Our War against Memory
The new abolitio memoriae
By Victor Davis Hanson
National Review Online
Back to the Future
Romans emperors were often a bad lot — but usually confirmed as such only in retrospect. Monsters such as Nero, of the first-century A.D. Julio-Claudian dynasty, or the later psychopaths Commodus and Caracalla, were flattered by toadies when alive — only to be despised the moment they dropped.
After unhinged emperors were finally killed off, the sycophantic Senate often proclaimed a damnatio memoriae (a “damnation of memory”). Prior commemoration was wiped away, thereby robbing the posthumous ogre of any legacy and hence any existence for eternity.
In more practical matters, there followed a concurrent abolitio memoriae (an “erasing of memory”). Specifically, moralists either destroyed or rounded up and put away all statuary and inscriptions concerning the bad, dead emperor. In the case of particularly striking or expensive artistic pieces, they erased the emperor’s name (abolitio nominis) or his face and some physical characteristics from the artwork.
Impressive marble torsos were sometimes recut to accommodate a more acceptable (or powerful) successor. (Think of something like the heads only of the generals on Stone Mountain blasted off and replaced by new carved profiles of John Brown and Nat Turner).
A Scary History
Without Leon Trotsky’s organizational and tactical genius, Vladimir Lenin might never have consolidated power among squabbling anti-czarist factions. Yet after the triumph of Stalin, “de-Trotskyization” demanded that every word, every photo, and every memory of an ostracized Trotsky was to be obliterated. That nightmarish process fueled allegorical themes in George Orwell’s fictional Animal Farm and 1984.
How many times has St. Petersburg changed its name, reflecting each generation’s love or hate or indifference to czarist Russia or neighboring Germany? Is the city always to remain St. Petersburg, or will it once again be anti-German Petrograd as it was after the horrific First World War? Or perhaps it will again be Communist Leningrad during the giddy age of the new man — as dictated by the morality and the politics of each new generation resenting its past? Is a society that damns its past every 50 years one to be emulated?
Abolition of memory is easy when the revisionists enjoy the high moral ground and the damned are evil incarnate. But more often, killing the dead is not an easy a matter of dragon slaying, as with Hitler or Stalin. Confederate General Joe Johnston was not General Stonewall Jackson and after the war General John Mosby was not General Wade Hampton, just as Ludwig Beck was not Joachim Peiper.
Stone Throwers and Their Targets
What about the morally ambiguous persecution of sinners such as the current effort in California to damn the memory of Father Junipero Serra and erase his eponymous boulevards, to punish his supposedly illiberal treatment of Native Americans in the early missions some 250 years ago?
California Bay Area zealots are careful to target Serra but not Leland Stanford, who left a more detailed record of his own 19th-century anti-non-white prejudices, but whose university brand no progressive student of Stanford would dare to erase, because doing so would endanger his own studied trajectory to the good life. We forget that there are other catalysts than moral outrage that calibrate the targets of abolitio memoriae.
Again, in the case of the current abolition of Confederate icons — reenergized by the Black Lives Matter movement and the general repulsion over the vile murders by cowardly racist Dylan Roof — are all Confederate statues equally deserving of damnation?
Does the statue of Confederate General James Longstreet deserve defacing? He was a conflicted officer of the Confederacy, a critic of Robert E. Lee’s, later a Unionist friend of Ulysses S. Grant, an enemy of the Lost Causers, and a leader of African-American militias in enforcing reconstruction edicts against white nationalists. Is Longstreet the moral equivalent of General Nathan Bedford Forrest (“get there firstest with the mostest”), who was the psychopathic villain of Fort Pillow, a near illiterate ante-bellum slave-trading millionaire, and the first head of the original Ku Klux Klan?
Were the 60–70 percent of the Confederate population in most secessionist states who did not own slaves complicit in the economics of slavery? Did they have good options to leave their ancestral homes when the war started to escape the stain of perpetuating slavery? Do such questions even matter to the new arbiters of ethics, who recently defiled the so-called peace monument in an Atlanta park — a depiction of a fallen Confederate everyman, his trigger hand stilled by an angel? How did those obsessed with the past know so little of history?
