From Tragedy To Unity: A Celebration of the Human Spirit
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
September 11, 2002
Searching for Universal Truths a Year After 9/11/01
“…we need artists from other countries even more now.”
– Maxwell Anderson, Director of the Whitney Museum of American Art
By Michele Leight (The City Review)
In a perfect world, peace and unity should be possible for everyone, and that universal goal or impossible dream, depending on your point of view – was the underlying theme at a symposium, entitled “From Tragedy to Unity: A Celebration of the Human Spirit,” presented by the Virtue Foundation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York on September 11th, 2002, a day when most of New York came to a standstill to mourn the memory of the fallen on the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in tributes and services across the city.
The objective of the symposium was to debate large and seemingly unfathomable issues: Why do tragedies like 9/11 occur? What might the possible solutions be? What can we, as Americans, do better in terms of communication with other cultures, or alter in terms of our perceived behavior, to avert dragging civilization back to the darkness and carnage which manifested itself so chillingly on the morning of 9/11/2001.
Unity with the world outside America seemed unattainable for so many reasons on this day, one year later, as the media and our own memories made us re-live the kind of hate embodied in the destroyed twin towers and the thousands of innocent lives lost. “Hate” is not a pleasant word, but 9/11 was an atrocity, it was a hateful act. It detached America suddenly and without pity from the illusion that it was part of the global community. America had never been attacked on “home soil” since Pearl Harbor during World War II. A whole generation of young Americans watched as the towers burned in downtown Manhattan, and learned a lot about vulnerability and established notions of invincibility.
Sad memories returned of the dead: some so young they were in their first job, straight out of college; civilians who worked in suburbs and cities surrounding New York; immortalized in newspaper obituaries; lives and faces still fresh in American minds and hearts from the thousands of fliers placed in desperation throughout the city by grieving families, friends and employers. An innocent part of all Americans was lost in the destruction of that day. It was, and is, hard to shake the anger, the numbness and the sense of loss.
As I entered the symposium I thought that understanding an atrocity like the World Trade Center attack was not possible. What I really meant probably was that I did not want to understand: it was unforgivable; end of story.
However, the program was not the usual academic gathering, but included many prominent figures in many different arenas who clearly believed that the objective of the symposium was a worthy one. By day’s end, the hard wall that locked in the sadness had transformed into something quite different – a glimmer of hope for the future of mankind and the planet thanks to the often wise and even humorous opinions put forth. It is a pity that such balanced and intelligent perspectives are not more widely reported.
Two planes and a handful of terrorists demolished two towering symbols of America’s economic might. Imagine, I found myself thinking, the aftermath of a nuclear or biological strike on an American city? The incredible and uplifting heroism, courage and unity witnessed by the world in the aftermath of 9/11 would be physically impossible under such circumstances. Radiation or dangerous germs in the air would not permit heroic actions, except possibly in a bio-hazard suit and mask. We did not cower in fear after 9/11, but how would it be if an even greater catastrophy were to occur, like smallpox? Seated in the protective confines of the Grace Rainey Rogers auditorium of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it was not easy to contemplate the new America. 9/11 changed everything.
The meeting’s theme of an universal ethic and the concept of unity seemed like a late-night college bull session topic, but these were not sophmoric speakers.
Invited members of four multi-disciplinary panels “Arts and Culture,” “Science and Spirituality,” “Business and Finance” and “Media and Politics” were invited to discuss and to explore through the various disciplines, the reasons, resentments and misconceptions that led to the events of 9/11, in an attempt to break a vicious cycle which has too often ended in violence.
When I arrived, late, the “Arts and Culture” panelists were in the midst of an animated discussion on diversity: Glenn Lowry, Director of the Museum of Modern Art, Maxwell Andersen, Director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, Vishaka N. Desai, director of museum and cultural programs of the Asia Society and John Rockwell, Senior Cultural Correspondent of The New York Timesformed an impressive line-up.
Mr. Andersen said that it had become increasingly difficult for foreign artists – and virtually impossible in the case of Middle Eastern artists and performers – to enter the United States since 9/11. He called it a “troubling” development, “because we need artists from other countries even more now.” These artists, he said, had always found in the openness of the United States a safe-haven to express what they could not do within the confines of their own repressive regimes. His comments made me contemplate the impossibility of a symposium as open as this in Iraq, or Syria or Saudi Arabia. Such events take place only “in the land of the free.” It is a gift to be cherished, drawn larger after 9/11.
