The Ideology of Statue Smashing

Statue smashing is back in the news.

One night last week, University of North Carolina students pulled down “Silent Sam,” a bronze monument to students and faculty of the university who fought as Confederate soldiers in the Civil War.

The bronze figure is portrayed as static, quiet and without ammunition for his gun—and facing northward—apparently a postwar “silent sentinel” impotent, but still defiant.

The Confederate states fought the Civil War to preserve slavery, if not expand it. One can certainly object to the state showcasing an icon that can be seen as inseparable from that evil institution. Yet not all Confederate soldiers thought slavery was their own cause. In North Carolina, about 5 percent of the population, or a quarter of family households, held slaves. The vast majority of the population did not. No doubt some of the non-slaveholding citizenry opposed the idea of indentured servitude. Yet somehow, they squared the circle of fighting for a bad cause by redefining it as protecting their ancestral homeland.

In other words, some, or even many, Confederates, like many German and Japanese soldiers in World War II, found themselves fighting for morally wrong causes they may not have supported but saw little realistic alternative to avoiding service.

Latter-Day Damnatio Memoriae
Yet in today’s frenzied ahistorical climate on campuses, there is only melodrama or rather media-fueled psychodrama of the zealous, but otherwise mostly ignorant. Few grasp the essence of tragedy in bravely fighting for a disreputable cause, sometimes one that is repugnant to one’s own sense of morality.

Nor were all Confederate generals of the same moral caliber or perhaps worthy of like commemoration. For example, General James Longstreet, who did untold damage to the Union army at the Second Battle of Bull Run, Fredericksburg, and Chickamauga, nonetheless was a postwar supporter of Reconstruction and used force to protect black citizens. Longstreet fought the war for what he believed were quite different reasons from those of the brilliant tactician, but often cruel General Nathan Bedford Forrest, a prewar slave-trader, and future head of the Ku Klux Klan.

History is also not kind to statue smashers. The Romans defaced the statues (“damned the memory”) of unpopular emperors (albeit safely when dead) up to whom they had once toadied. Cadres of frenzied French revolutionaries sought to wipe out all Catholic iconography, clergy, churches and monasteries, and are now condemned by history for their destruction. Joseph Stalin eliminated all pictures and even printed references to renegade Communist rival Leon Trotsky.

The ultimate logic of today’s statue smashers is a similar effort to war against the past, and erase all the complexities, all the tragic lessons of history, and to replace it was some easy Manichean morality play. Where exactly will it stop?

So Much Culture to Purge
Nearly 30 years ago, the gifted filmmaker Ken Burns enthralled the nation with his Civil War documentary. Among the most popular narrators was folksy Southern novelist and historian Shelby Foote. He charmed audiences by explaining how brave southern generals and patriots ended up in a misbegotten cause not worthy of their own talents and courage. But Foote also controversially defended southern resistance to Union invasion and even praised the military acumen of racists like Forrest. Later Foote reportedly remarked that if alive in 1861 he would have served as a Confederate soldier, on the rationale of protecting his homeland from northern invasion.

“The Civil War” was seen by many more millions than ever viewed the now toppled Silent Sam. Should we then ban the showing of that film series? Or better yet, have the documentary re-edited to eliminate all of Foote’s interviews on the grounds he was a near proponent of Confederate resistance, and thus a tool of white supremacy, at least by the campus standards of 2018 that apparently have superseded those of 1990?

The band Lynyrd Skynyrd’s hit, “Sweet Home Alabama” seemed to portray then segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace favorably (e.g., “In Birmingham they love the governor”). Should it now either be rewritten or banned? In 1971 Joan Baez resurrected her career by refashioning The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” into a popular hit song. The verses are a veritable romantic paean to the futile resistance of white Southerners to the Union army:

Like my father before me

I will work the land

And like my brother above me

Who took a rebel stand

He was just 18, proud and brave

But a Yankee laid him in his grave.

Should we ban the song, which is still played often on radio, or petition surviving members of the Band or Joan Baez to rewrite or recalibrate their recordings to express distaste rather than admiration for the Southern struggle? Cannot “Gone With the Wind” be digitally remastered or dubbed to alter insensitive language; and if not, at least banned?

After all, in today’s logic, the artifacts of history do not survive to teach us of the errors of the past, but must perish to demonstrate the superiority of the present.

Or at least sort of.

Racial Chauvinism Rears Its Ugly Head
When visiting campuses, I have on occasion seen students wearing Che Guevara T-shirts and also, more rarely, the image of Mao Zedong on posters. Che was a psychopathic murderer who enjoyed personally executing Cubans found insufficiently revolutionary. Mao was the greatest mass murderer in history who, in historical terms, makes Jefferson Davis’s Confederacy a piker by comparison. Should we then ban such repulsive iconography that glorifies state killers?

