The mass destruction wrought to historical statues and venues across America by the privileged and protected modern Philistines engenders the following question: Is there a difference between the demolition of Buddhist shrines by the Taliban, the destruction of Terach’s idols by Avraham and the tearing down of statues bearing the likenesses of flawed human beings taking place now?
The question remains even if we adopt the reasonable approach that the Midrash was not necessarily depicting a literal act on Abraham’s part but rather conveying the idea that Abraham shattered his father’s intellectual idols. Nevertheless, we have to clarify why is it that most civilized people were horrified by the Taliban‘s wanton acts, why we Jews from a young age are taught to applaud Avraham’s zealotry, and why so many people are ambivalent or even supportive of the brutal erasure of America’s history – including some of its secular saints, sinners and founding fathers.
How do we distinguish one from the other?
It is first worth noting that if Jews wanted to enter the grievance competition, we could be very fierce competitors. Any self-respecting Jew should take umbrage at a highway be named for Franklin Roosevelt, whose administration, after all, did a little or nothing to save Jews during the holocaust and even thwarted efforts at refugee relief or disabling crematoria. Forget the statues; the FDR drive is an affront. Stuyvesant town and high school would have to be renamed because Peter Stuyvesant was a known Jew hater who banned Jews from his new settlement in lower Manhattan. The statues of Hadrian and Titus in Rome, like the statue of Bogdan Chmielnicki in Kiev, should cause profound pain and offense to any Jew. All were tyrants and mass murderers of Jews. As unseemly as the grotesque victimhood sweepstakes is, whatever evil was performed by Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson doesn’t compare to what the Roman emperors and the Ukrainian desperate did to the Jews. But we don’t go around seeking the destruction of their images because, to me at least, they serve as a constant reminder that we survived and prevailed. We won. It’s Hadrian and Titus and Chmielnicki and a host of others who have essentially disappeared from history.
There is even a better reason why we can take a more tolerant approach to these statues, and perhaps it takes a Canadian safely ensconced north of the border to offer a way forward and provide us with helpful distinctions. Jeffrey Collins, a professor in Ontario, suggested in the WSJ the other day that the first question to ask in evaluating any statue is why? Why was it erected in the first place? Whom was it intended to honor and for what?
Asked that way it is clear that Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, TR and FDR and others were honored not for their flaws or misconduct but for their accomplishments. The question really is do their flaws and imperfections outweigh the accomplishments? By any reasonable standard, the answer is of course not. If people were to be judged only by their sins and misdeeds, then no one will be deserving of honor. Washington and Jefferson are not being honored because they were slaveholders but rather because of their roles in the founding of America. Any rational person should realize that if we choose to honor only those without sin then no one will be honored, and that includes Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and George Floyd.
Thus, we can distinguish between a Washington, a Roosevelt, or a Columbus, and, as Professor Collins noted, a Stalin, whose evil dwarfed any nationalistic achievement. (Visiting Russia once, I personally witnessed the reverence some Russian still have for him, notwithstanding the Holomodor, the Jew hatred, and the Gulag, and found it quite shocking.) But even in the case of a scoundrel, it could very well be that a given locality would seek to pay him tribute (for example, in Russia or Georgia) where such would be horrific in any other place. Indeed, there are more statues of Stalin in Russia or Georgia today then there are of Lincoln in the south or Lee in the north.
Context is important, as well as a true evaluation of a person’s life and his essential pursuits and just not his imperfections. It should be obvious to reasonable observers that homage is paid to people not because they are perfect but because of their greatness in a variety of spheres that made a difference in the world in spite of their flawed humanity.
Professor Collins noted that the “why” question is not asked today and so all context and perspective is lost. Instead, the question asked is “how does make me feel right now?” That question is most in line with the narcissism of the protesters and many others today, whose sole barometer of anything is its momentary impact on their feelings. If so, the world is aflame because, among the rioters, there is a dearth of moral instinct and an abundance of faux outrage.
The Confederate statues present a sticky problem. Robert E. Lee was an American hero, who fought in the Mexican War and was commandant at West Point. Lincoln offered him command of the Union Army, which he turned down so as not to show disloyalty to his home state of Virginia. He was a professional who was instrumental in the post-war reconciliation – but since he is most known for waging war in the unjust cause of the South, a new generation that has not known slavery but only opportunity, is outraged at his existence and the reverence paid to him. As the respect paid him is largely owed to his military leadership of the Confederacy, he is a ripe target for the wrath of the disgruntled, and such wrath is inescapable.
Of course, the modern Visigoths would have a point if their only complaint was with the Confederate statutes. It seems their real complaint is with the United States, and such grievances cannot be assuaged in any rational way. They are enraged that Columbus “discovered” America. Mix in politics, power, money and elections, and it is a most combustible time.
Along these lines, if a statue reflected perverse and depraved ideas, then that statue as well would be a fair target. Hence, the adoration of Avraham, even if, again, it is unknown whether that tale is literal or metaphorical. And the Taliban, and their destruction of the ancient Buddhas in the Bamiyan Valley?
Certainly, we have no tolerance for idolatry. Its attendant philosophies devastated and corrupted ancient man, and its consequences are still felt today. But these statues were more historical than ideological, and their obliteration in 2001 were expressions of raw power, sheer ruthlessness and cruel conquest. Their destroyer, Mullah Omar, is now dead. His sole point was to destroy the shrines of an ancient religion to prove the superiority of his own corrupt philosophy. That is not Avraham. That is evil.
The modern demolishers have little in common with Avraham and much in common with Mullah Omar and the Taliban. What is especially troubling is that rather than recoil from the comparison, they probably welcome it. Ideas and values have been overwhelmed by chaos and anarchy. The wanton and gratuitous devastation (Ulysses S. Grant? Really?) has taken on a life of its own. Nihilism reigns supreme. The destroyers are intellectually limited and ethically stunted. The political class either encourages it or can’t stop it.