It’s fun to be an iconoclast and it requires little training. You don’t need to understand what you’re smashing. You don’t need to be better than what you condemn. You don’t need to offer anything in exchange for what you destroy. If you seem angry enough, people will assume you have something to be angry about. They will assume that what you hate is evil.
It’s harder to take the other position. We’ve never met Lincoln, Grant, Washington, or the rest. There is a layer of dust on our memory of their lives. We didn’t build their statues or experience the problems they helped solve. We know they were real people, flawed as we are flawed, who nonetheless accomplished important things, but our loyalty to them is a dim, cobwebby, inherited thing.
And this is the battle of the moment. Our hazy memories against kids with ropes and spray paint. Our faded gratitude against their frantic rage. Our half-hearted defense of half-forgotten people against a frenzy of self-righteous indignation.
There are arguments to be made against every man, and history would have us make them, and then evaluate those arguments in the full light of day. But the iconoclast does not want light. His hour is darkness, hidden within an anonymous mob that honors no law and tolerates no debate.
He weaponizes history, ignoring his subjects’ culture and denying their suffering, reducing them to comic-book villains, representative of their villainous eras. He rejects his subjects’ limitations and humanity – makes them gods in order to make them devils. He makes them devils in order to discredit their gods.
But, of course, these famous men were not gods. They were humans born into a culture, just as we were born into a culture – humans who suffered and struggled and stood apart from their culture, often leaving it changed for the better. They were brave men, now being mocked by masked men. They were humble and dedicated men, now being judged by self-righteous and cowardly men. They were imperfect men, now being slandered by abysmal men.
It is our forgetting that makes us ripe for this revolution. We have forgotten the price that many paid for this freedom we were born into – our globally and historically unprecedented American privilege. We have forgotten the Creator who inspired our ancestors’ revolution and their painful journey toward equality. We have forgotten our own generation’s brutality to the aborted, even as we criticize their generation’s slow liberation of the enslaved.
It’s fun to be an iconoclast, until you have finally torn down everything you don’t understand. Then, at least, you may begin to understand.