportedly named. For years, her portrait hung at Borough Hall. Now, the new Borough President Helen Marshall will remove her from a place of honor. Why? Because she reportedly "profited from slavery."

Tie that in with a new Brooklyn member of the city council, who told the new leadership to "get some picture hangers and put up pictures of African-American heroes," because "we have a Jewish Mayor and a Jewish Speaker in the City Council." He also urged the new speaker to "Take down the pictures of Thomas Jefferson," because of "what he did with his slaves."

This is just another politically correct mantra, that people who lived in the 1600’s and 1700’s should be held accountable for today’s standards of ethics.

They lived in the times that they lived in and they acted under the mores and constricts of those times. To take them and hold them to our mores and constricts is blatantly ridiculous.

Jefferson was a great man who did much to launch our nation. He held slaves and he had a long-term relationship with one of his female slaves. A politician who did those things today would be excoriated, and rightfully so. A politician who did those things back then was operating under a system, while immoral to us, was the norm of the day.

I can’t wait to see how some of those who argue for political correctness today will be treated by historians 200 years from now.

Then, we come back to Ground Zero, where we began this column. There are some who think that those who want to visit the site are ghoulish. They believe that those who lost loved ones on September 11 somehow "own" the site and that only they should be allowed to view it.

I wonder if those people have ever heard of the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor. Hundreds of U.S. sailors are still buried in the hull of the ship and yet tens of thousands of Americans have come to pay respects to that tragic attack each year. Should we do less in New York City?

That site belongs not just to those who mourn their loss, but to everybody in the city and, indeed, in the nation.

The site may remain an open grave, but it is also a symbol of hope and patriotism for American.

It needs to be viewed by as many people as possible so that the memory of those who died there is kept alive, not only by friends and relatives, but by the world.

This is not the time to move towards political correctness. It is time to move back, to honor history and to honor those who made America a great land, one that could respond when necessary to a threat such as the world trade center.

It is time to say that history matters more than correctness.

"There are two clear images of the World Trade Center attack that Americans will never forget," writes Firefighter Steve Cassidy of Engine 236. "One is of President Bush atop a pile of rubble with his arms around a firefighter…the other is of the three New York City firefighters raising an American Flag. These are real events that positively reflect on the FDNY. It is our history and it should not be changed."

Nobody could have said it better.

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