WALL STREET JOURNAL, January 20, 2018
By James Panero
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio set up an Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments and Markers last September to review “all symbols of hate on city property,” as he said in a tweet. The commission’s conclusion, released last week, is that there is but one offending object in need of removal: a statue of J. Marion Sims, a founder of American gynecology who experimented on slaves, on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue.
Although several members pushed for a harder-line approach, the commission’s sensible findings—which also recommend adding context to existing monuments and erecting new public works—would seem to signal an end to last summer’s monument fever. They are also politically expedient for Mr. de Blasio, allowing him to trumpet leftist sympathies while still appealing to voters who like their monuments the way they are.
Yet the problem with monuments is not going away anytime soon—and the trouble long predates the issue of Confederate memorials and the deadly protests of August 2017 that surrounded one of them in Charlottesville, Va.
A contempt for false idols is written deep into human nature. It is found in the biblical commandment “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.” History is punctuated by waves of symbolic destruction, both sectarian and secular, left and right.
Exodus 32:20 tells of Moses ’ angry discovery of one problematic symbol upon his descent from Mount Sinai. His brother, Aaron, had grown anxious during Moses’ 40-day absence and forged a golden calf as an idol for worship. When Moses saw what Aaron had done, “he took the calf which they had made, and burnt it in the fire, and ground it to powder, and strawed it upon the water, and made the children of Israel drink of it.”
In the year 455, a horde of Vandals from the Germanic north sacked Rome in a schismatic dispute with the empire’s Nicene Christians. According to Victor of Vita, a contemporaneous African bishop, the Vandals “gave bent to their wicked ferocity with great strength against the churches and basilicas of the saints, cemeteries and monasteries, so that they burned houses of prayer with fires greater than those used against the cities and all the towns.”
Today we recall this episode through the term that resulted, “vandalism,” a coinage that gained currency during the French Revolution—another period of iconoclasm that saw churches and relics targeted, alongside the monarchy during the Reign of Terror. In 1789, a statue of Louis XV was torn down in the same square, renamed the Place de la Revolution, that saw the execution of Louis XVI four years later.
A few generations later, during the Paris Commune of 1871, France witnessed another round of destruction, which culminated in the toppling of the Vendome Column. This 72-day radical takeover of the city inspired the “communism” of Lenin and the wholesale demolition of Russian churches following the 1917 October Revolution.
By every measure, we are again in an era defined by a hostility to graven images. Islamic terror draws on that faith’s contempt for idolatry as a psychological weapon and a tool of recruitment. The Mughals, the Persians and the Afghan kings all turned their guns on the Buddhas of Bamiyan, in today’s Afghanistan, before the Taliban finally obliterated the sixth-century Silk Road statues in March 2001. “We are destroying the statues in accordance with Islamic Law,” declared Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban’s supreme commander. “Muslims should be proud of smashing idols.”
The 9/11 attacks on the U.S. six months later were as much about the destruction of the monumental symbols of the Twin Towers and the Pentagon as they were about the murder of the people inside them. So too was the Islamic State concerned with “cultural cleansing” along with its campaign of murder—the Roman city of Palmyra, the Assyrian Lamassu sculptures of Mosul, and irreplaceable churches and Shia mosques were all targeted in ISIS ’ Sunni Salafist march across the Levant.
Symbolic violence often signals real, and uncontrolled, human violence to come. In the case of terrorism, the two types of violence become one and the same.
As George Washington warned, the erasure even of bad symbols should not be undertaken impulsively. Many Americans point proudly to the toppling and disfigurement of the statue of George III, in Manhattan’s Bowling Green, by the Sons of Liberty in 1776. Its lead was melted down into 40,000 musket balls to be used by the Continental Army. Yet Washington resented his soldiers’ engaging in this show of “popular effervescence,” according to Washington Irving’s “Life of Washington,” and he “censured it in general orders, as having much the appearance of a riot and a want of discipline.”
America’s Confederate monuments are false idols to a “lost cause” rooted in systematic racial supremacy. Yet their destruction or removal has signaled a radical zeal that is not easily contained. This fervor led hundreds of academics to write an open letter last month to Mr. de Blasio’s monument commission urging the elimination of New York’s grand public statues of Christopher Columbus, Theodore Roosevelt and others, each an “embodiment of white supremacy.” The broadening scope of censoriousness suggests this frenzy is less about Confederate monuments and more about a toxic relationship with the past itself.
And despite the commission’s report, landmarked city monuments, such as the Bronx’s Hall of Fame for Great Americans, have already been effaced without review. Last summer New York’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered busts of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson removed from this outdoor sculpture gallery designed by McKim, Mead & White. The statues of Roosevelt and Columbus are also routinely defaced by latter-day vandals.
Injunctions against false idols now target paintings, statues, buildings and all matter of material culture. Yet in our hyperdigital present, public monuments stand as a tangible connection to the ideas of the past and a bridge to the people who held them. This connection can be their ultimate offense. It is also the one most in need of preservation.