When all is said and done, perhaps the most lasting effect of the riots, protests, and police walkouts across the country will be the removal of so many public statues. Each day, more of them are trampled and defaced.
In the wake of George Floyd’s death, many Americans now conclude that most of their institutions are stained with bigotry and oppression. Therefore, like the original iconoclasts in Byzantium seeking to remove venerated images in the fight against idolatry, today’s iconoclasts are toppling and destroying public monuments to fight hate.
Such was the reasoning in New Haven and Hartford, two Connecticut cities that have decided to remove statues of Christopher Columbus from public property. What was once a commemoration of the greatest explorer who ever lived, the founder of Western civilization in the Western Hemisphere, and a man who embodied so many virtues of the Western world, now “represents a time of colonialism and atrocities committed,” according to Mayor Justin Elicker. The history itself hasn’t changed, but people’s feelings about history clearly have.
There Is No Limiting Principle
More than a few conservatives have argued against removing these monuments, mainly saying it is counterproductive, misinformed, and uncontrollable. Removing statues, decapitating them, or covering them with profanity will not help any minority community nor make people less bigoted. It will only make them more ignorant of history.
While people can make the case that Confederate generals symbolize a culture of white supremacy and slavery, most of the statues in question have been a tribute to America’s founding ideals. To reduce a monument’s meaning only to the faults of the historical figure it depicts is both unfair and misleading.
As the iconoclasm continues unabated, there isn’t any limiting principle on what should be removed. A slippery slope is unavoidable. President Donald Trump warned about this three years ago: “This week it’s Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder is it George Washington next week, and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?” If perpetuating a white, patriarchal culture in any capacity is enough to merit takedown, nearly all statues are subject to removal, not just those of Confederate generals.
Iconoclasts Destroy Because of Their Feelings
But maybe these arguments, both for and against removing statues, are missing the central point: This is less about history, and more about people’s feelings. Most of the iconoclasts today know nothing about the statues they are destroying; they only know they hate how those statues make them feel. It isn’t righteous indignation that animates them, but envy.
When arguing over the meaning and history of public monuments, the obvious point about their beauty and craftsmanship is often missed. These statues aren’t only historical icons, but works of art meant to adorn a particular location. Their main purpose is to be visually pleasing and give a place its character.
A large part of what makes these monuments beautiful, however, is their historical subject matter. They memorialize people who did something important. Even if people today might express outrage at their personal flaws or antiquated views, they cannot deny that these figures significantly affected the world today. Representations of them are meant to commemorate their contributions and thus inspire feelings of pride. Learning the individual history behind them is secondary.
This is why claiming that destroying monuments erases history doesn’t really go anywhere with iconoclasts. They could easily respond that people do not learn their history from monuments and that these statues could go into a museum if they’re meant to teach and spark conversations about the past. And they would be right.
Beautiful Art Fosters Pride and Patriotism
But people cherish these statues as public works of art for all to experience, not for a few intellectuals to study in the confines of a museum. Few people visit Washington, D.C., or Paris to learn history; they go to take selfies in front of the monuments.
It’s worth asking why this is. It’s not only because these statues are large and beautiful, but because they recall a culture in its prime. Strong, confident societies are the ones that create public works of art and foster an aesthetic sensibility. They leave a legacy for millions to enjoy.
Societies in decline are the ones that remove or deface public works of art and succumb to brutal utilitarianism. Almost immediately, they are stricken with widespread ugliness and decay that drive away visitors and demoralize residents.
It is the beauty, not the history, of these monuments that fosters the idea of patriotism. This is why Trump, U.K. Prime Minster Boris Johnson, and even French President Emmanuel Macron have all spoken out against removing these statues. They are not defending the faults of each historical personage in question, but the communal spirit that produced those monuments. Doing otherwise smacks of defeatism and decadence, an admission that the days of monuments and patriotism are dead.
Those Who Can’t Build Tear Down
But all this fills the current leftist iconoclasts with envy. This is all they can feel since their corrupt ideology disparages greatness and extols victimhood. They cannot create, only destroy. They hate people who do things, because they do nothing and then whine about it.
They base their identity in tribal terms, such as race, sex, and class, rather than in their work and the role they play in society. They formulate elaborate excuses for society instead of generating realistic solutions. However politically correct their thoughts and words might be, they adopt the lifestyle and philosophy of narcissistic losers.
There is no better physical evidence of the American leftism’s ugliness and envy than in Seattle’s occupied district called CHOP (formerly known as CHAZ). The whole place is an eyesore covered with graffiti and trash. It is dysfunctional and disgusting. There is no order, hope, or empowerment, but plenty of chaos, despair, and enabling. It’s a sad spectacle that will inevitably end with misery and failure. No one will come out of CHOP any wiser or happier, and Seattle’s public workers will have a huge mess to clean up.
Similarly, Americans who neglect or destroy their monuments will gain nothing and continue being angry. The only way to feel better about their culture and themselves — which seems to be the root problem in most of these riots — is to achieve and create beautiful things themselves.
Even if, by some miracle, Americans are taught to love their country and honor their history, they must also need to feel like winners. Once this happens, the collective envy afflicting so many Americans will go away, and some much-needed national pride can finally return.