News & Politics

Destroying Our History: Of Wokeness and 'Moralistic Therapeutic Barbarism'

Pity future generations who will live in a world scrubbed clean of the sins of our forefathers.

And sins there were. No one denies that. No one questions it. But to judge their entire lives — their foibles as well as their majestic accomplishments — without viewing both sides of their Janus face, demonstrates a towering ignorance and an aggressive denial of the truth.

What is truly frightening about the current attitude present in our “woke” culture, is the utter lack of care and concern for the damage being done to history on the part of the self-proclaimed arbiters of purity. Someone (always unnamed), somewhere might/could be offended by a sculpture, a painting, or a statue. The “offense” is that viewing this devil’s work might/could “trigger” an unwanted emotion of some kind. (Not to mention the encouragement it gives to white supremacists!)

Then there’s the case of the San Francisco school board voting to spend $600,000 to destroy a Depression-era mural of George Washington painted by an ardent Communist.

Bari Weiss writing in the New York Times points out the utter absurdity of the school board’s action:

This is why his freshly banned work, “Life of Washington,” does not show the clichéd image of our first president kneeling in prayer at Valley Forge. Instead, the 13-panel, 1,600-square-foot mural, which was painted in 1936 in the just-built George Washington High School, depicts his slaves picking cotton in the fields of Mount Vernon and a group of colonizers walking past the corpse of a Native American.

“At the time, high school history classes typically ignored the incongruity that Washington and others among the nation’s founders subscribed to the declaration that ‘all men are created equal’ and yet owned other human beings as chattel,” Robert W. Cherny writes in “Victor Arnautoff and the Politics of Art.”

In other words, Arnautoff’s purpose was to unsettle the viewer, to provoke young people into looking at American history from a different, darker perspective. Over the past months, art historians, New Deal scholars and even a group called the Congress of Russian Americans have tried to make exactly that point.

You can make the same argument about Huckleberry Finn; Mark Twain’s searing portrayal of the kind of casual racism that was prevalent in the 19th century was supposed to provoke thoughtful reflection. Twain was deliberately trying to offend people. That the descendants of those who first read the novel would seek to ban it because they are offended is the height of irony.

The last 40 years has seen an upheaval among academic historians, who struggle with so-called “revisionist history.” As a result, many beloved historical characters are revealed to be not quite the heroes we placed on pedestals previously. Occasionally. the re-examination is colored by politics. But generally, this “revisionism” is a welcome dose of reality to how we think of America’s past and those who shaped it. Seeing the complete Washington, our first president, still rises above his historical shortcomings to shine as a beacon for all future presidents. We know he was a slave owner. We know he hated Indians. He was also a vain elitist whose every public action was taken with an eye on the history books.

But far more importantly, he was, as his biographer Thomas Flexner says, “the indispensable man” of the American revolution.

A statue of Robert E. Lee, by itself, should not offend anyone. Beauty (art) is in the eye of the beholder. We all approach the statue of Lee with our own perspectives, our own biases. Some of those perspectives belong to Southern Nationalists or white supremacists. Some belong to those who honor the courage of the Southern soldier, if not what he was fighting for. Some perspectives belong to the ancestors of slaves. Still others see the military genius who kept the Union army at bay for four years.

The point is so simple that it’s impossible to miss. In a free society, all of us own our thoughts. And when a small group of radical, anti-liberty zealots demand we adopt their perspective on a work of art — and only their perspective because once destroyed, who will remember it — they must be fought to the last free breath in all of us.

Rod Dreher in a brilliant summation of the Weiss op-ed, refers to the school board’s action as “moralistic therapeutic barbarism.”

The school board is spending $600,000 to destroy a work of art. The mind boggles. If right-wingers were doing this because the mural was insufficiently reverent to George Washington, all left-wing Californians would see this idiotic iconoclasm for what it is. The religion of Social Justice is a thing of staggering stupidity and destructiveness. It is moralistic therapeutic barbarism. If you value art, literature, and freedom of thought and expression, you will fight hard to keep these people from coming to power within political and cultural institutions. It might be too late for California. But for the rest of us? We are creating a generation of sentimentalized Stalinists.

And that’s worth putting down your smartphone and fighting for a future where freedom, not tyranny rules.