In The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Abbas Anthony warns that, “A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him, saying, ‘You are mad, you are not like us.’” Judging from recent events, we may well be seeing the fulfilment of this prophesy in our own age. For by any measure 2020 is turning out to be an insane year for America and the World generally.
To begin with there was the spectacle of the Trump impeachment. In short order this was followed by a pandemic which crippled the World economy, put tens of millions out of work across the globe, and saw lockdowns across America. Protests and riots then broke out in many U.S. cities, sparked by the death of George Floyd in police custody. And just to show that there is no situation that cannot be made worse with a little effort, rioters in the U.S. have begun toppling, decapitating and otherwise defacing statues and monuments dedicated to some of the nation’s greatest historical figures – an action which promises to further widen the already large gulf in the American body politic.
This outbreak of iconoclasm in the United States is particularly noteworthy given the lack of any real pushback by authorities and the odd choices vandals are making in deciding who should be consigned to the rubbish heap of history.
Of course, not all of the choices are odd. For an argument can be made that some monuments do in fact “deserve it’” – such as those dedicated to slave owners, slave traders and those political and military leaders who threw their lot in with the Confederacy. Which no doubt explains why statues dedicated to General Robert E. Lee and Confederate President Jefferson Davis were among the first to go.
Still, trashing monuments is a bit like eating peanuts. One is never enough. So not content with picking the low-hanging fruit of American history, vandals have since moved on to those figures from the past who, while they may have made enormous contributions to their nation, nevertheless have a blot or two on their copy books. Among the more notable individuals in this category are George Washington and Thomas Jefferson - whose otherwise stellar lives were marred by their having owned slaves. These two gentlemen have recently been joined in disgrace by former President Theodore Roosevelt who made negative remarks about Native Americans. That being said, the prize for the roughest treatment received at the hands of an iconoclastic mob must surely go to Christopher Columbus, who is now billed as the arch-villain responsible for the death and destruction accompanying the colonization of the Western Hemisphere.
Even more baffling, however, is the abuse heaped on some historical figures who actually opposed slavery and fought for the rights of oppressed minorities. One good example is General Ulysses S. Grant who led the Union armies to victory in the latter years of the Civil War and received the Confederate surrender at the Appomattox Courthouse. Another recent addition to this supposed Hall of Shame is Wisconsin abolitionist, Hans Christian Heg, who fought for the Union in the Civil War and died fighting to end slavery. (His statue, which stood in front of the State Capitol in Madison Wisconsin, was decapitated and thrown into the lake.) And yet another example is Philadelphia abolitionist Matthias Baldwin, who opposed slavery, argued for the right of African Americans to vote, and founded a school for black children as part of an overall effort aimed at improving the lives of black Americans. And last, but certainly not least, is Father Junipero Serra, who was declared a saint by Pope Francis in 2015 for his work in promoting greater respect for the rights of indigenous people in California. While previously held in fond memory across California, Father Serra now stands accused of being a brutal colonizer guilty of cultural genocide – which has led some activists to deface his statues or demand their removal.
But sad as these cases are, the most shocking example of misplaced idealism involves recent calls for the removal of the Washington DC monument dedicated to the emancipation of the slaves. This monument, begun in 1848, features Abraham Lincoln reaching out his hand to a slave rising up after casting off his chains. Since its completion, it has served as a painful reminder of this dark chapter in American history and a call to do better in the future. But all that is changing apparently - as seen by the call by activists for its removal, claiming that it demeans Black Americans since the figure of the slave appears to be kneeling before Lincoln. Such an accusation is ironic given that the statue’s creation was originally paid for by African Americans, many of whom were either returned Union soldiers or freed slaves.
Still, as painful as this conflict over America’s statues and monuments may be, disputes over such memorials have been with humanity for as long as people have lived in settled communities. Typically this drama has seen those in power use memorials to tell their story and buttress their right to rule – while their opponents smash these monuments and, once in power, create their own memorials to themselves and their accomplishments.
Ultimately, this is little more than an exercise in human folly. For governments and nations come and go – and with them go the monuments they build. And those who replace them build their own monuments, only to disappear in their turn. (For confirmation of this, consider how many monuments to Hitler are still standing in Germany and how many of Stalin’s statues now remain in the countries of formerly Communist Central and Eastern Europe.)
Even so, the anger and violence that sometimes accompanies debates about monuments can be real and powerful. And all too often the result is costly in terms of lives and property.
None of this should be surprising since ultimately this is not about statues and historical figures. Rather it is about power – and who should possess it and wield it.
For whatever the partisans on both sides of the current debate might say, the drama being acted out in America’s streets is not solely about race or policing – though these may have provided the initial spark. And it’s not about the appropriateness of having politically incorrect statues standing in front of City Hall. Rather it is increasingly about a President who is seen by half of his fellow citizens as destructive and divisive – and by the other half as something close to an answer to prayer. It is about a badly divided nation that finds it increasingly difficult to compromise and seek a middle ground. And it is about the refusal of the Democratic Party and its allies in the bureaucracy, academe, the media, and cultural industries to accept the results of the 2016 election. In their minds, Trump is a dangerous and illegitimate usurper who must be removed at all costs. Seen through that lens, the destruction of a few monuments is a small price to pay if it supports the larger effort to remove Trump from office.
How this will play out is hard to predict. It is possible that mass demonstrations, violence and the destruction of a few statues may create a climate favorable to a Democratic win in November. If it does, such an election win will be a Pyrrhic victory. For the violence playing out in America’s streets – including that directed at statues and monuments - is destabilizing the nation and eroding public confidence in key institutions to the point that whoever wins in November may find it next to impossible to govern afterwards.