In New York City, there are hundreds of diverse cultural events daily. The arts have always been one of the more open forums of global diversity and exchange. Freedom of artistic, intellectual and personal expression is instantly felt by anyone who has never had it before and then discovers the joy of it upon entering America, most especially in New York. It is in the air, a beautiful thing. Perhaps that is why the terrorists chose New York to make their most deadly statement.
Listening to the observations of Maxwell Andersen, I recalled a recent exhibit on Arab-Americans at the Museum of the City of New York in which a black and white photograph showed a veiled Arab-American mother proudly holding a picture of her son, a handsome young soldier in the United States armed forces, at a 9/11/01 vigil. All around her people were holding candles. This mother was showing proof of her love for this country with a photograph of her most prized possession, her son. He did not look much older than 19, eyes filled with idealism and patriotism.
There are many people from the Middle East who love America, and who have felt the winds of change in the months since 9/11. Some innocent citizens – victims of a new fear that the enemy is now among us, armed with American citizenship – may even be wrongfully detained. Editorial headlines like “Seeking Terrorist Plots, the F.B.I. Is Tracking Hundreds of Muslims,” fuel the fires of terrorists, who must delight in the chaos they have caused to their own countrymen who dared defect for America. Troubling implications indeed for thousands who may never enter America from Middle Eastern countries who wish to escape tyranny.
The trust which, until 9/11, was a hallmark of the American way of life, and which fostered and encouraged diversity and exchange between all cultures, was one of the casualties of 9/11. In the long run, we will have to consider whether we are better or worse off without that exchange.
John Rockwell of The New York Times commented that sometimes these decisions to block entry to foreigners are very “erratically decided.” “Economic and political concerns become illegal immigrants,” he said humorously, to applause in the auditorium, but Mr. Rockwell continued in a serious tone: “The initial goodwill of the global community towards America has eroded now.” In the months ahead, America might find itself pretty much on its own as far as global allies are concerned in whatever aggressive actions it chooses to take, especially with regard to the proposed “pre-emptive” attack on Iraq by President Bush, who subsequent to the symposium, received overwhelming Congressional approval to launch such an attack if he were to decide it was necessary.
A World War II veteran in the audience had very definite ideas of the way things should have been and should be in America: “Why weren’t we ready?” he said. “We have to `Divide and conquer.’ The civilized world chooses to wait and not take pre-emptive action. Pleading for pacifism will be the first mistake. Every culture has its barbaric and stupid characters, as well as its good ones.” He was applauded.
Jim Fowler, the naturalist and host of the “Wild Kingdom” television program, concluded the diversity discussion with one of the best quotes of the day: “If we do not have diversity, we will become extinct,” he said. The intentional parallels to the animal world did not go unnoticed, and his observation drew welcome laughter.
Mr. Fowler, who introduced each panel with an abundance of good humor, has long presented the American public and millions around the globe via satellite TV with information about wildlife and the wilderness in programs like Mutual of Omaha’s “Wild Kingdom”. Mr. Fowler is a frequent guest and speaker at fundraising events throughout the country, supporting zoos, conservation organizations, nature science centers, and state and federal wildlife agencies.
There was something innately trustworthy about a man whose love of humanity has been enhanced by his close encounters with animals of diverse kinds – and the natural world. His connection to the natural world also provoked thoughts of preserving it and all the wonderful creatures in it, as we enter yet another dangerous phase in the history of mankind.
(On October 8th, 2002, Mr. Fowler appeared on the “Today Show” with a beautiful baby tiger: “A work of art,” he said as he petted it, “Irreplaceable.” Many animal species face extinction, including tigers. In a recent editorial in The New York Times, Colonel Wakefield, director of Kabini River Lodge in Karnataka, India, said: “If the tiger is to be saved it will be in India. The real threat to Kabini’s tigers is not poaching but rather the pressure of a growing population. How long will the voters in the world’s biggest democracy allow wildlife to occupy wilderness needed for homes and crops?”)
