Tearing Down Monuments to Start Over at Year One
It is rather odd that in this heated political climate, the statues of long-dead Confederate generals and politicians have become such a hot button issue. But here we stand as many on the Left demand that anything having to do with the Confederacy be torn down and thrown into the ash heap of history. Indeed, with the way things are going, pretty much all of our country’s history might join that long dead rebellion that ended over 150 years ago at Appomattox. The Left seems intent on erasing the past and starting over from scratch.
This issue has been going on for a while, but it reached a fever’s pitch after the deadly street fight in Charlottesville. That tragedy happened in the first place because of an Alt Right rally to save a monument of Robert E. Lee. Earlier, New Orleans had removed various Confederate monuments after a long and contentious dispute. All across the nation, Confederate monuments are being removed.
But as noted above, the list of monuments on the Left’s chopping blockdoesn’t stop with the short-lived Southern Confederacy. Statues of Christopher Columbus are coming down, Boston’s Faneuil Hall might be retitled because it was named after a slaveowner and a statue of former Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo might be removed because “he was tough on crime.”
In Trump’s much-criticized second press conference after Charlottesville, he answered the question about whether the Confederate statues should be removed by pointing out that “George Washington was a slave-owner… So will George Washington now lose his status… Are we going to take down statues of George Washington? How about Thomas Jefferson?”
The answer is apparently yes.
CNN’s Angela Rye has called for Washington and Jefferson monuments to come down (which presumably includes their massive memorials in Washington DC). Al Sharpton has called public funding for such monuments an “insult to my family.” Now The Guardian is even seriously arguing that Britain should topple Nelson’s Column.
You don’t have to be a fan of the Confederacy to be highly skeptical of this statue-toppling craze. It’s plain to see that the Founding Fathers are next. Or perhaps not, one leftist decided to destroy a 90-year old bust of Abraham Lincoln. Admittedly, the logic behind that escapes me.
Needless to say, slavery was an abomination. And no, just because it was an institution our founders inherited does not justify them maintaining it. Still, all of these men were men of their time. Judging them by today’s standards is completely unfair. Should Italy tear down it’s statues of Julius Caesar? The man was a slaveowner, brutally conquered Gaul (now France) and neutered a republic to install himself as a dictator. I won’t even go into Mongolia’s statues and celebrations regarding one Genghis Khan.
And of course, the standards being applied keep changing. Perhaps one day we will have to tear down statues of Martin Luther King, Jr. because he wasn’t particularly keen on gay rights.
All of this has reminded me of “Year One.” This idea came to be during the French Revolution. The concept was to set aside all that bad history and start anew. One might think of this like the transition from BC to AD, but that system wasn’t implemented until the 9th Century and was based around the Christian faith most of the European continent shared. In Revolutionary France, Year One was a line in the sand. Everything that came before Year One was irredeemably stained.
During the Revolution, Robespierre and company replaced the traditional calendar with the French Revolutionary Calendar that attempted to erase all of the Catholic and Monarchical elements of its antecedent. The calendar was presented on September 1793 and by the next month, the Revolutionary Convention adopted the calendar and declared it to be “Year One.” Everything that came before was reactionary and worthy of being discarded. It was now on to France’s glorious future!
September 1793 also just happened to be the beginning of the Reign of Terror, when the world became thoroughly acquainted with the guillotine.
Whatever good may have come out of the French Revolution was lost as it descended into barbarism and set the stage for Napoleon to take over.
A French Catholic priest named Francois Ponchaud who lived in Cambodia during the 1970’s analogized the French Revolution’s call for breaking with the past to the Khmer Rouge. His book Year Zero catalogs the gruesome atrocities of that genocidal regime. Pol Pot and his henchman targeted any businessmen and landowner as well as monks, intellectuals, artists and teachers. They evacuated the cities and purged any traditional influence they could find. The idea was to destroy and replace all of Cambodia’s culture and tradition with a new “revolutionary culture.”
And they only had to kill some two million people to do it.
Of course, I am not trying to equate people who want to remove Confederate monuments or even monuments of the Founding Fathers with the Khmer Rouge. Even comparisons to the French Revolution go too far, at least at this point.
But the same dangerous revolutionary spirit seems to underlie this monument-destroying movement. Our nation’s history is bad. It is stained with slavery and war and ethnic cleansing and segregation and all sorts of other things. Nevermind the triumphs of freedom, wealth, technology, political stability and human rights. We must focus on the evils of our past, then we must start over anew, from scratch at Year One.
On a statue by statue basis, we can reasonably conclude there are some that so offend modern sensibilities that they should probably come down. But we have long since passed such level-headed considerations. These monuments are testaments to the history of this country — good and bad. It’s a history we should learn from. And it’s a history we should celebrate while simultaneously acknowledging its shortcomings.
The one thing it is not, however, is a history we should erase.