Of Statues and Symbolic Murder – By Wilfred M. McClay (First Things) / June 26 2020
In our culture, we have gotten so used to the idea that “iconoclasm” is a good and admirable thing, a vigorous rethinking of hoary pieties and staid traditions, that we have forgotten the horror and waste of what the word really signifies. We are now in the process of being reminded. Iconoclasm is nearly always associated with moments of religious or quasi-religious conflict, when profoundly different convictions and sensibilities come into conflict and understandings of the sacred become locked in a vicious combat to the death.
From Akhenaten’s obliteration of the traditional Egyptian gods, to the Byzantine and Calvinist attempts to suppress religious imagery, to the French Revolution’s orgies of cultural desecration, to the Muslim ruin of Hindu and Buddhist temples and artifacts—including most recently the Taliban’s appalling 2001 destruction of the two Buddhas of Bamyan in Afghanistan—episodes of iconoclasm are never merely cleansing operations. Iconoclasts seek to assault the sensibilities of those they oppose, and utterly destroy all physical evidence that such views ever existed. There is no room for coexistence, tolerance, or epistemic modesty.
It is hard to know how much of this applies to the statue-wrecking spectacle we are seeing right now in the United States and a few other Western countries. Despite the appearances of mob spontaneity, there is a made-for-the-cameras quality about a great deal of the action that suggests premeditation and well-financed organization on the highest levels. To say nothing of cynicism. The connection between appropriate outrage over the police killing of George Floyd, on the one hand, and the widespread desecration of public statues not only of Confederate generals, but of the likes of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt, Ulysses S. Grant, and Mahatma Gandhi, on the other, is tenuous at best. Does this sprawling animus show that the rage of the mob is utterly indiscriminate and yobbishly destructive? Or does it reveal something more ominous about the collapse of confidence in the legitimacy of our institutions?
Hard to say, but there are a few things I can say with confidence. First, that these acts of destruction are acts of pure and unmitigated hate, a blind and abstract hatred completely devoid of any impulse of charity toward others. They accomplish nothing to further the well-being of those whose cause is being drafted into service as the pretext for the mob’s violence. There is no vision of the future being put forward, no positive vista being explored. A public statue is an expression of public meaning. Tearing it down leaves only an empty place.
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