There’s a fever in the August air, a thick, swampy fever of righteous stupidity. At the University of Southern California, the Black Student Assembly raised a ruckus by pointing out that the school’s equine mascot, Traveler, the ninth in his line, had almost the same name as Robert E. Lee’s horse, Traveller. It’s unclear whether there is any tie between the two horses’ names, but Saphia Jackson, the group’s co-director, touted the similarity as proof that “white supremacy hits close to home.”
In Atlanta, an angry mob attacked and desecrated a statue called the Peace Monument. It depicted a Confederate soldier laying down his arms at the behest of an angel of peace over the inscription, “Cease firing, peace is proclaimed.” A masked protester was photographed trying (unsuccessfully) to pull the massive statue down with a chain.
In a Times Square subway station, a group of tiles formed a blue X on a red background to symbolize the area’s nickname, the Crossroads of the World, and no one among the tens of thousands of non-equine travelers who pass by every day seemed to care. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority nevertheless announced that the design would be removed for its supposed resemblance to the Confederate battle flag.
It was left to Charles Barkley, the longtime NBA star, to convey thoughts that would have struck everyone as obvious a few years ago: “I’m 54 years old. I’ve never thought about those statues a day in my life. I think if you ask most black people, to be honest, they ain’t thought a day in their life about those stupid statues.” According to an NPR/PBS/NewsHour/Marist survey released August 17, Americans backed keeping the statues by a margin of 62 percent to 27 percent. Black Americans agreed, by a 44 percent–to–40 percent margin.
Let’s mull that finding for a moment: On August 14 and 15 — immediately after the horrific events in Charlottesville, where an alt-right march in favor of keeping a Robert E. Lee statue in a public place culminated in an actual charge of murder being laid against a man on the pro-statue side who’d driven his car into a crowd of his ideological adversaries, and during the ensuing nonstop maximum-volume media coverage inveighing against the statues — Americans still supported them by an overwhelming majority.
On what conceivable issue, besides motherhood and maybe Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, do so many Americans line up on the same side? And how much more lopsided might the polling be in a more sedate moment, when everyone has returned to his senses and hate and fear and blood are no longer in the air? The statues are as popular as air conditioning. They’re as popular as dogs.
The clamor to remove the statues is a minority movement, and though many thoughtful commentators — including National Review editor Rich Lowry and senior editor Ramesh Ponnuru — have said the statues should come down to signify that America has moved on from the divisions associated with the Civil War, the Left is not signing up for any implicit bargain. Ponnuru is correct to note that the failure of others to draw a distinction between Confederate traitors and flawed heroes such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson does not mean that conservatives can’t draw it. We can, we must, and we will do so.
Nevertheless, an urge to destroy icons, once unleashed, can be a mania that proves too powerful to easily arrest.
There are more than 700 Confederate monuments in public places all over the country. For conservatives to support tearing down the statues now, in such a heated moment, strikes me as pouring kerosene on a brush fire whose path is unknown. It’s like inviting a tiger to nibble on your little finger but expecting it to stop there. If conservatives are saying, “Take the statues of anyone who rebelled against the Union, but go no farther,” that message is not being heard, much less accepted, by the Left.
If you’re like Charles Barkley and me (an inveterate northerner), you don’t much care about the statues. But the Left doesn’t much care about them either, at least not in the way they claim. If they did, you would have heard Nancy Pelosi’s opinion about the Confederate statues in the Capitol before now. The Obama administration would have made this an issue, too. But only now does Jeh Johnson, Obama’s secretary of homeland security for three years, declare that removing Confederate memorials is a matter of “public safety” and “doing what’s right.”
Yet if a statue of General Lee can be a rallying point for racist demonstrators, a depression in the ground where Lee once stood will be an even more incendiary one. Hitler fanboys are unlikely to be mollified as the country carries out exactly the acts whose possibility they have been using to inflame their supporters.
Rather, the Left sees an irresistible opening to indulge its glee for denouncing and destroying things associated with the Right. The more sagacious ones among them counsel that now is not the time to mention that the Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial are homages to slaveholders, because when you’re upending institutions you have to take them in the proper order. You have to mow down the front ranks before you can jump into the enemy’s trenches.
Once most of the Confederate statues are down, as they might well be in very short order, that will be the time for the Left to do what it always does — push on to new frontiers so boldly defined that they would have shocked even its own diehard partisans just a generation earlier. The Teddy Roosevelt protests are coming. (Indeed, there has already been one, at the statue of the Rough Rider outside the American Museum of Natural History last October. It seemed like a fringe thing at the time.) The Woodrow Wilson protests are coming. (Indeed, they too have already started.) The Christopher Columbus protests are coming. (Same.)
The Mount Rushmore protests will come in due course. “Let’s Blow Up Mount Rushmore,” read a tweet from the Millennial-progressive Web journal Vice. Oops, that sounded a bit too terroristic in 2017, though it may be standard progressive rhetoric in a few years. So Vice amended the headline to “Let’s Get Rid of Mount Rushmore.” The pride of South Dakota was, by the way, principally sculpted by Gutzon Borglum, a white supremacist and reputed member of the Ku Klux Klan.
