History shows that great and dominant societies can survive a great number of awful things without succumbing to collapse, but that they rarely outlast the gradual disintegration of national self-confidence. With this in mind, consider the words of one Michael Shulan, who “really believes” that “the way America will look best, the way we can really do best, is to not be Americans so vigilantly and so vehemently.” Mr. Shulan, who is the creative director of the 9/11 Memorial Museum, also expressed his distaste at what he called the “rah-rah America” instinct.
The news that a New York City–based “creative director” is disheartened by muscular American self-assuredness will presumably not come as a hefty surprise to many. Nevertheless, I might venture that if one’s sole job is to memorialize for the nation the revolting attack that unrepentant barbarians perpetrated on the United States on September 11 of 2001, one’s calculations as to what level of patriotism is and isn’t seemly should change a touch.
And yet they haven’t. In Elizabeth Greenspan’s new book about the rebuilding of the World Trade Center, Battle for Ground Zero, the author relates a disquieting incident in which Shulan huffily objects to a photograph of three ash-covered firefighters raising an American flag amid the mangled remains of the World Trade Center. Per Greenspan’s account, Shulan’s displeasure was mollified only after he and his colleagues reached a “compromise” and a couple of other photographs of the flag were added to the museum’s collection. “Shulan didn’t like three photographs more than he liked one, but he went along with it,” Greenspan reports.
The job of a curator is to curate, and nobody would expect Mr. Shulan to remain quiet if he had legitimate artistic differences. But the interesting question here is why Mr. Shulan — or anyone, for that matter — would find distasteful or “simplistic” the inclusion of photographs of American firefighters responding to mass murder in an exhibition that venerates the very same.
“My concern,” Shulan explained, “as it always was, is that we not reduce [9/11] down to something that was too simple, and in its simplicity would actually distort the complexity of the event, the meaning of the event.”
The never-ending search for complexity where it neither exists nor belongs is the unlovely signet of the pseudo-intellectual. What, precisely, are America’s flag-waving rubes missing about the events of September 11, 2001? What does the photograph show that “distorts” anything? If Mr. Shulan disagrees with Rudy Giuliani’s admirably Manichean statement that, the attacks of 9/11 being “an attack on the very idea of a free, inclusive, and civil society,” “we are right and they are wrong,” then he should say so. He might tell us also what he conceives to be the apparently unknowable “meaning of the event.” Absent an explanation, we should presume that the curator of the 9/11 Memorial Museum considers that there was a better time for firemen to be “vigilantly and so vehemently American” than the day their city crashed down around them. This is unacceptable.
Even America’s fiercest critics appear capable of treating as separate their wider political disapprobation and the innocent bystanders of lower Manhattan, rural Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C. Why not Mr. Shulan? One presumes, for example, that he would not object to a museum’s featuring L. Bennett Fenberg’s beautiful video of American troops blowing up the vast swastika that stood above the rally grounds at Nuremberg on the grounds that it “simplified” the complex Nazi state or abridged the Second World War? Is 9/11 really so different?
In recent years, “patriotism,” “ideology,” and “nationalism” have acquired a bad name among our betters. This is a dangerous shame. My first instinct upon reading about Shulan was, “Well, for goodness sake don’t put this man in charge of the Anne Frank Museum . . . ” Alas, that was before a reader wrote to tell me that even the Amsterdam museum honoring the young Holocaust victim has succumbed to such sloppy thinking: I am told that a display on the wall asks visitors to consider if they are “Guilty of patriotism or nationalism?”
Such a question might sound wise, but it is no such thing. The problem with the German people in the 1930s and early 1940s wasn’t that they loved a country or that they thrilled to an ideology but that they loved Germany and thrilled to Nazism. Even George Orwell recognized the dangers of nihilistic detachment. While Orwell was embarrassed that “God Save the King” continued to stir something primeval in him long after his conversion to socialism, he would, he wrote, still “sooner have had that kind of upbringing than be like the left-wing intellectuals who are so ‘enlightened’ that they cannot understand the most ordinary emotions.”
Previously, I have drawn fire for contending that the West is not only morally superior to the rest of the world but that, within the West, the Anglosphere is objectively better than the rest of the West and that, within the Anglosphere, the United States stands out. This is to say neither that the United States is beyond criticism nor that it is perfect. But a nation in which every man is Tacitus cannot and will not stand for long, especially if its cultural institutions are overrun by the hostile and the apathetic.
There is a pernicious school of thought in America that holds that the country cannot possibly be the “best in the world” because it is third in grain exports or seventh in state-run education or because the government doesn’t do exactly what one wishes that it would. This misses the point completely. The United States is paramount among nations because it is based on the best of values and because it is prepared to defend them for itself and for others with force.
The photograph of the flag being raised at Ground Zero is of a piece with the film of George W. Bush embracing the firemen and with Rudy Giuliani’s immediate resolve to rebuild; and together they serve as the overture to a robust and admirable American defense of self. One rather suspects that it is this, and not a particular picture, to which Mr. Shulan ultimately objects. And that being so, one has to ask: What drew him to the job in the first place?
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.