Smashing Culture

In addition to destroying images of dead Confederates, protestors this summer toppled a bust of George Washington in D.C., tore down sculptures of Washington and Thomas Jefferson in Portland, and tried to knock over the statue of President Andrew Jackson that sits across the street from the White House. In Boston, Richmond, St. Paul, and other cities they beheaded or otherwise ruined figures of Christopher Columbus. An equestrian image of Theodore Roosevelt was targeted at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. 

Even heroic campaigners for racial justice like abolitionist Matthias Baldwin, antislavery leader John Greenleaf Whittier, abolitionist Hans Heg, and Confederacy-scourge Ulysses Grant had their memorials wrecked by rioters in Philadelphia, California, the Wisconsin capitol, and San Francisco, respectively—apparently just because the subjects were dead white males. That, however, can’t explain why Frederick Douglass’s statue was torn down in Rochester, or why “decolonizing” activists defaced the large bronze of Mahatma Gandhi in Washington, D.C. Black Lives Matter marchers in London covered with graffiti a monument to the President who was assassinated for freeing enslaved blacks, Abraham Lincoln. Numerous other courthouse busts, public murals, and works of historical art have likewise been covered with paint, broken, removed, or vandalized. 

These acts of erasure by enraged protestors are reminiscent of two other rampages within current memory: The Taliban’s 2001 obliteration of the two Bamiyan Buddhas (the largest sculptures of their type in the world). And the Red Guard attacks on numerous artifacts of history and culture during China’s Cultural Revolution. 

In all of these cases, zealots acted to delete images, history, and ideas they deigned intolerable. And each desecration left behind an ugliness that was far more than just visual.

One dispiriting aspect of this artistic cleansing is the refusal of the outraged to show any respect for historical context. There are demands in several U.S. cities now for removal of statues of Lincoln freeing slaves, on the grounds that this is an offensive image for fragile contemporary eyes. It was black Americans, however, who initiated and paid for many of these depictions—as well as other images mixing initiators and beneficiaries of racial liberation.

One of my favorite examples is the bronze figure of fanatical slavery-opponent John Brown befriending a black child, pictured on the next page. It was Brown’s attack on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry that sparked the military action of the Civil War. In his honor, African Americans from all over the country donated funds in hundreds of small sums so this handsome statue could be erected outside his home and burying place in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. A son of former slaves, J. Max Barber, delivered an eloquent address at the 1935 unveiling of the figure, comparing Brown to John the Baptist for blazing a path to human emancipation. To conclude the dedication the mixed-race crowd sang “America.” 

Will icon breakers offended by this depiction of a white man towering over a person of color next put a rope around Brown’s neck, tie it to a bumper, and make him disappear? Did anyone imagine Washington and Grant would be dragged to the ground? “You cannot credibly declare that some revolution in social affairs has a natural stopping point unless you personally commit to stopping it when it goes too far,” commented writer Megan McArdle recently. “If you don’t, you will cede issue after issue to the radicals.”

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