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The Great Statucide
In condoning the destruction of statues and monuments on the basis of subjective judgement, we've established a precedent that we may well live to regret.
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In the annus horribilis of 2020, statuary purgation, rubber stamped with the approval of spineless, virtue-signaling public officials, was carried out by mobs of BLM and antifa enragés.
Immediately following the death of George Floyd, a crowd in Portland toppled a statue of George Washington and graffitied it with “You’re on native land,” “Genocidal colonist,” “BLM,” and “1619” before setting fire to the statue’s head, draping it in an American flag, and then setting that on fire too. Six hundred miles to the south, morons in San Francisco destroyed a statue of Ulysses S. Grant, who led the Union armies in defeating the Confederacy during the Civil War. At Hofstra University in New York, children masquerading as college students started a “Jefferson Has Gotta Go” movement that called for the removal of a Thomas Jefferson monument. University authorities quickly acquiesced. One of the little Maoists behind the campaign happily reported that her parents were no longer having to spend “sleepless nights worrying that their eldest daughter would be lynched by white supremacist groups validated by Hofstra’s decision not to remove the sculpture.”
There have been hundreds of similar examples. Monuments that in many cases stood for centuries have been reduced to bare pedestals smattered with graffiti, the end result of Twitter-fueled fanaticism driven by national-guilt and systemic-racism narratives in which Americans are increasingly indoctrinated. But while media coverage has dwindled, the removal, defacement, and destruction of statues quietly continues. It’s part of a trend in which the high priests of social justice, dissatisfied with denouncing the living, now engage in a form of “cancelling” that seeks to condemn the dead, digging up the corpses of “problematic” individuals and putting them on trial.
Let’s be clear what this is about. The radical Left is waging a campaign within the broader culture war to deny the moral legitimacy of our democratic republic. They claim that the history holding the grand quarter-millennial-long project of America together is a pro-Western whitewash, and that it’s therefore the job of anyone committed to justice to overturn the traditional narratives underpinning society. As part of the thoughtless extension of campus cancel culture into the world of public memory and monument, historical figures are being judged by the ethical mores of the present and condemned for their lack of 21st century progressivism.1 The only difference is that individuals of the past are unable to defend themselves before the unjust tribunals of the seething mob, which whets its anarchic appetite through blatant iconoclasm.
The mob is comprised of the intolerant ideologues of the Left, for whom the idea of being cautious about the destruction of old objects, of conserving history and treating it as a potential source of wisdom, is anathema. Political revolutionaries have always been those most inclined toward iconoclasm. As aggressive idealists motivated by anger and drawn towards extreme ideology that enables violent expression, today’s woke activists, utterly convinced of their own righteousness, are no different. They take the stance that because contradictory ideals are embodied in statues, the statues are no longer acceptable and actually injurious and dangerous to the marginalized. Accordingly, they’ve arrogated to themselves the right to retrospectively cleanse our shared history.
The Left goes to great lengths to sanctify acts of vandalism with bromidic nonsense about America healing as a country by atoning for its many sins, but the iconoclasm we continue to bear witness to has absolutely nothing to do with this and everything to do with ill-informed citizens flexing raw power and basking in psychological gratification as they watch everyone else dutifully fall in line. The focus on the symbolic purging of the nation’s public realm is about ideological supremacy, not justice. Iconoclasm shouldn’t be seen as anything less than the activist intent to impose the will of one group over the entire country; it’s a warning that law and social conventions have become irrelevant, and that “the cause” will be promoted through physical force if necessary.
History is a teacher of prudence. And, as is so often the case, it’s full of lessons from which we might learn in order to avoid repeating the past. It shines a light on the future, giving us a glimpse of where we might be headed so that we can course correct before it’s too late.
I’m thinking now of China’s cultural revolution during the 1960’s. Chairman of the People’s Republic of China Mao Zedong, worried that he might be sidelined by senior colleagues in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), decided to assert his authority by bypassing comrades and appealing directly to youthful party members. He denounced the four olds that were impeding China’s progress: the old ideas, old culture, old customs, and old habits of the exploiting classes. It was a move to extend the revolution from economic and political power bases to all aspects of culture, including morals, values, traditions, and beliefs. In Mao’s telling, only a nation freed from its history could achieve the Communist end state. The informal paramilitary militia of adolescents prepared to engage in cultural revolution became known as the Red Guard.
