Ground Zero - The Sacred and the Profane

October 14, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

What’s so infuriating about reading David Brooks is that sometimes he gets it right, but then in the next sentence, he’ll veer off in the wrong direction.  (Translation: Sometimes I agree with him, sometimes I disagree.)

Today (here) Brooks is writing about the rebuilding at Ground Zero and about Chris Ward, who was brought in to organize the whole project when it had become badly bogged down in conflict. 
Ward quickly understood his mission: to take a sacred cause and turn it into a building project. That is to say, to demystify it, to see it as it really is and not through the gauze of everybody’s emotions surrounding 9/11.
Ward’s approach, as Brooks says, was to  desacralize the mission, and Brooks picks out the detail that epitomizes this change
He changed the name of Freedom Tower to One World Trade Center.
But then Brooks tries to see Ground Zero as just one more example of a more general trend.
Maybe it’s part of living in a postmaterialist economy, but nearly every practical question becomes a values question. . . .  Many issues that were once concrete and practical are distorted because they have become symbolic and spiritual.
Tax policy, gun control, and Green Tech, says Brooks, all crumple under the weight of this symbolism.  Yes, these issues (he could have added health care to the list) can involve status politics, but it’s not at all clear how much the symbolism affects the actual policies.  Besides, Brooks gets the symbolism wrong.*

More important, Brooks closes his copy of Durkheim just when he should be turning to the next page.  Brooks ignores the structural problem.  The Ground Zero project inevitably comprises two functions – the sacred and the profane.** Like the buildings the terrorists destroyed, the new ones will be places where work, where they carry out the practical business of everyday life – buying and selling, making phone calls, entering and analyzing data.  But just because of its location, people will see the new structures as sacred. 

Usually, we separate these two realms.  We have sacred places and buildings whose only purpose is to enhance some group symbolism.  We do not ask our office buildings and  schools, stores and shopping malls, streets and parking lots, to express our collective spiritual ideas.  Nor do we ask that the Washington Monument and the Statue of Liberty do something useful like house the Department of Transportation or a Wal-Mart.

It’s hard enough to design a purely sacred monument – look at the controversies over memorials for Flight 93 and the Vietnam War dead.  Nor is it easy to design a huge complex of offices, parks, subways, etc. that works.  But to create something that carries out both functions to everyone’s satisfaction may be impossible. 

*For example, Brooks says that gun policy is “seen as an assault on or defense of the whole rural lifestyle so to compromise on any front is to court dishonor.”  Doesn’t he listen to the gunslingers?  They’re not talking about lifestyles and dishonor. They’re talking about their individual freedom and safety.

** Profane in the sense of everyday and practical, not sacrilegious.

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