The remarks of Mr. Anderson, Mr. Rockwell and Mr. Fowler about diversity and the threat to it – brought back memories of the America that was, before 9/11: the formal “lip-service” openness and tolerance of all religions, creeds and colors, despite occasional lapses in actual practice. Disturbing images replayed of Sikhs being attacked in towns across America in the days following 9/11, and of temples mistaken for mosques desecrated by those who were too ignorant to know that they were attacking Hindu, not Muslim, places of worship, and that some Hindus, like the Sikhs, wear turbans. Attacking places of worship should be out of bounds anyway, no matter what. Educating ourselves more thoroughly, pulling down the walls of insularity and ignorance will be part of doing a better job of understanding the rest of the world, so that they in turn view us differently. Understanding diversity, not just paying lip-service to it and engaging in real communication with other cultures, was the valuable message of these gentlemen.
In the wake of 9/11, anti-American sentiment is mounting in foreign countries as the hunt for Bin Laden continues, and war with Iraq becomes a certainty. Americans have not traveled as freely around the globe in the past year, and in many countries they have been advised to return home to ensure their safety. This is not a “free” existence for Americans, but a fearful one.
Many poor people in “developing” countries – which include Middle Eastern ones – are uneducated but have access to TV or communal TVs. These countries happen to contain millions of children who go to bed hungry, other millions who lay dying of aids and curable diseases, others whose fathers spend most of their lives unemployed or who work for less than subsistence wages and whose mothers do not work at all. Many of these women do not even have the right to vote. For millions of women – especially Muslim women – around the world, such things are the stuff of dreams.
What the media in the United States does not show the rest of the world is America’s poverty.
On September 29th, 2002, a New York Times front page article entitled “In Trenches of a War on Unyielding Poverty” stated that 32.9 million Americans live in poverty, 11.7 million of them under 18 years of age.” By any standards this is a shocking statistic for the world’s “wealthiest” nation. Millions of American children also go to bed hungry at night and are homeless. America helps millions around the world financially, but Donald Marron, President of UBS America and vice chairman of the Museum of Modern Art put it very directly in the “Business and Finance” panel: “I hope we don’t forget the problems in this country and this city. There are many homeless children right here in New York.”
The “Business and Finance” panelists also included former New York State Senator Roy Goodman, Cathleen Black, President, Hearst Magazines, (described by Fortune Magazine as one of thirty most powerful women in America), Lynn Paine, John G. McLean Professor of Economics, Harvard Business School, and Gordon Conway, President of the Rockefeller Foundation, who headed straight for the topic of global poverty: “Poverty is not something that we can turn our backs on,” said a man who is responsible for awarding $ 140 million a year in grants. “Do poverty levels play a role in international animosity? What are the ethical responsibilities of wealthy nations?” were questions posed directly to the audience by Conway. He was a no-holds-barred, riveting speaker, and possibly the most popular speaker of the day.
Launching into the statistics of AIDS in Africa, Mr. Conway said half the teachers and one in three students are going to die. Mothers continue to transmit AIDS to their babies when one dose of Novipirine taken by the mother before breast-feeding her infant – at a cost of $4 – will prevent it from happening. He added that millions of children will be orphaned. What was chilling about Mr. Conway’s statistics was that he was only talking about Africa: India, (population 1 billion), China (1.5 billion) and Russia are also facing an alarming rise in HIV/Aids.
A member of the audience asked Mr. Conway if he was an optimist. “I guess that is why I was chosen as President of the Rockefeller Foundation,” he responded to considerable applause. “We have been getting better. Peace is breaking out in Africa. There is enormous potential in science and technology: biotech has invented a new, genetically-engineered rice, which generates 3 tons per hectare instead of the current 1 ton per hectare. It requires half the amount of water to grow and grows twice as fast. This new rice will allow Africa to be self-sufficient. Those stories give me hope.”
Another member of the audience who had worked with UNAID in Africa commented that people become more passive with donations and aid, and that helping them become more responsible for their own development would be more constructive. Donald Marron responded: “Money goes in and does not get to the people. Most often, it is the smaller NGOs and organizations that work better than the large ones.” He did say categorically that not helping at all was not an option for the world’s wealthiest nation.
