Streetwise Professor

June 18, 2020

When Judging History, Remember Matthew, Not Marx

Filed under: Civil War,History,Politics — cpirrong @ 6:22 pm

A little less than 3 years ago, during the last spasm of nihilistic iconoclasm that wracked the United States, I wrote:

It is because of this loss of historical memory that I am averse to iconoclasm. I am also quite conscious that iconoclasm is itself almost always an assertion of political power, and as such can be as divisive as the erection of the icons was. A cycle of symbolism can sow discord, and generate much more heat than light. In a deeply divided country, we should be looking for ways to improve understanding and to provide fora for reconciliation, rather than to inflame divisions. Building the monuments was a way of showing who is on top: taking them down is a way of doing the same. But assertion of power relations exacerbates conflict and detracts from the advancement of true equality.

The Confederate monument controversy has also catalyzed tribalism, perhaps intentionally so, as this has definite political uses, most notably making it possible for the left to claim that the fringe mouth breathers who rallied to defend the monument are representative of all its political adversaries. It is also the last thing the increasingly tribal US needs at present.

Today is like that. Only on steroids and meth.

Especially the part about iconoclasm being an assertion of political power. For that is the real driving force behind the current orgy of destruction–which is no longer limited to the US, but has spread around the world.

In the US, the hard left is hell-bent on imposing a Howard Zinn version of history on the entire country. A version in which the nation’s history is a litany of crimes, with no redeeming features or redeeming figures. For a nation such as that must be uprooted, destroyed, and then remade. The past must be erased–no, extirpated–in order to clear the way for a glorious utopian future.

Hence everything–everything–has to go. No historical figure is safe. The monument to the (black) 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in Boston. The statue of abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier in the town in California that bears his name. No one is pure enough to meet the standards of today’s Jacobins and Red Guardists.

The most commonly cited justification for this is “but slavery!” Where once upon a time people played Six Degrees From Kevin Bacon, we now play–or are forced to witness and assent to–Six Degrees From Slavery, in which lines are drawn from various figures or places to slavery. (Although not consistently–Kente cloth being an notable exception). If there is a connection within six degrees–into the furnace! And such connections inevitably exist in any nation or culture with a history of slavery. Which, as it happens, is every nation and culture. Meaning everything is at risk.

This has reached its most ludicrous (but not necessarily the ultimate in ludicrousness–there’s still time!) in campaigns against Penny Lane in Liverpool (allegedly, but not proved, to be named for a Mr. Penny who was involved in the slave trade in the distant past) and the University of Virginia logo, upon which the depictions of handles of crossed swords included a wavy pattern evocative of the Serpentine Walls at UVA–walls which, we are now told, “former President Thomas Jefferson designed . . . to muffle the sounds of slaves and hide them from public view.”

Color me skeptical. (Can I say that?) This is attributed to “historians.” I have looked fairly extensively to see which historians, and the basis for this conclusion, but to no avail. If someone can provide the documentation, I would be glad to evaluate it.

Building walls around universities is hardly a novelty. Creating cloistered spaces at universities or other scholastic institutions to isolate them from the intrusions of the outside world dates back to medieval times–visit a college at Oxford sometime. Or most monasteries.

But never mind, whatever the origins of the walls, they have long been recognized as architecturally distinctive (though they harken to English precedents). So the interest in and aesthetic value of the walls has existed and exists independent of whatever thought gave impetus to Jefferson to create them.

No, this seems like a classic Alinskyite effort intended to dragoon a public institution, and its craven administrators (don’t dare call them “leaders”) into genuflecting before the power of the radicals. They pick a target–the wall–freeze it, personalize it, polarize it.

And then they move on to the next target, because there is no limiting principle here. Again, the imposition of the Howard Zinn view of American history recognizes no limits: everyone and everything that preceded Year Zero is evil, and must be destroyed.

If an abstract representation of the Serpentine Wall is today considered an affront and offensive, how can the walls themselves be any less so? If you must eliminate the image, how can you possibly tolerate the real thing? In other words: how long before there is a call for the walls to be torn down, or a mob takes the job into its own hands?

The radicals will march from surrender to surrender. Given that they will never compromise, the line has to be drawn at no iconoclasm, period. Monuments are a testament to their time and place. Let them stand as such, and let our interpretation of those things change with the times and knowledge.

Quite interestingly, French President Emmanuel Macron, agrees, and forcefully so:

Would that there would be someone equally articulate taking such a strong stand here, or in the UK, or elsewhere in the Anglosphere. Bravo, M. le President.

