What David Brooks Missed


Matt Welch has already noted David Brooks' creepy column on the supposed need for more monuments honoring authority. I have just one footnote to add: Isn't it interesting how quickly Brooks brushes past the one D.C. monument of the last half-century that almost everyone agrees is powerful? Maya Lin's Vietnam memorial gets just two sentences from Brooks: "Even the more successful recent monuments evade the thorny subjects of strength and power. The Vietnam memorial is about tragedy."

At least he acknowledges that it's successful. Brooks wants monuments that embody "just authority," and the Vietnam War was a time when Washington's just authority was in short supply. A commanding Lincoln- or Jefferson-style monument to Robert McNamara would be perceived as a perverse joke, and rightly so.

But the war inspired Maya Lin to create a brilliant memorial, and she did it by rejecting—indeed, inverting—the authoritarian style that Brooks loves. As James C. Scott wrote in Seeing Like a State, the most remarkable thing about Lin's design is

Hey, Brooks: This is what a powerful monument looks like.

the way that the Vietnam Memorial works for those who visit it, particularly those who come to pay their respects to the memory of a comrade or loved one. They touch the names incised on the wall, make rubbings, and leave artifacts and mementos of their own—everything from poems and a woman's high-heeled shoe to a glass of champagne and a poker hand of a full house, aces high. So many of these tributes have been left, in fact, that a museum has been created to house them. The scene of many people together at the wall, touching the names of particular loved ones who fell in the same war, has moved observers regardless of their position on the war itself. I believe that a great part of the memorial's symbolic power is its capacity to honor the dead with an openness that allows visitors to impress upon it their own meanings, their own histories, their own memories. The memorial virtually requires participation in order to complete its meaning.

The Vietnam memorial is the only "official" monument I know of that follows this pattern, but it's not hard to think of other memorials that inspire the same mixture of contemplation and participation. In the years following 9/11, Ground Zero became a vast do-it-yourself tribute to the fallen. Decoration Day, as Memorial Day was known back when holidays had interesting names, first emerged spontaneously rather than by dictat, as people in different towns selected days to decorate the graves of the Civil War dead.

"Maybe before we can build great monuments to leaders we have to relearn the art of following," Brooks writes. Maybe, if that's your priority. Meanwhile, Maya Lin's memorial reminds us what happens when Americans trust their leaders too much.