Sincere efforts to render aid are often thwarted by corruption and greed. Mogadishu was a case in point, as portrayed in the movie “Black Hawk Down” (see The City Review article). Somali war-lords were willing to starve their own people out, blocking and stealing the food sent in by the United Nations and other major aid organizations, so they could profit from the sales. In the end American soldiers were sent in to capture a warlord but the situation went right back to the way it had been before the American intervention.
To those positioned away from the fertile lands and secure shores of America, the rising resentment in poor nations is palpable, because they think America is detached from their pain and suffering. “The world has seen the opulence of suburban America. We build bigger and bigger houses, drive bigger and bigger SUVs and this causes some to want to rub our noses in the mud,” said Lynn Paine, John G. McLean Professor of Business Administration, Harvard Business School.
Cathleen Black, President of Hearst Magazines, continued with observations of the way other cultures perceive at least one aspect of American culture, music as portrayed on MTV: “I have a teenage son,” she said, “and there is J-Lo shaking everything and Emenem and Pdiddy. They are available for the viewing of everyone.” Ms. Black commented that in her line of work she has traveled extensively. To those who do move around the globe, the way America is perceived worldwide is very different to the view Americans have of themselves here at home.
The lyrics and gyrations of popular music culture are often bewildering and offensive to Western parents, let alone a veiled Muslim mother in a burkha, who is not allowed to show her face or even an ankle! Other cultures silently judge us by how we show ourselves to them through the media. While we may brush lewd and violent lyrics aside in the name of “freedom of expression,” there are those who condemn – and rage at us silently – for allowing it. It is deeply offensive to them.
Conway’s views drew the loudest applause, most especially his remarks about the festering deprivation faced by women in developing nations; they must, he stressed, have safe abortions: “We must raise the standards of women.” Thunderous applause.
Former State Senator Roy Goodman was inspired by this comment to offer the opinion that while he agreed with his President on other issues, like the need for pre-emptive action against Iraq, he did not agree with the President on abortion. An anti-war comment from the audience set the senator off on a preamble that lasted a good while. Senators do love the sound of their own voices but his argument suddenly tightened into one of the more “meaty” opinions of the day, revealing the astute politician beneath the affable exterior.
Firmly rebutting anti-war talk, Roy Goodman said: “I strongly support the President’s initiative not to allow the threat of bioweapons.” Catherine Black asked if he thought Bush would get the support he needed, to which Roy Goodman replied: “Sadaam Hussein has to be stopped. Not to try and stop him by a certain element in our society reminds me of those who did not want to try and stop Hitler because of how he might retaliate.” Goodman added that he also supported enlightened nation-building, as for example, in Afghanistan.
Three of the five “Business and Finance” panelists were directly involved in the “commercial” aspects of daily existence i.e., business – and it was a matter of time before someone brought up Enron and ethics in corporate America. “Harvard Business School has educated all of our business leaders; is there any sign that things are changing?” Cathleen Black asked Lynn Paine, who responded: “We have done unconscionable things to people in other countries. Students are just as appalled as we are. There is a new resolve to do a better job. Will more Enrons occur? Yes. Is there misconduct? 75% of our students say yes, and that the conduct is so serious that if it were to be known it would violate public trust. I am not too optimistic. Some companies are getting very serious about improving ethics, but it needs to become more deeply embedded in our leaders.”
Donald Marron cut in at this point, clearly unable to bear the onslaught on his profession: “The vast majority (of business leaders) are ethical. With the advent of CNN and business news – and technology – public participation increased. When things go wrong, it is a matter of the wrong people buying the wrong stocks with the wrong money. The ‘watchdog’ aspect was not there with Enron. The wealthier people were open to temptation, and they are the ones who end up with authority.” He added: “The biggest cost has been the confidence of the American people. We have to fix that.”
The ticket out of poverty for many in other countries is terrorism. In his opening remarks to the symposium’s afternoon session, Shashi Tharoor, Under Secretary General of the United Nations for communications and public information, noted that many know no other story, no other history or truth but the one they learn by rote: “The creed of the Koran and the kalashnikov: the Koran crudely written, the kalashnikov crudely made.” He also said “Those who feel mired by hopelessness and rage clutch at terrorism. The pilots of 9/11 were not poor, but they were fuelled by resentment. With technology, terrorists use the very tools of modernism against us. Terrorists are our near neighbors, wherever we live.”
