Iconoclasm and the Erasing of History

At 1:32am on the morning of 8 March 1966, a loud explosion was heard in the center of Dublin. When dawn came, visitors to O’Connell Street were greeted by the sight of a pile of rubble and the sheered column base of Nelson’s Pillar. Completed in 1809 in British-administered Ireland, the monument had honored the late Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson, who had defeated Napoleon’s navy at the Battle of Trafalgar. The statue, on its Doric column, reached 134ft (40m) into the sky—almost the same height as Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square. Although Irish sailors and soldiers had died in the Napoleonic wars in the British armed forces, the statue of a British military hero in the Independent Republic of Ireland still grated with Irish Nationalists, even 150 years after the erection of the monument. A recent account reads:

Within a week, the remains of the structure will be removed by the Army in a further, “controlled” explosion which does far more damage than the original bomb did to shop windows and fittings along the street. The destruction of Dublin’s most famous landmark has been carried out by members of a makeshift gang of socialist republicans, supposedly using gelignite stolen from a building company along with ammonal left over from the [Irish Republican Army’s] 1950s Border campaign.

While many Dubliners were glad to see the symbol gone, others felt the loss impoverished the city. The statue was not restored.

The action was symbolic. While many were unconcerned (or even pleased) about the removal of another link to British rule, there was a motivation that was more bitter than high spirited. It was a manifestation of the cultivated sectarian enmity—founded on historic disputes—which would lead to the violence of the Troubles, as the Northern Ireland conflict between Protestants and Catholics came to be called. That violence lasted three decades and cost over 3,500 lives. There are different potential dates for the start of the Troubles. One is 1966, with the founding of the Ulster Volunteer Force in Northern Ireland, the year of the destruction of Nelson’s Pillar.

Overwriting History

Iconoclasm is an activity evenly distributed between both left and right of the political spectrum, mainly at the extreme ends. It is not activity one could describe as conservative, for the conservative is by nature cautious about destruction, especially of old objects. Sometimes, conservatives have proposed the removal of new art or symbols that offend their values, but the conservative fights shy of retrospectively altering history for she considers history to be a source of potential wisdom. The religious or political revolutionary is the person most inclined towards iconoclasm. (The aggressive idealist, motivated by anger, is drawn towards extreme ideology that enables violent expression.) The destruction of nationalist icons suits both the anti-nationalist/internationalist left and—should the symbols be those of an opposing nationality—the nationalist right.

The intolerant ideology, which refuses to accept the co-existence of alternative views, takes the stance that contradictory ideals are embodied in the art of past ages and therefore that art is no longer acceptable. The ideals within the art are no longer utterable or supportable: they are actually injurious and dangerous to the vulnerable. They strike at the very personhood of marginalized people today. The ideals expressed by the art are so offensive to decent society that the art must be removed without delay.

Activists have called for the removal of statues in South Africa, the Ukraine, the Baltic states, the US, the UK and many other countries. The reasons are different in each case, but the motivations often converge. In South Africa and the UK, the targets are statues associated with nineteenth-century African colonialism; in the US, they are Confederate war memorials; in the Ukraine and the Baltic states, Marxist and Soviet monuments, erected while those nations were part of the USSR. In many of these cases, direct action has led to the removal of monuments with or without official sanction.

Behind any campaign is the campaigner: the activist convinced of his own righteousness.

The political activist reserves to himself the right to retrospectively edit our history for his satisfaction by removing monuments, those fixtures of civic life, embedded in the memories of generations. The activist often knows almost nothing about the object of his hatred—merely a garbled caricature of a person caught up in the conditions of her age—but the activist acts as if he were not also caught up in the conditions of his own age.

Iconoclasm is an expression of domination and a demonstration of willingness to act—illegally and unethically—to impose the will of one group over an entire population. It asserts control over all aspects of society. It sets a challenge that will elicit a strong reaction. Iconoclasm is a warning that the protection of law and social conventions no longer applies and that the cause will be promoted through physical force if necessary.

The campaigner argues that public art, accumulated piecemeal over 1,000 years of history, must reflect our society and values todayeven if that means altering or erasing stories of the values our past society expressed via its monuments, or suppressing evidence of how we arrived at our current situation. The left-wing activist wants to celebrate current-day multiculturalism, but mostly he wants to erase evidence of the historic monoculturalism that preceded it.

