Culture

Destroying Symbols: Where Does It End?

The Confederate soldier statue pulled down in Durham, N.C., on Monday. (Reuters photo: Kate Medley)
What about the Washington Monument or Monticello? And what about that Lenin statue in NYC?

The orgiastic glee with which protesters tore down, then beat up, a century-old monument to a generic Confederate soldier in Durham, N.C., this week was alarming. The mob seemed to have lost control of itself. Who wears out his foot kicking a lump of metal? The urge to destroy could get out of hand very quickly, especially given the mixed signals sent by authorities: Durham police stood by and did nothing. Only the following day, after an outcry, did the sheriff announce he intended to seek charges.

Where does this end?

Some wise conservative thinkers are calling to put the disputes over Civil War relics behind us. My esteemed former colleague Seth Mandel, op-ed editor of the New York Post and a man of deep probity, tweeted “Take down the monuments” on Sunday. My esteemed current colleague and boss Rich Lowry tweeted over the weekend, “If these monuments are going to become rallying points for neo-Nazis, maybe they do have to go.” Then he expanded on the thought in a column.

Rich seems to think that this is a good time to issue group punishment to neo-Nazi white-supremacist scum. I share the urge. Also I have no fondness whatsoever for Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, the Confederacy, or any of its symbols, and I have no emotional or other connection to the South. I find it utterly baffling that there is a statue of Roger Taney, author of the Dred Scott decision, in Baltimore. Moreover, some Confederate statues were erected specifically to antagonize black citizens during the civil-rights era.

But it is a characteristic of leftists that they are always pushing the culture wars into new territory, even territory that the Left itself would have called absurd overreach a few years previously. On Monday, the mayor of Baltimore agreed to take down its Civil War statues. By later Monday, that wasn’t good enough: The city council unanimously voted not only to remove but also to destroy the statues. One resident, Keith Scott, was skeptical about what is being accomplished here: “If you were prejudiced when it was up, you’re going to be prejudiced when it goes down,” he told the ABC affiliate in Baltimore. Prejudice hurts people. Statues just stand there, mostly unnoticed.

Seth says, “Take down the monuments.” Let’s consider what that might mean to the Left. At Pepperdine University, a Christopher Columbus statue was taken down after a protest. There are statues of Columbus all over the country, including one in Central Park. If an angry mob surrounds that one and starts pulling it down, how will police react? A statue of Teddy Roosevelt at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City drew an angry crowd demanding its removal (and for Columbus Day to be renamed) last October. If TR doesn’t belong on the Upper West Side, how does he belong on Mount Rushmore?

Up in Boston, a writer hints that the city should remove local statues of historian Samuel Eliot Morison (who “used language in his writings on slavery that chafed readers”), Henry Cabot Lodge (“a staunch believer in American imperialism”), and even, I kid you not, Abraham Lincoln. (Thomas Ball, who sculpted the latter, wouldn’t let a black man into the house to pose for the statue, which depicts a freed slave kneeling at the president’s feet.) This argument isn’t on the fringe: It was contained in a column written by Pulitzer-shortlisted critic Ty Burr and published in one of the most prestigious newspapers in the country, the Boston Globe. My longtime colleague at the New York Post, film critic Lou Lumenick, carried the logic of Confederate-flag removal through to Confederate-film removal and called for Gone with the Wind to be placed in a museum.

Listen to the way the Left talks about the statues: “The truth is that the desperation to preserve this particular ‘heritage’ and ‘past’ is a facade for something more malignant,” wrote Christine Emba in the Washington Post. “It’s privileged status, not history, that’s being protected.” If this is a war on symbols of “privileged status,” it can never end.

We are reaching the point where, if the Washington Monument were to be blown up tomorrow, it would be anyone’s guess whether jihadists or the ‘anti-fascist’ Left did it.

Once every Confederate monument in the country is down, what then? How is a statue of an ordinary rebel soldier in Durham, N.C., more offensive than a gorgeous building-sized tribute to slave-owning racist Thomas Jefferson on the Tidal Basin? We are reaching the point where, if the Washington Monument were to be blown up tomorrow, it would be anyone’s guess whether jihadists or the “anti-fascist” Left did it.

Among northern sophisticates and intellectuals, there is, I think, a persistent condescension toward all things southern. Call it Northism: the need to erect a kind of moral and mental barrier at the Mason Dixon Line. Yet slavery’s evil infected the North as well. Slavery wasn’t fully illegal in New York until 1827. The very capital of our country is named for a slaveholder. When it comes to slavery, there is no expunging the moral stain. There is no expiating the sin.

Two miles from our offices at National Review, there is an 18-foot statue of Vladimir Lenin. (The real-estate website Curbed calls it “quirky.” It was commissioned by the Soviet Union and discovered in a junkyard in Moscow.) You will not doubt my sincerity when I say everyone at NR despises Lenin and everything he stands for. So will Kevin Williamson be putting on a balaclava and leading a band of self-appointed historical-correctness commissioners down to 178 Norfolk Street on a commando raid to pull it down? No. If a statue that has been standing in your city for years suddenly sends you into paroxysms of destructive rage, you are really determined to create a problem for yourself, and you’ll create another problem when it’s gone.

Even if taking down the statues is a good idea, this isn’t the moment to do it. Emotions are running hot. When a mob is in a frenzy, maintain order until tempers cool. Don’t give it space to destroy. Rich believes that the statues need to go because they are becoming “rallying points for neo-Nazis,” but I can’t believe that the white supremacists, small and feeble as their movement is, would disappear if all of the old Confederate statues were taken down. If anything, that would give them a fillip of energy, a recruitment tool. The best response to white supremacists is to let them march and let them speak — then ridicule and marginalize them. This isn’t hard: They’re already ridiculous and marginal. Civil War statues may be beloved by white supremacists, but they are a kind of speech, and the antidote to bad speech is more speech. Don’t care for a statue of Robert E. Lee? Fine. I don’t either. Let’s recontextualize it. Let’s put up a statue of Harriet Tubman next to it. History is an ongoing discussion.

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