Queen Elizabeth I knew firsthand how exhausting it is to deal with iconoclasts. When she acceded to the throne of England in 1588, the country had been through a series of dizzying religious upheavals, beginning with her father Henry VIII’s break from the Church of Rome and ending with the death of her sister, Mary I, whose attempt to forcibly reconvert England to Roman Catholicism involved hundreds of religious dissenters’ being burned at the stake. With Elizabeth’s coronation, the Protestants were back in power. But there was a small problem: She wanted to maintain the crucifixes, altar candles, and priestly vestments from Mary’s reign.
You would think that Protestant clergy would have been grateful to Elizabeth. Overnight, they had gone from fugitive heretics and blasphemers under perpetual threat of being burned at the stake to princes of the church. But it wasn’t enough for the iconoclasts. These bishops flatly refused to have candles or crucifixes on their altars. The Queen ended up forcing them to wear the vestments, which they did, though with much wailing and gnashing of teeth.
Why am I telling you all this? Simply to show you that iconoclasm has always been around and that, seemingly, it will never go away. This week saw a revival in London, where statues of Sir Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln were defaced by “antifascist” and “antiracist” protesters. The impulse to destroy public images has always involved hostility toward them as complex physical symbols; the literature of the Reformation makes that clear. The visual is volatile, and its meaning is not as easily contained or controlled as that of the linguistic. For this reason, iconoclasts are scrupulous in their obsession with extirpating anything equivocal or ambivalent that might challenge the certainty required for their totalitarian undertakings. For the new iconoclasts, it is the complexity of history that is the real threat.
The public controversy concerning the statues is, essentially, a theological problem. In the Church of Grievance-Driven Collective Identity, there is original sin, but no mechanism for atonement. Nothing separates this new religion from the old more clearly than the words attributed to Christ on the cross in John 19:30: “It is finished.” According to the canons of the new faith, there is no point at which the sinner is released from the claims of the victim. For after all has been conceded to the aggrieved party, we will be told, as surely as the night follows the day, that we “still have a long way to go.” That is to say, unless and until the oppressed decide of their own volition that their oppressors have been obedient enough to receive absolution, they should enjoy a monopoly on speech and violence. As to what qualifies a person for absolution in any final sense, this is never made clear. There is no limiting principle on the wrath of the afflicted, no criterion for forgiveness to circumscribe the boundaries of destruction.
This is why statues are problematic to such people. Building a statue is an act of forgiveness. When we build a statue, we cannot help but bring the whole life of the subject into the public square for examination. We ask our compatriots to remember the person long after their death and to think upon their deeds long after most of our own have faded into the mists of time. But clearly not every deed is pleasant to remember. Who, after all, would choose to have all his actions and his likeness carved into stone for posterity to inspect and interrogate? The praise of any person who lived under the microscope of history necessitates a passing over of their sins. A line must be drawn to limit the claims of public outrage, as bright and red as the blood on the doorposts of the Hebrews in Egypt. Some acts and undertakings, we decide, are so great that they mark a definite point at which mocking and scorn must give way to simple gratitude. This idea is anathema to the iconoclasts. There is no cross they could nail their opponents to that would ever cleanse the guilty of their impurity; nothing in the lives of the Last Lion or the Great Emancipator that make up for the fact that, like countless others, they once ate of the tree of the knowledge of black and white. Fall once and damnation is unavoidable. Dante placed a sign above the entrance to Hell bearing the words “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here.” The new iconoclasts, not content with family-run businesses and grocery stores, have seemingly looted the underworld as well, stealing his sign and placing it over Earth. If you can rid the world of the Nazis or the Confederacy and still be denounced as a moral failure, abandoning hope might be your best option.
