In the aftermath of Charlottesville, Virginia, New York mayor Bill de Blasio announced that he was considering taking down a statue of Christopher Columbus because it could be offensive to Native Americans. If you were to believe it, this statue risked arousing hate, like so many symbols associated with European expansion and American colonisation. In Canada, an Ontario teachers’ union has proposed renaming schools that bear the name of John A. MacDonald, one of the country’s founding fathers. In Britain, there have been proposed plans to remove the statue of legendary Admiral Horatio Nelson, accused of having defended slavery. There are plenty of other examples of this hunt for statues in the news these past few weeks.
Some only see a new manifestation of the sin of anachronism, which pushes us to abolish history for the sake of a rather foolish adherence to present-day attitudes, as if past eras should be condemned and their traces erased from public spaces. But beyond a basic lack of culture, there are many other factors driving this purifying fury that stirs the masses with vengeance. How can we explain this sudden rage that pushes a certain leftist faction to want to eradicate memory, as if we might somehow create a blank slate? We stand before a demonstration of the power of the penitential reflex that has been written into contemporary Western political culture.
It’s understandable that in the momentum of a revolution, when we pass from one regime to another, an enraged crowd will lash out at statues of power. They will break down such idols to mark the decline of a demigod in whom they no longer believe. During the fall of communism, the crowd’s euphoria led them to topple the various statues and monuments that represented the tyranny from which they had been delivered. It was necessary to tear down the monuments to Vladimir Lenin’s glory in order to mark the fall of communism. Nothing is really surprising in this. Sometimes, we must destroy to create.
But are we currently in a similar situation? The case of the Southern United States, the origin of the present ideological tornado, is presumably singular. The memory associated here has not always been defined exclusively as a racial question, which is not to deny that this issue is central and that the white supremacist movement is still looking to exploit this heritage. Still, it cannot be reduced so simply. After all, reasonable, nonracist Americans are shocked by the militancy of the extreme leftists illegally destroying these statues. They find it hard to accept that any mention of Southern heritage must automatically be associated with racism. How can Americans be expected to tolerate, for example, the censorship of a film such as Gone With the Wind, which is what happened when a Memphis cinema stopped showing the movie for ideological reasons?
The question of statues that perpetuate the memory of Confederate generals and soldiers in the United States is complex. But the penitential mania extends throughout the West. It drives us to dismantle statues, to rewrite textbooks, to prescribe certain remorseful commemorations, to multiply excuses towards certain communities, to symbolically hang certain heroes of the past and censor representations of that past that don’t align with the caricatural representation that we have today.
This terribly oversimplified vision of history takes form as a process that first targets long-admired heroes. Great characters, yet we only hold onto their ideas that collide with the values of today. The West is coming to see itself through the eyes of those who curse it. Sooner or later, we’ll lash out at statues of General Charles de Gaulle, Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt and many others: In a certain manner, Napoleon Bonaparte was already the victim of such an undertaking when, in 2005, the French refused to commemorate the victory of Austerlitz. We risk sliding into a retrospective Nazification of the entire history of the West, henceforth personified as a white heterosexual man from whom we must take back all privileges.
Europe no longer knows what to do with its colonial past, which many are tempted to view as a crime against humanity. In the American frame, it was the very arrival of Europeans that must now be reduced to a brutal invasion, which certain people don’t hesitate to qualify as a genocidal undertaking. We invite young Americans, young Canadians and young Quebecois to view themselves as the heirs of an odious history that they must ostentatiously repudiate. We teach them to hate their own civilisation.
We are on the brink of a display of fanatic ideology, feeding off the imagination of the most radical multiculturalism, that pretends to demystify Western society and reveal the numerous oppressions on which it is built. Each public representation of the past is subject to new censors who use their hypersensitivity to create the criteria from which they will (or will not) grant an idea the right to be expressed. How can we not see in this a form of ideological control and intolerance? We are witnessing the racialisation of social interactions in a society driven by tribal rather than national interests. Everyone shuts himself up in a history built on grievances, and then demands a monopoly on the collective memory.
What’s striking, in this situation, is the weakness of the political and intellectual elite who no longer believe in the right to defend the world for which they are responsible. In July, King’s College in London decided to remove the busts of its “white” founders, because they offended the “ethnic minorities.” Once again, anti-racism racialises social interactions. It’s a new ideological device that inserts itself and contributes to redefining the contours of political correctness. Those who oppose the removal of these controversial figures are accused of being accomplices to the crimes with which the statues are now associated.
Our societies don’t have to recognise themselves in the degrading portrait we have made of them. They must defend reason. We should see in these statues all sorts of layers of meaning simultaneously superimposed and intermixed and the irreducible complexity of history. It’s because of this that we often find contradictory statues and monuments in the middle of a city or country. They remind us that in major disputes, which today may appear stripped of ambiguity, men of valor could belong to opposing camps. They illustrate the values and commitments that cannot be reduced to the ideologies with which they are now associated. The raving use of erasers and jackhammers is no way to write the history of humankind.