In our culture, we have gotten so used to the idea that “iconoclasm” is a good and admirable thing, a vigorous rethinking of hoary pieties and staid traditions, that we have forgotten the horror and waste of what the word really signifies. We are now in the process of being reminded. Iconoclasm is nearly always associated with moments of religious or quasi-religious conflict, when profoundly different convictions and sensibilities come into conflict and understandings of the sacred become locked in a vicious combat to the death.
From Akhenaten’s obliteration of the traditional Egyptian gods, to the Byzantine and Calvinist attempts to suppress religious imagery, to the French Revolution’s orgies of cultural desecration, to the Muslim ruin of Hindu and Buddhist temples and artifacts—including most recently the Taliban’s appalling 2001 destruction of the two Buddhas of Bamyan in Afghanistan—episodes of iconoclasm are never merely cleansing operations. Iconoclasts seek to assault the sensibilities of those they oppose, and utterly destroy all physical evidence that such views ever existed. There is no room for coexistence, tolerance, or epistemic modesty.
It is hard to know how much of this applies to the statue-wrecking spectacle we are seeing right now in the United States and a few other Western countries. Despite the appearances of mob spontaneity, there is a made-for-the-cameras quality about a great deal of the action that suggests premeditation and well-financed organization on the highest levels. To say nothing of cynicism. The connection between appropriate outrage over the police killing of George Floyd, on the one hand, and the widespread desecration of public statues not only of Confederate generals, but of the likes of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt, Ulysses S. Grant, and Mahatma Gandhi, on the other, is tenuous at best. Does this sprawling animus show that the rage of the mob is utterly indiscriminate and yobbishly destructive? Or does it reveal something more ominous about the collapse of confidence in the legitimacy of our institutions?
Hard to say, but there are a few things I can say with confidence. First, that these acts of destruction are acts of pure and unmitigated hate, a blind and abstract hatred completely devoid of any impulse of charity toward others. They accomplish nothing to further the well-being of those whose cause is being drafted into service as the pretext for the mob’s violence. There is no vision of the future being put forward, no positive vista being explored. A public statue is an expression of public meaning. Tearing it down leaves only an empty place.
Second, that a great many of the foot soldiers in this movement are young, white, suburban, middle-class and college-educated; and that they are working out their salvation with fear and trembling and a deadly earnestness. The “white privilege” of which these young people complain is a projection onto others of the very condition that they suspect and fear in themselves. Hence the convulsive rage, complete with copious gutter profanity, which we have all seen in videos of them. People in the grip of such powerful psychological forces will go a long way to expiate for their existential sins and rid themselves of their demons. They are easily mobilized by others. According to Pew estimates, only one out of six Black Lives Matter activists is actually black.
But I think the most disturbing aspect of this episode, which perhaps indicates how deep our societal rot goes, has less to do with the rioters than with those in positions of authority. Rioters and miscreants we will always have, but that is why we have authorities. Ours, however, seem to have utterly abdicated. In city after city, mayors and governors decline to act against vandals, the police stand down, and the devil is allowed to take the hindmost. Corporations fall over themselves to advertise their virtuousness, and give what looks very much like protection money to organizations whose goals are openly subversive of the fundamental American political and social order. University administrators are all too willing to side with those who suppress free inquiry, and routinely cave to protestors rather than defend even the most fundamental tenets of academic freedom.
The pulling down of statues, as a form of symbolic murder, is congruent with the silencing of dissenting opinion, so prevalent a feature of campus life today. In my own academic field of history, it is entirely of a piece with the weaponizing of history, in which the past is regarded as nothing more than a malleable background for the concerns of the present, and not as an independent source of wisdom or insight or perspective.
Those caught up in the moral frenzy of the moment ought to think twice, and more than twice, about jettisoning figures of the past who do not measure up perfectly to the standards of the present—a present, moreover, for which those past figures cannot reasonably be held responsible. For one thing, as the Scriptures warn us, the measure you use is the measure you will receive. Those who expect moral perfection of others can expect no mercy for themselves, either from their posterity or from the rebukes of their own inflamed consciences.
But there is a deeper reason. It is part of what it means to be a civilized human being—it is in fact an essential feature of civilization itself—to recognize the partiality of all human achievement, and to cherish it and sustain it no less for that partiality.
Thomas Jefferson, one of the principal targets du jour, provides a perfect example of this. Leave aside for the moment his many notable achievements in government, natural science, architecture, invention, etc. It is for his ideas, above all else, that we honor Jefferson; and for the cause of human freedom and dignity that he so eloquently championed. His failings weigh against the man, yes, but not against the cause for which he labored so mightily. That should be a lesson to us today. Like Jefferson, we carry meanings far larger than we know, meanings whose full realization cannot be achieved in our lifetime, or even be fully understood by us, but which we are nevertheless charged to carry forward as faithfully as we can.
But unlike Jefferson, we have the benefit of being able to stand on his shoulders, with his words to direct and inspire us. “We knew” about Jefferson’s faults, said the venerable civil rights leader Representative John Lewis of Georgia. “But we didn't put the emphasis there. We put the emphasis on what he wrote in the Declaration. . . . His words were so powerful. His words became the blueprint, the guideline for us to follow. From those words you have the fountain.”
The same fountain still nourishes our lives today, and shows no sign of running dry. It is a mistake, and an outrage, to allow the vicious and ignorant among us to deprive us (and themselves) of its benefits.
Wilfred M. McClay is the G.T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma. He is the author, most recently, of the book Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story.
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