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The Statue-Smashers Won’t Stop There — Unless We Stop Them Now

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The Statue-Smashers Won’t Stop There — Unless We Stop Them Now

New York Post June 15, 2020
OtherCulture & Society

Columbus sailed the ocean blue — and then got beheaded in Boston’s North End. Local governments should arrest and prosecute “protesters” who are attacking statues all across the West. Otherwise, they’re setting a precedent for the wanton destruction of art.

From Boston to Bristol, England, latter-day vandals are decapitating, spray-painting, smashing and throwing into the sea statues of fallen idols. In the South, Confederate leaders are a target; in Britain, anyone to do with the slave trade. But Columbus is the commonest trophy, largely due to his likeness’ ubiquity in town squares. The most famous, in Columbus Circle (or just plain Circle?), now has a heavy round-the-clock police guard.

To be clear: We should continue to reconsider who gets pride of place in public spaces. When I lived in New Orleans 25 years ago, I thought it was strange to ride down highways named after Jeff Davis.

All the monuments, though, had a double meaning: They were a reminder that the legacy of slavery still oppressed the country. Sure, rename the highway, but don’t erase history. Confederate statues belong in museums, with explanation, not destroyed and graffitied.

As for Columbus: Gov. Andrew Cuomo is right. Columbus was an imperfect man, to say the least. Anyone who went to elementary school in the past 40 years has heard the enlightened view. This isn’t new. But as the governor said last week, Columbus statues are as much a symbol of 20th-century Italian-American heritage as they are of Columbus.

o say the least. Anyone who went to elementary school in the past 40 years has heard the enlightened view. This isn’t new. But as the governor said last week, Columbus statues are as much a symbol of 20th-century Italian-American heritage as they are of Columbus.

Though, in hindsight, we’d all like to rewrite elements of the last, say, 20,000 years of human development, we are where we are. We are all products and shapers of harsh history.

Destruction of art is a common theme. In the late 18th century, the Jacobins took hammers to the kingly statues that adorned Notre Dame; today, the original heads, buried by sympathizers with posterity, are in a museum. The pharaohs encouraged the defacement of monuments to their predecessors (which is why many Egyptian artifacts are literally defaced).

Moving ahead a few years, the Taliban, 20 years ago, blew up the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan, which had stood for more than 1,000 years. ISIS destroyed Syrian edifices and artworks that had outlasted millennia. Al Qaeda attacked our architecture and what it stood for (inaccurately, since the World Trade Center was a symbol of central planning, not capital).

You would think our pluralistic society would be more sophisticated. Nope: In the past decade, Yale has removed stained-glass windows depicting slavery, after an employee smashed one. Better to forget slavery?

In San Francisco, the school board last year voted to cover up murals showing slavery and colonialism, even though the Depression-era artist, Victor Arnautoff, wanted to remind people of the brutality of these eras, not glorify them.

Movies? You can’t watch “Gone With the Wind.” Nobody should watch this movie and think, “Gee, those were the days.” But a properly educated audience can understand that the movie shows the stark horror of failure, because the cause was wrong, and doomed.

We probably ought not watch “It’s a Wonderful Life,” as it glosses over black servitude, and so we should just miss its lessons about capitalism. J.K. Rowling has “incorrect” thoughts about the trans movement — so kids shouldn’t read “Harry Potter.”

Where will we draw the line? Over two weeks, we’ve raised — or lowered — the bar for protest. With so many supposedly reasonable people saying that it’s OK to loot Soho to get your message out, peaceable marchers risk looking like they just don’t care enough about their causes. If they really cared about the environment, they’d burn stuff, too.

Will we see “protesters” march through a reopened Met, slapping red paint on Renaissance canvases that aren’t diverse, or that illustrate rape? We have seen this before; in 1914, a suffragette slashed a painting of Thomas Carlyle in the National Portrait Gallery in London.

If something doesn’t speak to you, find something — or make something — that does. Work through the political process, to get something replaced or put into context.

In a functional society, no one feels threatened by a statue — and prosecutors must make clear: You can’t conduct art criticism with axes. Vandals aren’t protesters ­exercising speech, and should pay for damage.

This piece originally appeared at the New York Post

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Nicole Gelinas is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and contributing editor at City Journal. Follow her on Twitter here.

Photo by naphtalina/iStock

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