Provincial governments declared that cultural heritage no longer enjoyed official protection. The idealistic and naive youth of China — indoctrinated in the victim narrative of socialism, educated by CCP-controlled institutions, and feeding off the revolutionary ardor of their comrades — unleashed arguably the most destructive iconoclasm campaign in history. Books and scrolls and art were burned, statues smashed, temples desecrated. Millions of class enemies had their property confiscated or destroyed, while just as many were made homeless and deported to the countryside to labor in the fields—if they were lucky. The unlucky ones were tortured, murdered, or driven to suicide.2 Whole families were buried alive or dropped into wells. While this was happening, the Chairman and Ministry of Public Security announced that the police and People’s Liberation Army wouldn’t interfere in mob violence or enter schools that were by then engaged in campaigns of terror.
It’s important to understand that members of the Red Guard weren’t psychopaths, as plenty of testimony proves. No, they were young and impressionable folks lured by the delusive analgesic of radical performative collective action and an illusion of purpose, direction, and identity. Afraid of being denounced themselves, they were driven to ever greater degrees of zealotry in order to prove their dedication. Officials encouraged them to act in extreme ways and placed them in situations that triggered the tyrannical instincts for savagery that each of us has hardwired into our biological code.
China’s cultural revolution shows how ordinary people conditioned with a narrative based on victimhood and grievance can easily turn into myrmidons bound together by a warped “us vs. them” mindset that leads to the ostracization and dehumanization of outsiders. They become convinced that they’re morally obligated to enact justice, and that monstrous egotism is actually a form of benevolence.
Today’s iconoclasts, educated in this narrative by politicians, the mainstream media, and universities, are instructed to “correct” history by assaulting statues in order to protect current and future generations from emotional injury. The language used by these enragés when they talk about institutions and traditions is redolent of revolutionaries past. And that’s because early stages of revolution are always linked to iconoclasm—the destruction of monuments, renaming cities and streets, burning buildings and books. Believing that the sins of history cannot be changed, iconoclasts seek to erase symbols and effigies.
When mobs engage in destructive outbursts they’re essentially testing the waters to gauge the level of violence legal authorities and the wider public are able to stomach. In this way, iconoclasm is a prelude to more extreme acts. As British historian Alexander Adams has written, “Iconoclasm is an immediate precursor to suppression, persecution, expulsion and the massacring of people. Iconoclasm does not cause these acts and iconoclasm does not always lead to these acts, but those acts are always accompanied by iconoclasm.”
Once the statues and monuments have been dealt with, new targets are needed. Who better than the legatees of systemic racism? Why should such people, who’ve inherited unearned privilege, and who benefit from oppressive systems, not have their rights and property — and maybe even their lives — taken away?3 If this sounds extreme, one need only glance back at the Russian and French revolutions, as well as the butchery of Rwanda and the Cambodian Killing Fields. These were all sustained periods of upheaval and iconoclasm when fanatics took advantage of political discontent that ultimately culminated in retributive campaigns of violence against both property and persons.
For too long we’ve looked at the disintegration of other societies, especially the Soviet Union, and convinced ourselves that such a thing could never happen here. Well, it can, and it is. In accommodating the agenda of the radical Left, America has precariously perched itself on a slippery slope that’s being shaken by seismic political activity. Giving self-righteous activists the green light to destroy rarely placates them; in the long run, it has an emboldening effect. Once you’ve signaled that these people are morally justified, they tend to ignore you when you blow the whistle. Their revolutionary fervor may have tamped down some since 2020, but they’ve expanded their attacks into a broader assault on our cultural heritage and America’s core values of free speech, due process, and merit that has unfolded in myriad little ways.4 Ever-increasing polarization and steady erosion of the ties that bind will lead us inexorably to the point of social collapse. The process is like falling asleep: it happens gradually, and then all at once.
