The 21st century is in danger of becoming an era of statue smashing and historical erasure. Not since the iconoclasts of the Byzantine Empire or the epidemic of statue destruction during the French Revolution has the world seen anything like the current war on the past.
In 2001, the primeval
The West prides itself in the idea that liberal societies would never descend into such nihilism. Think again.
In the last two years there has been a rash of statue toppling throughout the American South, aimed at wiping out memorialization of Confederate heroes. The pretense is that the Civil War can only be regarded as tragic in terms of the present oppression of the descendants of Southern slaves --154 years after the extinction of the Confederate states.
There is also a renewed crusade to erase the memory of Italian explorer
Last month, the
There have been some unfortunate lessons from such vendettas against the images and names of the past.
One, such attacks usually revealed a lack of confidence. The general insecurity of the present could supposedly be remedied by destroying mute statutes or the legacies of the dead, who could offer no rebuttal.
The subtext of most current name changing and icon toppling is that particular victimized groups blame their current plight on the past. They assume that by destroying long-dead supposed enemies, they will be liberated -- or at least feel better in the present.
Yet knocking down images of Columbus will not change the fact that millions of indigenous people in
Two, opportunism, not logic, always seems to determine the targets of destruction.
This remains true today. If mass slaughter in the past offered a reason to obliterate remembrance of the guilty, then certainly sports teams should drop brand names such as "Aztecs." Likewise, communities should topple statues honoring various Aztec gods, including the one in my own hometown:
After all, the Aztec Empire annually butchered thousands of innocent women and children captives on the altars of their hungry gods. The Aztecs were certainly far crueler conquerors, imperialists and colonialists than was former
Stanford students and faculty could have found a much easier target in their war against the dead: the eponymous founder of their university,
Yet it is one thing to virtue-signal by renaming a building and quite another for progressive students to rebrand their university -- and thereby lose the prestigious Stanford trademark that is seen as their gateway to career advancement.
Third, in the past there usually has been a cowardly element to historical erasure. Destruction was often done at night by roving vandals, or was sanctioned by extremist groups who bullied objectors.
So too in the present. Many Confederate statues were torn down or defaced at night. City councils voted to change names or remove icons after being bullied by small pressure groups and media hysteria. They rarely referred the issue to referenda.
Four, ignorance both accompanies and explains the arrogance of historical erasure, past and present.
Recently, vandals in
The past is not a melodrama but more often a tragedy. Destroying history will not make you feel good about the present. Studying and learning from it might.
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