Leftist protesters in North Carolina toppled a statue of an unnamed Confederate soldier on the grounds of the Durham County Courthouse. The organizers of the precipitating rally aim to remove all Confederate statues “so that no more innocent people have to be killed.”
While eliminating racism and hate are laudable goals, destroying a symbol does not eliminate that which the symbol represents or the attitudes, values, and beliefs conferred upon it. As the Polish philosopher Alfred Korzbyski once said, “The map is not the territory.”
All that is achieved by the toppling of statues, the banning of flags, and erasing once-important names that have fallen out of vogue is the suppression of public opportunities for current and future generations to remember and learn from our collective history.
“Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Expurgative practices have been recorded across the millennia with evidence even among the earliest known human civilizations. None of these practices yielded the intended results.
Of the more famous examples of expurgation is the fig-leaf campaign:
In the 16th century, Pope Paul IV began a campaign of censorship, in the name of promoting modesty and combating Protestantism. Among his acts, he ordered the genitalia of ancient Roman statues in the Vatican’s collections replaced with fig leaves. Romans found poetic justice in 1559 when they “stormed the Capitoline and toppled Paul IV’s statue there. They decapitated it, urinated on it, dressed it as a Jew, and dumped it in the Tiber.”
Having not learned from this episode, Queen Victoria in the 19th century commissioned a fig leaf to be worn by Michelangelo’s David. The South Kensington Museum, to which the Queen gifted the statue, would cover the statue only during royal visits, and after her death in 1900, the museum enjoyed a number of complaints. One such complaint from a male visitor read, “One can hardly designate these figures as art! If it is, it is a very objectionable form of art.” The museum director in his response politely mocked the plaintiff’s comfort with his own masculinity, and certainly, the Queen’s “Victorian” values have since fallen by the wayside.
On reflection, those of us who value history, and all the media by which that history is shared, can take solace in that these acts of short-sighted vandalism are themselves part of the legacy our civilization will leave behind. Our successors will know us by not merely evidence of our cathartic, destructive efforts to reinvent our criminal pasts, but by our pitiable confusion about who we were as a people—some having tried to forget and others having tried to remember.