Violent left-wing activists have taken to styling themselves as antifa, short for ‘anti-fascists’, though their street-fighting tactics resemble nothing so much as the Brownshirt thuggery practiced by fascists themselves. This did not stop NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson from likening these hooligans to the heroes of World War Two. On the anniversary of D-Day, June 6, while America’s cities still smoldered after days of riots and looting, Liasson took to Twitter to call the Normandy invasion the ‘biggest antifa rally in history’.
Dumb jokes are nothing new on Twitter. For many liberals today, however, it’s no laughing matter. They really do think that America is fascist, at least whenever a Republican is in the White House, and so petty vandalism is actually a heroic act of resistance. Knock the head off a statue of Columbus, smash the glass of every storefront on the street, and you’re defeating Adolf Hitler all over again. Such is the state of historical literacy and what passes for the moral imagination among many with comfortable perches in the national media. You would think that if they had a problem with the establishment, they should throw the first rock at a mirror. Spare the innocent shopkeepers who pay the price for antifa antics. Plenty of them are black or immigrants themselves, if that’s what matters to the worthies of NPR.
Activist academics, for their part, have played a larger role in inflaming the lawlessness. In other lands, archaeologists are people who strive to preserve the monuments of the past. Five years ago in Syria, Khaled al-Asaad, the 83-year-old chief of antiquities for the ancient ruined city of Palmyra, was kidnapped and tortured for a month by Islamic State militants, yet he refused to disclose the whereabouts of the artifacts they sought, and they killed him. In America on May 31 this year, an Egyptologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham named Sarah Parcak — a Guggenheim Fellow, to boot — tweeted out detailed instructions to protesters on how to tear down a 1905 Confederate military memorial obelisk in her own city. The soldiers and sailors of the Confederacy gave their lives for a state that upheld slavery, of course. But the Palmyrene empire had slaves, too. Would Prof Parcak encourage her followers to finish the job that Isis began?
Thankfully, we can assume not — the Palmyrene empire probably counts as sufficiently non-western to be spared, even though it was a splinter of the Roman empire. Whether Roman antiquities themselves will ultimately be spared the iconoclasm of the zealots who hate the West and only the West remains to be seen. If colonialism and slavery are to be somehow avenged upon monuments and statuary, why should the Romans be spared? As a test of the righteous vandals’ consistency, however, one might propose an experiment: replace the statues of Columbus that come down with new ones of Montezuma II — who presided over an Aztec empire with human sacrifice as well as slavery — or one of an ordinary Carib tribesman who has enslaved and eaten a Taíno or two. Watch and see whether anyone protests or piously tweets.
In the case of Confederate monuments, controversy about their relationship to segregation is understandable. But that calls for discrimination. The ‘Appomattox’ statue taken down in Alexandria, Virginia was far from a gesture of defiance toward the victorious north. Not for nothing was the statue named for the court house at which the Army of Northern Virginia surrendered. It showed an unarmed soldier, eyes downcast and arms crossed, his face somber — an image of manly defeat, dedicated by veterans in 1889 to their fallen brothers. The statue was striking for showing a side of America that otherwise remains hidden, a face that isn’t the face of moral triumphalism and worldly success. It was an image intended to trouble a civilization given to self-congratulation. It was a reminder that even Americans know what it is like to lose a war.
The irony of calling the D-Day invasion the ‘biggest antifa rally in history’ is that ever since the Civil War (and before it, too) the armed forces of the United States have been disproportionately Southern. The grandsons and great-grandsons of Confederates, fighting alongside eager defenders of the British empire, played their part to defeat the Nazis, as did soldiers and generals who admired men like Robert E. Lee without being Southerners themselves — including the supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe, Dwight Eisenhower. The Red Army under Stalin was indispensable to the war against Hitler as well, and while the Soviets might have approved of ‘antifa’ propaganda today, the USSR’s own record of mass murder would give pause to any truly conscientious radical. World War Two was anything but a politically correct morality tale.
There are some misguided conservatives who want Stalin’s role in World War Two to be erased from public commemoration in the United States. But the few such reminders that exist are a lesson that our country cannot be allowed to forget: we made common cause with one of history’s greatest monsters to defeat another. There’s no more getting away from that than there is from the shame of slavery. Prettifying history by cleansing the public space of anything that mixes glory with shame is simply dishonest.
A proper appreciation for our country and for the wider western tradition of which it is a part demands the celebration of valor, without which all else is lost, and a mature reckoning with our faults as well as our success in overcoming them. The foundations set down by men and women whom our radicals now presume to condemn made possible — in America and the West as nowhere else, today or ever before — the freedoms and moral clarity the activist left takes for granted. Christianity, Columbus, the British empire, the Founding Fathers and the descendants of the Confederacy made necessary contributions to this civilization with an unparalleled capacity for moral growth.
The seeds of progressive values are not to be found in Aztec civilization before Columbus, and they are scarcely in evidence outside of the western world and its closest allies (in Israel and East Asia, for example) . To acknowledge this fact is not to justify the crimes of our civilization, only to keep them in correct perspective. But that is what the activist left, in its unhistorical self- righteousness, cannot do: it cannot tell the difference between antifa vandalism and D-Day.
This article is in The Spectator’s July 2020 US edition.