The spectre of vandalism, arson and rioting which started in the US after the death of George Floyd while he was being arrested by police is slowly acquiring the iconoclastic characteristic. Statues of people such as Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Columbus etc. are being vandalized in Virginia, Miami and other states while people on the other side of the Atlantic in Britain are doing similar things. There is increasing pressure on public authorities to remove the statues connected with colonialism and slavery as if removing these statues will change the history retrospectively. The movement is being supported vociferously by the Global Left in their quest to remove every form of injustice in the world.
The current wave of destruction of symbols and artefacts of history is a clear manifestation of Iconoclasm. Iconoclasm is a common feature of every totalitarian or authoritarian ideology around the world since the existence of such ideology is contingent on contempt for the past and promise for a better future. However, the contempt for the past is so deeply entrenched that nothing less than demonization and destruction of the past is acceptable. We will consider few totalitarian ideologies to see how the practice of iconoclasm works. Islamic iconoclasm is the world’s most rabid and widespread form of iconoclasm which seeks to destroy every element of pre-Islamic culture, as before the advent of Islam in a particular society, it’s believed that the society lived in the state of ignorance (Jahiliyat).
The Islamic iconoclasts started their journey of iconoclasm with the destruction of sacred temples of Arab pagans in Mecca after the conquest of Mecca by Muhammad and his associates. Wherever Islam expanded its tentacles, the cultural and religious iconography of the society was its first target. In India, it resulted in destruction of thousands of temples including the Ram Janmbhumi Temple which has finally been reclaimed by Hindus after years of struggle. In Europe and Western Asia, Islam destroyed the religious places of Christians with the most prominent example being destruction of Hagia Sophia after the fall of Constantinople. In fact, the basis of Islamic iconoclasm comes from its insistence on demonization of history where Islam was absent and consequently, a darker period of the history.
Communism which is another totalitarian ideology practices its own version of iconoclasm as it considers any non-commuist society to be nothing more than a system which exists solely for the purpose of oppression of the proletariat. Thus, when Communists come into the power, it becomes obligatory for them to destroy the traces of pro-Communist society. Working on this principle, starting with Communist coup in 1917 in Russia to the fall of Soviet Union, it destroyed churches with missionary zeal. Some of the prominent churches which were destroyed are: Church of St. Mary in Ukraine, Old Trinity Cathedral, Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Moscow etc.
In Communist China, one of the aspects of Cultural Revolution was the strategy of Four Olds in which four aspects of pre-Communist Chinese culture viz. Old Customs, Old Habits, Old Culture, and Old Ideas were to be destroyed. Under this program, scores of Confucius temples in China were razed by the Communist government, Confucius monks were killed and the attempt was made to remove every trace of classical Chinese culture. The actual extent of destruction of Chinese culture is not well known as the information was tightly controlled to let come out, but the policy was so brutal in its approach and outcome that Deng Xiaoping didn’t only actively discourage it but seeked to restore the destroyed sites during the Four Olds Campaign.
Coming to the currently ongoing trend of destruction of statues, the magnitude and extent of destruction can never be compared to Islamic and Communist Iconoclasm but the underlying belief of Liberal Iconoclasm remains the same. The fundamental idea behind iconoclasm is that the moral standard and ethical norms of the present generation or regime is so sacrosanct that any element which contradicts it, ought to be destroyed even if it’s merely a remnant of the past. In today’s time, we are convinced that Slavery is a reprehensible thing and every figure associated with slavery shouldn’t have any place in today’s public spaces. The premise is faulty in the assumption that the present generation has the authority to impose its moral standards on history in the belief that it has perfected its moral and ethical norms.
Slavery as an institution has existed for most of the parts of human history and its connection with racism is merely coincidental. In Ancient Greece and Rome, the slaves and slaveowners belonged to the very same race. Slavery was considered so natural that Aristotle argued that the division between slaves and non-slaves is a natural distinction. Should we remove Aristotle’s books from our libraries and university curriculum because he supported slavery? Roman statesman and political theorist Cicero didn’t only own slaves but even crushed a rebellion of slaves mercilessly. Should we remove the political wisdom of Cicero from our textbooks? These examples only illustrate that the ethical norms of the history shouldn’t be identical to our norms, nor the illustrious men of the history become demons worth getting vilified for holding the ideas which were consistent with the prevailing zeitgeist.
Another problematic aspect of Iconoclasm is that it’s a representation of infantilism. A matured engagement with our historical realities, however uncomfortable, doesn’t lie in destruction of the uncomfortable aspects of history but an attempt to understand it in the correct historical context and the conviction to not repeat it. Destruction of the historical symbols means that the present generation is denying the next generation opportunity to understand the history. We shouldn’t assume that our moral and ethical standards will be acceptable to the coming generations in entirety. For example, war is considered to be an integral part of the state policy but if in next 200-300 years, a wave of pacifism becomes so prominent that it starts considering war as an abominable act, will they be justified in tearing down the statues of illustrious military generals of the previous generation? By justifying iconoclasm, we are asking our next generations to remove the aspects of the history again.
The final problem with Iconoclasm is that it’s authoritarian in nature and seeks to impose belief of one group over the entire society. Since it considers a particular icon or historical figure to be a demon, it also believes that it has the authority to impose the belief on everyone else. Does everyone else in Virginia and Miami believe that the statues of Confederate generals should be brought down? Definitely, no. But a tiny group was able to impose its own historical sensibilities on the entire group. By promoting Iconoclasm or justifying it with twisted arguments, we are creating a society in which no aspects of the history will survive as every group will find other sets of symbols as reprehensible and worthy of destruction.