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William Penn Survives The Left’s Assault On Beauty, Memory, And American Identity

These physical markers of our shared past help to bind us together, gluing us to history and the promise of future generations.


The left’s jihad against statues and public memorials has finally hit a roadblock. After removing statues of Gen. Robert E. Lee, President Theodore Roosevelt, Christopher Columbus, and the Confederate Memorial at Arlington, a New York Times columnist even suggested that the father of our country be ripped off like a filthy Band-Aid and tossed. But it was the founder of Pennsylvania, William Penn, who resisted and won.

The National Park Service planned to remove Penn’s statue in Philadelphia’s Welcome Park to make it more “inclusive.” The proposal struck enough outrage that Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro reversed track. He took credit for convincing the Biden administration to leave the venerable founder alone, at least for the moment.

Why Target William Penn?

It’s a definite win, but it needs to wake conservatives into asking the fundamental question: Why do leftists want to remove Penn’s statue? While Penn owned slaves, he transplanted the Quaker faith to the New World, planted the seed of abolition in the Americas, and arguably set the stage for the entire Anglo world to outlaw the institution.

There’s also the fact that Penn is just not that well known. Given what education levels are today, it would be surprising if even 50 percent of Philadelphians under 45 years old knew who he was or could pick out his statue from those of Thomas Jefferson or Daniel Boone. These are people, after all, who don’t know we fought the British in the Revolution and cannot say when the Declaration of Independence was signed. How could forgotten, currently meaningless William Penn be such a racist, white supremacist threat that he had to be memory-holed?

Of course, he isn’t a racist, white supremacist threat. That’s the unmasked reality. For the longest time, the right has made the crippling mistake of taking the left at its word.

When it says Confederate memorials — even ones of forgotten, common soldiers and widowed mothers made childless by the war — have to be pulled down because they’re salt in the still-festering, spiritual wounds of black Americans, we twist ourselves into pretzels to explain why these hundred-plus-year-old memorials have to be chucked in mothballs. When it claims the revolution was entirely about protecting slavery and that slaves created American democracy, our knee-jerk reaction is to treat it like an academic conference and not the deranged fairy tale it is. It never occurs to us that the destruction is the point.

Ideas Won’t Win on Their Own

In the case of statues, the left has remembered the vital necessity of physical environments. The mantra that “America is an idea” is a product of the Cold War. In that context, it made sense. International communism was a philosophical system, never mind its Titanic-sized Swiss-cheese holes, and it called for an oppositional philosophy. The problem is that it was too successful. It helped defeat the USSR, but it also convinced us that only ideas matter.

As long as the right ideas were allowed to have their say, the truth would win out, the right policies would be implemented, and the right people elected to office. In this unbalanced emphasis on ideas, we have set aside places as unimportant. What does it matter if the school building is beautiful or not as long as reading, writing, and arithmetic are properly taught? What does it matter if the office is a prison block or not if the employees work just as efficiently either way?

It matters a good deal, as it turns out. We are not angels but live in bodies, so our physical environments are vitally important. Study after study has shown that our happiness depends on our ecosystems.

The Left Hates Beauty

We know, for example, that the hippocampal region of our brains is wired for the geometry and layouts of the spaces we live in. This means that the design of towns, cities, and buildings affects our overall psychology. We also know that beauty is not something extra we can digest when we have a few spare minutes. It is vital for our well-being. That’s why the designers and builders of Art Deco strove to make buildings as beautiful as possible in the 1920s and 1930s. And it’s the same reason why classical architecture was the American style of choice from 1790 to 1950. Beauty matters.

The statues and memorials the left hates are beautiful. Google images of Moses Jacob Ezekiel’s memorial to the Confederacy’s dead, Leo Lentelli’s equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee, or James Earle Fraser’s horse-mounted statue of Theodore Roosevelt and see for yourself. That they were beautiful was reason enough for the left to rip them up. As a transcendental essence, it’s a natural enemy of the collective.

But statues and memorials offer more than beauty. Arthur Weigall, an early 20th-century Egyptologist, once quipped that the archaeologist’s goal was to bring the dead to life. Statues and memorials do the same, like all physical things do. It’s one thing to read about Lee and Ulysses S. Grant, but it’s another thing to see their faces etched in marble, Lee’s ceremonial sword, or the little sitting room in which the South’s surrender took place. It’s the same reason why, with departed loved ones, we don’t just feed the coals of their lives with words but keep their pictures.

Honoring the Dead Brings Them to Life

Bringing our national past to life imperils the left because our dead founders, explorers, soldiers, pioneers, artists, and writers are not just dead figures. In the famous Funeral Oration, the Athenian general, Pericles, told the Athenians that the dead they mourned were more than just dead heroes. “For in magnifying the city I have magnified them, and men like them whose virtues made her glorious.”

The dead had become an integral part of the polis, and the polis was now part of them because the dead esteemed “courage to be freedom and freedom to be happiness.” The virtue with which they lived, which allowed them to put everything on the line for their country and to pay the ultimate price for her, had made them greater than just mortals. The Athenians were to fix their eyes on the heroes and their deeds and strive to mimic their examples.

In the same way, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Lee, Grant, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Boone, Davy Crockett, John Adams, and even Kate Smith and Stephen Foster are all the faces of the United States. Because of their actions, their sacrifices, their virtues, and their artistry, they helped make our country what it used to be.

They all labored to build up the walls and keep the lights burning and the reflection mirrors polished for John Winthrop’s city on a hill. Their statues are a testament to their lives, a reminder of what they accomplished, and a challenge to us. Even more importantly, they remind us of who we are as an American people, a people that stretches from 1607 to the present. These physical markers of our shared past help to bind us together, gluing us to history and the promise of future generations.

The left cannot tolerate these physical reminders, so its soldiers lurch out of bed every morning to destroy our country’s body and spirit. They must erase everything thwarting that goal. The left knows it cannot eradicate all its enemies, so it pushes to physically change our environments, knowing that if it changes the ecosystem, the life within it will have to change too. It’s simple biology. We won’t all become blue-haired freaks bellowing, “From the river to the sea!” But enough of us will become lumps of mush instead of grizzly bears to make resistance useless. That’s a fate worse than a purge.

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