Our willingness to live with historical relics we feel ambivalence towards is a demonstration of our toleration of dissent. Likewise, an openness to imagining ourselves in past times—constrained by the conventions and laws of a different era—forces us to question common assumptions about the completeness of our knowledge and our moral certainty. If we can make this leap of empathy, we can free ourselves of ideological possession. We have the ability to empathize with both slave and slave owner. Empathy makes it harder to justify destruction of the cultural relics of an older age or silence the voices of individuals, who might share insights into life.

The toleration we extend towards symbols of former regimes and proponents of ideas with which we disagree shows our willingness to be honest about our nations’ pasts. To accept our flaws as a necessary part of our development is to display the maturity, restraint and empathy that define the confident yet self-critical nation. For if we cannot stand the sight of a dead political opponent carved in stone, how can we restrain ourselves in the face of a living political opponent who speaks against us?

What art we have now was not produced in only the last few years. It encompasses the development (or deterioration) of our culture, with all the nuance, complexity and contradiction that entails. The iconoclast believes that it is only the values of today that count—that it is only her values that count. She takes it upon herself to correct history through monstrous acts of egotism. That correction, when it involves destruction, permanently alters the cultural legacy. It shrinks the breadth of human experience available to the generations which follow ours. In the case of the destruction of Nelson’s Pillar, one prominent Irish Nationalist declared that it was wrong to erase colonialist history:

“It represents the feeling of Protestant Ireland for a man who helped break the power of Napoleon,” William Butler Yeats, who didn’t like it very much, said in 1923. “The life and work of the people who erected it is a part of our tradition. I think we should accept the whole past of this nation, and not pick and choose.”

The Cultural Revolution

Chairman of the People’s Republic of China since 1954 and de facto leader of the nation Mao Zedong was worried about his position in the mid-1960s. Concerned that he might be being sidelined by senior colleagues in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Mao decided to assert his authority by bypassing comrades and appealing directly to youthful party members. On 8 August 1966, the Central Committee of the CCP under Mao’s chairmanship adopted a statement, which reads, in part:

Although the bourgeoisie has been overthrown, it is still trying to use the old ideas, culture, customs and habits of the exploiting classes to corrupt the masses, capture their minds and endeavor to stage a come-back. The proletariat must … change the mental outlook of the whole of society. At present, our objective is to struggle against and overthrow those persons in authority who are taking the capitalist road, to criticize and repudiate the reactionary bourgeois academic “authorities” and the ideology of the bourgeoisie and all other exploiting classes and to transform education, literature and art and all other parts of the superstructure not in correspondence with the Socialist economic base, so as to facilitate the consolidation and development of the Socialist system.

Mao denounced the four olds that were impeding China’s progress: the old ideas, old culture, old customs and old habits of the exploiting classes. It was a move to extend the revolution from economic and political power bases to all aspects of culture, including the long and rich history of the nation. Only a nation freed from its history could achieve the Communist end state. The informal paramilitary militia of adolescents prepared to engage in cultural revolution became known as the Red Guard.

The governments of provinces announced that cultural heritage no longer enjoyed official protection. The idealistic youth of China—primed by the victim narrative of socialism, educated by institutions controlled by the CCP, devoted to Chairman Mao, enabled by his fiat, and inspired by the revolutionary fervor of their comrades—unleashed perhaps the most destructive campaign of iconoclasm ever. Buddhist and Confucian temples were razed, scrolls and books burned, statues smashed, paintings destroyed. The noble dead were dug from the earth, publicly hacked to pieces and the fragments burned. All feudal names were changed. Yongyi Song writes, “By the end of the Cultural Revolution, 4,922 of the 6,843 officially designated ‘places of cultural or historical interest’ in Beijing had been destroyed.” At Qufu Temple the grave and temple of Confucius was desecrated and 6,618 registered cultural artifacts (including paintings, books, stone stele and 2,000 graves) liquidated.

Millions of class enemies had their property confiscated or destroyed. It became a free-for-all as party officials stole property for personal gain. Tens of thousands of people were made homeless and deported to the countryside to labor in the fields. If they were lucky. If they were unlucky, they were tortured, murdered or driven to suicide. Whole families, including young children, were buried alive or dropped into wells. The Chairman and Ministry of Public Security declared that the police and People’s Liberation Army would not interfere in mob violence and would not enter schools or universities that were by then engaged in campaigns of terror. In just over two weeks, more than 100 teachers and administrators were murdered by their own students.