The chief sin the Left associates with Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, meanwhile, is not insurrection but the much more broadly committed and forever contemporary one — racism. “Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson will be removed from the CUNY [City University of New York] hall of great Americans because New York stands against racism,” Governor Andrew Cuomo tweeted. Racism can be linked to most of America’s historical figures, not excluding Abraham Lincoln, who in 1858 said, “I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters of the negroes, or jurors, or qualifying them to hold office, of having them to marry with white people.” The Lincoln Memorial was vandalized three days after the Charlottesville unrest.
It may take some time for progressives fully to turn their ire on Lincoln. But then again, a year is “some time.” Who would ever have guessed that the policy toward transgender individuals that obtained for the first seven and a half years of the Obama presidency would be declared vile, hateful, and retrograde a year later? In June, Salon ran the mocking headline “Armed right-wingers rally in Houston to defend statue — that nobody is attacking.” On August 20, the Houston Chronicle reported that near Sam Houston Park, where a Confederate monument stands, “more than 400 socialists, liberals and Black Lives Matter activists showed up to demand the monument’s removal, while a few dozen counter-protesters — some carrying Confederate flags — showed up in opposition.” The park was actually closed as two Texans tried to have a normal wedding. “Women in heels and men in summer suits snuck out of the park just before 2 p.m. to be whisked around the barricades in police vans,” the Chronicle reported.
Unable even in the Obama era to win much in the way of economic redistribution, the Left today trains its batteries on cultural issues. Disrupting Americans’ everyday lives thrills them.
The obsession with cleansing and sanitizing our past is becoming frantic. In Brooklyn, a plaque was removed after it stood by a tree for 105 years bearing the legend “This tree was planted by General Robert E. Lee while stationed at Fort Hamilton from 1842 to 1847.” This wasn’t a tribute to the Lost Cause. The plaque didn’t depict Lee striking a hero’s pose on horseback. It didn’t depict him at all. It simply gave information you might or might not find interesting. Who could be offended?
Yet the tactic of the Left is: Claim to be triggered, then claim your prize. Let nothing as drab as social norms or even the law stand in your way.
After Corey Menafee, a dishwasher at Yale University, broke a stained-glass window with a broomstick last year because it depicted slaves picking cotton, he explained his thinking: “I just said, ‘That thing’s coming down today. I’m tired of it. . . . It’s 2016, I shouldn’t have to come to work and see things like that.’” It turned out that Menafee had been working near the window for six months and had taken no notice of it, owing, he said, to his nearsightedness. When a visiting alumnus told him about the window, he didn’t believe it at first.
Menafee was arrested and fired for attacking the window, but then Yale asked for the charges to be dropped and re-hired him after a protest had made him a folk hero. Is it reasonable to be that angered by a stained-glass window? If it is reasonable, is vandalism a fitting response?
The tendency to lash out against things you deem offensive used to be a disagreeable tic of undergraduates. Now the impulse is spreading. The mob led by a cop-hating North Korea sympathizer that pulled down a 1924 statue of a generic Confederate soldier in Durham, N.C., was acting out of a well-justified sense that authorities were not in the mood to maintain order. Police did nothing except take pictures; Governor Roy Cooper meekly tweeted that “there is a better way to remove these monuments”; Durham County’s public-information office made Cooper sound like John Wayne when it declared, even more mildly, that “our elected officials and senior staff understand the unrest in our nation and community.” Only after a nationwide uproar about the lawlessness did the sheriff begin making arrests (eight as of this writing).
The ringleader of the mob declared, “Anything that emboldens those people and anything that gives those people pride needs to be crushed.” Anything? A statue of Hank Williams? The Jack Daniel’s distillery? A NASCAR track? If destroying stuff that makes other people proud is your goal, you’ve signed up for a never-ending culture war. Writing in the Washington Post, columnist Christine Emba denounced the statues by saying they represent “privileged status, not history, that’s being protected.” The dusty old statues of the Confederacy are just an opening to the much juicier and very 2017 war on “privileged status.”
If I were a coldly cynical political analyst, I’d say the controversy is a gift of a wedge issue. For instance, to win a primary — to triumph in an arena filled exclusively with hyper-partisans — Georgia Democrats may now have to take an extreme stance on Stone Mountain, which bears gigantic images of Lee, Jackson, and Jefferson Davis that were sculpted by Borglum at a Klan meeting ground. Despite the monument’s history, destroying the state’s own Mount Rushmore sounds insane to the average voter, but gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams has already called for the images to go.
Similarly, when Charlie Rose asked Al Sharpton this summer whether the Jefferson Memorial should be torn down, Sharpton didn’t say, “Absurd, no one wants that.” He instead dodged the question and called for defunding the memorial, a startling option that seemed calculated to leave even more extreme choices open. That kind of talk must strike the median Rust Belt voter as a chilling harbinger of culture battlegrounds to come.
Woe betide the pol who is on the short end of a 62-to-27 split, and yet safe-seat Democrats such as Pelosi, who speak only to fellow true believers, will gravitate toward it. Conservatives can only hope that Michael Moore will soon start musing about renaming the Washington Monument after Maya Angelou.