In recent days we have been witness to the destruction of ancient statues and museum pieces by the ISIS Army. For most of us it is a sad and hateful thing to watch. The world has called for reprisals and efforts to stop the destruction. Sledgehammers rain down upon carved images that have withstood the assault of centuries of time, but now bow and fall to the blows of a army that sees them as images of a past with which they no longer agree.
This kind of activity is the origin of the word “iconoclast”….”a breaker of icons”. But icons come not only in the form of statues and effigies. They also come in the form of ideas. Most iconoclasts now work in the realm of ideas. They use rhetorical sledgehammers. As reprehensible and affronting destroying ancient museum pieces is, the physicality is what brings it home. The destruction of an idea is not nearly so visibly nauseating.
The destruction of a narrative, an enduring historical script is no different. The visuals are absent, but the deed is as awful and consequential. I would suggest here, that the destruction of a great many of the enduring American values, narratives and scripts starting in the sixties is of equal consequence. I believe that wave of iconoclasm is every bit as vast and fundamental as anything the ISIS Army is doing today.
I believe there is a liberal progressive movement in America today that took a firm foothold in the Sixties and continues its ascension to this day. The Vietnam War brought this reassessment to the fore and subsequent events have fed its progress. The young generation that formed that opposition then and continues to inform it today questioned all values, all authority and all assumptions. From the Founding Fathers to the Pax Americana to American Exceptionalism abroad, all was questioned and much jettisoned. That vision now dominates much of our political thinking on the left, and dominates most college faculties and thus their curricula. It indoctrinates the new young and perpetuates itself therefore.
Business talks of “creative destruction” as a way forward. Hegel says history works that way. Much of the above is thus “natural”. But when it happens in sufficient force and size, it is a sea change, a techtonic shift. And those of us who live in such moments are fiercely affected. Familiar patterns, beliefs and traditions are comforting and stabilizing. Forced outside of them, or to live without them is stressful and anxious. We are in such a moment. Our country reels from the radical new and the unraveling past. We are a country divided. We are a Congress divided. We are a country demographically and age divided. The young, the new immigrants, the new poor, the new people of color all embrace this new “re-vision”. The old, the white, the upper classes seek to preserve the past from whence they came. This is not a new conflict historically, but I would suggest that the speed of events in this modern age, and the swiftness of communication and change through social media has made its impact swift, hard and divisive. The sides are clearly drawn and their differences vividly displayed in word and image.
We are living, here in America, in a time of “breaking statues”. The sounds, if not the images, of sledgehammers can be heard. The values of old and middle America are dissolving and those who yet want to hold on to them are angry and sad. The divide is wide and the differences loud and often angry. They hate politics and politicians where the fighting fields are displayed daily in the news. They lament the loss of “traditional American values”, self-reliance, small government, family and honesty, historical virtues that are eroding or gone.
It is not the purpose of this post today to argue those opposing views, but only to highlight their intensity and importance. Take all the stomach churn and repellent feelings that you have when you see the pictures of ISIS sledgehammering icons of its own past, and that is the same, perhaps more unconscious, reactions that many are having here in their own country as they see and feel the icons of marriage, sexual roles, careers, identity, government sledgehammered, destroyed, or a least pounded and malleated into new and near unrecognizable shapes. Some may see this as mere modernization. Whatever your view, it is taking the same emotional toll. The gut-wrenching is endemic to both sides. The scattered pieces of our past strewn upon the ground is not a pretty sight. Ozamandias understands now. We may not yet. Where it leads we do not know. It may destroy us; it may evolve us.
If some iconoclasm can serve our country, make it better, then perhaps the churn will be worth it. But if it is only self-serving, enabling certain people to get ahead, or merely re-elected, then it is destruction that will erode and doom us. It is hard to be discontinued, out dated, obsolete. Not everything should be included. Some natural selection should endure. The sorting out is everything. It is not an easy process. It takes care, surgical precision. Surgery is not done well with a sledgehammer. Excision is better done with a sharp tool. Let’s hope we can begin to discern what is valuable of the past and what is necessary in the new. Some empathy all around would be a good starting place for that argument. Remember the symbol of Communism (and how did that work out?) was the hammer and sickle.
Aphrodite has no arms to defend herself. Hammers are a blunt instrument. New ideas are frequently blunt and unrefined. They get honed over time. All sides would do well to remember this, and proceed accordingly. We will get through this. Hopefully with as few pieces strewn upon the floors of museums and the sands of time as possible. Statues should stand. Some as reminders of vital, living, useful histories; others as nostalgic, beautiful memories of fond but obsolescent times. We are in a battle, but whether hammers or scalpels are used is a choice. I vote for scalpels.