They hear about American affluence from our media, or from their village “elders” who inform them of events in the world beyond their tiny villages and towns if they do not own a TV, and teach them about jihad and are often incited to to hate American “corruption” and “decadence.”
“After 9/11 there was no easy retreat into isolationism,” said Mr. Tharoor, echoing Gordon Conway’s views: “9/11 made it clear that a small dusty hut in one corner of our global village can strike down two mighty towers in another part of our global village. If we cannot hit him where he is strong, let us hit him where he is vulnerable. Terrorism is bred from the scourge of desperation, poverty and famine. Where there is human insecurity, terrorism flourishes.” However,” he said, “a shared sense of purpose has united us.” It is a fact that 9/11 united America almost overnight.
The most heated and lively debates took place between the “Science and Spirituality” panelists, who were skillfully moderated by Praveen Chaudhari, director of research for IBM, when the heat looked like it might boil over! Ah, dissension is so essential to a meaningful existence.
Mr. Chaudri, an involved member of the Virtue Foundation, was introduced by an awed Jim Fowler: “This man’s qualifications and credentials should be read by everyone.” Most impressive of all was his gentleness and wisdom, fleshed out by wit and humor. In his introductory remarks Mr. Chaudhari said: “Science and Spirituality have a universal quality: they are two sides of the same coin.” Clearly most people do not make that deduction, which is probably why he said it. “Buddha and Christ knew the truth and lived it; Hitler and Lenin knew it but did not live it, which resulted in death, destruction and cruelty. You can use science to heal children or destroy the world. The coming together of people on 9/11 showed love and compassion, and the spiritual aspects of their lives. Why can we not do this all the time? Is it possible to maintain such compassion? Buddha and Christ did, but what about us?”
Mr. Chaudri then introduced Dr. Joan LaRovere, who is a member of the Virtue Foundation and is Associate Director of the Pediatric Cardiac Intensive Care Unit at the Royal Brompton Hospital in London.
Seated one away from Dr. LaRovere was Ken Woodward, Religion and Culture Editor of Newsweek Magazine. Right off the bat there was a healthy tension between the two, spliced by the strong visionary views of Dr. William T. Newsome, professor of neurobiology at Stanford University. After Mr. Chaudhari had given the job descriptions of his scientific colleagues, he mischievously asked Mr. Woodward: “What background do you have in science?” to which Woodward replied: “I always shroud my ignorance.” The audience erupted in laughter.
Dr. LaRovere offered the first round of personal observations regarding the link between science and faith. “My line of work makes you think about the aspect of existence beyond the usual one, beyond the physical self. Pediatric surgery is an environment of personal tragedy. I witness peoples’ tragedy all the time. Sometimes it is hard to leave home, leave my own family at 2 in the morning to take care of a sick child, but as a human being I have a duty to do it.” Dr. LaRovere went on to say that her Buddhist faith helped her at difficult times, when she needed something to lean on. It would be difficult to contemplate a more emotionally draining environment than pediatric surgery, and I was relieved that Dr. LaRovere had something to support her. Mr. Woodward, however, had a big problem with the whole” universal” Buddhist thing, and lost no time in saying so.
“The word ‘universal’ irritates me no end,” he said contentiously, “Jews only care about themselves whereas Buddhists care about everything. There is glory in the ‘particular.’ T.S. Eliot’s poetry is not universal at all, it is particular.” Woodward was on a roll: “Aristotle considered humility as a virtue. Americans stress the expressional side of religion: spirituality is not the only thing about religion. Medievalists believed that if you are in the midst of your monastic meditation and a beggar comes to the door, if you do not take care of him you are not in contact with God.”
Dr. LaRovere disagreed outright with him that all the religions were different. There were more similarities between them in her view, which caused Mr. Woodward to launch into his own defence: “9/11 witnessed extraordinary people who went and worked in groups in the morgue, collecting body parts. It takes a certain kind of person to do that. They were tough and empathetic, and they asked for a clergyman to be with them. These people were sharply contrasted by those who suddenly got spiritual because terrible things happen. This happens all the time in other countries. Were they not formed in communities where they were told evil people exist?”
