There isn’t a single person – or a married one for that matter – who hasn’t done something unworthy of himself. Even that Jesus fellow overturned tables that didn’t belong to him. So if we only erect statues to “he that hath not sinned”, we’re not going to have any. And maybe we shouldn’t anyhow. Islam bans the likeness of both Allah and Mohammed precisely because of our penchant for idolatry.
Though we’re not exactly worshipping those we’re commemorating, we’re certainly honouring them. But how do we go about honouring the general and President without simultaneously honouring the slave owner? And if we were to discover only later that Jesus was also a pedophile, what do we do with all those millions of crucifixes?
These are not rhetorical questions. They need to be answered. And they are being answered. But in answering them we’re not deploying some agreed-upon moral formula. The discounting of George Washington’s slave ownership has been a political decision; and political decisions are revisited and reversed with the alacrity of the weather. To call it ‘cancel culture’ is to give cancel culture an unwarranted honorific. There’s never not been a culture of cancelling what was erstwhile just fine. It always comes as a surprise to someone to find that, while he was away camping for the weekend, a word has completely changed its meaning.
Even a perfectly serviceable word that once meant what it means might no longer mean what it did. That’s not a problem provided there’s a new word that does. But often enough there isn’t, because we no longer want what we meant to be said. So, for example, there’s now no way to know in what way the ‘Special Olympics’ are special, because there’s no way to answer the question if asked. Now that trans women are women, there’s no way to say that women don’t have penises. And so on.
To be fair, ‘retarded’ had become a pejorative. But ‘special’ is ambiguous, because it’s also used to mean gifted, and still does. But there’s now what might be called designer ambiguity, ambiguity designed, that is, to make it impossible for the accused to protest his innocence. “By ‘stone age’ I was referring to their command of metallurgy.” “No you weren’t. You were calling them savages.”
Some campus equity offices have taken to circulating a lexicon of discouraged – or in some cases even prohibited – words. But once again, ’twas always thus. After the fall of the Bastille, every ‘Monsieur’ became ‘Citroen’, and after 1917 in Russia and ’49 in China, everyone, male or female, became ‘Comrade’. Both prohibited and compelled speech have been with us since we emerged from the cave. As has the drawing and erasing and sculpting and destroying of images, two-dimensional and three.
There’s an interesting jurisprudential equivalence between prohibited and compelled speech. Germany’s prosecution of Monika Schafer for Holocaust denial is a case of prohibited speech. Terence Malick’s masterpiece A Hidden Life is about compelled speech, in this case taking an oath to the Fuhrer. So the right to remain silent is not always one to be exercised.
For those of us lucky enough to live in a liberal democracy, the monuments issue can now be subsumed under that of public sight art. Which is not to be confused with public site art. I can post hardcore pornography on my walls, and even a state-owned museum can display Nazi memorabilia, because both are out of involuntary sight. But a swastika, even in my own window, is another matter. Publicly displayed flags and monuments say something. And if we can control what can be said in print or on air, why not in the air or on the ground?
Ulysses charged his son Telemachus to “pay meet adoration to [his] household gods”. Nations, like households, have gods, and gods demand adoration. The debate is not over whether but which. Louis Riel was a traitor, then a hero, and if we discover he was also a pedophile he’ll be traitor once again. But some heroes are allowed to also be pedophiles, or slave owners, because their iconography is too sacred. Or, because their iconography is too sacred, they’re not allowed to also be pedophiles.
So, for example, Hitler only pretended to love his dogs for the cameras. And when Ann Frank was playing in the park one day, before the German occupation of Holland, she and her playmates did not pull the legs off spiders. Both are how it was because both are how we need it to be.
So once again we have the conflict between individual freedom and community. We march for one one day and then for the other the next. ’Twas and ’tis always thus.