Friday, March 27, 2009

Freedom's never free. It's $3.1 billion.

Freedom TowerThe new World Trade Center got its first commercial tenant today: Beijing Vantone, a Chinese foreign trade group, agreed to lease 5 floors of the flagship tower, whose skeleton is only now beginning to protrude above street level. Interestingly – as pointed out this morning on WNYC, the local NPR affiliate – the contract refers to the building as “1 World Trade Center”, and not as the “Freedom Tower”. (See an NY Times article cryptically referring to it as “once called the Freedom Tower”. And, released even while I’ve been writing, here is confirmation of the official name change. )

Evidently there’s been some decision to let the “Freedom Tower” name gradually dissipate. I have mixed views about this change.

It would seem to be a good thing. The name was always a bit embarrassing, appearing to merely recapitulate America’s disturbingly possessive attitude toward the concept (if not the practice) of freedom. Wasn’t it enough that the building’s forcedly symbolic height was already a 1,776 foot long stick in the eye of America’s enemies? (Incidentally, is preservation of this purported symbolic measure going to end up another argument against converting to the metric system?)

Worse yet, the name carried certain vague yet unmistakable links to the Bush administration’s ideology of promiscuously vengeful victimhood. Why did the terrorists attack us? Because they hate our freedom! You know who else hated freedom? Saddam Hussein! Alongside the eyes-wide-shut moral permissiveness endowed on American policy by that slippery sentiment, the semiotic presence of undefeated ‘Freedom’ at Ground Zero doubtlessly also helped salve wounded national pride. Comforting and perhaps understandable in the attack’s aftermath, the whole thing is a bit awkward eight years, two wars, and one Abu Ghraib later.

And, for goodness sake, this is commercial real estate. Hey, I think that capitalism is the least-bad socio-economic system ever invented by our species. But even I wonder if the ‘Freedom’ logo is a bit tarnished attached so prominently to a shiny robber baron encampment. (Not to mention that the artist’s conception depicts an enormous jagged blue phallus rudely erupting from graceful lower Manhattan.)

Now, to be fair, there’s nothing new about embarrassingly sentimental public nomenclature. Indeed, Liberty Street, which lines the southern boundary of the Trade Center site, was known as King Street until, in a fit of fraternal regicidal pride, New Yorkers celebrated the French Revolution. But haven’t we as a society moved beyond unselfaware triumphalist civic dubbing?

Yet. A part of me – presumably the same part that secretly enjoys Disney World – wonders if maybe the old name was a good name. Us postmoderns are all so ironic, detached, sensitive and self-conscious. We’re bred to greet heart-on-sleeve expressiveness with nary but an awkward cringe-snicker. Couldn’t it be healthy, just sometimes, to indulge in a bit of old timey earnest na├»ve glorious romanticism? The Freedom Tower, for all its sleek lines and energy-efficient ventilation, might have borne a name, a mere name, radiating fuzzy proud American can-do-ism, the spirit of our grandparents’ generation, out over the Hudson River and into the jaded fallow countryside beyond.

No? Well, dear friends and countrymen, we’ll always have One World Trade.

image from Wikipedia