In my hometown, not long ago, the city council voted to erect an Aztec totem, a likeness of the earth/snake goddess Coatlicue, to whom thousands of innocent prisoners of neighboring tribes of an often-vicious Aztec Empire were sacrificed as victims. The epitaph above our Coatlicue reads “VIVA LA RAZA” (“Long live the race!”).

The phrase is a racially chauvinistic and offensive slogan, a mishmash borrowed by the Chicano movement of the 1960s, that revived it from slogans of General Francisco Franco’s fascist Spain of the 1930s. “Raza” was popularized even earlier by Mexican writer José Vasconcelos Calderón, who advanced ideas of a superior Mexican racial essence (indigenismo“) put forth in his La raza cósmica.

Franco, remember, had written a novel entitled “Raza” to demonstrate the supposed racial superiority of the Iberian people to emulate the mood of contemporary fascist Germany and Italy. His point was to suggest a blood-and-soil and innately superior Hispanic race that transcended the Spanish language or residence on Spanish soil. That is why both Franco and the La Raza movement avoid near synonyms like gente or puebla that do not sufficiently convey the idea of racial superiority

Is the proper way, then, to object to such a city-sanctioned icon that is associated with cruel human sacrifice and racial superiority, to wear a mask, and topple it in the dead of night or deface its artwork with paint?

Not at all.

The old American idea of civil disobedience is still the most effective and legal way to express strong disagreement with a law, or to show one’s particular distaste for public icons such as North Carolina’s Confederate statues.

If North Carolina forbids the removal of Confederate statues without proper legal sanction, then by all means the aggrieved should peacefully protest, sue, or petition. From Henry Thoreau to Martin Luther King, dissidents have peacefully expressed their opposition to what they felt were moral injustices protected by immoral laws. And when arrested, convicted, and jailed, they bravely accepted the consequences precisely to draw attention to what they what they saw as cosmic injustice.

But the snowflake mentality of today’s campus is cowardly. It sees protest as performance art to virtue signal one’s easy morality, almost as career enhancement. Violence is often by night, sometimes in disguise, and by design aimed at avoiding culpability and the legal consequences thereof.

Ends Justifying Means
Ultimately there is another overarching ideology that drives statue-smashing, one of asymmetry. Today’s radical Left outrage is not applied in equal measure.

Monsters of the Left are not quite monsters, given that they kill for the supposed idea of equality. Professed noble aims justify any illegal means to obtain them.

In the most leisured, free, and affluent society in history, it is also hard to find present victim status. By default, mining the past for grievances must do. We war against mute stones, an easier fight, given that we have no idea of how to address the greater catastrophes of the present such as the urban war zones in Chicago. Live people can push back in a way that dead bronze does not.

Careerism plays a role, too. No Stanford leftist would likely attack statues of their 19th-century university founder Leland Stanford, so-called robber baron, white supremacist, and exploiter of Asian laborers—at least in the sense that Trotskyizing him and renaming the university might impair the value of their coveted eponymous degrees.

Racism is a monopoly of so-called whites, and cannot exist among others. So “Long live the race!” would be racism in a way its translation “Viva La Raza” is now not.

New York Times editorial board member Sarah Jeong cannot be a racist for tweeting the likes of “Oh man it’s kind of sick how much joy I get out of being cruel to old white men”and “Are white people genetically predisposed to burn faster in the sun, thus logically being only fit to live underground like groveling goblins?” Nor can PBS host Lindsay Ellis be a racist when she tweets “We anti-whites are coming for you. We know where you live” or how she’s “really excited about white genocide. It’s going to be the best genocide ever.” Those sentiments cannot be racist any more than cool hip-hop artists  can sometimes be racist, misogynist, or anti-gay.

Smashing particular statues has more to do with the present than the past, and less with morality than power politics.

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Photo Credit: Photo credit: UNC Alumni

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About Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is a distinguished fellow of the Center for American Greatness and the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He is an American military historian, columnist, a former classics professor, and scholar of ancient warfare. He has been a visiting professor at Hillsdale College since 2004, and is the 2023 Giles O'Malley Distinguished Visiting Professor at the School of Public Policy, Pepperdine University. Hanson was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2007 by President George W. Bush, and the Bradley Prize in 2008. Hanson is also a farmer (growing almonds on a family farm in Selma, California) and a critic of social trends related to farming and agrarianism. He is the author of the just released New York Times best seller, The End of Everything: How Wars Descend into Annihilation, published by Basic Books on May 7, 2024, as well as the recent  The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won, The Case for Trump, and The Dying Citizen.