Monument Redux: What the Defacers and the Topplers are Really After

In yesterday’s blog, on the eve of the Fourth of July, I asked, “Why can’t we agree to leave Jefferson and Lincoln where they are? Why can’t we agree to stop talking about it and get on with celebrating the greatest country that ever existed? If you want to know the answer to these questions, ask yourself this one: what do people get out of relitigating history? They’re after something.” What are they after?

The President of the United States gave Americans a heads-up at his Independent Day celebration at the foot of Mount Rushmore yesterday. “Make no mistake,” Trump said: “this left-wing cultural revolution is designed to overthrow the American Revolution.” The president continued, “To make this possible, they are determined to tear down every statue, symbol, and memory of our national heritage.” He warned that, if successful, this movement “would destroy the very civilization that rescued billions from poverty, disease, violence, and hunger, and that lifted humanity to new heights of achievement, discovery, and progress.”

The Emancipation Memorial in Lincoln Park. Freed slaves raised money for the monument. There is a campaign to remove it and there have been efforts to deface and topple it.

It was crucial at this time, with the anarchy in our streets only the most visible manifestation of rapidly spreading anti-Americanism, that the President of the United States stood up for the republic and its history. He called out “cancel culture” by name and correctly assessed the problem: “our children are taught in school to hate their own country, and to believe that the men and women who built it were not heroes, but that were villains.” Trump told his audience, “The radical view of American history is a web of lies—all perspective is removed, every virtue is obscured, every motive is twisted, every fact is distorted, and every flaw is magnified until the history is purged and the record is disfigured beyond all recognition.”

The establishment—The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN—painted the president’s speech as divisive, as if he had created cancel culture, as if he invented Antifa.

The false narrative the president assails, a narrative predicated on race-thinking, obscures the nation’s profound record of progress. Despite having dismantled systemic racism in the form of de jure segregation more than half a century ago, despite having made discrimination based on race illegal with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, despite having embarked on an extensive program of reparations, the United States is said to be under the control of “a regime of white supremacy” (to quote a prominent “critical race theory” scholar). They want us to believe that talking about our record of achievement treats “the exercise of racial power as rare and aberrational rather than as systemic and ingrained.” But the exercise of racial power is not systemic or engrained. It is rare and aberration. Such obviously false statements reveal the goal that lies behind them: to make the exercise of racial power appear as systemic and ingrained and thus discredit the nation. The New Left sees racial power as a method to radically reconstruct society.

I have been explaining to people, and I want conservatives to understand this, that the issue with monuments is not to be confused with the Confederate flag or the racially-insensitive mascots of sports teams. States have been removing Confederate flags from their capitols. That’s what happens when a regime is overthrown. You don’t fly the Nazi flag over Germany after defeating Nazism. That’s obvious. You don’t fly the Confederate flag over America for the same reason. This is why I have been a life-long opponent of the Confederate flag flying on public property. Sports teams are removing racial-insenitive mascots. To be sure, it has taken too long. But it’s happening. Protests that push governments and corporations to change these things are to be appreciated for their existence and persistence. That’s what the First Amendment is all about.

Nobody’s liberty is compromised by lowering the flag of a defeated nation or changing a team name or mascot. If people want to fly the Confederate flag on their trucks or their homes, wear it on their clothes, or tattoo it on their bodies, or do the same with a swastika or an Indian head, that’s okay by those who love liberty—even if it offends them—because it is okay by our Constitution. These are expressions of personal freedom. If people want to keep lawn jockeys, they should be allowed to display them. Same with nativity scenes. Government doesn’t get to decide these things for us. If displays offend people, then look away. I’m offended by Black Lives Matter flags. BLM is a racially divisive project. Others are offended by the thin blue line flag. Being offended by a display or a flag is no reason to demand the government to force others to take them down. However, if they fly that flag over a state house or display the nativity on public grounds, then there’s a problem.

Free speech is part of the legacy we celebrate with monuments and statues to the founders and defenders of our way of life. People ask why we can see swastikas in America but not in Germany. Is it because we have Nazis here and there are none in Germany? No. There are Nazis in both countries (albeit not very many). The reason for the difference is that Germany practices aggressive government thought control. The United States is constitutionally limited in how much thought control the government can impose. That’s because the sovereign people demanded liberty from excessive government control. Thankfully we had men like James Madison and his ilk to write that into our Constitution. Germany’s ban on Nazis symbols and flags exposes real shortcomings in Germany’s grasp of free speech and civil liberties. Many European countries have a very poor grasp of civil liberties. We don’t want to be like them. We are fortunate to have our First Amendment. Robust freedom of speech is part of what makes the United States republic a role model for the rest of the world. Whatever Madison did that we would judge wrong, that is not why we erect a statue to his memory. We erect a statue to Madison’s memory because of what he did right.

The New Left wants to tear down this freedom with cancel culture. The president told his audience last night about a political movement demanding allegiance to its ideology being promoted in “our schools, our newsrooms, even our corporate boardrooms.” He called out the political weapon of “cancel culture”: “driving people from their jobs, shaming dissenters, and demanding total submission from anyone who disagrees.” He told his audience that cancel culture is “alien to our culture and our values, and it has absolutely no place in the United States of America.” He’s right. It is the culture of freedom that is under assault. “If you do not speak its language, perform its rituals, recite its mantras, and follow its commandments,” the president continued, “then you will be censored, banished, blacklisted, persecuted, and punished.” He promised: “It’s not going to happen to us.” But the regime of unfreedom is already controlling the sovereign people. It is happening to us.

Why the attack on monuments to our founders and to those who kept the union together and moving forward? I hope it’s becoming clear to you. It’s not really about removing an offensive symbols. The New Left is not reluctant to be offensive. The real goal is to delegitimize the ideals of the republic while looting other people’s property—and using race as a lever. The goal to delegitimize the idea that individuals are responsible for their actions and replace it with a bogus theory that seeks to make all white people racist and guilty of past deeds. In other words, to hold whites as a group responsible for the failures of individuals.

According to the American ethos, my boys are not born in debt to or have to apologize for the wrongful acts of other people. Neither of them would expect anybody to do that for them. They will stand on their own two feet. They will take responsibility for their actions and suffer on account of their own failures. Anything they expect from the government they expect will be available for everybody else. I have yet to read an argument that does not appeal to supernatural logic that could reasonable justify holding children responsible for slavery or Jim Crow of the genocide of the American Indian. We live in a secular nation where such superstitious thought is not supposed to move law and policy. That’s also in our First Amendment.

There is a meme circulating on social media with a picture of a little Japanese girl with a demand that she apologize for Pearl Harbor. It doesn’t take long to get past the initial shock of the image to see its implications. To suppose that this little girl owes Americans an apology or anything else for what the Japanese did to America seventy years ago is absurd. I think everybody will agree with that. Of course, the meme is pointing out that that there are a lot of people walking around who think a white baby is born indebted to black people for slavery and Jim Crow.

WWII took fathers from sons and sons from fathers. The damage Germany inflicted on the world continues to be felt today. No child born in Germany today owes any American anything for what his ancestors did. Germans don’t need to seek absolution from Americans for anything. They don’t need to remove any monuments or censor any words on America’s account. We must reject blood guilt. To be sure, we should learn from history. But we should not use history to extort money from people or to humiliate those who didn’t make it.

That people must reach into the past for justice tells us there’s not a lot of injustice in the present—at least not the injustice they claim they seek.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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