Later Mr. Woodward went so far as to say that meditation removes the sense of purpose, apparently missing the point Dr. LaRovere was making, which was that her faith helped her do her extraordinarily demanding work. “If your reading of reality is rooted in Christianity, then you cannot relate to Buddhism. I cannot relate to it at all. It is a large, boring abstraction. Buddhism does not have a strong ‘community’ ethic. Get off the wheel. I do not have a great urge to become Universal.”
Mr. Chaudhari jumped in and declared that “Ken and I part company on this; fundamentally human beings are the same. Though the structure is different, the core is the same. Religious texts are almost identical, and the message is the same. Anyone truly religious will sense and see the connections.”
Then, Dr. Newsome added his comments, offering the information that he was a man of faith, a practicing Christian: “I could take the position that my group is threatened, so I am going to hate those who have hurt me. Psychology has helped us understand the deepest sources of hate, and biology might have something to say about that. In my line of work I can advise someone if the mate of their choice is a good genetic match, but I cannot tell them if they love that person.” “I’m looking for allies,,” he continued, “a vision that leads to a common humanity. It must be a global vision. Trite, but it cannot be wrapped up in my nuclear family and country. My happiness is linked to others’ happiness everywhere in the world. It is necessary for global survival: science dedicated to the pursuit of truth.”
A nostalgic vision voiced not by an elderly hippie of wonderful times past, but a brilliant, grounded man of science and faith who is a professor of neurobiology at one of the most highly regarded educational institutions in the world. There is hope for us all.
The last word for this panel discussion must go to Dr. Parveen Chaudhari, who concluded with the observation that, despite the often acrid disagreements, “I didn’t hear anyone say we should not have religion or spirituality, or that science is bad. That is a good thing.”
Sadly, it was not possible to capture every great thought and bon mot in a discussion of the caliber of this one. It would be appropriate to end with Shashi Tharoor’s broad global perspective, spiced with a novelist’s genius (Mr. Tharoor is the author of several best-selling novels) : “Those who feel mired by hopelessness and rage clutch at terrorism.” In the interests of peace and unity, the wealthy nations of the world are going to have to take a long, hard look at poverty everywhere. Including America.
The Virtue Foundation, (www.virtuefoundation.org) is an independent, non-profit organization “dedicated to advancing the research and development of a body of universal ethics that transcends such boundaries as race, culture, gender and religion.”
Its “objective” statement provides the following commentary:
“Driven primarily by the rapid advancements in technology and communictions over the last few decades, the world has evolved into a global and interdependent community. In an unprecedented age where political and economic events in one region of the world bear significant and sometimes tragic repercussions thousands of miles away (as witnessed by the events of September 11), it is no longer possible for any nation to remain an island of prosperity in the midst of a sea of adversity. Against the backdrop of a world marked by diminishing borders and clashing ideologies, the necessity of collectively developing and formulating universal standards of ethical behavior has suddenly become an urgent priority that can no longer be ignored. As citizens of the world, human beings across the globe need to look beyond the racial, cultural, political and religious differences that divide them and focus instead on that which is truly universal among humankind.”
Stepping back from the immediacy and closeness of being a New Yorker in New York on 9/11, the word “diversity” produced the feeling that 9/11 was, in essence, an attack on the American way of life – on American culture, values, civilization, religion and race – the very “boundaries” that the universal ethics advocated by the Virtue Foundation hoped to transcend. The characteristics that make an “American” clearly did not find favor with the terrorists. Had our “diversity” anything to do with their antagonism? Our freedoms and tolerance of diversity are in stark contrast to the Fundamentalist Muslim credo of “Jihad” as advocated by their narrow interpretation of the Koran, which entitles them to wage war on us for our societal values and score points with the Almighty.
When real exchanges betweens nations, cultures and civilizations cease because of a catastrophic event like 9/11 even in the context of the arts – we lose something vitally important. Thinking “big picture,” what do other cultures judge America by? Politicians and the media often have ratings, profits, votes and other interests at stake, but they must make greater efforts to responsibly represent a wide diversity of visions to avoid misunderstandings and misconceptions of who we are and what America is about.