Key to General William Tecumseh Sherman’s devastating strategy of marching through Georgia and the Carolinas was his decision to deliberately target the plantations and the homes of the wealthy, along with Confederate public buildings. Apparently Sherman believed that the plantation owners of the South were far more culpable than the poor non-slave-holding majority in most secessionist states. Sherman generally spared the property of non-slave owners, though they collectively suffered nonetheless through the general impoverishment left in Sherman’s wake.
In our race to rectify the past in the present, could Ken Burns in 2017 still make his stellar Civil War documentary, with a folksy and drawly Shelby Foote animating the tragedies of the Confederacy’s gifted soldiers sacrificing their all for a bad cause? Should progressives ask Burns to reissue an updated Civil War version in which Foote and southern “contextualizers” are left on the cutting room floor?
How about progressive icon Joan Baez? Should the Sixties folksinger seek forgiveness from us for reviving her career in the early 1970s with the big money-making hit “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”— her version of The Band’s sympathetic ode to the tragedy of a defeated Confederacy, written over a century after the Civil War. (“Back with my wife in Tennessee / When one day she called to me / Said, “Virgil, quick, come see / There goes the Robert E. Lee!”) If a monument is to be wiped away, then surely a popular song must go, too.
Are there gradations of moral ambiguity? Or do Middlebury and Berkeley students or antifa rioters in their infinite wisdom have a monopoly on calibrating virtue and defining it as 100 percent bad or good?
Who of the present gets to decide whom of the past we must erase — and where does the cleansing of memory stop? Defacing Mt. Rushmore of its slave owners? Renaming the double-whammy Washington and Lee University? Are we to erase mention of the heavens for their August 21 eclipse that unfairly bypassed most of the nation’s black population — as the recent issue of Atlantic magazine is now lamenting?
Revolutions are not always sober and judicious. We might agree that the public sphere is no place for honorific commemoration of Roger B. Taney, the author of the Dred Scott decision. But statue removal will not be limited to the likes of Roger B. Taneys when empowered activists can cite chapter and verse the racist things once uttered by Abraham Lincoln, whose bust was just disfigured in Chicago — and when the statue-destroyers feel that they gain power daily because they are morally superior.
Correct and Incorrect Racists?
The logical trajectory of tearing down the statue of a Confederate soldier will soon lead to the renaming of Yale, the erasing of Washington and Jefferson from our currency, and the de-Trotskyization of every mention of Planned Parenthood’s iconic Margaret Singer, the eugenicist whose racist views on abortion anticipated those of current liberal Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. (Ginsburg said, “Frankly I had thought that at the time Roe was decided, there was concern about population growth and particularly growth in populations that we don’t want to have too many of.”)
At what point will those who went ballistic over President Trump’s clumsy “on the one hand, on the other hand” criticism of both the abhorrent racists who marched in Charlottesville (parading around in the very Nazi garb that their grandparents had fought to vanquish) and the unhinged anarchists who sought to violently stop them demand that Princeton University erase all mention of their beloved Woodrow Wilson, the unapologetic racist? Wilson, as an emblematic and typical early progressive, thought human nature could “progress” by scientific devotion to eugenics, and he believed that blacks were innately inferior. Wilson, also remember, was in a position of power — and, owing to his obdurate racism, he ensured that integration of the U.S. Army would needlessly have to wait three decades. Do any of the protestors realize that a chief tenet of early progressivism was eugenics, the politically correct, liberal orthodoxy of its time?
Just as in Roman times, chipping away the face of Nero or Commodus did not ensure a new emperor’s good behavior, so tearing down a statue of a Confederate soldier is not going to restore vitality to the inner city, whose tragedies are not due to inanimate bronze.
When Minnesota Black Lives Matter marchers chanted of police, “Pigs in a blanket, fry ’em like bacon,” was that a call for violence that was not long after realized by a spate of racist murders of policemen in Dallas? Are such advocates of torching police officers morally equipped to adjudicate which Confederate statue must come down?
