They were always going to come for George Washington. Christ Church in Alexandria, Virginia, announced last week that it will remove a pair of memorial plaques honoring Washington and Robert E. Lee, who were parishioners at the historic Episcopal church, marking the latest flashpoint in what has become an endlessly widening war on the past.
According to church officials, the justification for removing the plaques, which were installed in 1870 and for the past 147 years haven’t caused much trouble, was to help make the sanctuary a “more welcoming space.” Welcoming for whom? They didn’t say, but they didn’t have to. By now, we all know what they mean. The mere presence of the names of Lee and Washington, tainted as they are in the eyes of progressive iconoclasts, has become unbearable.
Why? Because nowadays they represent nothing so much as racism and slavery, America’s original and ongoing sins. To remember Lee and Washington at all, we’re told, is to condone these things.
Such are the reductive demands of identity politics. One tires of saying it, but it bears repeating: the purpose of this relentless war on the past is not really to adjudicate America’s historical sins or educate the young about them, but to justify political force in the present day.
For Progressives, the Past Is Oppressive
By now we should all be familiar with the inexorable logic of the iconoclasts, which goes like this. Lee, having fought for the slave-owning Confederacy in the Civil War, is more offensive than Washington, who merely owned slaves. Abraham Lincoln didn’t own slaves but he did sentence a couple dozen Dakota Indians to death in 1862 for war crimes against defenseless men, women, and children on the Minnesota frontier. For that, student activists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have demanded the removal of Lincoln’s statue from their campus. Frank Rizzo, the mayor of Philadelphia in the 1970s, didn’t own slaves or sentence any Indians to death, but he was insufficiently supportive of the civil rights movement in his day, so his statue must come down, too.
Once it takes hold, iconoclasm knows no distinctions or subtleties. It sweeps everything away. When progressive activists began clamoring for the immediate removal of Confederate monuments across the country, I and others noted that since this wasn’t really about the historical legacy of slavery but the imperatives of identity politics, there was no limiting principle to ensure that once they had finished with the Confederates they would not move on to the Founding Fathers, or Lincoln, or even the hapless Rizzo.
Of course, they came for them all. It wasn’t hard to see it coming. President Trump was roundly mocked by the mainstream media for suggesting, after the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville prompted calls for removing Lee’s statue, that the same people might soon come for Washington and Thomas Jefferson. (In fact, the Democrats had already come for Jefferson and their party’s founder, Andrew Jackson. In 2015, state Democratic parties in Iowa, Georgia, Connecticut, and Missouri re-named their annual Jackson and Jefferson fundraising dinners, no longer wishing to be associated with slaveholders, no matter how far removed they were from the Confederacy.)
Trump, in his rough way, was right. If you tear down Lee you’ll eventually come for Washington—and not just Washington. You’ll have to come for everyone, including the last U.S. president to ever own slaves, Ulysses S. Grant, who freed his only known slave in 1859, five years before his battlefield victory over Lee saved the republic and settled the slavery question for good.
Identity Politics Is Poisoning the Republic
But the relevant history here is not what matters. The complexity and messiness of our nation’s past—the irony, for example, that in the years leading up to the Civil War, Grant managed his father-in-law’s 850-acre plantation in Missouri, including its ten slaves—is what makes American iconoclasm such a slippery slope. But it’s not what inspires progressives to plunge down it. They do it because they believe it will lead them to power.
By making the accusation that the mere presence of certain historical monuments or plaques is unbearably offensive, and that defending their existence is tantamount to endorsing racism, progressives believe they can sort Americans into warring camps. On one side are all those who believe in equality and social justice, on the other side are the deplorables, with whom they refuse to share a country.
Sorting people into such camps—or competing interest groups, if you like—is a crucial aspect of progressive politics. Hence the progressive concept of “group rights” in contrast to the U.S. Constitution’s idea of individual rights. Identity politics serves progressive aims because nearly every such group can lodge a grievance against the past and seek redress from the present. In practice, that means the rights of individuals—to free speech, property, exercise of religion—come second to the rights of aggrieved identity groups, who retain a special veto power over all that has injured them, including, for example, historic statues on public land.
By removing the memorial plaques, Christ Church has chosen to take sides in this political battle. In their statement, church officials averred that the plaques “create a distraction in our worship space and may create an obstacle to our identity as a welcoming church.” What they meant, but could not say, is that the plaques are only a distraction now, after nearly 150 years, because progressive activists have chosen to make them so. Faced with a choice to defend and preserve its history or side with the activists, the church has chosen to side with the activists.
Obviously, this arrangement will never produce comity in a large and boisterous republic like ours. But the purpose of the arrangement is not to produce comity, the claims of Christ Church officials notwithstanding. Demanding the removal of plaques and statues and memorial crosses, or, failing that, mobilizing angry mobs simply to tear them down in righteous anger, is not the behavior of people who desire compromise and understanding with their fellow citizens. It’s the behavior of those who believe the culture wars are going their way, and smell blood in the water.