Midway through Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, there occurs this exchange between two characters:
‘“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked.
“Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually, then suddenly.”’
The process of civilizational bankruptcy takes a similar course. Casual, seemingly isolated attacks on the fabric of civilization feel at first like so many harmless insect bites. A speaker is shouted down. A statue is vandalized or removed. A college course once deemed essential is rebaptized as offensive: first it is pilloried, then it is canceled. People start quoting Tocqueville’s warning that in a democracy, as large inequalities dissolve, small inequalities are magnified, growing both rancid and rancorous. Political posturing is everywhere. At first it seems effete and merely silly; then it grows muscles and claws. The posturing now comes with bricks, baseball bats and Molotov cocktails. Grievances blur and lose their specificity. Every slight becomes a pretext for boundless rage. The ‘system’ — ordered liberty and the rule of law — is rudely shoved into the dustbin of history. Civility itself — the social compact that makes society possible — is tossed aside as an impediment to justice.
Is this the precipice upon which we now are perched? HBO has pulled the movie Gone With the Wind because the classic Civil War story is a ‘product of its time and depicts some of the ethnic and racial prejudices that have, unfortunately, been commonplace in American society’. And while you get your mind around that nugget of politically correct virtue signaling, note that Cops, a TV show that depicts the police in a positive light, is being summarily canceled ‘amid nationwide antipolice protests after Mr Floyd’s killing’, according to the Wall Street Journal.
I don’t have to tell you who ‘Mr Floyd’ is. The drug-abusing career criminal who died in police custody at the end of May has been beatified in death. Thousands attended his funeral. Democratic politicians and grandstanding academics have competed with one another to eulogize him and bask in his reflected sanctity. Many more thousands took to the streets. They shouted ‘George Floyd’ as they looted Nike stores, smashed windows and incinerated cars and police stations. Mr Floyd was a pretext, not a cause. The cause was destruction of our civilization.
Item: on June 9, 1,000 people gathered at Byrd Park in Richmond, Virginia ‘to stand in solidarity with indigenous peoples’. One object of their wrath was an eight-foot statue of Christopher Columbus, which they toppled and dragged to a nearby lake. ‘Columbus represents genocide’, the protesters said. It seems they managed their rampage without the aid of Sarah Parcak, an Egyptologist at the University of Alabama, who had taken to Twitter the previous week to provide rioters with tips about how to topple obelisks.
Twitter may be policing conservative pundits but it is happy to provide a platform for Ms Parack or Madeline Odent, curator of Royston Museum in Hertfordshire, England, who sent round instructions about how to use household chemicals to cause damage to ‘marble memorials of racists’ that would be ‘irreversible’. In case you were wondering who the ‘racists’ in question might be, she helpfully provided a picture of Winston Churchill’s defaced plinth.
We have ignited a furnace that promises to consume us all. As I write, word has just come in that the president and board chair of the Poetry Foundation have been forced to step down because a public statement they published on June 3 expressing ‘solidarity with the Black community’ and declaring their dedication to ‘the strength and power of poetry to uplift in times of despair’ was deemed insufficiently craven. Nearly 2,000 poets wrote in to demand that the foundation, which controls assets of some $250 million, ‘dedicate more funding to antiracism efforts’. But why? Why should a foundation furthering the cause of poetry expend a nickel on the latest cause of social justice warriors? Why?
Of course, none of this is new. At Yale, angry students managed to get a residential college called after John C. Calhoun renamed. Calhoun was a Yale valedictorian, one of the greatest orators of his age, US senator, secretary of state and vice president. No matter; he was also an apologist for slavery, so it was the oubliette for Calhoun. It’s curious how selective the forgetting is. Calhoun must go, but how about all the other men (ugh!) for whom Yale residential colleges are named? Samuel F.B. Morse, for example. You might think of him as the inventor of Morse code and the telegraph but he was just as much an enthusiastic supporter of slavery as Calhoun. Why does Morse College at Yale still bear that hateful name?
And what about the name Yale itself? Elihu Yale was a Boston-born British merchant, deeply involved in the slave trade in India. Yes, Yale made a benefaction of about £800 in books and other goods to help start the college. But he was prevailed upon to do so by one Jeremiah Dummer. It is really he, not the racist and slave-trading Yale, who deserves the honor of having his name associated with a great university. So may we one day look forward to seeing Yale renamed Dummer University?
I hope so. In the meantime, I want to remind readers of a famous passage from Orwell’s 1984. ‘Do you realize,’ Winston says to his girlfriend, Julia, ‘that the past… has been actually abolished?… Every record has been destroyed… every book has been rewritten, every picture has been re- painted, every statue and street and building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And that process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped.’
I say ‘famous’, but perhaps I should have said ‘misunderstood’. Notwithstanding the behavior of our new iconoclasts and history haters, Orwell was not actually writing a how-to manual.