In The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the historian Edward Gibbon notes that in its latter stages, Roman citizens were fond of vandalizing or removing monuments to an unpopular leader. Historians called the practice “damnatio memoriae,” or condemnation of memory. In today’s America, the tragic events in Charlottesville have led to a Roman-like effort to erase history. Just a quick overview of events in New York, where I live:
New York mayor Bill de Blasio says he will look into removing the statue of Christopher Columbus that has stood near Central Park since 1892. The City Council speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, already supports removal of the “invader” Columbus. Separately, Jewish groups are calling for the removal of a statue of Peter Stuyvesant, the first mayor of New York City, but an anti-Semite. Governor Andrew Cuomo has called on the U.S. Army to rename two streets at New York’s Fort Hamilton that honored West Point graduates Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.
Cities all over the country — from Baltimore to Los Angeles — are removing statues to Confederate leaders or soldiers. But it has gone beyond the Boys in Gray. Vandals defaced a statue of Abraham Lincoln, of all people, last week in Chicago. A local Chicago pastor wants to remove George Washington’s name from a park because he was a slaveholder. Ditto for Thomas Jefferson. Al Sharpton, the shakedown artist, is against the Jefferson Memorial.
I understand the sentiments involved, but this is government as performance art. Before this goes any further, perhaps we should ask ourselves if the audiences calling for performing these ritual acts of historical removal are that large.
Two new polls by liberal media outlets cast doubt on just how much support for a statue culture war there is. The polling gives reason for skepticism. An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll last week found that 62 percent of respondents thought statues honoring leaders of the Confederacy should “remain as a historical symbol.” Only 27 percent of those polled wanted the statues removed. It is noteworthy that, by 44 percent to 40 percent, African Americans did not support removing Confederate statues.
Then there is the poll taken by the Huffington Post in association with YouGov. Only 29 percent of Americans want to change the name of streets or buildings commemorating Confederate leaders, and only a third want to remove statues of them. The public is divided on what the Confederate flag means — with 35 percent viewing it as a symbol of Southern pride and 35 percent seeing it as racist.
Part of the reason for the public’s lack of support or even interest in the Confederate symbol is practical. Andrew Young, the former mayor of Atlanta who served President Jimmy Carter as his U.N. ambassador and was a confidant of Martin Luther King, made clear where he stood at a forum this month when asked about removing Confederate statutes:
I think it is too costly to refight the Civil War. We have paid too great a price in trying to bring people together. . . . I personally feel that we made a mistake in fighting over the Confederate flag here in Georgia. Or that that was an answer to the problem of the death of nine people — to take down the Confederate flag in South Carolina. I am always interested in substance over symbols. If the truth be known, we’ve had as much agony — but also glory — under the United States flag. That flew over segregated America. It flew over slavery.
Young is also a savvy politician. He and other Democrats realize that a full-blown culture war over Confederate monuments may end up the same way as similar battles over gun control, politically correct speech, and other hot-button issues — with liberals losing as much or more than conservatives do.
Paul Begala, a top Democratic strategist for President Bill Clinton, told the New York Times that Democrats were “driving straight into a trap Trump has set,” because the president seeks to shift the focus away from Charlottesville to attempts by liberals to “take away our history.”
“While I understand the pain those monuments cause,” said Begala, “I just think it in some ways dishonors the debate to allow Trump to hijack it.”
No one doubts the sincerity of many of the people who are calling for the removal of monuments. But in a free society, censorship and the sandblasting of history carries a price. The slope between caring for the feelings and sensibilities of some and enshrining a form of cultural authoritarianism is both slippery and sloping steeply downward.