Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.
Writing about how Charles de Gaulle became a living symbol of national unity who rallied France to a new beginning after World War II, the French philosopher Régis Debray observed that: “It is the symbolic that creates the social bond, not the other way around.” Humans, he wrote, “are institutional beings, dependent on mediations.”
Yuval Noah Harari makes the same point a bit differently: The power of our species, says the author of “Homo Sapiens,” “depends on creating and believing fictions. Ever since the Stone Age, self-reinforcing myths have served to unite human collectives.”
The culture wars of recent years, now conjoined with the upheavals demanding racial justice, are the terrain of contestation over which symbols and stories should define who we are going forward.
Reacting to the movement to remove statues and monuments in the U.S. associated with slavery, the retrograde Senator Tom Cotton sarcastically quipped that the radically correct crowd would want to tear down the Washington Monument and call it the “Obelisk of Wokeness.”
This week an angry crowd tore down a statue of Thomas Jefferson in Portland, Oregon. Black Lives Matter protestors in Bristol, England tore down a statue of Edward Colston, the famed 17th slave trader, tossing it into the River Avon. In France, President Emmanuel Macron has resisted the call of anti-racism protestors to tear down monuments to that country’s imperialist past in Africa. “The republic will erase no trace or names of its history, it will forget none of its works, it will tear down none of its statues,” he said this week.
In truth, all have a point. There is no simple principled answer. Each society must make these most consequential judgements in the context of their own constitution as historical entities. There are an array of examples to follow — or not.
Back in 1992, on the 500th anniversary of the Spanish arrival in Mexico, the novelist Carlos Fuentes courted controversy by proposing that a statue of Hernán Cortés, the much-reviled conquistador who brutally destroyed the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, should be prominently erected in a main plaza in Mexico City.
“We have not overcome the trauma of the conquest,” Fuentes said at the time. “We behave like a colonized country. We were born of a crime of extreme cruelty, but we were able to build ourselves and have created a culture that is Spanish, Catholic, mestizo. Our father was Hernán Cortés whether we like it or not.” In this view Fuentes was supported by his literary rival, the Nobel laureate Octavio Paz, who chimed in: “To idealize the vanquished is no less fallacious than to idolize the victors.”
In the wake of the end of the first Cold War, Russia and China took divergent paths with respect to the symbols of catastrophe during communism’s heyday — but both still ended up with the admirers of authoritarian rule occupying the Kremlin and the Great Hall of the People. Though in far-flung reaches of Russia one may still find the once-ubiquitous statues of Marx, Lenin and Stalin, they have been mostly been toppled, destroyed or scattered in collections in public parks as a reminder of bad times behind, even as Lenin still lays entombed on Red Square.
In China, Mao’s gigantic portrait remains on the façade of the Forbidden City as a mighty symbol of the continuity of Communist Party rule just across from Tiananmen Square where long, respectful lines still form to see the Great Helmsman’s waxy figure reposing (and decomposing) in a glass sarcophagus. Despite the millions who perished under his reign, Mao’s hometown is a national shrine. A few years back, no sooner had an imposing statue of Confucius been erected opposite Mao’s portrait on the other side of Chang’an Avenue in Beijing as a symbol of the revival of traditional culture than it was removed as an affront to the enforced preeminence of Mao as the founding symbol of modern China.
As these examples of cultural appropriation or dis-appropriation show, the aim is to cement governing legitimacy by aligning with the continuity of the past, breaking from it symbols while resuscitating its content, or attempting to integrate it all into the identity of an ever-morphing nation.
At the extreme edges of this battle in America are those who embrace a defensive ideology that seeks either to erase the reality of a sinful past or conserve its essence, the woke militants and the Donald Trumps or Tom Cottons, respectively. Then there are those seeking a constructive path forward who understand that systemic change requires a unifying symbol and story that encompasses the hearts, minds and dispositions of broad constituencies across the board of diverse societies.
Former President Barack Obama, a symbol himself of the promise of America, brings the proper sensibility to the issue. Calling out the “call out” culture, he told a gathering of young activists recently that “this idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically ‘woke’ and all that stuff — you should get over that quickly. The world is messy; there are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids, and share certain things with you.”
To sort it all out, paradoxically perhaps, requires some discrimination between the perpetrators of crime and the creatures of their time.
Last year, the remains of the Spanish dictator, Francisco Franco, who colluded with the German Luftwaffe to bomb Guernica, among other crimes, were rightly removed from the Valley of the Fallen monument outside Madrid that had become a rallying point for a neo-fascist revival. “Spain can’t allow symbols that divide Spaniards. Something that is unimaginable in Germany or Italy, countries that also suffered fascist dictatorships, should not be imaginable in our country,” Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said. For the same reason, it is right to ban the Confederate flag in official public places in the U.S. There is plenty of room in museums where living cultures can consign the past without forgetting it.
But does it make any sense to change the names or remove the statues of those creatures of their time who may have been slave holders but whose seminal contribution was to found universities or design the republic that advanced the knowledge and liberties which gave birth to the open societies in which this very discourse can today take place? We are all born into a physical and social infrastructure not of our making with which we have to live even while trying to change it. Should those of us who today travel on airplanes be considered ecological criminals of evil intent in the planetary hothouse of the 22nd century?
America, above all, is today facing a test of whether the great experiment of a liberal republic built around an idea, instead of race or ethnicity, can endure. There is no guarantee that we can “make America breathe again.” But there should be no illusion that this is what is at stake in the battlespace of cultural symbols as we make the transition from the continuity of the past to a new era.