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The 21st century is in danger of becoming an era of statue smashing and historical erasure. Not since the iconoclasts of the Byzantine Empire or the epidemic of statue destruction during the French Revolution has the world seen anything like the current war on the past.

In 2001, the primeval Taliban blew up two ancient Buddha statues in Afghanistan on grounds that their very existence was sacrilegious to Islam.

In 2015, ISIS militants entered a museum in Mosul, Iraq, and destroyed ancient pre-Islamic statues and idols. Their mute crime? These artifacts predated the prophet Muhammad.

The West prides itself in the idea that liberal societies would never descend into such nihilism. Think again.

In the last two years there has been a rash of statue toppling throughout the American South, aimed at wiping out memorialization of Confederate heroes. The pretense is that the Civil War can only be regarded as tragic in terms of the present oppression of the descendants of Southern slaves, 154 years after the extinction of the Confederate states.

There is also a renewed crusade to erase the memory of Italian explorer Christopher Columbus. Los Angeles removed a Columbus statue in November based on the premise that his 1492 discovery of the Americas began a disastrous genocide in the Western Hemisphere.

Last month, the Northern California town of Arcata did away with a statue of former president William McKinley because he supposedly pushed policies detrimental to Native Americans.

There have been some unfortunate lessons from such vendettas against the images and names of the past.

1.Such attacks usually reveal a lack of confidence. The general insecurity of the present could supposedly be remedied by destroying mute statutes or the legacies of the dead, who could offer no rebuttal.

The subtext of most current name-changing and icon-toppling is that particular victimized groups blame their current plight on the past. They assume that by destroying long-dead supposed enemies, they will be liberated--or at least feel better in the present.

2.Opportunism, not logic, always seems to determine the targets of destruction.

This remains true today. If mass slaughter in the past offered a reason to obliterate remembrance of the guilty, then certainly sports teams should drop brand names such as Aztecs. Likewise, communities should topple statues honoring various Aztec gods, including the one in my hometown: Selma, Calif.

After all, the Aztec empire annually butchered thousands of innocent women and children captives on the altars of their hungry gods. The Aztecs were certainly far crueler conquerors, imperialists and colonialists than was former President McKinley. Yet apparently the Aztecs, as indigenous peoples, earn a pass on the systematic mass murder of their enslaved indigenous subjects.

Stanford University has changed the name of two buildings and a mall that had been named for Father Junipero Serra, the heroic 18th-century Spanish founder of the California missions. Serra was reputed to be unkind to the indigenous people whom he sought to convert to Christianity.

Stanford students and faculty could have found a much easier target in their war against the dead: the eponymous founder of their university, Leland Stanford. He was a 19th-century railroad robber baron who brutally imported and exploited Asian labor and was explicit in his low regard for non-white peoples.

Yet it is one thing to virtue-signal by renaming a building and quite another for progressive students to rebrand their university and thereby lose the prestigious Stanford trademark that is seen as their gateway to career advancement.

3.In the past there usually has been a cowardly element to historical erasure. Destruction was often done at night by vandals, or was sanctioned by extremist groups who bullied objectors.

So too in the present. Many Confederate statues were torn down or defaced at night.

4.Ignorance accompanies and explains the arrogance of historical erasure, past and present.

Recently, vandals in North Carolina set fire to a statue of General Lee. But they got the wrong Lee. Their target was not a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, but a statue of World War II Maj. Gen. William C. Lee, who campaigned for the creation of a U.S. Army airborne division and helped plan the invasion of Normandy.

The past is not a melodrama but more often a tragedy. Destroying history will not make you feel good about the present. Studying and learning from it might.


Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

Editorial on 03/14/2019

Print Headline: War against the dead


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  • mrcharles
    March 14, 2019 at 5:48 p.m.

    Wow, perhaps we should erect and honor statutes for nazis.

    A comment to the activities at night being called cowardly. I did not see a comment that this was useful to white night riders and the christian organization [ catholics not being christians were not allowed] called , the kkk , as a cowardly history we should honor.

    hoover ILKS expect perfection by their opponents but their crowd can do so and so, and call that perfection.

    Perhaps he wants to honor those who killed or lead people who killed soldiers of the USA, but perhaps he should just go kneel to them and make his own proficiations of hate.

    Why germany does not have their statutes of those hard fighting SS creatons, he must have that answer. Perhaps the concentration camps there can have history by erecting statutes to the prison guards. I mean they were good germans and just doing a job for their country , doesnt mean they supported the elite's and their ideas [ poor confederate soldier exonerated by he dont own slaves- but fought for the right for his betters to own slaves].

    It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but it is an abomination for in 2019 to have a man of education support and honor those "any men".

    He is of the type of patriot that gets upset to kneel at the old glory, but thinks it is ok to sing dixie with the flag of killer treasonous ilks. A regular white southern heritage type.

  • RBear
    March 14, 2019 at 6:29 p.m.

    This HAS to be the stupidest column by this "pay by the word" columnist. To start with, his comparison of the Taliban and ISIS destroying religious symbols and icons to the removal of Confederate statues is idiotic. If he actually believes there is a comparison, then what he's really saying is that he is supportive of the Confederacy (which I think he is since he calls them heroes).
    The removal of Confederate statues is closing the book on a mindset that the Confederacy was a noble and just cause which it wasn't. No one is erasing history. Students will still learn about the Civil War and hopefully not be taught some stupid ideas that the war was not about slavery. What we are doing is acknowledging that white Americans attempted to retain some allegiance to the Confederacy through Jim Crow era monuments.

  • Morebeer
    March 14, 2019 at 8:57 p.m.

    Most of the Confed staues were installed in the early 20th century to abet the oppression of blacks. A kind of “take that” statement.

  • Skeptic1
    March 15, 2019 at 8:31 a.m.

    Erasing history is what totalitarian regimes do and those that do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. The comments by the usual loons here make the author's points perfectly.