On toppling statues and reading the riot act
I find myself ambivalent on the subject of tearing down statues erected to honor famous persons. But then I am ambivalent on the subject of erecting statues as well. I am not referring to religious statuary in churches and shrines, but I am sufficiently cynical not only to fear but to expect that the most famous of men and women only rarely deserve to be singled out among all others in the civil order, and my own admittedly narrow preference would be to establish no statue to anyone until he or she is canonized by the Catholic Church. But take warning: Even the lives of the saints are only very rarely so free of blame that nothing can be said against them.
The truth is that I dislike civic ceremony, both the kind that erects monuments and the kind that tears them down. I prefer a noble restraint when it comes to eulogies, memorials and the deliberate orchestration of civic pride, which ought to come naturally or not at all. However, I think most people, with many good reasons on their side, would disagree. The main problem for all of us is that we must be careful what we wish for.
Indeed, it seems to be impossible to address this issue without recognizing how frequently the “great accomplishments” we wish to recognize in our own time will be judged to be evil at some future date. In addition to the problem of the victor and the spoils, it is only the myth of perpetual progress that expects moral judgment always to improve over time. All things considered, the myth of a progressive degeneration is just as likely.
Surely statues raised in more ideologically frenetic times to monsters like Hitler, Lenin, Stalin and Mao ought to be taken down and destroyed—or perhaps consigned to museums as a reminder of the depths to which the human person can sink. But because successive cultures tend to be blind about different things, it is not uncommon that even men and women considered extraordinarily good in their own time will be, as the culture shifts, considered, if not extraordinarily bad, then extraordinarily blind and uncaring. We have been living through this sort of shift in public consciousness in the United States for the past sixty years, a shift which affects at least three huge areas of human culture: attitudes toward race, attitudes toward sex, and attitudes toward religion. We no longer think it possible that anyone who truly deserved to be recognized in the past could have held the “unexamined culturally-prevalent attitudes of their time” on these issues.
What we do not realize is that the very same negative assessment will very likely be applied to our own culture’s unexamined attitudes within a few generations. Those who drive the opinions of a demographically-wintered world fifty or more years in the future may well wonder how any person who deserves to be called great or good could have accepted so unthinkingly today’s prevailing attitudes on marriage and family. It could easily be perceived at that future time that the whole lot of them must have been willfully evil. Their statues must come down!
For that matter, which of us whose traditional heroes and heroines are defaced or toppled now would consider it immoral, should our time come, to topple statues of the leaders of the pro-abortion movement? And what of their contemporaries who at length accepted the status quo and felt called primarily to work on other problems? Surely we too might ask and answer complex questions before we decide to tear down a previous generation’s statuary. But, given the overwhelming logic of the primary issue, I’m not sure I would bother.
It may be, to take the easiest current case, that no good Catholic should ever have allowed himself to be imbued with a strong sense of pride in the achievements of any champion of the cause of the American South in our Civil War, on the assumption that slavery was such a grave and obvious evil that the failure to address it aggressively must be a deal-breaker when it comes to public acclaim. It may also be that, against the legitimate grievances of our own time, mitigating factors present a hundred and sixty years ago—and subsequent disagreements about the best way to handle relationships between races—should simply no longer be considered as extenuating circumstances.
Whether or not this is so, the fate of public statuary, even sometimes after it has passed into the realm of art, is inescapably bound to the vicissitudes of time. Much can and should be said against any culture which has lost all sense of its own history and traditions. The drive to constantly reinvent history is an ideological sin of presumption which always ends in disaster. Nonetheless, one thing is certain: What remains on display is always what the dominant culture chooses to allow.
But surely concerted action to remove particular statues is one thing, public rioting is another, and delinquent opportunism is still a third. In the wake of the murder of George Floyd (one of a long series of murders of black men by police in a variety of American cities even within the last generation), we would expect (and as Catholics should welcome) a broad public reappraisal of who is being honored where and for what, when it comes to their attitudes toward Blacks and/or other minorities. Many communities and police departments just in the last decade have begun to examine the deeper question of who in the ranks has been unjustly protected against prosecution for such crimes. Clearly, this process is both important and far from complete.
With respect to concerted action, however, I will not say that every good Catholic must be directly involved in this reappraisal. I maintain again that people are variously and legitimately called to attend closely to some issues and not to others, and only God can count the number of important problems that should be addressed. Catholics face many issues which strike more directly at their own communities than do race relations. But it is difficult to reconcile the name “Catholic” with any opposition to such a reappraisal.