Afraid of being denounced themselves, the members of the Red Guard were driven to ever greater degrees of violence and zealotry in order to prove their dedication. They became detached from their families as they became more devoted to Mao. They dressed in unisex clothing and lived communally. They learned CCP slogans and the Chairman’s sayings by rote and acted in ritual worship of Mao, using cultic terminology. Eventually, Mao reined in the Red Guard and violence was used to suppress the Cultural Revolution. Yet, for years afterwards, the official purges (cleansing of the class ranks) continued brutally, leading to the persecution of up to 36 million people. The persecutions ranged from demotion, firing, imprisonment and confiscation of property to exile, torture and murder—even cannibalism.

Conservative estimates put the total death toll of the Cultural Revolution at between 400,000 and 1.5 million: high estimates range from 5 to 10 million.

A Warning from History

The participants in lynch mobs and execution squads, such as those of the Cultural Revolution, were not psychopaths, as plentiful testimony proves. They—like their counterparts in other instances of mass violence—were ordinary people, who had been enabled to act in extreme ways. They were placed in situations that activated the reserves of savagery that every person has—that biological program that makes a parent murderously protective of a child or a mild-mannered individual willing to trample fallen people to escape a fire. These ordinary people are conditioned with a sustained narrative of victimhood and of standing up for compassion and humanity; they are bound into a group and then set upon another group classed as dangerous, criminal or hateful and tasked with enacting justice. In today’s mobs that assault monuments, we see people—educated in the victim narrative by politicians, schools and mass media—directed to correct history and prevent emotional injury to current and future generations through urgent and necessary action against effigies.

The scale of destruction and death in the Cultural Revolution was exceptional. However, note the language of its actors. It is the language used by revolutionary activists today when they talk about institutions and traditions. When they criticize systematic oppression, societal racism and the exploitation of the marginalized, they describe relics of past cultures as malevolent, transmitting hateful historical attitudes in ways that cause suffering. They are sometimes reduced to tears or inarticulate fury, so great is the injustice they wish to condemn. Many feel a fervent impatience to be rid of history wholesale, so that humanity can be completely reshaped. Any defense of conservation—even as an object lesson in discredited attitudes—is seen as shameless support for oppressive beliefs.

Once historical symbols have been erased, new targets are needed. Who better than the legatees of that erased culture? Inheritors of unearned privilege and property are parasites of oppressive systems. If these people are both the founders and beneficiaries of an oppressive system, why should they not be deprived of their rights, property and—ultimately—their lives? If this seems extreme, consider the course of the Russian and French revolutions, as well as the butchery of Rwanda and the Cambodian Killing Fields. In all cases, sustained periods of discontent, stoked by political fanatics, concluded with campaigns of vengeance and violence against both property and persons. Iconoclasm is an immediate precursor to suppression, persecution, expulsion and the massacring of people. Iconoclasm does not cause these acts and iconoclasm does not always lead to these acts, but those acts are always accompanied by iconoclasm.

Early stages of revolution are always linked to iconoclasm: the renaming of cities and streets, the destruction of monuments, the torching of palaces and the burning of books. The inequities of the past cannot be changed, but revenge can be wreaked upon its symbols. The destruction of symbols tests the acceptance of violence by legal authorities and the wider public. It is a preliminary stage to more extreme acts. Iconoclasm precedes criminalization, confiscation, imprisonment, exile and genocide. Iconoclasm is part of a nexus of the activity of one group seeking to exert control over another group. If iconoclasm is met by strong unequivocal sanctions and widespread condemnation, it can be curbed; if it is not, the push to take more extreme measures will expand outwards.

Look at mobs which gather to smash monuments. These monuments may be the statues of deposed dictators who terrorized populations, causing untold death and suffering. They may be monuments to fallen soldiers who died defending causes that are no longer fashionable. The mob’s anger is the same. The viciousness and triumphant celebrations are the same. Only the causes differ in seriousness, topicality and justification. In today’s US, students view the toppling Civil War memorials as a way of fighting evil personified—when, in fact, their actions are more akin to those of the furious teenagers of the Cultural Revolution, who smashed delicate vases. The Civil War statue destroyers think they are assaulting the posterity of slave owners, but they themselves are in the grip of ideological fervor. They are unaware that they are running a biological code, hardwired in their brains by evolution and activated by political extremists. The activists of today heedlessly erase history they haven’t yet learned to read. They act as the hammer that extremists use to deface the cathedrals and museums our ancestors built.

Could this hammer soon be turned from smashing statues to killing people? It has happened before.

