Tag Archives: commemoration

Colossus on the Hudson: Monuments of Global Kitsch

Donald Trump announced a “National Garden of American Heroes” with fanfare, beneath massive carved effigies of white Presidents on July 3 2020, using the backdrop of Mount Rushmore long planned as a setting to address the nation as a soundstage illustrative of his call for more monuments–in a manner that was more divisive, if more eloquently divisive than in the past. Calling for a new set of heroic monuments in a divided time attempted to call for the honoring of authority, promoting new monument of the national identity, as the nation’s identity was being questioned, contested, and faced pressure to be defined. Mt. Rushmore–four faces that are the primary national shrine of white, male authority–became the place to do so, beneath those impassive faces hewn into granite on Black Elk Peak that stare forward with timelessness eery in their unwavering gaze.

Donald Trump on Juily 3, 2020, near Keystone, S.D. (Alex Brandon/AP)

The effigies before which Trump proclaimed his image of a united honoring of past heroes was well-planned, but the statuary complex was hardly a planned event. The monumental sculpture staring roughly southeast was intended to include effigies of Lewis were hardly a planned event. The monumental sculpture staring roughly southeast was intended to include effigies of Lewis and Clark, Sacagawe, Red Cloud, Buffalo Bill Cody and Crazy Horse–in an attempt at a show of amity similar to the Garden of Heroes Trump proposed–but the anti-indigenous sculptor, also a klansman, altered his plans to sculpt American Presidents in an American “skyline,” and visages that, by 1941, were shown as heads emerging from the rock.

Intended as a tourist attraction of boosterish proportions, the colossal complex became a backdrop for announcing celebratory achievements of “giants in full flesh and blood” calling for honor due “great, great men” who “will never be forgotten,” and precedent for the reality park of “historically significant Americans”–over two-thirds male, if several blacks, ran against an apparently non-partisan speech. Indeed, by foregrounding Republican Presidents, free spirits like Wild Bill Hickok, Antonin Scalia, Billy Graham, and Ronald Reagan, and juxtaposing Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglas with southern separatist Henry Clay, the monument imagined a united front of American greatness could be created of mostly men.

The call that came during the dismantling of many statues, effigies, and honoring of Confederates and slave-owners alike raised questions of belonging, and national memory fit for the unwinding of his Presidency–and his attachments to colossal monuments and monument-making. The executive order for building more statues responded not only to the toppling of statues of Columbus, Andrew Jackson, as well as Presidents as Thomas Jefferson who owned slaves, but the deep uneasiness he revealed at the toppling of long-iconic statues of Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson, after Charlottesville confrontations of white supremacists.

Trump revealed a love of monument-building and monumental totems—doing double duty as signs of authority and belonging that conceal their immobility–as if a sign of eternity. His call for a national exercise in monument building and restoration of national ideals recalled for me the graveyard of the past of Budapest’s Memento Park, opened in 1993 collecting displaced statues of the Communist era, serving as a theater of dictatorship preserving the false future they once sought to create, their forms drained of modern relevance, but providing a receptacle for the statues removed from the city in 1989, removed from the capital city to brick platforms off nondescript highways. By underscoring both the emptiness of their rhetorical gestures and the poetics of the passage of time, the transposition of dictatorial figures to a democratic space doing double duty as an injunction to remember the past as a period–as much as to negate the emptiness of their very assertions of timelessness.

Seeking to foreclose debates about public memorialization by announcing a Task Force for Building and Rebuilding Monuments to American Heroes a park of “historically significant Americans,” Trump affirmed the relevance of statues as “silent teachers in solid form of stone or metal” as if to create a sense of collective unity as COVID-19 pandemic revealed inequities across the nation, and as the need to contain the virus prevented in-person instruction at schools for the foreseeable future. In asking “gratitude for the accomplishments and sacrifices of our exceptional fellow-citizens . . . despite their flaws” Trump emphasized the didactic and educational ends of the theme part, not to affirm a direct relation between the spectator of a statue and the state, but that oddly circumscribe agency of many, given who is absent or excluded from the Garden set to open to the public on the 2026 anniversary of Independence Day.

If widely interpreted as a response to the removal of statues of Columbus and the changing of military bases that honored confederate generals, in its call to prevent the overthrow of monuments as an attempt to “desecrate our common inheritance” and common culture–even to “overthrow the American revolution”–the thirst for building monuments reflects Trump’s search for self-memorialization–a taste already hinted at in his discussion of the Border Wall as a monument–and DHS to tweet out with pride a commemorative plaque of Trump’s name on the first completed section of Border Wall in October, 2018.