And did President Obama swiftly condemn the forces that led the shooter to select his victims for execution? After Major Nidal Malik Hasan murdered 13 fellow soldiers in cold blood, screaming out “Allah Akbar” as he shot, did “both sides” Obama really have to warn America that “we don’t know all the answers yet, and I would caution against jumping to conclusions until we have all the facts”? And did it take him six years before he discovered the catalysts when finally calling the murders a terrorist attack? Did Obama have to dismiss the Islamist anti-Semitic terrorist slaughter of targeted Jews in a kosher market in Paris with the callous and flippant quip that the murderers had killed “a bunch of folks in a deli in Paris”? Were there demonstrations over that moral equivalence?
And was it inevitable that the anti-Semite, homophobe, and provocateur with past blood on his hands for inciting riot and arson, the Reverend Al Sharpton, would advocate yanking public sponsorship of the Jefferson memorial? He who is with sin now casts the first stone?
We are in an age of melodrama, not tragedy, in which we who are living in a leisured and affluent age (in part due to the accumulated learning and moral wisdom gained and handed down by former generations of the poor and less aware) pass judgement on prior ages because they lacked our own enlightened and sophisticated views of humanity — as if we lucky few were born fully ethically developed from the head of Zeus.
In my own town, there used to be a small classical fountain dedicated by the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. It was long ago torn down. (Who wishes to recall the forces that led to Prohibition?) In its place now sits an honorific statue to the clawed, half-human Aztec deity Coatlicue, the hungry earth-mother goddess. Coatlicue was quite a bloodthirsty creation, to whom thousands of living captives were sacrificed. The goddess was often portrayed wrapped in a cloak of skin and wearing a neckless of human hearts, hands, and skulls. Our town’s new epigraph atop Coatlicue is Viva la Raza — “Long live the Race.” Should there be demonstrations to yank down such a racialist and Franco-ist hurrah? Or are the supposed victims of white privilege themselves exempt from the very chauvinism that they sometimes allege in others? Is there a progressive rationale that exempts Coatlicue and its racist plaque, whose sloganeering channels the raza/razza mantras of Fascist Spain and Mussolini’s Italy? Are we to have a perpetual war of the statues?
The Arc of History More Often Bends Backward
There is a need for an abolition of memory in the case of Hitler or Stalin, or here in America perhaps even of a Nathan Bedford Forrest. But when we wipe away history at a whim (why in 2017 and not, say, in 2015 or 2008?), we’d better make sure that our targets are uniquely and melodramatically evil rather than tragically misguided. And before we get out our ropes and sandblasters, we should be certain that we are clearly the moral superiors of those we condemn to oblivion.
Be careful, 21st-century man. Far more hypercritical generations to come may find our own present moral certitude — late-term and genetically driven abortion, the rise of artificial intelligence in place of human decision-making, the harvesting and selling of aborted fetal organs, ethnic and tribal chauvinism, euthanasia, racially segregated dorms and “safe spaces” — as immoral as we find the sins of our own predecessors.
For the last decade, we were lectured that the arc of history always bends toward our own perceptions of moral justice. More likely, human advancement tends to be circular and should not to be confused with technological progress.
Just as often, history is ethically circular. No Roman province produced anyone quite like a modern Hitler; Attila’s body count could not match Stalin’s.
In the classical Athens of 420 B.C., a far greater percentage of the population could read than in Ottoman Athens of A.D. 1600. The average undergraduate of 1950 probably left college knowing a lot more than his 2017 counterpart does. The monopolies of Google, Facebook, and Amazon are far more insidious than that of Standard Oil, even if our masters of the universe seem more hip in their black turtlenecks than John D. Rockefeller did in his starched collars.
The strangest paradox in the current epidemic of abolitio memoriae is that our moral censors believe in ethical absolutism and claim enough superior virtue to apply it clumsily across the ages — without a clue that they fall short of their own moral pretensions, and that one day their own icons are as likely be stoned as the icons of others are now apt to be torn down by black-mask-wearing avengers.
A final paradox about killing the dead: Two millennia after Roman autocrats’ destruction of statues, and armed with the creepy 20th-century model of Fascists and Communists destroying the past, we, of a supposedly enlightened democracy, cannot even rewrite history by democratic means — local, state, and federal commission recommendations, referenda, or majority votes of elected representatives.
More often, as moral cowards, we either rely on the mob or some sort of executive order enforced only in the dead of night.
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