If you find this creepy, but don’t want to say that out loud, just know that you are not alone

Tuesday, July 14th, 2020

Andrew Sullivan looks at what happens when radicalism wins and then tries to destroy the legacy of the past as a whole:

One of the things you know if you were brought up as a Catholic in a Protestant country, as I was, is how the attempted extirpation of England’s historic Catholic faith was enforced not just by executions, imprisonments, and public burnings but also by the destruction of monuments, statues, artifacts, paintings, buildings, and sacred sculptures. The shift in consciousness that the religious revolution required could not be sustained by words or terror alone. The new regime — an early pre-totalitarian revolution imposed from the top down — had to remove all signs of what had come before. The items were not merely forms of idolatry in the minds of the newly austere Protestant vision; they also served to perpetuate the rule of the pope. They could be occasions for treason, heresy, and sin.

The impulse for wiping the slate clean is universal. Injustices mount; moderation seems inappropriate; radicalism wins and then tries to destroy the legacy of the past as a whole. The Taliban’s notorious destruction of the great Buddhas of Bamian in Afghanistan was a similar attempt to establish unquestioned Islamic rule. “Muslims should be proud of smashing idols. It has given praise to Allah that we have destroyed them,” Mullah Mohammed Omar explained. This was the spirit of Paris in 1789 as well. “If we love truth more than the fine arts,” the Enlightenment figure Denis Diderot remarked, “let us pray to God for some iconoclasts.” (He was also the lovely chap who insisted that “humankind will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.” And in the French Revolution, of course, he almost got his way.) The Romans, for their part, eventually decided that the only way to govern Jews was to physically destroy their Temple in Jerusalem.

Iconoclasm is not just vandalism and violence. It is a very specific variety that usually signifies profound regime change. That’s why the toppling of old Soviet monoliths in the 1989 liberation of Eastern Europe was so salient. They were important symbols of that sclerotic Soviet empire’s power. And for true revolutionary potential, it’s helpful if these monuments are torn down by popular uprisings. That adds to the symbolism of a new era, even if it also adds to the chaos. That was the case in Mao’s Cultural Revolution, when the younger generation, egged on by the regime, went to work on any public symbols or statues they deemed problematically counterrevolutionary, creating a reign of terror that even surpassed France’s.

And Mao’s model is instructive in another way. It shows you what happens when a mob is actually quietly supported by elites, who use it to advance their own goals. The Red Guards did what they did — to their friends, and parents, and teachers — in the spirit of the Communist regime itself. They murdered and tortured, and subjected opponents to public humiliations — accompanied by the gleeful ransacking of religious and cultural sites. In their attack on the Temple of Confucius, almost 7,000 priceless artifacts were destroyed. By the end of the revolution, almost two-thirds of Beijing’s historical sites had been destroyed in a frenzy of destruction against “the four olds: old customs, old habits, old culture, and old ideas.” Mao first blessed, then reined in these vandals.

Similarly, in late-19th-century Russia, much of the intellectual elite also found themselves incapable of drawing a line when it came to revolutionary behavior — and so they tolerated violence that eventually swept everything away in terror. Even though they were the elite, the intelligentsia regarded the wealthy as the real rulers and salivated at the prospect of dethroning them. As the Russian-history professor Gary Saul Morson told The Wall Street Journal: “The idea was that since they knew the theory, they were morally superior and they should be in charge, and that there was something fundamentally wrong with the world when ‘practical’ people were.” Welcome to the New York Times newsroom in 2020.

Revolutionary moments also require public confessions of iniquity by those complicit in oppression. These now seem to come almost daily. I’m still marveling this week at the apology the actress Jenny Slate gave for voicing a biracial cartoon character. It’s a classic confession of counterrevolutionary error: “I acknowledge how my original reasoning was flawed and that it existed as an example of white privilege and unjust allowances made within a system of societal white supremacy … Ending my portrayal of ‘Missy’ is one step in a life-long process of uncovering the racism in my actions.” For Slate to survive in her career, she had to go full Cersei in her walk of shame. If you find this creepy, but don’t want to say that out loud, just know that you are not alone.


  1. RLVC says:

    Catholicism is an “historic faith” younger than Protestantism.

    Few will understand this.

  2. Alistair says:

    “Dagor Dagorath”

    One by One, all folk of good-will are gathered to the banner of a Liberal Reaction. The shape of the host can now be discerned; Quillette, IDW, Heterodox Academy, the Free Speech union, Parler, and all outposts of satire from South Park to Babylon. Haidt, Tupy, Musk, Pinker, Peterson, Cowen, Sullivan, Sargon. All will come.

    In the end, they will fight alongside the tired remnants of traditional conservatism and the fierce spears of the alt-right. Uneasy allies, but necessary ones. They must stand together or fall alone.

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