Commentary on Political Economy

Friday, 10 July 2020

Why is the party with a strong chance of winning playing a reckless game with U.S. history?
By Matt Bai

July 09 at 8:29 am AEST
I watched with a kind of horrified fascination last weekend as Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) pointedly refused — twice — to answer a direct question from CNN’s Dana Bash about whether statues of George Washington around the country should be torn down and replaced.

The interview certainly did not leave me with the impression — as it did the unhinged Tucker Carlson on Fox News — that Duckworth, who sacrificed both legs in service to her country, was someone who hated America.

It did leave me wondering why a party with a strong chance of winning back the White House in November would want to play such a reckless game when it comes to the nation’s history.

This is not something my progressive friends want to hear right now. (I hesitate to use that word — “progressive” — since the father of progressivism, Theodore Roosevelt, is among those whose statues are under assault.)

They tell me that it’s past time to reassess all of these bronzed white men, and that there’s bound to be some excesses in the process, and that all of this is trivial when compared with how the country is suffering right now.

Well, all right. But if you want that suffering to continue, go ahead and wage war on the Founding Fathers. See where that gets you.

I’ve been thinking lately about the Taliban. (No, I’m not comparing liberals to Afghanistan’s radical mullahs. Stay with me here.) For about five years, beginning in the mid-1990s, the Taliban went around terrorizing women and lopping off limbs and basically behaving like the Khmer Rouge. In the West, most people yawned.

Then, in 2001, the Taliban decided to blow up the 1,500-year-old giant Buddha statues in the Bamian Valley, declaring them blasphemous idols. The world responded with revulsion and outrage, a kind of global gag reflex. Suddenly the horror of the Taliban was front-page news everywhere.

Why? Because, like it or not, the destruction of cultural artifacts often has a resonance that human tragedy, with its faceless statistics, does not. These historical symbols connect us to the flow of human history; erasing that history leaves us diminished and unmoored from any larger purpose.

In the United States, we don’t raise up statues as shrines to be worshiped, or as instruments of oppression. We tend to erect them as markers of our progress, reminders that even flawed men and women can leave the nation less flawed than they found it. Memorials are sedimentary layers of the American bedrock, there to be excavated and reexamined by every succeeding generation.

Joe Biden gets this. His incisive comments on statues during a Q&A with reporters last week were a pretty good reminder of why Biden fits the moment.

The presumptive Democratic nominee drew a wise distinction between statues of Confederate heroes who tried to destroy the Union, which should be removed from public plazas, and those of imperfect Americans who tried mightily to improve it.

But the cultural left has a more declarative recasting of our history in mind, one that leaves no room for nuance. There’s lately been a movement, for instance, to tear down the Emancipation Memorial in Washington, which depicts Abraham Lincoln and a kneeling freed slave. At its unveiling ceremony in 1876, Frederick Douglass delivered one of the greatest and most nuanced speeches in American history.

If activists can’t acknowledge the intellectual perversion in going after statues of American statesmen, then they should at least consider the breathtaking political negligence.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, President Trump now has only one narrow (and ugly) path to reelection. His play is to try to persuade white, non-urban Americans that he’s the only thing standing between them and a liberal establishment that would punish them just for being white. He wants to conjure an alternate reality where the leftist Taliban is coming to blow up all the cultural symbols of the republic.

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Carlson offered a preview of that strategy in his diatribe this week, when he vowed to “preserve our nation and our heritage and our culture” from leftists who think America is “horrible.” The preview was good enough that Trump himself promptly tweeted a link.

If you’re the Democrats, why on earth would you go out of your way to make this cultural indictment seem even halfway plausible? Why wouldn’t an otherwise inspiring leader like Duckworth simply say, “No, I don’t believe we need to dishonor Washington or Jefferson or any other American president in order to more fully realize their vision for the country”?

If Duckworth can’t summon the conviction even to echo Biden’s position on this, then she probably doesn’t deserve to be on the ticket, and wouldn’t do it much good in any event. The same goes for any other potential running mate.

Indiscriminately attacking the nation’s memorials is chilling. Letting Trump have a debate about it is just plain dumb.

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