Last week, as statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson—among many others—were pulled down by angry mobs, conservative writers Rich Lowry and Philip Klein were penning throat-clearing columns explaining how it’s wrong to pull down monuments to the Founders but okay to remove Confederate statues, because you see, Confederates were traitors who fought for slavery.
Which, of course they were. But at this point it would be hard to imagine an argument more detached from reality. Lowry and Klein—and all the other conservatives who have made the case for a civilized and nuanced iconoclasm in recent years—are arguing a point exactly no one is debating right now, least of all the woke mob.
“Confederate statues shouldn’t be vandalized, but they should be reconsidered,” writes Lowry in a column arguing conservatives should feel no “investment” in Confederate monuments, unlike monuments to the Founders. But weren’t many of the Founders also slave-owners? Yes, but you see, “In 2020, we do not celebrate Washington or Jefferson as slaveholders,” explains Klein. “We celebrate Washington as a general who led our struggle for independence and who was the first president.” See the fine distinction?
To read this stuff you’d think municipal governments across the country were right now having massive townhall meetings with an engaged and informed citizenry, debating the relative merits of their public monuments in good faith and, in an orderly and democratic way, voting to have them relocated to a local museum or a Civil War battlefield, maybe with explanatory plaques for added historical context.
If that’s what you think is happening, I have a statue of Robert E. Lee to sell you.
Let’s be clear, the mobs pulling down statues make no distinction between Confederate and Union, slave-trader or abolitionist, secessionist or pro-Union. They make no distinction between American, Spanish, or Cherokee. They do not care if the monument was erected in the nineteenth century or the twenty-first.
Ulysses S. Grant, whose statue in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park was toppled by a mob on Friday, is as wicked as Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, whose statue was removed from a Memphis park in 2017 and whose remains, along with his wife’s, will soon be dug up and carried off to an undisclosed location.
By their logic, one can only assume that Lowry and Klein were happy to hear about the disinterment of Forrest’s bones no less than the removal of his monument. After all, he fought for an evil regime and he deserves no place of honor in a public square. Forrest and all the other Confederate monuments, argues Lowry, “are an unnecessary affront to black citizens, who shouldn’t have to see defenders of chattel slavery put on a pedestal, literally.”
This is a curious argument for a conservative to make, that some Americans “shouldn’t have to see” supposedly offensive statuary of historical figures. What else, one wonders, does Lowry think possibly offended Americans shouldn’t have to see? Should Native Americans not have to see statues of Christopher Columbus? Should Mexican-Americans not have to see the statues of Gen. Winfield Scott and Gen. George Thomas, heroes of the Mexican-American war?
If not, what is the limiting principle here? If black Americans have a claim against Fort Benning and Fort Bragg, both named after Confederate leaders, why don’t Native Americans have a claim against, say, Fort Carson in Colorado, which bears the name of Kit Carson, an Indian fighter who took his first Indian scalp at age 19. Is that not offensive? Should we not rename the base? Why not? No one can say.
Conservatives with a quixotic view of public art and memory might have a limiting principle in theory, but it seems no one has stopped defacing and smashing statues long enough to ask them about it. Perhaps we’ll discover a limiting principle after Teddy Roosevelt’s statue outside the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan comes down. Or maybe once Mount Rushmore is a pile of rubble we’ll settle on a neat formula for purging the public square of our past sins.
But most likely not, because there is no limiting principle at work here. There never was.
There’s A Better Way to Understand Our Monuments
As if to underscore this point, on Monday we saw New York Times columnist and old-timey liberal Nicholas Kristof display a thoroughly Pollyannaish view of the statue debate in his response to a comment from Matt Schlapp that statues of Jesus would be pulled down next. “That’s ridiculous,” tweeted Kristof. “Wasn’t Jesus a person of color brutalized by an oppressive colonial regime? Jesus is a symbol of victims of violence, not of authoritarians who erect statues.”
Quick to disabuse Kristof of his naiveté was Black Lives Matter activist Shaun King, who explained that in fact the statues of “the white European they claim is Jesus should also come down,” along with, “All murals and stained glass windows of white Jesus, and his European mother, and their white friends should also come down.”
This should come as no surprise. History tells us iconoclasm has no brakes, and is really just a precursor to something worse. The mob eventually tires of smashing statues and moves on to people.
Conservatives should reject the entire notion that tearing down monuments, whether to Confederates or conquistadors, can ever be considered salutary or even conservative in any meaningful sense. To do so would be to accept the left’s corrupted view of American history, which demands we destroy all reminders of our sinful past.
Instead of accepting that the sins of Lee and Forrest redound to the present day, we can choose to think differently about the wide array of monuments and statuary across our national landscape. In the process, we can perhaps learn something important about ourselves as a people.
What was erected to give honor in an earlier generation can simply remind us today of who we are and how far we’ve come. There’s no need to pass by a statue of Lee or Jefferson Davis with downcast eyes or a clenched fist. Their cause has been defeated utterly, and their monuments have become—or could become, if we wanted it—testaments to our national greatness. They could be powerful reminders that we overcame not just the Civil War but the failure of Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era that followed.
Why dig up Forrest’s bones when we could instead hold a celebration at his gravesite—not of him, but of America’s Founding ideal that all men are created equal? What more powerful reminder could there be of our triumph over that racist past? What better way to excise our demons than to declare that they are overthrown, they have no power over us now, and that out of many we are at last one?
If only it could be. Yet this is the very thing the woke mob rejects. The ideologues of the left have wholly accepted the 1619 Project’s frame of American history as a catalogue of crimes. That’s why they tear down monuments indiscriminately. That’s why they ban books and films, and will certainly burn them publicly before long. That’s why they indulge in performative self-righteousness, slaying long-dead enemies as if they were alive and well today. For them, they are.
But this is precisely why conservatives should stop trying to defend the defenestration of Confederate monuments and instead take the left at their word. The mobs rampaging through our streets fundamentally reject an America in which the Union has won the war, in which the vision of our Founders is slowly coming to fruition, in which the dream of Martin Luther King, Jr., is alive and well.
That is not their country. They live in a land of ghosts and phantoms. They are haunted by a vision of America as an inherently wicked place. They are afflicted with bad dreams and dark thoughts.
Conservatives don’t need to confirm them in this phantasmagoria. We need to help them wake up.