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July 01, 2005

don't call it "freedom"

One of the buildings planned for the World Trade Center site is a museum, the International Freedom Center. As planned, the Center would offer space to several art galleries, some of which have previously shown controversial art. It would also provide a permanent exhibition called "Freedom's Walk," that would include displays about great tyrannies from the past. There would an educational and cultural center and a "civic engagement network" where people could find opportunities to volunteer in their communities. The plan recently attracted criticism from families of 9/11 victims, who want it to be a memorial to the tragedy of that day, and from conservative commentators, some of whom see the proposed museum as a "Marxist-left, anti-American media center." Special criticism has been reserved for one of the nonprofits offered space in the arts complex, the Drawing Museum, because it has previously shown art works based on the Abu Ghraib scandal, and other anti-Bush pictures.

I happen to think that government funding for culture raises complex issues. Freedom is not the only value at stake; it's also important for government money to support art that's excellent, representative, inspiring, appropriate, consistent with democratic values, and so on. Moreover, I don't believe that it's possible to give out government money simply on the basis of "freedom." Someone must make decisions about who shall get the cash. If the government subcontracts its decisions to boards of artists or to museum directors, then it is simply annointing particular groups as its agents.

Nevertheless, freedom is a great good--and we can maximize it. A cultural center devoted to freedom would indeed make room for controversial discussions, for art that challenges conventional views from various perspectives. It would indeed contain rooms like the "civic engagement network," whose content is contributed over time by multiple independent groups. There might even be a speaker's corner and facilities (such as video studios) that visitors could use to create ephemeral works of their own. Designed that way, the museum really would promote freedom, albeit at some cost to other values--national solidarity/patriotism, focus on the 9/11 victims, and popularity.

Under the circumstances, I can understand the choice not to maximize freedom, but rather to create a more conventional memorial to the dead of 9/11. However, I am increasingly angry at the use of "freedom" when it doesn't apply. The President says that "freedom is on the march," thanks to his policies at home and abroad. But even a friendly reading of his motives would suggest that the United States is balancing freedom against national security, stability, majoritarian democracy, traditional values, prosperity, and other goods. If anything, freedom is waning in the United States thanks to the Patriot Act and other restrictions on individual civil rights. Maybe that's necessary--but don't call it "freedom."

Somehow, the replacement design for "Freedom Tower" at the World Trade Center site--with its 200-foot, impregnable concrete-and-steel plinth--makes the point most clearly. Even as we restrict liberty, we are eager to use the rhetoric of "freedom."

Posted by peterlevine at July 1, 2005 08:33 AM

Comments

Even though I once had an NEA grant and have respect for the organization as it once was, I'm no longer in favor of public funding of the arts. I think government should stay away from culture.

But I also think government should stay away from promoting "values," because right away (just as with art) government support begs the question "whose values?" It would be wonderful, though, to have a well funded and equipped "speaker's corner," as widely inclusive (as virtually non-exclusive) as possible.

I'd like to live in a society where people walk away from, turn off, refuse to buy, don't listen to anything they don't like, but where they are not allowed to prevent others from hearing, seeing, thinking anything they choose.

Rather than yammer on about "national unity," we should be cheering and embracing "national diversity." National unity is a dangerous, narrowing myth. Diversity is what makes us great. Let's get out of the business of telling other people what's good for them!

Posted by: PW at July 1, 2005 01:41 PM

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