Are we more moral than our ancestors?
That’s one problem raised by the wave of iconoclasm lately sweeping the United States. Mobs are disfiguring or outright toppling Confederate monuments, as well as statues of Saint Junípero Serra, Miguel de Cervantes, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Ulysses S. Grant, among others. The young iconoclasts harbor no doubts: They believe they are entitled to interrogate and, if necessary, depose the symbols of a bankrupt past.
It’s easy to dismiss their ironclad certainty. Christians especially might detect in it a denial of sin as a permanent mark of human existence. Biblical faith has no patience for what C. S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery,” the present’s unearned sense of superiority over the past. The stain of our first parents’ transgression spares no era, after all, and distance from the Fall confers no special moral clairvoyance upon later generations.
Still, it isn’t hard to appreciate why the sins of the American past might loom especially large in the moral imaginations of the radicalized young: Chattel slavery inscribed into the Constitution for a century, followed by another century of de jure racial apartheid in the South—these were enormities in the truest sense of the word. Our ancestors tolerated and, in some cases, militantly defended these enormities. We, on the other hand, deplore and work to rectify them; so the past really was a parade of horribles, and we really are more moral than our ancestors (or so runs the thinking behind the present iconoclasm).
How should Christians respond? Waving at the Fall won’t suffice. Sin afflicts every generation, but it doesn’t follow that Christians should defend every statue merely because it memorializes the past. If Christianity laughs at chronological snobbery, it also rules out chronological inferiority complexes. It is emphatically not a religion of ancestor worship: “You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers” (1 Pet. 1:18). We can judge the past. We can condemn its misdeeds.
Nevertheless, today’s iconoclasm should trouble us. Not because it judges the past, but because it fails to uphold any permanent ideals against which the past or the present might rightly be judged. If anything, the movement goes out of its way to smash traditional symbols of moral authority and repositories of moral wisdom.
We see this in the mindless desecration targeting figures, like Serra and Grant, who in their own time were recognized for showing compassion for history’s victims. We notice this tendency, too, in the woke education establishment’s calls for K-12 curricular revolution: “The whole Western canon,” says the NYC Culturally Responsive Education Working Group, “is rife with horrible stories and atrocities of who we are as people of color.” (City Journal’s Max Eden has catalogued many more such calls.)
A movement that can’t morally distinguish between a Serra or a Grant, on one hand, and a John C. Calhoun, say, on the other, isn’t a movement attached to reality. Likewise, a movement that finds little or nothing in the Western canon that might be of value for the fight against racism is a movement at war with the truth. As the Italian Catholic philosopher Augusto Del Noce wrote of the 1968 uprising, such a movement “becomes an absurd revolt against what exists. It becomes a form of ahistorical activism that cannot distinguish what is positive and what is negative in existing reality.”
If the past deserves summary and total condemnation, if our ancestors were wrong about everything and less moral in every respect than we are, then the present moment—including the genuine racial progress we have made—is equally unstable and untrustworthy, because reality itself is untrustworthy.
This is the problem with framing social movements along a progress-reaction spectrum rather than a true-false one, as the premodern traditions did. On the true-false spectrum, a historical figure’s actions were either right or wrong, as measured by the yardstick of a permanent, objective, and universal standard. Many of our ancestors’ actions were a mixture of good and bad—just as with actors in our time. But on the progress-reaction spectrum, a product of the Enlightenment and especially of the radical nineteenth century, the expectation is that the movement of history itself will diminish the share of evil in the world, and the past is condemnable precisely for being past.
The moral danger in such thinking should be obvious. It’s tempting, and awfully easy, to recognize the evils of the past; it is much less attractive, and terribly difficult, to recognize the evils of one’s own time: class-based economic oppression, for example, which our corporate-friendly racial ideology sidesteps or even legitimates. The progressive attitude that holds our ancestors in utter contempt thus serves as a sort of ideological sleeping potion for a generation that claims to be woke.
Sohrab Ahmari is the op-ed editor of the New York Post. His next book explores 12 questions our culture doesn’t ask.
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