It is pointless to observe the historical ignorance of the mob — or protesters, but this was not a peaceful group — that toppled monuments to Father Junípero Serra, Francis Scott Key, and Ulysses S. Grant in Golden Gate Park on Juneteenth. But it may be worth noting the curious symmetry of their actions.
When he canonized Serra, who brought Roman Catholicism to the Pacific Coast, Pope Francis homilized: “Mission is never the fruit of a perfectly planned program or a well-organized manual. Mission is always the fruit of a life which knows what it is to be found and healed, encountered and forgiven.” More than the statues in Golden Gate Park, it is that notion of healing and forgiveness — even encounter — that the mob rejects.
The commonplace description of the canceled is that they stood “on the wrong side of history.” But that is to miss the vital, defining feature of cancel culture: Its targets stand on the wrong side of Right Now. History, students of it know, is inseparable from context and change. The mentality sweeping the cancelers now is objectively ahistorical. Individuals, to say nothing of societies, can never be “found and healed, encountered and forgiven” in anything approaching moral complexity, discovery, or, for that matter, regression. Instead, the central claim of cancel culture is that each individual exists at a single moment — that of his or her worst sin — and that the standard of judging that sin is compressed into a modern instant.
This is a wholly separate question from that of honoring Confederate generals, especially by the twisted means of naming military bases of the United States after rebels who took up arms against it. Honoring any individual entails a prudential balancing of his or her public life. Great men and women inevitably have large defects to accompany large virtues. The point about Confederates is that they are known for nothing but the defects.
But what of Serra, Key, and Grant? The issue is best illustrated by stipulating the worst accusations of their critics. Serra is accused of destroying indigenous cultures and using brutal tactics to convert Native Americans to Roman Catholicism. Key owned slaves. Grant briefly owned, and freed, one man inherited from his father-in-law.
Serra, for what little it is worth lately, pled for mercy for Native Americans who revolted against one of his missions in 1775, killing a priest. If any Native American, whether converted or not, were to kill Serra, he wrote to the governor, he should be forgiven: “Let the murderer live so he can be saved, which is the purpose of our coming here and the reason for forgiving him.” No such luck for Serra.
Which is the point: The object of cancel culture is not to persuade but rather to punish. The fact of having held retrograde views or committed terrible acts at any point is ipso facto evidence that redemption is impossible. There is no more forceful case against the criminal-justice reform that many of the same protesters demand. The philosophy, if it deserves that label, is simply a moralized version of President Trump’s demands for “law and order,” and, by the way, feel free to rough up General Grant while hauling him in for questioning. The protesters want to abolish the police — which seems ungrateful, given that the police watched them destroy public property without making an arrest — while anointing themselves officers of unforgiving moral justice.
Key, like many of his generation, was a critic of slavery who nonetheless enslaved others. He was a moderate opponent of Garrisonian radicalism. Abraham Lincoln, whose turn at the dock is surely coming, was also regarded as a moderate in his day. Perhaps next Juneteenth will be marked by defacing memorials to the author of the Emancipation Proclamation, whose reading Juneteenth commemorates. Key’s views on race, judged by today’s standards, were abhorrent. The statue to him does not — “did” not, that is — honor or even address any of these acts. He is known to history for his authorship of the national anthem. If that is insufficient, Key — who, as a lawyer, represented both fugitive slaves and slave owners — could be memorialized as a lesson in the inherent complexity of human life.
That brings us to Grant. In the spirit of charity that those who destroyed a bust of him lack, set aside the patent absurdity of celebrating Juneteenth by deplatforming the general whose victorious troops read the Emancipation Proclamation and the president who subdued the first incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan. Grant’s unforgivable and all-defining sin was having owned a slave, William Jones.
That is true. So is the fact that Grant was raised in an abolitionist family and went to court in 1859 — in St. Louis, hardly an oasis of political calm or racial enlightenment — to free Jones, whom he could instead have sold to relieve his serious financial troubles. The least generous and nuanced interpretation that can be imposed on Grant’s life is that he was a slave owner who saw the error of his ways and proceeded to destroy slavery. Even that much requires caricature, but as caricatures go, it is an admirable one. Still, it requires a time-elapse photograph rather than a snapshot. It also requires that such an image be placed in context and understood in subtle terms.
In the Golden Gate strain of protest, the rejection of memory and complexity in favor of a bastardized version of Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence — that is, live in and for the now alone — has overtaken an initial and noble opposition to racism and police brutality. It will not turn out well for its adherents.
There are conservatives who dispense “Jacobinism” as a casual epithet, but here it genuinely applies. Edmund Burke defined the essence of Jacobinism as “the destruction of all prejudices.” In today’s climate, it is necessary to specify that, by “prejudice,” he referred not to racial animosity but rather to moral habit. The new Jacobins compress past, present, and future into the almighty now.
This is indistinguishable from a central proposition of Trumpism, which is not simply that the past is a foreign country but also that it must be conquered and, à la Serra, civilized. The only difference is that the Golden Gate crowd believes that history started in 1619 — or was it the publication date of the 1619 Project? — and that Trumpism, one of whose signatures is outlandish historical claims, locates the origin at November 2016. Does this theory of history include the millions of diverse Californians who are now Roman Catholic and who might take offense at the destruction of a monument to Serra? Did they come after the beginning of history, or before?
On this philosophy, there is and can be nothing permanent, which makes one wonder how its adherents can classify racism as an objective sin. The larger difficulty for the new Jacobins is that their internal logic predetermines, true to the spirit of Robespierre, their own date with the scaffold. They doubtless see Friday’s episode as a moment of historical triumph. But the unrelenting march of moral progress means that the future — which is to say, “tomorrow” — must regard anyone operating under even today’s most enlightened standards as troglodytes. Whoever comes next will be more enlightened, and a failure today to live up to tomorrow’s standards will be unredeemable.
The sequence is not hard to imagine. Did any of the protesters burn fossil fuels on their way to Golden Gate Park? Were their triumphant videos of crashing statues filmed on smartphones manufactured under atrocious labor conditions? Almost certainly. This is certain too: Their lives will be reduced to that sin. It will not be forgiven. The Golden Gate episode at least teaches that.