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Why is that statue holding a tennis racket, daddy?
The end game of iconoclasm
What will the world look like when all the physical reminders of objectionable parts of our past have been removed? And what will the iconoclasts have accomplished?
One part of the answer is clear enough. History itself will not have changed. The past is the past, and nothing we can do in the present can change it.
A second part of the answer seems almost as certain. People will know less about history, and think less about history, than when the statues and other memorials were in public view. Often when a statue is removed, the removal is accompanied by a profession of intent to put the statue in a museum. In many cases, perhaps most, this never happens. But even when it does, the transfer reduces the number of people who see the statue by a hundred- or thousand-fold.
Conceivably the void could be filled by new statues and memorials. But the stingy budgets for public art in most communities guarantee that this won't happen either.
Even where it does, the new statues lose much of the force they would have had in the presence of the old ones. Arthur Ashe was a fine tennis player, but from his now-lonely perch on Monument Avenue in Richmond, it is impossible to appreciate his true significance—as a breaker of racial barriers—without reading the fine print. And that fine print, in the description on the plaque, doesn't make the case for Ashe’s importance anywhere near as powerfully as his figure alone did when his statue confronted those of the proud Confederate leaders.
Statues of Martin Luther King adorn most cities in this country, not least in the South. But King now faces a similar problem. Without comparable evidence of the segregationist regime he helped overthrow, his achievement is dramatically diminished.
For some of the iconoclasts, there might be no end game at all. Certain radicals used to speak of perpetual revolution, and perhaps some still do. It's easier to be in opposition than in power, because with power comes responsibility. The radicals might see themselves as forever on the outside.
The rest of us, though, will have to deal with the historical vacuum they leave behind. We’ll have no obvious way of knowing whether we're making progress or not. This is an especially serious problem in a democracy, where ordinary people are ultimately responsible for the direction of public policy. Are Americans better off than they were a century or half-century ago? On issues of race? Of standards of living? Of anything else?
Unless we can answer these questions, we won't know whether to continue the policies that got us from the past to the present, or to throw those policies over for new ones. We’ll be at the mercy of demagogues who will have their own agendas, often at variance with those of the American people as a whole.
We had a taste of this in the four years of Donald Trump's presidency. It is probably fair to say that most of those eager to remove images of the past would not like to see four more years of Trump. But despite the iconoclasts’ good intentions, they appear to be playing into his hands. It would be dismayingly ironic if the iconoclasts’ efforts to remedy the past contribute to the ruin of the future.
Unfortunately, history is replete with irony, much of it dismaying.