When Francis Fukuyama used this title for his 1992 book on the road forward to a post-ideological, non-confrontational world he did so metaphorically, with reference backward to the dialectical philosophies of the mid to late 19th century. However, here the title is meant to be understood literally. Reading the daily news about the destruction of monuments to past heroes in the United States, in the U.K., in Belgium one may conclude that history as a social science has no future. Every effort is being made to erase the public memory.
In the United States, the rewriting of the past to deny the honors given to slave-owning aristocrats and to bring to public attention neglected heroes from among blacks and other minority groups, as well as from among the demographic majority, namely women, has been going on for more than a decade. For the most part it proceeded quietly and at the hands of well-educated and well-meaning social activists. I recall how in 2017 when I participated in a college reunion at Harvard, the College president explained to us why the name of a slave-owner benefactor was removed from a building and where plaques had been installed to commemorate the slaves who had inhabited one of the campus buildings back in the early 19th century. There was a feeling of serving justice and performing morally uplifting deeds in the audience.
However, in the wake of mass nationwide ‘Black Lives Matter’ demonstrations to protest the May 25th killing in police custody of the 46-year old black man George Floyd, attacks on monuments have taken on a whole new scale in America.
First to go were Confederate generals in the Southern states where leaders from the Civil War still are venerated to this day. But then the attacks on bronze and stone statues moved on to other targets which may be said to have represented the shared heritage of the entire nation. Statues of Christopher Columbus, the long honored discoverer of the New World were given the heave-ho amidst accusations that he took back with him to Spain a great number of American Indians who were held as slaves. And, of course, in serving the King of Spain Columbus opened the path that was followed by Conquistadores who annihilated whole civilizations in the Americas.
Then attention turned to the Father of the Nation, George Washington, who, together with another Founder and early President, Thomas Jefferson, was like other men of means in his age, a substantial slave owner. So far attacks on both have been only verbal. But there is talk of changing the name of the nation’s capital, which commemorates the First President.
Two other presidents have now also come under attack from the Revisionists. The face of one, Theodore (“Teddy”) Roosevelt is celebrated in stone at the Mount Rushmore national memorial in South Dakota together with Washington and Jefferson. The site itself was already steeped in controversy before the latest moves to consign the given presidents to the dustbin of history: the hills are considered sacred by the indigenous tribes. Will these sculptures in stone be hammered to smithereens the same way that the Ancient Egyptians destroyed images relating to the reign of the heretic monotheistic pharaoh Akhenaten?
In the case of Roosevelt, whom many revere as the President who took the United States out of its isolation in the Western Hemisphere under the protection of the Monroe Doctrine and made it a global power there is recollection of the imperial acquisitions of his age stemming from the Spanish-American war where he earned the reputation for military daring-do that brought him to the presidency.
Roosevelt’s successor in the White House, Woodrow Wilson is not doing better among the Revisionists leading the assault on American heroes. The former Princeton university professor who led the United States into World War I to ‘make the world safe for democracy’ had been credited with founding the dominant school of international relations in the United States for much of the 20th century and into the present: the so-called “Idealist School” which believes that human rights and democracy promotion must be the basis of all foreign policy, as opposed to the supposedly cynical pursuit of national interest that underlies the Realist School. Well, we are now told that Wilson was an out-and-out racist who supported the Ku Klux Klan. In a fit of moralist self-flagellation, Princeton University in the past month decided to remove his name from what had been the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
Readers of my essays over the past couple of years know that I am no admirer of the present incumbent in the White House. However, I share his alarm and disapproval of these various acts of vandalism aimed at wiping away the country’s founders and builders in the name of today’s moral values which none of them embraced, for self-evident reasons.
Trump characterized the perpetrators as coming from the “Radical Left” which is nothing more than a guess. I would see them more as a combination of forces, none of them good, but not falling on a neat Right-Left axis. What they have in common is moral outrage and smugness as they proceed with dismantling the Establishment. There are also features of a power grab through mob violence.
Curiously, in an article published in The New York Times on 7 July, the newspaper’s Moscow bureau chief Andrew Higgins chose to consider the toppling of statues that occurred in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The title of his article – “In Russia, They Tore Down Lots of Statues, but Little Changed” – says it all.
However, my dissatisfaction with the ongoing Revisionism or, better yet, Nihilism goes well beyond the question of whether the acts of destruction can achieve some durable change in society. Picking a fight with past heroes who have been dead for a century or for centuries is a cheap way of showing one’s moral superiority. It is problematic, because the way our values have changed in the past is a sure sign that they will change again in the future and that our descendants will have equal claim to righteous indignation over our moral limitations.
But even that is not the point, which is, that immorality, violation of human rights and murder are all around us today. What is worthy of respect is fighting today’s villainy. I would much prefer to see the same outrage directed against those who organized, promoted and perpetrated the murder of hundreds of thousands of civilians in Iraq in 2003 and thereafter. Those who should be brought to justice include both the former president of the United States George W. Bush and his Vice President Dick Cheney.
Regrettably so far none of our virtuous fighters for Justice in the United States, in the UK, in Belgium have dared to take on our present day villains, and that is the most appropriate condemnation of their false claims to virtue that I can adduce.
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020
[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]