Kennedy Left-of-Center (7.9.20)
In case you were wondering, the Kennedy Center is now an anti-racist institution!
This is actually more troubling that it sounds. Racism is real. It needs to be addressed. I'm sure the Kennedy Center could do more to present diverse artistic viewpoints. But when organizations present themselves as "anti-racist" ... that means something a lot more specific than "against racism."
In the language of academia, "anti-racism" is built on the foundation of "systemic racism" or "structural racism." And "systemic racism" holds that the organizing principle of American society is white supremacy, and racism only exists in the sense that all white people are inherently racist to non-white people. "Anti-racism" is actually a call for (mostly white) people to constantly assess every facet of their existence -- every decision and assumption they make -- in the hopes of avoiding the patterns of systemic racism. It's also not a process with a defined ending.
You personally might think all of that is true and reasonable. But a lot of people generically agreeing that "anti-racism" is good would also do a spit-take if presented with the academic definition.
The Kennedy Center (if you read the linked story) is going with the academic definition of these terms. For the national center for the performing arts, an institution meant to serve everybody, that's a pretty aggressive position to take. (What with it also being named in honor of a white guy who dragged his feet on civil rights legislation.) You can also see stuff like this from some of the Smithsonians and plenty of corporations amd non-profits. It's not a "wrong" worldview -- arguably no worldview is -- but it is a radical departure from almost all modern conventions, and it seems extremely conspicuous that any institution would convert to it so suddenly.
One of the principles of Marxism is that people raised in a capitalist system would be tainted with capitalist values. Because of this, many people within the system would never even recognize the injustices being inflicted upon them -- since they would be trained from birth to not see them as injustices. In theory, when enough people got wise to "the truth," they'd rise up and overthrow the system in favor of socialism and the greater good.
Leninism took it a step further. Russian revolutionaries, tired of waiting for the supposedly inevitable evolution of society, adopted the position that the transition wouldn't be organic. (At least not in Russia, where industrial development was well behind that of the European nations where Marxism flourished.) Instead, it would take a small group of highly focused and organized people to catalyze that evolution. By infiltrating various organizations and influencing the actions of their leaders, Communists could accelerate a highly leveraged evolution of the social order.
And eventually, even that wasn't enough. The next evolution -- Maoist and Stalinist systems -- was built on the premise that revolutionaries could grasp the levers of power, then forcibly "retrain" society to its most perfect and collaborative form. In practice, it was all insanely horrible. The revolutionary vanguard created a status quo that was cruel, oppressive, arbitrary and murderous -- Stalinist purges, the Cultural Revolution, and so forth.
Fast forward to 2020. How do you want to describe what's happening in America today?
Racism and the generational inequalities it has created are very real problems. They need to be discussed and addressed. People who deny the existence of these problems are almost certainly wrong, or racist.
But one view of society -- critical race theory -- is frequently being presented to the public as the absolutely correct view, with very little challenge. Perhaps because a major tenet of critical race theory is that the act of disagreeing with critical race theory actually proves critical race theory. It's similar to the initial Marxist conceit.
Why is it presented this way? Perhaps because of the Leninist conceit. Small groups of highly focused and organized people secured positions of high-leverage influence in various organizations -- for example, media outlets, social media platforms and higher education.
And now, maybe we're seeing the attempt to grasp the levers of power. Today, it's primarily soft power, like canceling or shaming anyone who dares to oppose views that are nowhere near the mainstream. The activists attempting to tear down many statues in a frenzy are not pausing for thoughtful discussions; they're aggressively pursuing a unilateral re-writing of acceptable thought, where they are the arbiters of right and wrong.
Is it crazy to see things this way? Consider that much of this is conspicuously presented in the academic language of critical race theory. Protesters have tagged statues with "1619," referring to the New York Times' 1619 project. Do average people of any race spend their time reading thinkpieces in the New York Times? For that matter, do they spend their time parsing the meaning of "anti-racism" or "white fragility" or "white supremacy"? These are nebulous terms; to have actual value in public discourse, they would require agreed-upon definitions for all people in the discussion. It's hard to address racism if the parties involved don't even agree on what the term "racism" means.
On paper, the stated goals of Marxism, Leninism and Stalinism are noble or desirable. In practice, those theories became vessels for totalitarian nightmares. I don't know if critical race theory will follow the same pattern, but its practical application in recent weeks does have striking resemblances to those other movements.
Tear it down? (6.17.20)
I love history, and I love monuments.
Monuments transform our past into public art. They're reflections of what certain groups valued at different points in time, or how cultural conflicts or ideals were expressed in earlier eras.
Which isn't to say that they're all virtuous. I won't argue with anyone disgusted by the sight of Confederate generals on pedestals in public squares.
In other cases, the thought that a monument is problematic is complicated. Columbus statues are hurtful to some groups, but many of them date to a time when Italian immigrants were treated like dirt -- Italian-American groups often campaigned for their installation as symbols of their cultural pride. The "emancipation" statue in DC's Lincoln Park (and copied in other cities) should make you cringe. It shows an almost god-like Lincoln towering over a slave practically groveling in thanks. Hell, it made Frederick Douglass cringe -- but it was also financed in large part by donations from former slaves, and Douglass still felt honored to speak at its dedication in 1876.
The stories behind monuments are the stories of our shared history, for better or for worse. Simply destroying, defacing or erasing them seems like a lost opportunity. You can read about the horrors of Soviet oppression, and we know that so many Soviet statues were torn down by mobs. But in the 21st century, long after the mobs dispersed, seeing a surviving Soviet monument gives you a deeper understanding of the ethic and sensibilities of a brutal regime, in a way that a textbook can't.
One of the coolest museums I ever went to was the Lapidarium in Prague. It's a collection of old public statues that had been "retired" (or someteimes replaced with replicas, to get them out of the elements). I wish we had one here. Off their pedestals, Southern generals could be studied, and people could contemplate both why they inspired reverence and their status as enduring avatars of racism. Columbus doesn't need to be beheaded or thrown in a lake; people might want to learn about his achievements while also understanding how he became a symbol for both good and bad.
Or maybe we can just make room for some new expressions of civic thought. I work a few blocks from Farragut Square, and the very nice statue honoring Civil War admiral David Farragut. He's a complete non-entity to 99.9999 percent of the modern population, and there's now very little reason to give him prime real estate in a very public setting. He could retire with distinction, yielding his space to someone better able to inspire the imagination of the modern world. Or a statue of the flying spaghetti monster. Something different, at least.
There would be arguments -- long ones! -- about what to remove, and what to replace it with. But I'd rather have those arguments, and learn from those, than just destroy symbols of our history, and the chance to learn from them.