It began with the Confederate statues, but perceptive people knew it would not end there. Over the past several weeks, rampaging mobs across the country have vandalized, defaced, destroyed, torn down, or demanded that officials remove not only monuments to southern generals, but statues of Christopher Columbus, Spanish conquistadors, early 20th century politicians, abolitionists, Revolutionary War generals, and others. In Oregon, a statue of Thomas Jefferson has just been toppled. In Boston, activists are calling for the removal of a replica statue of Abraham Lincoln that was originally paid for and commissioned by freed slaves. Even a statue of Mahatma Ghandi was desecrated.
In most of these cases where “protesters” have taken it upon themselves to simply destroy and discard any monument they happen to find personally displeasing, no attempt has been made to prevent the crime and enforce the law. We should note that almost every state categorizes the destruction of property worth $500 or more as a felony. These statues are works of art, sculpted by hand decades or centuries ago. They are worth many thousands of dollars or more. The mob is, then, committing a felony crime. But we have learned that mobs — provided that they demonstrate the correct political leanings — can do what they want, up to and including the commission of serious felonies.
Are the criminal vandals correct that these statues are racist, offensive, and tasteless? Two responses come to mind:
1) For the most part, no. I am not going to launch a blanket defense of the merits of every statue ever built on American soil, but many of the men memorialized by these structures deserve to be remembered and honored. Christopher Columbus was one of the greatest men in history. By sailing across an unknown sea, discovering the Americas, and establishing a settlement, he changed the course of Western Civilization. His is one of the most important and impactful lives to have been lived at any point in the Christian Era. Certainly none of the mindless criminals tearing down his monuments can ever hope to measure up.
Similar accolades could be given to Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and other posthumous targets of cancel culture. Nobody claims that these men were perfect or holy. “Great” is a description of their accomplishments and their impact, not necessarily of their moral character (though some of them were great in both senses of the word). But their flaws, though significant, were the same flaws shared by most people of their time: racism, brutality, bigotry, slavery. Their achievement and virtues, however, were unique during their time and even more so in ours. That is why they have statues built to them, while many of the “protesters” will be remembered and honored by no one.
2) My other answer to the question of whether these statues are offensive is, frankly, who cares? I would be willing to listen to a reasonable argument against a monument to, say, Confederate commander Nathan Bedford Forrest. He was a truly impressive field commander, but also a slave trader — a profession that was unseemly even to people in his time and culture. But lawless mobs do not make reasonable arguments, and whatever arguments they do make should be ignored. We should not allow ourselves to be bullied or pushed by the mob. That is not how decisions are made in a civilized country.
A thoughtful person might argue that certain statues never should have been erected in the first place. But a thoughtful person would also understand that whatever problematic symbolism you might find in a statue, the symbolism in tearing them down all at once, in a panic, at the behest of the mob, or even allowing the mob to do it themselves, is much more problematic. It’s like I say to my kids when they stomp their feet and scream: I want to hear you, I want to listen to what you have to say, but not when you’re speaking to me like that. Now leave the room, calm down, come back, and we’ll try this again. I would say the same to the mob, who often display far less maturity than my children.
I think there is virtue in defying the mob just for the sake of defying it; keeping up the statues just because the mob wants to tear them down. If I were president, I’d commission the construction of three new statues to replace every one destroyed. I’d also erect Columbus monuments as big as the Statue of Liberty in every liberal city in the country. But perhaps that would be overkill. The point is that we cannot allow ourselves to be governed by an emotional gang of criminals who delight in destruction and hate western civilization and all its heroes, nearly without exception. Maybe some other day we can have an intelligent discussion about the merits of some of these statues. But that day is not today. For now, all we can do, or should do, is look at this mob and finally say, “no.”