Toward the end of February 2001 Mohammed Omar, the Taliban’s spiritual leader, ordered the destruction of all the statues in Afghanistan because, he said, they were idolatrous. And so the Taliban went about the systematic destruction of pre-Islamic artwork, which included giant statues of Buddha that were carved into the mountains. Some of these pieces were two thousand years old.
As they went about the business of blasting these priceless pieces of art into smithereens, they also erased a part of Afghanistan’s history. Which was rather the point. Art that did not conform to the received wisdom of Mohammed Omar and the governing bodies of Afghanistan had to be erased from memory, because as Orwell said, he who controls the past controls the future.
The civilized world was appalled.
Fast forward to August 2017. Leftist ideologues have decided that the 225-year-old statue of Christopher Columbus in Columbus Circle must go. Mayor Bill DeBlasio has courageously announced he will appoint a commission to look into the matter. City council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito decided to weigh in: “There obviously has been ongoing dialogue and debate in the Caribbean—particularly in Puerto Rico where I’m from—about this same conversation that there should be no monument or statue of Christopher Columbus based on what he signifies to the native population…[the] oppression and everything that he brought with him” she said.
The opinion of the civilized world now appears to have evolved into an acceptance of the enlightened reasoning of Mohammed Omar. Statuary and artwork from the pre-Woodstock era must be put into the memory hole; otherwise we might offend the exquisite sensibilities of those aching for the chance to be offended. But of course, this has little to do with what the fight is really all about. It is really about erasing the past to control the future.
The hard ideologues of the left wish to rewrite the history of the West and in the process undermine its culture. And so they attack the soft underbelly of the West, which is that Western elites are either unable or unwilling to defend Western culture and tradition in the face of the mob. Because Western elites are ahistorical and have fallen prey to a vacuous relativism, they stand defenseless before the Marxist critique of Western civilization as a story of the continuing oppression of marginalized groups. Western elites are an easy target because they are lost in a haze of politically correct bumper sticker slogans that substitute for thought.
John Maynard Keynes was prescient here. He famously wrote “Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilled in their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back”. Except that it turns out that the academic scribblers were not economists. They were Marxist philosophers, and artists and sociologists. They were of the Frankfurt School and later its offshoots like postmodernism and deconstructionism. Their leaders were Herbert Marcuse, Antonio Gramsci, Gyorgy Lukacs and Theodor Adorno. They successfully laid the groundwork for the ruthless cultural attack against Western civilization that is now taking the form of wanton destruction of artwork that doesn’t conform to today’s cultural norms.
But by burying symbols that are unquestionably part of its history, the U.S. is also burying its history rather than learning from it. That is hardly an optimal solution. Some, but not all, of those statues celebrating the Confederacy that have aroused such ire were actually created well after the Civil War ended. They were meant to be proclamations of resistance to, among other things, the 14th and 15th amendments that were passed to secure the legal rights of freed slaves. Those belong in museums so that their history can be properly taught.
And let us not forget that the Progressive hand lies heavily on the scale here in favor of historical racism. Woodrow Wilson was one of the most racist Presidents in U.S. history. Margaret Sanger was an unabashed racist and eugenicist who favored birth control and abortion to reduce the non-white population. Ruth Bader Ginsburg echoed that sentiment several years ago in a New York Times interview, when with respect to abortion she casually referenced “growth in populations we don’t want too many of”. Then there was the late Senator Robert Byrd who served for a while as an “exalted Cyclops” of his local Klan affiliate. Which is not to leave out Justice Hugo Black who also was a Klansman for a while.
So perhaps, just perhaps, we ought to sit back for a minute and get a grip before we buckle to the mob, and engage in a destructive rite of ritual self-purification.