This is about history, but it’s not only about history. It’s not even mainly about history. Orwell: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” The delegitimization of the American past (and the British past and the Western past (“decolonize your bookshelf”)) is just one part of a concerted campaign to delegitimize our institutions and our cultures, in order to replace them with those imagined in the radicals’ fevered brains.

The Jacobins brook no opposition and in fact demand complete subservience. It is not sufficient to say, reasonably enough, that black lives matter. No, it is necessary to endorse (or at the very least, not dare to criticize) Black Lives Matter, thereby giving your asset to its entire radical, Marxist, crypto-Marxist, divisive, and race-charged agenda. In this way, the radicals opportunistically use empathy and goodwill and shock at shocking events as a Trojan Horse to smuggle their extreme agenda inside America’s (metaphorical) walls–and inside your heads. And we know what happened to the Trojans when they accepted the Greek gift.

So call me Cassandra: beware of radicals bearing “gifts.”

Particularly narcissistic radicals, like those who dominate today. They cast judgment on everyone else, and everyone who went before. All fail to live up to their lofty standards. But they apparently assume that they are perfect, and no future people, radical or otherwise, will judge them.

They would be wise to heed Matthew 7:1-3:

Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you

They should. But they won’t. Because the history that they so haughtily disdain shows they never do. So they must be fought. Hammer and tong.

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  1. While I agree with the broad thrust of your analysis, Prof, there are some issues of genuine concern.

    1. Equality before the law. Qualified immunity is surely unconstitutional, even if the Supreme Court says it isn’t.
    2. Cops understandably say they are law enforcers, not social workers. But at nigh, at weekends, on public holidays social workers can’t be found, so cops are social workers by default.
    3. The heavily armed robocop is not a good look, even for the law-abiding.
    4.Cops should be protecting people by patrolling high crime areas, not protecting property in low crime areas.

    Most of this, which is far from controversial, is lost in the current hysteria.

    Comment by philip — June 19, 2020 @ 2:41 am

  2. I’m pretty sure, that many of far-left radicals, who demand this iconoclasm, consider to be heroes much more awful people ( Mao, Pol Pot etc.)

    Comment by mmt — June 19, 2020 @ 2:59 am

  3. Well said, blogger.

    One nit-pick: from time to time I see complaints about Alinskyite political tactics. Fair enough, but you could equally well call them Jeffersonian.

    “pick a target … freeze it, personalize it, polarize it: that’s our Tom to a T.

    Comment by dearieme — June 19, 2020 @ 9:10 am

  4. Yes Craig, but is it art?

    Are you seriously suggesting that no statue, once erected, shall ever be removed? Well you’d better hightail it back to Baghdad to fix that statue of Saddam, and good luck persuading the good folk of central & eastern Europe to reconstitute their statues of Lenin. As for all those icons of a certain vintage in Germany, well…

    I’m not surprised Macron is against all of this stuff too. France, and Paris in particular, would look rather threadbare if they removed all the edifices which could potentially cause offence.

    Anyhow, who needs statues when you’ve got Wikipedia and all manner of hashtags to signpost you? People are so engrossed on their smartphones they barely have the opportunity to look up anyway. On which note, I must have walked or driven past the statues of Rhodes and Colston a hundred times and not given either of them a moment’s attention, and I wouldn’t consider myself to be even a moderate smartphone user (admittedly Rhodes is way above eye-level – maybe they knew it would cause a rumpus at some point?).

    Have to say all this popcorn is beginning to take its toll. As much fun as this has been, perhaps it’s time to move on?

    Comment by David Mercer — June 19, 2020 @ 10:07 am

  5. Don’t expect any help from the “conservative movement” in the fightback. They’ve got more important things on their plate, like tax cuts for billionaires and endless wars in the Middle East.

    Comment by Emperor of Ice Cream — June 19, 2020 @ 12:37 pm

  6. @Emperor of Ice Cream What is the point of repeating leftist lies that only billionaires got tax cuts? Tax reform had undeniably positive impact on economy and will help American economy to recover from coronavirus crush. Afghanistan war is coming to end. I don’t know any other wars in Middle East in which USA is seriously involved.

    Comment by mmt — June 19, 2020 @ 1:57 pm

  7. #6, way to miss the point, which is that Republicans are absolutely useless on cultural matters such as the subject of this post, because all they really care about is making their greedy donors happy.

