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Why The Activist Left Can’t Help Its Intolerance


In ancient Rome, damnatio memoriae was the practice of condemning Roman elites and emperors after death. The phrase means, “the condemnation of memory,” and the idea was to dishonor people by erasing them from history, usually by seizing their property, removing their name from public monuments, and destroying or re-working their statues. As you might imagine, those subject to damnatio memoriae tended to be traitors or deposed emperors—like Maximian, who ruled Rome for a decade before he was forced to commit suicide by Constantine the Great in 310.

In other words, the practice of purging names and images was a political tactic of Imperial Rome to suppress dissent and intimidate enemies.

Now it’s back. Not in Russia or Iran, but here in America among left-wing activists, for whom the names and images of many historical figures have become intolerable—especially those on the losing side of the Civil War. As the campus protest movement gained momentum last year, students groups called for, among other things, the removal of Confederate statuary and all names of Confederate generals and segregationists from college buildings. Some schools complied, like the University of Texas at Austin, which removed a statue of Jefferson Davis from its historic quad last fall. Many other schools are still “in consultation” about student demands.

From College Campuses To Elementary Schools

What started on college campuses has now trickled down to elementary schools. The school board in Austin, Texas, voted Monday to change the name of Robert E. Lee Elementary School, an historic building named after the Confederate general upon its completion in 1939. Kendall Pace, the school board president, said history is important and we should never forget it, but then revealed the shallowness of his own grasp of history, saying, “students should not be required to attend schools named for people who made a choice to lead the fight to keep a race of people in slavery.” (A passing knowledge of Lee’s life and times would be enough for anyone who cares about history to refrain from such an oversimplification.)

For the activist Left, defacing public buildings and historical monuments is a small price to pay for political correctness.

Some objected to the name-change on the grounds that the building itself is an historical landmark that was funded by a New Deal program under President Franklin Roosevelt. Changing the school’s name, after all, would require defacing the historic art deco building’s stone façade.

For the activist Left, though, defacing public buildings and historical monuments is a small price to pay for political correctness. Similar efforts are underway across the country. The Houston School Board is changing all school names with ties to the Confederacy. Recently, it added Reagan High School to the list, named after John H. Reagan. His crime? Serving as postmaster general of the Confederacy. In Charlottesville, Va., the city council has begun the process of moving a large statue of Lee that sits in… Lee Park. In New Orleans, the city council voted in December to remove four Confederate monuments from prominent places around the city, including a statue of Lee in the middle of… Lee Circle. Without a trace of irony, Mayor Mitch Landrieu called for the statues to be put in a museum or a Civil War park, saying, “The Confederacy, you see, was on the wrong side of history and humanity.”

The mayor must think those who tear down monuments and war memorials are on the right side of history.

One problem with all this is that there is no end to it. Today, Confederate generals must go. Tomorrow, who can say what names or historical events must be purged from public places? More importantly, how do you learn from history if you banish it from the public square? It’s not as though American students are especially knowledgeable about their history. Encountering a plaque on a statue or a memorial might be the only way some students learn about episodes from our country’s past, especially the darker periods like the Civil War.

The Left’s Rejection Of Truth Demands Separatism

Purging the past is of course just one symptom of a pervasive intellectual malady on the Left. The internal contradictions of identity group politics necessitate not only the suppression of history but also separatism in the present. As Tom Lindsay notes in a recent column at Forbes about the rise of white student unions, “Racial separatism is what is now taught in too many universities. More precisely, what we teach provides no principled barrier to separatist agendas.”

Purging the past is just one symptom of a pervasive intellectual malady on the Left.

If all principles are relative, if the “self-evident truths” listed in the Declaration of Independence are merely “values,” then there’s no basis for asserting equality, freedom of speech, or government by consent. Everything is reduced to competing groups pressing their subjective values.

That’s how you end up with The National Union of Students’ LGBT Campaign passing a motion last week calling for the abolition of representatives for gay men because they “don’t face oppression” the way other members of the LGBT community do. One can find endless examples of this sort of special interest group in-fighting. On Monday, a video surfaced of a black female student at San Francisco State University accosting a white student in the hallway for his cultural appropriation of dreadlocks.

College Campuses Breed Intolerance

It’s easy to see why students would act this way toward one another: they learn it in class. Last week, a staff writer at the Harvard Crimson spoke out against a campus culture “defined not by open expression—but by sensitivity.” The writer, Rachel E. Huebner, describes scenes at Harvard that read like satire:

In a class I attended earlier this semester, a large portion of the first meeting was devoted to compiling a list of rules for class discussion. A student contended that as a woman, she would be unable to sit across from a student who declared that he was strongly against abortion, and the other students in the seminar vigorously defended this declaration. The professor remained silent. In a recent conversation with peers, I posed a question about a verse from the Bible. A Harvard employee in the room immediately interjected, informing me that we were in a safe space and I was thus not permitted to discuss the controversial biblical passage. And these are just stories from the past three months.

Alas, this is real life on many college campuses today—and the speech police routinely target not only students but also tenured faculty. Marquette University has apparently fired and barred from campus political science professor John McAdams because he criticized a female grad student on his blog. The university has said McAdams can be reinstated only if he apologizes and admits his “guilt” in the next two weeks.

Instead, the professor plans to sue Marquette, which is a great idea because he has a good chance of winning. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) keeps a running list of free speech cases at colleges across the country, many of which are blatant violations of the First Amendment. Earlier this month, for example, the University of Kansas reinstated an assistant professor after a four-month “investigation” into comments the professor made during a class discussion that offended some grad students. FIRE sent a letter to the university reminding them what all university administrators should know: speech is protected by the First Amendment and any punishment would violate the professor’s constitutional rights. The university backed down.

Such victories are a small comfort, though, in the face of a rising culture of intolerance on the Left—one that now seeks to unleash a new damnatio memoriae against its modern-day political enemies.