The Lessons of Waging War Against the Dead

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 Taliban blew up two ancient Buddha
statues in Afghanistan on grounds that their very existence was sacrilegious to
Islam.

In 2015, ISIS militants entered a museum in Mosul, Iraq, and
destroyed ancient, pre-Islamic statues and idols. Their mute crime? These
artifacts predated the prophet Muhammad.

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 Christopher Columbus. Los Angeles removed a Columbus statue in
November based on the premise that his 1492 discovery of the Americas began a
disastrous genocide in the Western Hemisphere.

Last month, the Northern California town of Arcata did away
with a statue of former President William McKinley because he supposedly pushed
policies detrimental to Native Americans.

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 Central America and Mexico are
currently abandoning their ancestral homelands and emigrating northward to
quite different landscapes that reflect European and American traditions and
political, economic, and cultural values.

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: Selma, Calif.

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 President McKinley. Yet apparently the Aztecs, as indigenous
peoples, earn a pass on the systematic mass murder of their enslaved indigenous
subjects.

Stanford University has changed the name of two buildings
and a mall that had been named for Father Junipero Serra, the heroic 18th
century Spanish founder of the California missions. Serra was reputed to be
unkind to the indigenous people whom he sought to convert to Christianity.

Stanford students and faculty could have found a much easier
target in their war against the dead: the eponymous founder of their
university, Leland Stanford himself. Stanford was a 19th century railroad
robber baron who brutally imported and exploited Asian labor and was explicit
in his low regard for non-white peoples.

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 North Carolina set fire to a statue of
General Lee. But they got the wrong Lee. Their target was not a statue of
Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, but a statue of World War II Maj. Gen. William
C. Lee, who campaigned for the creation of a U.S. Army airborne division and
helped plan the invasion of Normandy.

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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