A group of children recently gathered one morning near the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument in Riverside Park. The adults in charge handed out brightly colored pieces of chalk and soon the sidewalk and plaza were cheerfully adorned with mottos such as Black Lives Matter, Black Trans Lives Matter, Tell Me Why the Police Need Tanks, Let Justice Roll Down, and — my favorite — Burn It Down. Burn down the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument? No need. New York City has had it roped off for years as it crumbles away.
The 96-foot monument was in its time a tribute to the New York soldiers and sailors who fought for the Union during the Civil War. The cornerstone was laid in 1899 by Gov. Theodore Roosevelt, two years before he was sworn in as President. Poor Teddy. Once the very embodiment of American confidence and aspiration, he was just voted off the island (Manhattan in this case) by the board of trustees the American Museum of Natural History. A statue of Roosevelt, astride a horse and ‘flanked by a Native American man and an African man’, as the New York Times describes it, stands on a plinth in front of the museum. The museum’s board was offering preemptive surrender to the mob that has graduated from burning and looting to toppling statues and defacing monuments. Teddy Roosevelt, the closest America has ever come to genuine colonialist in the White House, was too tempting a target.
To add salt to the wound, one of the trustees, 77-year-old Theodore Roosevelt IV, a great-grandson of the President, was summoned to justify the removal. He explained, ‘The world does not need statues, relics of another age, that reflect neither the values of the person they intend to honor nor the values of equality and justice’. Moreover, the statue ‘does not reflect Theodore Roosevelt’s legacy. It is time to move the statue and move forward’.
The Burn-It-Down tykes and the de-plinthing trustees are partners of a sort. They are joined by their desire to uproot and depose in the name of ‘justice’. Justice of course can mean many things, but in this case it means a purge from our memory of those parts of the past now deemed awkward. Some 465,000 New York men served in the Union armed forces in the Civil War, fighting for the freedom of enslaved blacks in the South. New York contributed more soldiers than any other state, and more 50,000 of them died in the war. That crumbling monument in Riverside Park is apparently the best we can do right now to honor such sacrifice. But at its foot, the children have chalked the names of black men and women killed in run-ins with the police in the last few years.
Some of those were tragic victims of unwarranted violence; others were criminals who came armed to a final confrontation with the law. But enlisting them all in a Black Lives Matter roll of martyrs is an attempt to make a claim again against the national conscience. To quote Martin Luther King, Jr who was in turn quoting the prophet Amos — ‘But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream’ — is to make a very large claim indeed. The chalk-wielding children, under someone’s woke supervision, press these obituary notices on public attention under the general rubric that America is rife with ‘systemic racism’. I assume the children were not really aware of the irony of celebrating the lives of black thugs in a protest under the shadow of a memorial to the men who fought and died in a just war to free their ancestors. ‘That these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom,’ Lincoln proleptically warned at Gettysburg.
Courtesy of the New York Times’s 1619 Project, which depicts Lincoln as a racist somehow in league with ‘slavocracy’, and thanks also to Black Lives Matter and its epigones, we now have an exciting new mythology in which America is the ravenous spider that devours innocent blacks in its four-hundred year old web of oppression. When even the august American Museum of Natural History capitulates to this story, we know we are in a cultural moment. I pick these two stories — the chalk and the natural-park-building, trust-busting President — because I see them first-hand, but nearly every American city is now stage for similar theatrics.
It is an open question whether these are better construed as amateur or semi-professional productions, a grassroots rebellion that unleashes destructive anger for the sheer hell of it, or a more deeply mediated assault on the republic that is attempting to manipulate and intensify popular protest as a step towards ‘revolutionary’ political change. Both elements are in play, but who is playing whom? Are the would-be revolutionaries leading the mob or following it?
The American Museum of Natural History’s decision to pack off Teddy Roosevelt is the more ominous development. It is the action of a civic-minded, responsible assembly of adults who could see nothing worth defending in the image of the President who made the celebration and conservation of natural resources a priority of the national government. TR’s father, for that matter, was one of the museum’s founders. A debt of some sort is owed, but that obligation was obscured by what can only be called a miasma of self-loathing.
The Museum is situated in only one dank corner of that miasma that somehow spilled out of Central Park West. The poison is actually pervasive in contemporary America. The Great Self Hate has descended on us, and perhaps not just on America alone. Other Western nations are also looking at themselves with gleeful revulsion, like anorexics who see themselves in the mirror as morbidly obese. They — and we — revile their freedom as though it is founded on lies; we likewise detest our prosperity as ill-gotten; and run through every great achievement as founded on perfidy or, rightly understood, as no achievement at all.
We are in the midst not of race but raze riots. The rioters intend to punish society, but the passivity and collusion of the rest of liberal society speaks of a collective desire to atone, and not just for the imaginary sin of ‘systemic racism’. We are atoning for our smallness, our lack of confidence in ourselves as a worthy nation, our diminished faith in the future, and our lack of Teddy’s robust delight in splendor of this world. We represent our society in our mind’s eye not in sweeping vistas or soaring skyscrapers, but in the squalor of tent cities, the incompetence of social-justice maundering elites, and in the cachinnations of proud fools. If ill-intended people offer us stories about how bad our forebears were and how undeserving we must be too, we lend them an ear. We think, maybe so.
Only a society that sees a need for ‘self-esteem’ counseling could be so susceptible to such destructive illusions. It isn’t hard to convince those living in dry discontent to switch to all-encompassing condemnation instead. Misery loves not just company but the larger consolation that every seemingly good thing masks an inner rot.
We can, to be sure, save ourselves, from this spiral of angry weakness begetting cultural despair, begetting still further anger and weakness. It will, so to speak, require us to repair the monuments to Columbus, Washington, Jefferson and other great men and the memorials to the many who fought in great and noble causes. Our self-respect begins when we recover our sense of gratitude, and perhaps a bit of reverence.