The Modern Bonfire of the Vanities

Five centuries ago, in Renaissance Florence, the Dominican priest Girolamo Savonarola, in his quest to purge Florence of all “immoral” works of art, started what came to be known as the “bonfire of the vanities.” Thousands of objects and works of art were burned in the fire; paintings by Sandro Botticelli, works by the poet Boccaccio, and countless other books, paintings, and objects were forever lost to history.

Looking back on this event today, we might be tempted to feel smug. We’re better than that, aren’t we? Surely today, in our enlightened, modern society, we’d never be stupid enough to destroy works of art or irretrievable relics of our history.

Yet it seems like, every day, leftists are more and more eager to prove that yes, they are that stupid. Because of the Left today, we are stuck in a slow-moving, modern version of the bonfire of the vanities. Unlike Savonarola’s bonfire, this isn’t a one-day affair; it’s an ongoing, subtle, never-ending eradication of our Western history and culture.

A story out of George Washington High School in San Francisco is the latest case in point. Earlier this month, the high school convened a “reflection and action working group” to determine the fate of a pair of 83-year-old murals depicting George Washington. The group determined the artwork is “highly problematic” and “traumatic” for students, since one of the murals presents George Washington next to several laboring slaves, and the other represents a dead Native American. The working group’s choice follows an earlier decision in February by a school-board committee that the art “glorifies slavery, genocide, colonization, manifest destiny, white supremacy, oppression, etc.”

What’s particularly moronic about this attempt to erase history is that the original painter of the murals, Victor Arnautoff, didn’t even intend to glorify President Washington. Arnautoff was a Communist who depicted Washington in such a way to “provoke a nuanced evaluation of his legacy,” namely, to call attention to the human costs of slavery and manifest destiny.

But the modern Left, which proudly upholds moral relativism, ironically sees the world in black and white terms. There is no room for nuance in their worldview. If George Washington (or James Madison or Thomas Jefferson) was a slaveholder, that in itself negates all the good qualities of his character. It doesn’t matter that he’s consistently rated as one of the best presidents in U.S. history; that without him our country probably wouldn’t exist; that he saw slavery as a great evil, and emancipated all of his slaves upon his death; no, the only thing that matters is that he wasn’t woke enough by 21st century standards.

Attempts like this one to whitewash the past raise the question: where does it all stop? At what point do we draw a red line and say “enough?” If a pair of murals in a high school “traumatize” students, why not paint over the fresco of George Washington in the Capitol dome ceiling in Washington, D.C.? Why not take down the Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial? Why shouldn’t we rename Washington, D.C. itself to something more politically correct?

What’s especially striking is that this sense of historical revisionism and shame is unique to the West. You’ll hear American leftists bellyaching about how evil Christopher Columbus was, and how Columbus Day should be changed to Indigenous Peoples’ Day; Brits clamoring to topple statues of Admiral Horatio Nelson, who defeated Napoleon’s fleet and saved Britain from invasion; Australians referring to Australia Day as Invasion Day, to mourn the creation of their own country; and Westerners of all nationalities claim that Winston Churchill, who saved the Western world from Nazi domination, was a “grotesque racist and a stubborn imperialist, forever on the wrong side of history.” But you very rarely hear of non-Westerners attack their own national heroes, even when those heroes were often much worse, and were responsible for the deaths of many more people than a Washington, a Nelson, or a Churchill.

Take Mongolia, for example. Genghis Khan, Mongolia’s most famous leader, was one of the greatest mass murderers in history. After unifying the disparate tribes of Mongolia in his youth, Genghis Khan and his descendants led the Mongol people to conquer the largest contiguous land empire in world history. Throughout the journey, they murdered, tortured, plundered, and raped their way across the Eurasian landmass. The estimated death toll of the Mongol Conquest is around 40 million people, or 10 percent of the world’s population in the 13th century.

The account of the conquest of the Persian city of Nishapur reads like a contemporary eyewitness account of the Rape of Nanking; the Mongols massacred more than 1 million unarmed civilians in the most inhumane ways imaginable. Khan’s daughter, who was heartbroken over her husband’s death during the siege of Nishapur, wanted to make sure that not a single civilian survived; she asked her father to decapitate every single body, and pile the skulls in massive pyramids, to ensure no one was playing dead. The Mongolian people still revere Genghis Khan as a national hero, and the capital of Ulaanbaatar has a 131-foot stainless steel statue of Khan that cost $4.1 million to build. To my knowledge, there are no organized protests demanding that the statue be torn down.

Consider the entire history of the Ottoman Empire. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey still waxes nostalgic about the empire, which kept most of the Balkans enslaved for centuries. He has previously surrounded himself with troops on parade dressed like Janissaries. The Janissary Corps, in Ottoman times, was a troop of elite soldiers made up of men who were forcibly ripped from their Christian parents’ arms when they were only small boys, converted to Islam, then turned into troops who were sent to wage war against their own people.

Many Ottoman figures are still celebrated in Turkey; Hayreddin Barbarossa, an Ottoman Admiral in the 16th century, repeatedly raided European shores, murdering and enslaving tens of thousands of men, women, and children. Despite his crimes, a mausoleum dedicated to his memory still stands in Istanbul. Sultan Mehmed II, regarded to this day as a national hero in Turkey, murdered hundreds of thousands of people in his quest to subjugate the Balkans. In the conquest of Constantinople alone, he murdered thousands of civilians and enslaved over 30,000 others. No major Turkish publications, scholars, or public officials have recently referred to Mehmed as a “grotesque racist” or a “stubborn imperialist.”

Joseph Stalin, one of the most ambitious butchers in history, remains popular in Russia. Stalin is responsible for starving 7-10 million Ukrainians in one of the worst man-made famines in history; for allying with Hitler and starting World War II by invading Poland; and for murdering tens of millions of his own people. Despite his crimes, a record high of 70 percent of all Russians approve of Stalin’s historical role. Only 19 percent of Russians view Stalin negatively, down from 32 percent in 2016.

Contrary to the example of George Washington, there is nothing nuanced in any of these monsters. Washington was a man of his times; a slaveholder, born into his position, who nonetheless realized the evil of slavery and eventually emancipated his slaves. He was also a man widely known for his character and probity. Genghis Khan, Mehmed II, and Joseph Stalin were all mass-murdering butchers with no redeeming characteristics.

Yet even as American leftists whine about murals of Washington “traumatizing” children, other cultures proudly celebrate their national heroes with no apparent interest in a critical look at their own history.

What’s particularly shocking about the stupidity of iconoclasts in America is their ignorance of how indebted they are to Western culture. The protestors who want to destroy the Washington murals in San Francisco, or to rename Columbus Day, or to tear down a statue of Thomas Jefferson from the university he himself founded, are all proving the superiority of the Western culture they claim to hate. Our culture of rationalism leads us to question everything about our history, even our most sacred figures, and our freedom of speech gives us the right to question, even to revile, our national heroes without fear of retribution. A Russian attempting to criticize Stalin, or a Chinese citizen condemning Mao’s atrocities, or a Turkish national feeling traumatized by a painting of Mehmed II would not fare as well as an iconoclast in America.

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About Elad Vaida

Elad Vaida is currently enrolled in the Heritage Foundation’s George C. Marshall Fellows Program, and the America’s Future Foundation Writing Fellows Program. He has a Master’s in Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard University, and a Bachelor’s in Political Science from Penn State University.

Photo: Linda Davidson/The Washington Post via Getty Images

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