Forgiveness, then, is the real target of the new iconoclasts. The building of statues inevitably involves an appeal to preponderance when it comes to the recorded moral actions of the subject. This, our aggrieved neighbors inform us, is not to be borne. There will always be something on the other side of the scales, however small. Even if the queen frees you from persecution and elevates you to power, she will still make you wear the damn vestments. But what is it exactly in the lives of Lincoln and Churchill that requires this forgiveness according to the real antiracist antifascists? Fred Kaplan, author of Lincoln and the Abolitionists: John Quincy Adams, Slavery, and the Civil War, describes the 16th president as an “antislavery moralist,” a man “who spoke against slavery but failed to take action against it,” in contrast with Quincy Adams, who, he asserts, was an “antislavery activist.” I’m aware that the market for American-history books is rather saturated these days and that an edgy revisionist pitch is the easiest way to secure an advance, but my goodness, if publishers will listen to such a thesis, I’ve got a book about Button Gwinnett as America’s greatest founder that I’d love to pitch them.
To be blunt, Kaplan has it backward. Quincy Adams, while surely sincere in his anti-slavery sentiments, merely lamented that abolition would probably mean disunion, concluded that this was not a price worth paying, and went on his merry way. A few decades later, in the 1850s, Lincoln rose to prominence as the head of a political coalition made up in large part of poor white agricultural workers, many of whom had recently immigrated from Europe. These voters were hostile to slavery because its expansion into the territories would have resulted in an ever-shrinking job market for them. On the other hand, they opposed outright abolition for similar reasons: An emancipated African-American workforce would have meant competition in the labor market, which would have driven down wages and made work harder to find. If Lincoln had publicly expressed his intention to do anything more than limit slavery to the southern states, his anti-slavery coalition would have collapsed. But in 1862, when finally given the opportunity, Lincoln exploited the only legal and constitutional mechanism likely to be accepted by Congress for ending slavery. This was the rationale of military necessity, which fell under his prerogative as commander-in-chief. To make a moral case for abolition in the Emancipation Proclamation would have been to endanger the legal and political efficacy of the document. Military necessity was the one tiny reactor shaft in the Death Star of American slavery that could bring about its unilateral demise, and Lincoln found it. As Thomas Sowell put it, “had Lincoln’s real concerns extended no further than the military effects of the Emancipation Proclamation, it would be hard to explain his many and strenuous behind-the-scenes efforts to get slave-holding border states and the Congress of the United States to extend the ban on slavery to the whole country.”
Churchill’s career was more checkered in ethical terms, but then again, it was much longer and spanned a global empire as well as two existential military threats rather than one. Nevertheless, the iconoclasts are finding it increasingly difficult to limit their analysis of his life to that which he actually thought and did. In 2018, the Indian politician Shashi Tharoor published an op-ed in the Washington Post arguing that it was “a mystery why a few bombastic speeches have been enough to wash the bloodstains off Churchill’s racist hands.” Churchill obviously does have blood on his hands; how could he not given the offices that he held and the times in which he lived? The sordid history of the Dardanelles campaign during the First World War is damning enough, as he himself would surely have conceded. But the idea that he ever perpetrated a deliberate massacre of the innocent — with the possible, if also impossibly complex, exception of the fire-bombing of Dresden — is ridiculous. The Pulitzer Prize finalist Arthur Herman examined in his book Gandhi & Churchill the recorded facts of everything Churchill and his cabinet achieved in aid of the people of Bengal during the famine he is often accused of creating. In 2017, Herman published an article arguing that “without Churchill, Bengal’s famine would have been even worse.” When imprisoned in 1899 by Boers in Pretoria, Churchill argued with his jailer about Britain’s racial policies. Writing later about the encounter, he noted that “probing at random touched a very sensitive nerve.” The “true and original” Boer aversion to British rule was “the abiding fear and hatred of the movement that seeks to place the native on a level with the white man.” These sentiments are not hollowed out by Churchill’s strong stance against the native Mau Mau terrorist group in Kenya, who murdered 18 black people for every white person and terrorized the peaceful native Kikuyu tribe. And there is also the small matter of a certain mustachioed German lunatic. No point in troubling our antifascist friends with the history of that horrid affair, though. They’re busy fighting racists like Churchill.
Grace should be given to men who move mountains, and damnation reserved for those who truly deserve it. But before those tasks can be attended to, a proper accounting of history in all its complexity must be undertaken. If the new iconoclasts are blind to the virtues of a Lincoln or a Churchill, they should at least make an attempt to correctly identify the vices.