American Heroes Don’t Need Trump’s Garden

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On his way out the door, President Donald Trump issued an executive order expanding on his earlier call for the creation of a “Garden of American Heroes.” The context is that recent events have supposedly shown that the U.S. no longer believes in its own greatness and has mocked its own history and heritage, and so this new tonic is needed to restore a spirit of homage and pride. Thus the government should carve out a new public space, full of statues of great Americans.

The arrival of President Joe Biden on Wednesday puts the future of Trump’s garden in grave doubt, but it’s still useful to review some principles of fame and commemoration.

My first worry is that, however important heroism may be, it is not well represented en masse. The U.S. celebrates the heroic best when presenting an ethos of individualism, yet the executive order lists 244 Americans to be honored. In contrast, the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials are solo presentations. The Iwo Jima statue in Arlington, Virginia represents a collective effort of flag raising, by only six soldiers. Mount Rushmore has just four presidents.

My worry is that a Heroes Garden of 244 would appear more collectivistic, even mildly fascistic, than heroic. It is hard to avoid a numbing effect when the number of figures is so large. Large numbers of figures also sometimes indicate victimization, such as in the “Tragedy of the Peoples” Holocaust memorial in Moscow, or with the more than 58,000 names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

More likely than not, the massed figures in a garden of heroes would subordinate each of those individuals to a broader American narrative about the crowd and obscure their heroism.

Even the Soviets, when honoring their World War II dead, produced what is arguably their best structure, in Volgograd, by presenting a single figure representing the motherland.

And how exactly do you position the 244 figures next to each other and decide upon relative pride of place? Would Milton Friedman have to look so much shorter than Kobe Bryant? A good statue honoring Friedman in fact can be found in Princeton, New Jersey, and it is affectionate rather than heroic, depicting a studious boy sitting and reading one of his books.

The individuals on Trump’s list are generally worthy enough. Women and Blacks have OK representation, even if the list in its entirety felt corny and short of Native Americans. I know that Cy Young won 511 baseball games through his pitching, but is he sufficiently relevant? General Maxwell Taylor makes the grade, but while he was a war hero in his younger years, he ended up as an architect of the disastrous Vietnam War. Was Alex Trebek such an irreplaceable Jeopardy host? (I guess we’ll find out.) How about Nina Simone instead of Frank Sinatra?

If there is any systematic omission, perhaps it is the American antihero. How about another bad boy or two, or someone known for a self-destructive tragic end (Sylvia Plath?), maybe an American who eschewed fame, or a stand-in for Everyman, such as a mid-20th-century manufacturing worker or a brave nurse?

Another problem with Trump’s list is the way it seems to have been compiled. Credible prizes and halls of fame, such as the Nobel Prize, typically have nominations, selection committees and established standards, which for all their bureaucratic elements contribute to the legitimacy of the process. The inventor Nikola Tesla and mathematical genius John von Neumann are deserving picks, but it’s too easy to imagine the garden evolving into a grab bag of subsequent presidential additions, without much thought given to what it should signify.

A final worry is that we do not live in a time of great portrait sculptors. Contemporary artists may be ironic or acerbic or witty or deeply conceptual to wonderful effect, as you can learn from a tour of the sculptures at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington or the Storm King Art Center in upstate New York. But I don’t see many first-rate works with the aesthetic of, say, Michelangelo’s David or the portrayals of American heroes created by Augutus Saint-Gaudens. The reluctance of contemporary sculptors to communicate the quality of heroism is likely to produce a bland garden featuring an ugly official culture.

Maybe the portrayal of the heroic is best achieved by artists and administrators who are actually heroic themselves, rather than by people who strain to inspire hero-worship.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include "Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero."

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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