When the going gets stupid, the stupid turn pro. On Monday, in an essay due to appear in the forthcoming print edition of National Review, I wrote, “The Christopher Columbus protests are coming.” That very day, a vandal in Baltimore took a sledgehammer to what is believed to be the oldest Columbus monument in the United States, a 225-year-old work whose cornerstone was laid in 1792. For maximum publicity value, the vandal or an associate brazenly posted the video of his handiwork to YouTube as he gleefully narrated. If you’re not disgusted by the horrific damage to the monument, you might be a member of the “concerned activist” community that enjoys making its political points by smashing things to bits.
On the same day, the Christopher Columbus statue towering 76 feet over New York City’s Columbus Circle learned that his status is under review because he triggers the most powerful two officials in town.
As George Orwell saw it, in 1984: “Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”
New York City in 2017 is a one-party place where high elected officials literally parade down Fifth Avenue next to terrorists who were convicted of shocking crimes in the 1970s, but where an inanimate hunk of metal commemorating Christopher Columbus that has stood in the city for 125 years is declared a menace to society. The hard-left city-council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito — who last made headlines when she appeared next to convicted terrorist Oscar Lopez Rivera on a float at the head of the Puerto Rican Day Parade in June — called for taking down the Christopher Columbus statue that stands on a column overlooking the vast roundabout named after him. The statue has been a proud symbol of the city since 1892, when it was first installed in honor of the 400th anniversary of his landing in the New World, and is closely associated with New York’s large Italian-American contingent.
“There obviously has been ongoing dialogue and debate in the Caribbean — particularly in Puerto Rico where I’m from — about this same conversation that there should be no monument or statue of Christopher Columbus based on what he signifies to the native population . . . [the] oppression and everything that he brought with him,” said Mark-Viverito on Monday.
That inspired the equally far-left Mayor Bill de Blasio, who marched behind Lopez Rivera in the Puerto Rican Day parade, to chime in that the Columbus statue “obviously is one of the ones that will get very immediate attention because of the tremendous concerns about it.” De Blasio has announced a 90-day review of “all statues and monuments that in any way may suggest hate or division or racism, anti-Semitism — any kind of message that is against the values of New York City.” One assumes that when de Blasio orders Columbus to be toppled from his perch, he’ll do so in the middle of the night (à la removals in Austin and Baltimore) for our own safety.
Start pulling on one strand, and pretty soon the cloth becomes unrecognizable. If the statue over Columbus Circle must go, why should the name Columbus Circle remain, or New York’s annual Columbus Day Parade? Why should that federal holiday be named after him anyway? Why indeed should the District of Columbia retain its name when calling it the District of Cesar Chavez would be so much more in tune with our times? Shifting political currents already forced one name change on Columbia University (when Alexander Hamilton was a student, it was King’s College). Once was seemingly enough. But administrators had better think twice before they order new stationery.
If the statue over Columbus Circle must go, why should the name Columbus Circle remain, or New York’s annual Columbus Day Parade?
Is de Blasio bothering to ask the people he supposedly represents whether they want statues ripped off their perches? Of course not. Instead he is forming a commission, which will be stocked with activists chosen by him. These statues belong to history, to our shared memory, not merely to the municipalities in which they stand. Every governor in the country should be ordering up legislation like North Carolina’s to bar cities and the extremists who wield power in them from removing any more longstanding historical markers without state approval. Most states (34) have Republican governors and only six are wholly controlled by Democrats. The hysteria to purge the country of evil spirits lurking in bronze and granite must be arrested, and it is the duty of the (more) conservative party to preserve history and heed the people, who have said again and again by wide margins in polls that they do not want historical statues ripped down.
Less than two weeks after Charlottesville, we’ve already expanded the scope of the historical inquest well beyond the losing side in the Civil War. The Lincoln Memorial has already been vandalized and a spokesperson for Mark-Viverito called for Grant’s Tomb to be put under review, citing the general’s anti-Semitic streak. That one is a national monument, not a city one, so it may be safe from Mark-Viverito’s clutches for now.
Slavery, racism, colonialism, and conquest are simply too interwoven with the country’s history to cleanse us of all the reminders thereof. New York need look no deeper than its very name to understand that. The American city and state aren’t named after the northern English city but after the Duke of York, later King James II of England. Among the duke’s deeds was serving at the head of the Royal African Company, a slave-trading concern.
— Kyle Smith is National Review’s critic-at-large.