The call for building more statues responded to those “determined to tear down every statue, symbol, and memory of our national heritage” was an exaggeration, but men like Confederate General Albert Pike, Presidents who owned slaves like Ulysses Grant and Thomas Jefferson, and even the composer Francis Scott Key, or Daughters of the Confederacy was a reckoning of the monumental inheritance of America, as much as a blanket rebuke of the past. But in affirming the need to build more statues, rather than to assess the objections to honoring men who owned slaves, or fought to enslave others, Trump promoted a cult of statuary, criminalizing their vandalism as federal property, as if to resolve a sense of purpose including those who fought to restrict the franchise or were associated with white supremacy he had nourished.

Trump’s deep attachment to monumentalization led him to select to address the nation beneath the colossal visages of past Presidents, more than the relation of the statues to civic or state values; his attempt to burnish the notion of a monument to his own accomplishments seemed evident, but the promotion of more statues in such a “Garden of Heroes” took spin from promoting a massive bronze of Christopher Columbus in 1997, hoped to be erected as rising in the Hudson estuary, not long before he entered politics, beside a skyscraper developing in West Side Yards, greater by several feet from the more distant Statue of Liberty. The proposal of a monument taller that the Liberty icon was an almost Icaran gesture to redefine the New York skyline around his own development, and to create am image that would be too costly to dismantle by the local government, once erected on the landfill he built; the monument’s arrival was brokered from Russia in attempts to broker a deal with Moscow’s mayor–betraying the very inseparable relations of personal interest and public symbolism that has haunted Trump’s Presidency, but which the Garden of Heroes might seem to purify.

One wonders if Trump remembered his plans for the massive statue as he spoke below granite faces of four white male Presidents on Independence Day, commemorating a declaration that only white men had signed, and creating a tableau of a reduced image of inclusivity that demanded consent. The Garden that he conjured on July 3, 2020 included police killed in the line of duty beside a list of male childhood heroes–Daniel Boone, Douglas McArthur, George S. Patton, and figures who accommodated slavery to American values, and slave-owning Presidents, beside Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Harriet Tubman, and Abraham Lincoln, in a pastiche of history that has no central narrative save to mainstream history to partisan terms in a restrictive model of exemplarity: the absence of latinos, migrants, or feminist figures underscores these are men used to being monumentalized, and now non-threatening to a status quo–or a “Dead White Male” history that Trump adores.

Embracing the heroism of the built spectacle, Trump returned to his roots in real estate promotion, embodied in his grandiose 1997 plans to erect–although never constructed–a colossal bronze statue of Christopher Columbus, fabricated in Moscow foundries dating from Catherine the Great, betraying more than a touch of Disney-esque kitsch, of an effigy of a robed royal emissary, greeting the New World, that the Soviets Union had long tried to present as a gift to American Presidents?Columbus was, thankfully, absent from the reality park he described below the backdrop of sixty foot-high granite faces of past United States Presidents–George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln–the carving of this earlier shrine to whiteness on land sacred to native Americans provided the basis of to attacked “deface[ment] of our most sacred memorials” including Columbus, secessionists, and slave-holding presidents, as a “merciless campaign to wipe out our history”–a possessive perhaps restricted to his audience.

In conjuring an array of a virtual army of statues of assorted generals, frontier figures, and further Presidents, that he hoped might transcend 2020, the President betrayed deeper ties to monuments than virtues, and revealed a keen interest in replacing a personal relation to national history with empty symbols. One could only remember the eagerness with which he had promoted a massive monument to Christopher Columbus, forged in Moscow, that the city’s mayor had in 1997 promised him as a gift, in what seems one of the earliest cases of Trump comparing himself to the nation.

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Filed under Christopher Columbus, Donald J. Trump, globalization, monuments, real estate

Global Giuliani

Rudy Giuliani, more than anyone else, evokes the national trauma of September 11, 2001. If the trauma 9/11 has been a poster for increased federal powers, an excuse for violating civil rights, and a remaking of the New World Order, it is striking how much recent resurgent if hoary myths of the national values of 9/11 contributed significant spin to the careers of members of the Trump administration. Indeed, the trauma of 9/11 has been recycled in ways that have affirmed nationalist credentials and pride.

It is especially striking how the former New York mayor, and and U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, was able to successfully pivot from being a figure of local fame and prestige–indeed, a defender of the hope of returning New York to a lost time he seemed to embody as the locally schooled tough-talking upright son of a family composed of cops and firefighters, who seemed to tap a tradition of legal-minded public service of which he posed as champion. But 9/11 provided the optic by which Giuliani acquired a resonance and career that became wierdly global–and hardly local–as if by the alchemy of the global need for security. The miracle of the alchemical transformation of Giuliani from a local figure–imbued in a sense of neighborhood that was incarnated in the tavern his father ran in Brooklyn–became not a guarantor of a local past, which may not have ever existed, but was transmuted into a global career of posing as a strongman.