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  1. I am intrigued by the point with regard to civil war monuments in the United States; such icons including the confederate flag and statues to leading figures in the south who supported slavery are still scattered throughout the United States and I note the objections to these icons and myriad requests fro removal of the same. I support such requests as they are symbolic of and give power to the continued oppression of those suffering under systemic racism and discrimination. I would be interested to see how this squares with the conclusion of this piece, as I infer a disapproval of removal of such iconography from the author but am unsure if this is the conclusion I am meant to infer. If this is the implied conclusion, how does the writer believe his own identity may have influenced this conclusion?

    1. @tinapj

      “how does the writer believe his own identity may have influenced this conclusion?”

      You appear to be a white woman. How does your identity influence yours?

      1. I am aware of how my identity influences and may blind me; privilege is imbued in my being a white woman, along with my privileged in education and in where I live. Your question doesn’t answer mine, and I would assume you are not the writer so it wasn’t actually addressed to you but I appreciate the opportunity to clarify. I am simply asking a question for better clarity and understanding of the wording, and if relevant questioning how the writer’s white privilege may affect his inferred conclusion. I look forward to the answer.

        1. If you are blinded by your white privilege and identity, then you are very likely going to be blind to any answer he may give. Have you considered this?

          1. I haven’t been answered yet, and the fact I am questioning means I am aware of it, as opposed to blind to it. Have you considered this? How does your identity blind you, have you considered this?

    2. I assume you’re not from the US.

      The American Civil War began as a war over the question of whether or not the union formed in 1788 could be dissolved in the case where the culture and economies of the free states had marked diverged from the culture and economies of the slave slates. The war began as a war to preserve the Union but it ended as a war to free the slaves.

      There are very few monuments to the political leaders of the Confederacy; I think only Richmond, Virginia, erected a monument to Jefferson Davis. There are a few monuments to military leaders like Lee and Jackson but most of the monuments are to those who simply died in a losing cause. Gettysburg, Shilo and Antietam were equivalent to Ypres, Verdun and the Somme. Amongst the Confederate dead, the average number of slave owners would be close to zero and after 1862, all of the Confederate dead were conscripts for the duration of the war, not volunteers.

      I read your your statement: “I support such requests as they are symbolic of and give power to the continued oppression of those suffering under systemic racism and discrimination” as either ignorance or a clumsy attempt at gas-lighting. I do not think it is objectively true, although it may be an article of your particular faith.

    3. ”…the continued oppression of those suffering under systemic racism and discrimination”
      I keep hearing this mantra from lefties and I find it trite and silly. They never actually provide any examples of this so-called oppresseion, just a load of boilerplate cant.
      The fact is that vitually no-one is oppressed these days because of an unalterable charactersitic. Too many activists and silly fellow travellers claim that anything that might disturb any member of a designated ”victim group” is ”haaaate” (they never seem to understand that the noun is ”hatred, but I will let that pass). Really what those who disagree with the activists dislike is their politics. We have no animus against any member of the victim groups. We would love to talk them in a friendly and conciliatory manner about amking them happy. But the activists with divisive politics and their need to justify their own existence get in the way.

    4. Sorry tinapj, I don’t want to be seen to be picking on you, but I consider that your strange ideas need to be questioned.
      One of the greatest fallacies of the modern left is that one’s identity is based upon one’s superficial characteristics. Allied with this is the strange notion that all people with one identity must think the same way.
      The cognitive dissonance of the modern lefty when confronted with a gay, black or female conservative is always amusing to behold.
      The other day I was speaking with a prominant conservative homsexual and for some reason I told him that the least interesting thing about him was his homosexuality. For a moment I thought I had gone too far. But he laughed and told me that yes, I was correct. His identity is no more formed by his homosexuality than it it was formed by the fact he has blonde hair.
      Left wing thought to me only seems to go half way to making this a better world. The left is correct that no-one should be disadvantaged or discriminated against because of race, sex, sexulaity, etc. But instead of bringing evryone together, as we on the right suggest, the left wants to make the problem worse by emphasising the superficial differences between people and keeping them assigned forever more to their groups. It is a classic case of King Stork taking over from King Log.
      The left does good work on ensuring that old fashioned racism has all but disappeared. But it is in danger of erecting a new balkanisation of politics if it does not now follow the right’s message that the indivudal and not the group is key.

  2. Fascinating article; I particularly enjoy the gender pronoun interchangeability within the text. This added nuance to the context of writing in the ‘now’ to the article, and ensured a fluidity which appeals. All this as well as a well-researched, and very well written, article.

  3. Very interesting piece and provides a well needed warning about the dangers of trying to destroy or manipulate the past to fit current narratives. Afua Hirsch springs immediately to mind as one who mooted the idea of taking down Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square.

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