Statues and Limitations

Demonstrators pose in front of graffiti on a statue of Winston Churchill during a protest in London, England, June 7, 2020. (Dylan Martinez/Reuters)

Spasmodic attempts to remake the world invariably involve the throwing out of the good along with the bad. Our ongoing bout of statuary iconoclasm has proven no exception.

The list of figures whose likenesses have been defaced now includes Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Ulysses S. Grant, Winston Churchill, Mohandas Gandhi, Cervantes, Robert the Bruce, Voltaire, General Schuyler, the abolitionist Mathias Baldwin, and the guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan. One can only imagine the philosophy that could draw a line around as motley a crew as that.

Of course, no such philosophy exists — and nor will it. Rather, we find ourselves in the middle stages of a cultural riot in which everything — and everyone — has become fair game. What do Cervantes and Stevie Ray Vaughan have in common? Well, that they are both made of bronze, and are thus liable to make a sickening thud when pulled by force from their pedestals. The violence, to borrow a fashionable phrase, is the point.

But it is not acceptable. Irrespective of the nature of their grievance — or of the strength of the feeling undergirding it — violent mobs can’t make decisions on behalf of everyone else. If, as is occasionally the case, it is necessary for public monuments to be altered, updated, revisited, or removed, that work must be done within the democratic process and under the rule of law. Bad taste is not an excuse for anarchy.

One of the great ironies of our present upheaval has been the tendency of its most vocal advocates to engage in precisely the type of reactionary thoughtlessness that they believe themselves to be fighting. There is a compelling case to be made against, say, the veneration of the Confederacy, but it is a case that relies for its power upon diligent differentiation. Alexander Stephens, Jefferson Davis, John Calhoun and co. were pernicious not because they lived in the past, but because their primary contribution to history was to stand in favor of human bondage and against the American creed. Had the Confederacy prevailed, its legacy would have been the rejection and nullification of Jefferson’s words, of Lincoln’s aims, and of Grant’s actions. Do those who support the targeting of Confederate statues imagine that it will be easier or more difficult to make the argument for the unique perfidy of the rebel’s cause if they are also in favor of tearing down the monuments that honor its opponents?

Alas, too many of our institutions seem to believe that the answer is “Easier.” The Pulitzer prize-winning lead essayist of the New York Times’s “1619 Project” has suggested that it would be “an honor” if all this vandalism were called “the 1619 riots,” and, separately, has expressed indifference toward the destruction of statues of Ulysses S. Grant. Given that the central premise of the 1619 Project is that the Founding was predicated upon a lie and that white supremacy has always been the nation’s animating value, this makes a perverted sort of sense, and yet we cannot help but notice how absurd it is that, by flattening American history into a single unexceptional lump, the supposedly “anti-racist” position is rendered indistinguishable from the position that was held by the Confederacy. As ever, the death of context leads inexorably to the death of understanding.

And, if left unchecked, it leads to the death of history itself. Every great figure from America’s past has been flawed in one way or another; the salient question is whether those flaws were incidental, or whether they were central, to their celebration. Thomas Jefferson is remembered primarily for setting into aspic what Abraham Lincoln described as an “abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times” and what Martin Luther King described as a “promissory note.” George Washington is remembered for his role throwing off the colonial yoke and then setting an unprecedented example of republican leadership as the nation’s first president. Lincoln saved the Union and helped to bring an end to slavery; Churchill identified the Nazis as having created “a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime,” and helped rally the world to their destruction; Gandhi pioneered and practiced a form of non-violent protest that has been exported worldwide and used to remarkable effect. A full understanding of each man requires the imposition of a “but . . . ”. It does not require the wholesale destruction of his memory.

By their nature, mobs carry with them the same deficiencies as the dictator. Mobs crowd out deliberation, intimidate dissenters, coopt the silent and weak, and make a mockery of pluralism. It is almost certainly possible to remove some statues without falling down a slope so slippery that we knock all of them down along the way. But not at the moment — while the rabble is running wild.

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