In many ways, the position that Giuliani occupied after 9/11 allowed him to claim the almost fantasy position of a warrior for good on a global stage. The transformation of the former public attorney and lawman who seemed to stand as a stalwart defendant of local values as a global figure was not quick, but endured over decades, in ways that have not been fully traced, as Giuliani converted his prestige in the global media after 9/11, as he seemed to carry the nation through trauma, into a global mercenary of something like the New World Order. For after the terrifying punctuating event of 9/11, and after he left office, the former New York Mayor rode the surface of the global media to promote his brand as a means of guaranteeing security, desalination projects, police reform, judicial reform, and even unrelated areas as investment banking.

Giuliani toured the world with an expense account, speaking for broad Neo-nationalist audiences across the world that manufactured greater credibility for a ridiculously globally broadened sense of his license, capacities, and legal expertise, in ways that his actual career as mayor or attorney would hardly have predicted or confirmed. After years of being rooted in the defense of a local moral economy, and tough-guy persona rooted in Brooklyn as well as New York City, and the NYPD, the vey mediatization of 9/11 improbably shot Giuliani to the global in ways that we are still coming to terms with in our national trajectory: emboldening Giuliani to hoc his newfound fame on a global marketplace in truly mercenary fashion, coasting on the publicity that global media platforms had generated, and surrounding Giuliani with more wealth than he had ever enjoyed–its dark backdrop catapulting the mayor to the global stage as a “tower of strength” that replaced the global status the Twin Towers had once occupied. Over the devastated New York skyline, Giuliani towered, proclaimed a true “tower of Strength” no longer a Mayor, but an advocate for global calm before menacing darkened nocturnal skies.

The New York poet Michael Brownstein–no relation!–conjured a vision of a gypsy that the very hijackers who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan, men who had famously fashioned themselves as martyrs, accompanied the souls of many men, women, and children who died as a result of their actions into the afterlife, somehow acting as agents of peace as much as visiting a traumatic vision of mortality. The diabolical vision Brownstein described in the years after 9/11 must have shocked his readers, but presented what he wanted to be a healing poetic image of devastation. The Angel of Death himself must have accompanied Giuliani, a former altar boy himself who had recast himself in global media as selected to fulfill his role as a defender of the city, expanding his narcissism as he promoted himself as a symbol of security on a global stage, able to advise on crime rates, manage security, and maintain peace on a global stage that had not ever existed before with any comparable concreteness.

The searing image of a redemption after the destruction visited on New York became a means for Giuliani to be turned to as a figure of trust, a center of stability, that the world seemed to need–but on which his own. Rudy Giluiani’s huge sense of himself saw magnified on a global stage, and able to cast in global terms, a a spokesperson, lobbyist, agitator, instigator and legitimizer who could hector, yell, and barge his way onto any global stage, and command total attention for any agenda that would pay his way. Did the unweildly narcissism that Giuliani promoted in America and on such a global stage prepare the way for Trump?

When we ponder how Giuliani emerged–indeed remade himself–as an unregistered agent of other governments, allied with a law office (Greenberg Traurig, most recently, or a partner at Bracewell & Harrison, in Houston, then transformed to capitalize on his name as Bracewell & Giuliani), he skirted the law while capitalizing on his image as a hardened lawman; the contradictions were not contradictions for a man whose media image was so impressive and had gained such global currency to be hard to question. The bonds of trust that seemed forge in the years after 9/11, and the sense of cathecting with Giuliani as “America’s Mayor” truly seemed exploited, as his own historical narcissism led to a thirst for further attention, and to remove all limits from his own propriety. He extended this credibility in a failed bid for the Presidency in 2008 and after it folded sought to keep alive his image of himself as a global fix-it man.

In this post, I want to sketch the map of the bizarre global travels of Giuliani as a man who promised to accommodate any interest, promote a vision of global security who parlayed his status to a talking head on any media. He should have been far less assuring than we were willing to accord: but Giuliani’s skill at exploiting an endless reserve of symbolic capital seemed endless, allowing him to stake Presidential campaigns, and earn massive retaining fees, without much attention to what credibility the ex-Mayor ever merited. The very transnationality of the commemoration of 9/11 transformed it into a global event, and not a local one, offered a means for Rudy to travel through the looking glass, and for Giuliani to gain a global credibility that was eerily universal. We didn’t pay much attention. We discounted Giuliani’s neediness for attention as self-generated, and not itself of global impact, but it increasingly exercised influence that mirrored the very trans-nationality of the commemoration of 9/11. Their trans-nationality Rudy a truly unprecedented global carte blanche of unprecedented character.

This credibitliy was a carte blanche appealing to foreign strongmen, to be sure, who sought to fashion themselves as comparable “good guys” in a global stage demanding a way to map security in the face of terrorists, and seek a figure of calm in the swirling fears of insecurity, even if that very figure would continue to do his best to provoke our deepest fears.

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Filed under 9/11, American Politics, global terror, globalization, September 11, World Trade Center