    Comment by Emperor of Ice Cream — June 19, 2020 @ 2:32 pm

  8. @Emperor of Ice Cream I just don’t see what especially republican politicians do about destruction of monuments. It happens mainly in states with democratic governors. It’s true that many republican politicians don’t do enough to confront the left on cultural matters, but I’m more worried that actions of the far left aren’t condemned enough by ordinary people. Unfortunately the half of the country still supports democrats despite their radicalism. Politicians do something only when there is very strong demand from the people to do it.

    Comment by mmt — June 19, 2020 @ 2:55 pm

  9. @Emperor, have you actually looked at the Democrats and their greedy donors? They’re mostly from the same cities, attended the same schools, have indistinguishable resumes. Look at the acting replacement of NYT’s recent Editorial Page Editor, Georgetown and Princeton, a far cry from the disgraced predecessor James Bennett, Yale. Brother is prominent Senator from CO.

    Government, MSM and the remoras around them are not the opposition, they are not capable of fixing it.

    Comment by The Pilot — June 19, 2020 @ 4:39 pm

  10. A generation [or a people] that don’t know history has no past and no future.

    Robert Heinlein

    That’s what this kulturkampf is about, eliminating the past, so the future will unknown

    Comment by The Pilot — June 19, 2020 @ 4:47 pm

  11. interestingly, I agree with you somewhat. I am not against tearing down monuments to the Confederacy that aren’t in graveyards…not really against telling Mississippi to pull the stars and bars off its flag. Nathan Bedford Forest was a despicable individual. We need to remember that history, but should we have monuments to him?

    Today, the mob wants to cancel Yale since Mr. Yale was a slave trader according to the twitter mob. Not much on that in his online bios but he certainly wasn’t an upstanding fellow. I don’t really care about Yale but perhaps I should. Yale and the Ivies have become institutions that are so far away from core founding American values I am not sure I’d even send a kid there. (for the record, my kids went to Davidson and Ole Miss)

    There must be a way to do this responsibly teaching and respecting history without a mob mentality. Reading the WSJ article today with Senator Scott seems to strike the right balance. Wonder what he’d have to say about it?

    Agree 100% that the people leading and often participating in the riots and statue toppling are tilted toward Marx and their ilk. I would rather fight them than bend a knee.

    Comment by Jeff Carter — June 20, 2020 @ 12:46 pm

  12. I couldn’t possibly bend a knee. That would be cultural appropriation.

    Comment by dearieme — June 20, 2020 @ 4:54 pm

  13. It’s nice to see Democrats bending their knees, apologizing for the crimes of their past.

    Comment by I.M. Pembroke — June 21, 2020 @ 11:51 am

  14. “Would that there would be someone equally articulate taking such a strong stand here, or in the UK….”.

    Is is not at times like this that Trump’s flaws/weaknesses are a particularly liability? He is probably incapable of thinking, never mind articulating a message like the Macron one – not necessarily because of a lack of capability but he surely would have no interest in exploring such ideas.

    Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson’s problem is extreme laziness and a complete lack of anything that could resemble a conviction – probably the inevitable result of a life of more-or-less idle and elite privilege. You don’t become head-boy at Eton nor President of the Oxford Union without some powers of persuasion/argumentation at least among the braying echelons at the top of English society.

    Comment by derriz — June 21, 2020 @ 2:09 pm

  15. “It hurts my feelings” — or some variation of that is what prevents sensitive people from offering resistance. They want to retain statues or flag or Aunt Jemima, but don’t want to appear callous. These people are looking for a way to persuasively say, “Your feelings aren’t the be-all and end-all. Your feelings are untethered to reality. Your feelings are out of proportion to the harm you face.”

    How would Dale Carnegie say, “Get over it” in a way that wins friends and influences people?

    Comment by Eternal Optometrist — June 21, 2020 @ 2:30 pm

  16. @Jeff–I would be more than glad to have that debate with someone of goodwill and integrity. But that’s my point–those pushing this agenda are anything but honest people of goodwill. Nathan Bedford Forrest and the Mississippi flag and Robert E. Lee are wedges. They know that most will agree with them on that. But they will then pocket that and go onto the next person. I shouldn’t say “will”–they already have.

    To make it abundantly clear that it’s not really about slavery, but about the transformation of the US, remember that the inflection point was Kaepernick’s protest over the National Anthem and the American flag.

    As I have noted, there is no limiting principle here. Indeed, the fundamental point is that this iconoclasm is a demonstration of power by those who have the will to power and they will continue until they are stopped. The only alternatives are capitulation or ils ne passeront pas. If that means accepting N. B. Forrest to save Grant, or Heg, or Washington, so be it.

    Comment by cpirrong — June 24, 2020 @ 5:58 pm

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