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Robert E. Lee statue in Richmond, Va., June 23, 2020

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Sheila Gresinger and Ben Jones are to be commended for their constructive remarks in last week’s edition. Their message stands in contrast to the fashionable destructive impulse of the moment, which seems to have infected too many otherwise reasonable people from coast to coast. History teaches us that each and every time the righteous urge to destroy is loosed upon a society, it is always, in every case regretted and deplored by subsequent generations. 

When the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in AD 313, in a widespread act of retribution thousands of age-old statues to the Roman deities were torn down and smashed as idolatry. It’s only by sheer luck that any of these incredible works of art escaped destruction. In this case it took almost a millennium before subsequent generations realized the extent of the loss and took measures to save and protect the few artistic treasures which had survived the initial righteous onslaught. Imagine for a moment — in a fit of “Presentism” run amok, just one generation destroyed an artistic patrimony that should have belonged to the ages. 

Leaping across the centuries to 1789-93, in another explosion of self-righteous zeal, this time the fiercely anti-Christian opponents of the ‘ancien regime’ toppled and destroyed countless statues, monuments and buildings all across France. Historians and preservationists estimate that as much as half the art of medieval France was destroyed in less than five years — stained glass windows, masterful woodwork, Romanesque and Gothic architecture. Not surprisingly, what is defaced in stone is invariably and literally defaced in bone, as these zealots were not satisfied until thousands were sacrificed on the blood soaked altar of the guillotine.

In the 1960’s China’s Red Guard were consumed with the unshakable conviction that no generation prior to their own had ever been imbued with their own exalted level of moral and ethical superiority. With the blessing and encouragement of their fearless leader Mao they were loosed like a great scythe across the ancient land, burning age old Buddhist temples to the ground, melting down irreplaceable silver and gold artifacts, shredding old papyrus documents, ripping exquisite silk tapestries and of course murdering anyone who stood in their way — whether peasant, monk or other ‘class enemies.’ By the time it was satiated the “Cultural Revolution” had killed millions and destroyed much of China’s three millennia of ancient art.

We could go on: the Taliban’s destruction of the monumental Buddha statues in the Bamiyan Valley of Afghanistan; the exquisite ruins of the ancient Roman city of Palmyra, the ruins of Nineveh, Hatra and Nimrud — all leveled by the fanatics of ISIS. What do all these depredations have in common? They are all instigated and perpetrated by people convinced they are more righteous, more ethical, more moral than all the generations who came before or who will come after. In their eyes, it is up to them in their brief moment of time to rectify the wrongs of history and set the world on a new and better path. 

But what follows next? In less than two generations the people of France saw the hijackers of their cultural patrimony not as improvers or liberators — but as vandals, arsonists and demolitionists. From the 1830s and continuing to this day generations of French citizens have been working tirelessly and meticulously to retrieve, restore and rebuild everything that can possibly be recreated. In the case of medieval stained glass this is impossible. What was destroyed in the Revolution is gone forever.

Today’s Chinese Communist government, even totalitarian as they are, has come to recognize the egregious error of the “Cultural Revolution.” They acknowledge what is obvious to anyone who has traveled in China (myself included), that the Chinese people revere their ancestors, all of them — the good, the bad and the ugly. If you visit China today you will see the inspired results of tens of billions of dollars invested in restoring and rebuilding what was destroyed with such high-minded certainty in the 1960s. 

Proclaiming one’s own moral superiority in adjudicating the sins of the past by defacing monuments and tearing down statues is a dead end. Future generations will see through the virtue signaling and condemn the do-gooding malefactors. The inescapable fact of history is that we are the inheritors of all who came before. They made us who we are. As I see it Frederic Douglas and Robert E Lee are our fathers. Harriet Tubman and Dolly Madison are our mothers. They are no better nor worse than myself or my generation. As inheritors of this legacy it is our responsibility in our brief moment on earth to safeguard the entirety of our past with all its culture, art and history — the good, the bad, the ugly and the beautiful — to the next and future generations. To live only in the present tense is to live an impoverished life. We are connected to the living, to the dead and to the unborn. Pulling out the threads of this fabric is antithetical to life itself. 

— The writer lives in Flint Hill


 

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