The past decade has been a case study in the Law of Merited Impossibility. Time and again, progressives condescendingly dismiss conservative fears about the direction of society and top-down social change, deeming the manifestation of such fears to be impossible—and then, when exactly what conservatives predicted comes to pass, they’re denounced as bigots for opposing the new order. Implicit to the Law of Merited Impossibility is an intermediate phase when most people remain silent as they uncomfortably watch the radical Left take the moderate majority’s well-intentioned efforts further than anyone ever believed they would.
In terms of the ongoing statuary purgation, it was actually Trump who foresaw where we were headed. In 2017, after violent clashes in Charlottesville erupted over a leftist campaign to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, Trump said, “So this week it’s Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?” The former president was roundly decried by the Left for this “immoral equivalence.” But he was right. Leftists started with statues of Confederate leaders5 and quickly moved on to everyone from Teddy Roosevelt to abolitionist Frederick Douglass to Jesus Christ himself.6 Unlike the toppling of Saddam’s statue in 2003, our current wave of iconoclasm isn’t motivated by a desire to end a system of brutal oppression. The main target of present-day iconoclasts is the past—our common history and the cultural heritage bound to it.
What Trump was keenly aware of, and his detractors wholly blind to, is the fact that you can’t just assume that a revolution in social affairs will run its course and peter out. You must personally commit to stopping it when it goes too far. It’s not enough to simply elucidate distinctions—to pooh-pooh “immoral equivalence.” When the time comes, you have to actually draw those distinctions and say the buck stops here. Failure to do so will give ground to the radicals that you won’t get back. And when you cede issue after issue, when you make tacit concessions over and over again, you’ll soon find that the “idealistic ambition” of the enragés looks a lot like authoritarianism.
The political Left views historical figures through a distorted lens that solely focuses on individuals’ shortcomings rather than their achievements and contributions to the freest country in the world.
Washington Post: “While most scholars are reluctant to estimate a total number of ‘unnatural deaths’ in China under Mao, evidence shows he was in some way responsible for at least 40 million deaths and perhaps 80 million or more. This includes deaths he was directly responsible for and deaths resulting from disastrous policies he refused to change.”
If the enragés can’t stand the sight of dead political opponents carved in stone, it stands to reason that they might have trouble restraining themselves in the face of living political opponents who don’t parrot their dogma. We see this all the time with antifa.
Am I exaggerating? I don’t think so. Consider gender ideology: We’ve reached the point where students are being suspended from school and subjected to “restorative justice” education for “misgendering” teachers. The state of Michigan is trying to make it a felony for using “the wrong gender pronouns.” And a judge recently ruled that a student can’t wear a shirt that says there are only two genders. The way we’re headed, ten years from now the country will be utterly unrecognizable and our rifts greater than ever.
This will no doubt rub some people the wrong way, but I’m against the removal of Confederate statues (no, I’m not from the South). By both temperament and reason, I favor the preservation of all historical material, even that deemed contentious or erroneous. And frankly, if you study the Civil War you’ll soon come to understand that Confederate statues were erected not for racist reasons or to memorialize the Lost Cause of the South, but to serve as testament to the valor and fortitude of figures like Robert E. Lee, and to salvage redemption from misery, privation, death, and defeat. It’s worth sharing Gettysburg hero Joshua Chamberlain’s recollection of the scene in April 1865 when Lee’s men surrendered their weapons and banners: “Before us in proud humiliation stood the embodiment of manhood: men whom neither toils and sufferings, nor the fact of death, nor disaster, nor hopelessness could bend from their resolve; standing before us now, thin, worn, and famished, but erect, and with eyes looking into ours, waking memories that bound us together as no other bond; was not such manhood to be welcomed back into a Union so tested and assured?”
BLM scam artist Shaun King issued the following demand on Twitter: “All murals and stained glass windows of white Jesus and his European mother and their white friends should also come down. They are a gross form of white supremacy created as tools of oppression, racist propaganda. They should all come down.”