After the War on Statues

(Photo by Alex Milan Tracy)(Sipa via AP Images)

January 2005 may be remembered as the Day It All Began.  At a Conference on Diversifying the Science and Engineering Workforce, Larry Summers lost his job as president of Harvard by suggesting there might be small differences in aptitude between men and women in STEM fields. That was enough to finish him. Although the penalty may have struck some as disproportionate no one attached any wider significance to the incident at the time.


In retrospect Summers’ fall was the start of a sequence of events that is even now racing to a climax.  After Summers the vortex which pulled him down eddied on claiming further victims. By 2012 it had become unacceptable to think of illegal immigration as a crime. A CNN article marked the moment when “the words ‘illegal immigrants’ and ‘illegal aliens,” became verboten:

When you label someone an “illegal alien” or “illegal immigrant” or just plain “illegal,” you are effectively saying the individual, as opposed to the actions the person has taken, is unlawful. The terms imply the very existence of an unauthorized migrant in America is criminal.

Gradually, but with ever quickening pace a series of further breakthroughs occurred until the public almost ceased to notice that the once sacrosanct verities were no more. By 2016, when same sex marriage reversed the Defense of Marriage Act enacted just 10 years, the advance had become so rapid it surprised even its most ardent supporters. “What explains the rapid change?” asked Conor Friedersdorf in the Atlantic. His theory was that the very fabric of American society had changed to the point where tradition was no longer able to offer any resistance.

That change worried some observers. Without tradition to apply some sort of brake where was the limit?  If marriage could so easily be twitched aside where would the advance stop? Polygamy? William Rauch, writing in Politico argued that any notion society would fall down some “slippery slope” was ridiculous. “The shortest answer [to the slippery slope argument] is in some ways the best: Please stop changing the subject!” Legalizing same sex marriage he argued, was disconnected from polygamy or anything else.


But subsequent events were disturbingly suggestive. Shortly after the same sex marriage issue subsided, the headlines became dominated by transgender bathrooms. This time the opposition even feared to take the field. Katy Steinmetz writing in Time likened laws requiring transgender to the repeal of Jim Crow laws. “Bathrooms and fights for civil rights go hand-in-hand.”

In the Jim Crow era, bathrooms—along with water fountains and lunch counters—were places that might be marked with “white only” signs. The bathroom has also been a battleground for women and handicapped workers fighting for equal treatment in the workplace. Because of the nature of things people do in the bathroom, it can be a space where they feel exposed or vulnerable and therefore resist change. It is also, as transgender icon Janet Mock says, “the great equalizer for all of us.”

Perhaps the issues were independent in the sense that they were logically unrelated. But as a process of social change they were as connected as successive waves beating on a shore.  The subsequent followed the previous with accelerating speed; a trickle was rapidly building into a flood. Almost without a pause the transgender bathroom campaign reached and breached the next boundary: gender definition. Identity rapidly became a construct. “UK Facebook users can now choose from one of 71 gender options, including asexual, polygender and two-spirit person, following the feature’s successful integration in the US.”

Users can choose a different gender option from the previous male and female choices by selecting ‘custom’ in the gender tab of their profiles.

In addition, people who select a custom gender will now have the ability to choose the pronoun they’d like to be referred to publicly — male (he/his), female (she/her) or neutral (they/their).


If the traditional marriage definition fell rapidly the even more ancient institution of gender collapsed in the blink of an eye. Questioning a “custom gender” in 2017 had become an offense as heinous as suggesting illegal immigration was a crime.  Just how serious a transgression was underscored by an article by Piers Morgan saying”Trump’s transgender military ban is reprehensible, bigoted.”  If suggesting gender differences could topple the president of Harvard, questioning custom genders could undermine the president of the United States.

Events have since accelerated with dizzying speed.  College men are tossed out of university on rape charges neither the police nor even the universities themselves can sustain.  An engineer at Google was fired over questioning diversity policies. Ten applicants had their acceptances to Harvard withdrawn for saying politically incorrect things on Facebook. You can be ruined, doxed, blackballed, fired not simply for violating current codes but those still to come.

Just when it seemed things could go no faster the War on Statues began.

From seemingly out of nowhere a campaign sprang up to rid America of Confederate memorials. Within days the effort had spread to pulling down Christopher Columbus’ statue in New York City. “Mayor de Blasio said Wednesday night that the statue of Christopher Columbus would be among those examined by a commission he’s appointing to recommend monuments on city property that would be removed because they’re deemed hateful.”

“I’m not going to get into the name game here,” the mayor said when asked at the Democratic mayoral debate if Columbus should stay or go. “We have to look at everything here.”


But if de Blasio wasn’t getting into the name game the television networks definitely were. Sports channel ESPN announced it was reassigning Asian sportscaster Robert Lee to another event to avoid triggering viewers who might be offended by the very mention of his name. Within minutes ESPN’s actions were portrayed not as absurd, but as the only thing any decent [insert gender here] would do.

We want to pretend that sports are a safe sanctuary from the world’s ugly problems, but that has always been a farce. Truth is, not even the glorious game of football can keep America’s toxic culture of bigotry, hate and violence at bay. It’s just too heavy a burden.

So imagine if you’re scheduled to be the announcer for ESPN’s livestream of the University of Virginia’s season-opener football game against William and Mary in a few weeks and your name is Robert Lee. But you have watched, along with the world, as thousands of torch-wielding, white supremacists screaming hate-filled chants marched around the UVA campus and rallied all their hate at the foot of a statue bearing your name: Robert Lee. A monument the city had voted to remove under state objections. Well, it’s not unreasonable, even though you are Asian-American, that you — and your employer — may have some concerns.

Within hours the trend appeared to take a life of its own around the world. Afua Hirsch, writing in the Guardian, argued that Admiral Horatio Nelson’s statue should be next to go down. “Nelson, who was what you would now call, without hesitation, a white supremacist … used his seat in the House of Lords and his position of huge influence to perpetuate the tyranny, serial rape and exploitation organised by West Indian planters, some of whom he counted among his closest friends.”


Could it be that events are spinning out of control? Maybe Rauch was right to argue there is no “slippery slope”, no connection between one demand and the one which follows.  But the tendency of political activism to demand ever more extreme concessions the more are granted suggests the opposite. In the progressive march toward “progress” a slippery slope is not only possible but necessary for the momentum to continue.

Quite the contrary to “please stop changing the subject!” progress must keep changing the subject. Like a man ascending a burning ladder he must get his foot on the next rung before the present step burns beneath.  The imperative is to move on to a new demand before the demands of the latest concession can even be assessed. It dies if it stops.  Progress is in perpetual flight from the consequences of its victories; like a gravitational singularity it must keep assimilating more material because it cannot pause, not even for an instant.

Even if we can guess the Day It All Began it is harder to predict the day it will end.  It will stop when the fire runs out of fuel or events catch up, whichever comes first. Until then the question is not ‘who wins the war on statues’ but what demands come next.

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