General Lee, never one to be counted out when the chips are down, exercised his demonic powers to crash the crane coming to take him down in Dallas. Who knows what’s next. Crop failures? Hurricanes? His powers are vast and nefarious.
Seriously, it does seem like we’re seeing a re-primitivization of the West. Once long ago men believed that graven images had great powers, as did words, which could cause sickness or even death. That was a long time ago, but the concept does seem to be making a comeback. Suddenly statues and images which have been there for years (and mostly ignored) now constitute a continuing act of violence that can cause serious harm to all. Many of the calls for removal (including the governor of North Carolina) cite “public safety” as the primary reason for removal of anything considered offensive. The Southern Poverty Law Center says “turmoil and bloodshed” will follow if all Confederate monuments are not immediately removed. This includes schools and even town names. I surprised they did not predict a plague of locusts, but that may simply be an oversight.
Some of it is just a revolt, not just against the Confederacy, or even the United States or Western Civilization, but against the past itself. As Brendan O’Neill put it:
A Year Zero mentality is on the march. People seem hellbent on wiping out history, making it invisible, and starting society all over again, cleansed of the likenesses of dead people of whom they disapprove.
This fury against monuments is presented as good and radical. The statue-smashers say they simply want to erase the faces and names of people who did bad things to show how far society has progressed and to make minority groups feel more comfortable when they’re out in public.
In truth, there’s nothing good in this mob-like erasure of history. It’s a reactionary, even Orwellian, movement. The urge to ethically cleanse public life of ‘bad history’, to shove down the memory hole any bust or tribute to past folk whose values make us bristle today, is intolerant, illiberal and profoundly paternalistic.
During the past week, the irrational fury against inanimate objects moved up a gear. First, there were the disturbances in Charlottesville, Virginia, when disagreements over a statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee descended into violent clashes between leftists and neo-fascists.
A couple of days later, protesters in North Carolina tied rope around the neck of a statue of a Confederate soldier and dragged it down. They kicked and spat on it. There was a weird intensity to their statue abuse, bringing to mind the wide-eyed fury of Islamic State agitators as they stamp on what they view as idolatrous historic carvings in the ancient cities of Palmyra and Nimrud.
Then, in an extraordinary move, the mayor of Baltimore, Maryland, ordered the removal of four Confederate statues in the city. In the dead of night, workmen dragged them down. What had been everyday monuments for decades, seen by people as they walked to work or went for a jog, suddenly were viewed as a poisonous presence, liable to harm people’s self-esteem and the city’s stability. And so they were memory-holed, in the black of night, exposing the febrile streak to this statuephobia.
Year Zero originated in the French Revolution as the period between the storming of the Bastille to the adoption of the Revolutionary calendar, which started history anew with Year 1. You saw the same mentality in China’s Cultural Revolution in the Sixties, when the Four Olds—Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas—were to be destroyed. Unfortunately these included many irreplaceable Chinese historical artifacts, manuscripts, and of course statues, all of which were deemed reactionary. Even the Ming Emperors were torn from the tombs, given a “people’s trial” and their bodies desecrated, just as the Parisian mobs had done to the bodies of their kings, and “activists” want to do in Memphis to General Forest. The most infamous example was in Cambodia, where the Khmer Rouge proclaimed Year Zero and tried to totally wipe out the past, killing a quarter of the population in the process.
There are some islands of sanity, but one wonders how long they will last. VMI is resisting calls to remove the statue of Stonewall Jackson and the memorial to cadets killed at New Market. However, Christopher Columbus continues to be under fire for those places like New York and Minnesota which lack Confederates to bash. Protesters at UVA have shrouded the statue of Thomas Jefferson, denouncing him in the vilest terms, and Francis Scott Key’s statue has been vandalized in Baltimore (unlike the Confederates, the city has so far decided to keep it). Even the Marquis de Lafayette isn’t safe any more.
History provides plenty of hate figures, for no one in the past can ever have the correct consciousness of the progressive moderns, and therefore they must be eliminated like any other enemies of the people.
The process is just beginning, but it will continue until someone stands up to the mobs.
UPDATE: Even saints are not safe. St. Junipero Serro’s statue has been defaced and mutilated, this on private property.
UPDATE II: Turns out the cost of removing General Lee in Dallas was near a half million dollars, plus one life. As mentioned, the crane going to take him down was in an accident, and the man the crane hit has died. Nevermind, it was “a dangerous totem of racism” and had to go. No satisfied with that, the Big D is now out to historically cleanse any memory of the Confederacy from its schools. Out immediately will be William L. Cabell, Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, and Albert Sidney Johnston. However there is a longer list with dangerous people like Benjamin Franklin, Sam Houston (will they rename the city?), James Madison, Jim Bowie and more. As I’ve said all along, the Confederate were just the appetizer.
On the plus side reporter Myron Pitts looks at the Marquis de Lafayette and concludes he wasn’t such a bad guy after all. He was, like the Blackfords, a slave-holding abolitionist.
Joseph Bottum looks at the current phenomenon of social contagion and how it works in the internet age, where in effect the entire country is reduced to the size of a New England village in about 1700.
The defense of American memorials—if defense there is—has little chance of gaining purchase in the midst of the current social contagion. Several writers have suggested that we be wary of the slippery slope that destroying Confederate statues sets us on. Even that formulation underestimates the steepness of our descent. Every schoolteacher knows the state of American knowledge about history is abysmal, in the literal sense of the word: It opens on an abyss. The abolishment of old memorials isn’t a slippery slope. It’s a slippery cliff. And once we fall off the edge, there’s no apparent social consensus, no visible ledge, that might stop us.
Some people might call it a mass hysteria, but that’s another subject. He concludes:
Social contagion does not need to be historically accurate, or philosophically wise, or even immediately practical. Why would it, when a sense of outrage lures us into mimetic rivalry and rewards agitation with a feeling of moral superiority—all delivered at the speed of the Internet? The local governments moving quickly to preempt protest may buy themselves a little time by hauling down memorials, but the protesters will soon lock on to new targets. The point of their protests, after all, is not correctly choosing what to be outraged by. The point is the outrage itself. The point, as Epictetus would have understood, is the quarrel.
Get ready for a long night.