Public rioting is more difficult to handle. Social unrest breaks out at times in every society, and within limits may be considered normal, but Americans have a long civic tradition of discouraging rioting, which in turn can be traced largely to the English “reading of the Riot Act” to encourage crowds to disperse when they were becoming agitated. Riots bring out the worst in people, and tend very quickly toward an unprincipled opportunism among all present, but especially among those who are present without any morally acceptable motive. We must also remember that statue vandalism is not limited to riots; it is often perpetrated in more clandestine ways. Public rioting must be brought under control as quickly as possible, but I refuse to state that all direct action against statues is wrong. Indeed, not all that is illegal is morally wrong. As a general rule, though, the authorities should seek to protect the larger community against the destruction of both public and private property.
Full disclosure: I could willingly participate in a sensible and effective plan to topple a civic display memorializing abortion rights, or a statue of Margaret Sanger, in the firm belief that such an action (absent jeopardy to innocent onlookers) would be a form of civil disobedience which would in itself be completely moral. But I would also uphold the right of the public authorities to prevent me from doing this, or to arrest me for having done it. Here we also get into an interesting strategic question about the wisdom of knowing which way the wind is blowing before one acts, as part of the larger risk-reward calculation. On every side of this complex question, prudence ought to be ready and willing to participate!
Then there is sheer opportunism. I believe I can assert without argument that those who take advantage of public unrest and anger to destroy, burn and loot the property of the innocent prove themselves to be “in it for themselves”, rather than trying to effect responsible social change. Governments and police departments which refuse to do whatever they can to curtail and end this behavior are obviously derelict in their duty, but such dereliction is not uncommon historically whenever those in authority begin to doubt their own legitimacy.
Under the heading of opportunism, I include also the frequent targeting of Catholic statuary in recent weeks. In California, some of this can be attributed to a profoundly mistaken understanding of the work of St. Junípero Serra, a misunderstanding that is now part of the narrative embedded in our popular culture. Toppling and defacement of this saint’s statues are linked to more serious ideas about racial equality, and probably cannot be classified under the heading of mere opportunism. But the anti-Catholic spillover is obvious in the recent defacements of statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary in several American cities (e.g., Statues of Virgin Mary defaced in Boston, New York and Statue of Mary beheaded at Chattanooga parish and Virgin Mary statue vandalized in Gary: head, hands removed).
In one case, the word “idol” was spray-painted on the statue, which suggests a perverse Christian fundamentalism at work, though that could certainly be a deliberate misdirection of motive. Finally and even more sadly, in today’s news we learned of the decapitation of a statue of Jesus Christ in Miami, and of the defacing of a Catholic church in Connecticut with Satanic symbols.
In any case, I am unalterably opposed to anti-Catholic thoughts, words and actions, which have never been far from the surface in American history, even if there are many problems within the Church herself that draw my own displeasure. This cannot be classified as a form of civil disobedience or civic protest in relationship to the public order. In a moment of upheaval caused by manifestly unjust racial prejudice, this sort of vandalism is clearly opportunism: People who are playing a very different “game” take advantage of the confusion to get their own innings.
Some will accuse me of simply thinking out loud, which—allowing for the metaphorical application to print—is a fair description of all writing. But it seems to me that Catholics ought to be thinking seriously about all of these aspects of our current situation—including the pent-up frustrations caused by our public response to the Pandemic—rather than simply reacting according to secular “party lines”. It is a good time for all of us to examine realistically what we would consider permissible and impermissible if the police were well-known for the repeated shooting of Catholics, but not of secularists, over the past century; and if this grave evil were still not corrected; and if we had all the media either firmly on our side or at least walking on eggs.
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Posted by: garedawg -
Jul. 26, 2020 2:13 PM ET USA
I'm no fan of President Obama, who was the most pro-abortion president to date. But I would have no objection to a statue honoring him as the first black president of our country, which is no mean achievement, even if I didn't vote for him. Let's honor the achievements rather than canonize the honoree.
Posted by: MikeWetzel -
Jul. 21, 2020 11:50 AM ET USA
Thinking out loud is fine. It is what writers do, and it is why I and others read your out loud thinking. Your perspective about monuments is similar to another Catholic writer's view as related in the current issue of First Things. The view is compelling. I will mull it over. Normally, I respect monuments as cultural and historical markers of days gone by and so provide for us who come later a view of who are forbearers were and what they held close. They can be political propaganda, too.
Posted by: dover beachcomber -
Jul. 19, 2020 2:09 PM ET USA
Then from now on, when we are moved to put up statues, let us design them to commemorate a righteous deed, not to seem to focus praise on a person’s whole life. For example, to honor the work of Florence Nightingale, let her statue depict her giving water to a wounded soldier during the Crimean War; let her not be shown just standing there, inviting our uncritical admiration. Only Our Lord deserves praise for every word and act of his life.
Posted by: doughlousek7433 -
Jul. 18, 2020 1:04 PM ET USA
Please keep putting those thoughts into your writings! Often our thoughts can be influenced by the Holy Spirit and what we consider ramdom thoughts are actually messages from God! God Bless you!