Falling statues and the collapse of moral authority

Why have leaders across the country allowed protesters to tear down civic memorials without any meaningful resistance?

The Forward statue in Wisconsin.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

Why does it feel like autumn? I am not referring to the weather, which has been almost unseasonably hot in many parts of the country, but to something else one sees venturing outdoors or turning on the television: our great cities emptied out, like clusters of silver birches, save for the tens of thousands of people massed together in stratonic clusters: fallen leaves.

It would be premature to say that what we are witnessing is the "fall" of the American political and social order. What is happening instead is that we are all from our separate vantage points coming around to acknowledging something that has been clear for a very long time, namely, that the fate of our present order — its rise or fall or mere continuation — is a matter largely of indifference to millions of Americans, whether they realize it or not.

This is true not least of those who are nominally in positions of authority, at all levels of government, in legislatures, in the judiciary, in governors’ mansions, even in the White House. Who could possibly look at the events of the last three or so months and believe that the leaders of our two major political parties in Congress are interested in anything so prosaic as legislation? Who could see in the Supreme Court’s emptily procedural non-ruling on DACA a desire to interpret law? Who, finally, could imagine that our mayors and governors, to say nothing of our president, were even somewhat inclined to keep the peace?

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The reality of our leaders' almost total indifference to the responsibilities with which they have been entrusted is so obvious as to be beyond argument. What interests me more than this utterly prosaic fact is the question of why.

Here the recent controversy (if that is the right word: for reasons that will become clear, I am not so sure it is) surrounding the destruction of statues and other monuments in the wake of George Floyd's killing in Minneapolis last month is instructive. Why have leaders across the country simply allowed protesters to attach ropes to civic memorials, many of them a century or more old, without any meaningful resistance?

Allow me to suggest that it was because they had no choice. I do not mean this simply in the sense that they feared the likely consequences (e.g., negative media attention) of intervening and thus surrendered. Rather, I would argue, they could not push back against the mobs because it was not entirely clear to them that justice was not in some obvious sense on the side of the former. Whether it was and remains so is very much an open question, but it is also one that involves a great many complicated issues — abstract ideas about the value of history and the role of civic architecture and the relationship between memory and aesthetics — which politicians are rarely wont to consider. More important, however, is the simple fact that taking meaningful action would require our leaders to accept the premise that they possess authority of any kind, and that this authority is licit and belongs to them by virtue of their respective offices.

Most of our leaders believe no such thing. For them authority is not a necessary condition for civilization but a kind of accidental inheritance, a purely private possession that has fallen into their laps like a sack of bullion tossed by a fleeing bank robber. It is a weight that they have chosen to wear lightly. Hence the predictability of the present crisis of confidence. Why in the world would anyone suppose that in a city like San Francisco, in which ill-gotten billions and the world’s highest real estate prices exist alongside the most devastating and dehumanizing poverty anywhere in the industrialized world, there are leaders who would rise to an occasion as insignificant as the preservation of an 18th-century missionary saint's likeness? Such a response would require a conception of politics as the pursuit of the common good, rather expansively understood, one that is all but invisible everywhere in American public life, never mind in our West Coast tech oligarchies.

Here it is worth mentioning one other factor that is likely to have influenced authorities in their decision to stand down here. No sooner did the ropes begin to ensnare these civic bronzes than we suddenly stopped hearing about looters. It was as if the prayers of thousands of venal elected officials were being answered simultaneously: here at last was a tacit solution, a kind of socialization of grievance that would shift the site of the last month’s activities from businesses in city centers to public parks. What it reminds us is that to the extent that our leaders believe they have any responsibility toward the common good it is at one remove, by facilitating commerce. Wall Street, the IMF, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics do not care whether there are statues of Confederate leaders or Union leaders or leaders of any kind in our last remaining commons; they do not care whether there are any statues, or, indeed any commons. Small wonder then that politicians whose single conviction about the maintenance of public order is that GDP figures must increase would find themselves similarly indifferent.

The almost instantaneous shift in both the form — marches and occasional bursts of violence which were often answered in kind by law enforcement — and the ostensible subject of protest from specific cases of police brutality to something more inchoate speaks to a truth perhaps even more uncomfortable than the inaction of our politicians. We are not interested in being governed any more than they are interested in governing; we have come to reject all those dreary formalisms — logic, facts, context, debate, the so-called "marketplace of ideas" — once thought necessary to a way of life that, to the extent that it has not entirely disappeared already, is not recognized as being of any value. Governing and government did not rise to the challenges of our age; politicians stood by or did worse as we fought purposeless wars, trashed the planet, destroyed the post-war consensus on the mixed economy, placed two generations in debt servitude, and shrugged at appalling disparities in wealth and health care; they lied to us about their commitment to racial justice, to the plight of the unborn, to "traditional values," to whatever the bill of fare on offer might have been.

Hence the apparently absurd lack of consistency on display whenever a statue of a renowned abolitionist, a Civil War hero, or even a once-enslaved novelist is toppled or otherwise desecrated. It is pointless to ask what standards are being defined or upheld here, just as it is absurd to ask why, say, obstruction of a House committee is a bad thing only when the lower chamber is controlled by a party to which the president does not belong. These acts of vandalism have nothing to do with history in the textbook sense of the word. They are instead an expression of a widespread and, I think, totally uncontroversial desire: the total destruction of American public life as we know it, the sclerotic consensus rejected by leaders and citizens alike.

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Matthew Walther

Matthew Walther is a national correspondent at The Week. His work has also appeared in First Things, The Spectator of London, The Catholic Herald, National Review, and other publications. He is currently writing a biography of the Rev. Montague Summers. He is also a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow.