Rescuing History

Statue Smashers: Why History Protesters are the New Totalitarians

Patrick Keeney
December 11, 2020
To a Canadian of good will and fair disposition, the hostility of “protesters” who vandalize or tear down statues commemorating Canada’s past is as mysterious as it is unnerving. Where does such anger come from? And short of unconditional surrender and abject self-abasement, what is to be done to satisfy these urges? Applying a veteran educator’s perspective, Patrick Keeney finds the problem rooted in progressive reforms that have gradually debased the education of four generations of North American children, leaving the youth of today not just willfully ignorant of their past but openly hostile towards it. With a necessary note of optimism, Keeney proposes the solution is to be found – and the battle must be joined – in the soil whence it sprang.
Rescuing History

Statue Smashers: Why History Protesters are the New Totalitarians

Patrick Keeney
December 11, 2020
To a Canadian of good will and fair disposition, the hostility of “protesters” who vandalize or tear down statues commemorating Canada’s past is as mysterious as it is unnerving. Where does such anger come from? And short of unconditional surrender and abject self-abasement, what is to be done to satisfy these urges? Applying a veteran educator’s perspective, Patrick Keeney finds the problem rooted in progressive reforms that have gradually debased the education of four generations of North American children, leaving the youth of today not just willfully ignorant of their past but openly hostile towards it. With a necessary note of optimism, Keeney proposes the solution is to be found – and the battle must be joined – in the soil whence it sprang.
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Our cultural vandals had a busy summer and fall, and the woke constabularies remain on the job everywhere. A statue of Capt. James Cook in Victoria’s Inner Harbour was splashed with red oil paint in late summer – a treatment offered many other notable figures from our past recently – although the likeness of the great explorer remained standing as of last week. Barely a week seems to go by when poor old Sir John A. Macdonald doesn’t have one of his statues similarly defaced, torn down or officially removed, or have his good name expunged in the name of equity, inclusivity and diversity, as the brain trust at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario recently decreed. Less visibly, a project to put up new statues of all Canada’s prime ministers has been halted due to fear of political fallout. Winter’s approach and the second wave of Covid-19 breaking over the country brought a seeming quiescence to this enterprise, but broader trends suggest it is a temporary reprieve.

As with most things “progressive”, we Canadians lag our American friends – not only in instigation but, mercifully, intensity and frequency. Over the recent American Thanksgiving alone, monuments were defaced or toppled in Chicago, Minneapolis, Portland, and Spokane, Washington. Earlier in the fall, “protesters” in Portland pulled down statues not only of Theodore Roosevelt but of Abraham Lincoln (who, the truly “low information” citizen might need to be reminded, liberated America’s slaves). Not quite content, they also shattered the entrance to the Oregon Historical Society.

A new coat of paint: Statues (left to right) of explorer Captain James Cook in Victoria, B.C., Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald in Montreal, and educator Egerton Ryerson in Toronto were all attacked by protesters this year.

Whether it’s an eminent figure or some justifiably-forgotten Confederate general, all are frog-marched in front of the tribunal of newly-woke justice and held to account. In Rochester, New York, the mob even toppled the statue of Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave, memoirist, and abolitionist intellectual who forged a profound and influential friendship with Lincoln. The indiscriminate rage and historical ignorance are of a piece with the 18th century French revolutionary mob that knocked the heads of Biblical figures off a cathedral, thinking them to be likenesses of French kings they detested.

The mob-driven campaign of effacement, erasure and expunging got going just over three years ago in the U.S., metastasized during the George Floyd protests and riots last spring, spread to Canada and has also taken hold in Great Britain. There, even tenuous links to the slave trade have rendered certain figures personae non gratae. Jesus College, Cambridge is destroying all memorials, portraits and references to one Tobias Rustat, a 17th century benefactor whose legacy is tainted by his investments in the Royal African Company.

Just being old is sin enough: In Rochester, NY, a statue of escaped slave, memoirist and prominent abolitionist Frederick Douglass was inexplicably torn off its pedestal and dumped in a field by vandals this past July.

It seems to have come as a stunning discovery that these and many others were men of their time, which is to say flawed humans who manifested what for the rest of human history would be seen as a normal admixture of vice and virtue, inescapable by anyone not a saint. Thanks, however, to the moral rectitude of today’s uber-righteous judges, we can at last recognize what they were, and act accordingly: It saddens us to report that our nation’s past is filled with flawed and imperfect men and women, none of whom is above suspicion. They were all sinners against the creed of wokeness, and only by destroying the physical reminders of them and erasing their memory can we expunge their iniquities and start anew.

The Pieties of the Marble Mashers

Watching the statues fall, one is struck by the loss of any measure of scale. Clothed in the aura of religious sanctity, the statue-smasher has decreed that yesterday’s men were racist, exclusionary, inequitable, misogynist, colonialist, transphobic, favoured by too much white privilege or perhaps too much male privilege, or suffered from some other irredeemable crime against the woke orthodoxy. Controversies have engulfed some female figures, too, such as the protests concerning the new statue of Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women.

Today’s brittle moral universe imposes rigorous and unforgiving ethical standards, with little room to distinguish between crimes and misdemeanors. On the Procrustean Bed of the social justice warrior, there is a perverse sort of equality at play so that a tasteless joke by a B-list comedian counts the same as (if not more than) the mass slaughter of, say, a Pol Pot. Malefactors of all stripes, sinners – cardinal and venal alike – must pass before the wokester’s tribunal. To paraphrase the Dodo bird in Alice In Wonderland, “All must be punished.” Or to adapt a tagline from the George W. Bush era: “No statue should be left behind.” Like Kafka’s Joseph K in The Trial, we might be a bit hazy about the crime, but we can be confident of the guilt.

Keeney - Inset 3

No matter the crime, the defendant is always guilty: Public judgements of historical figures have become reminiscent of Franz Kafka’s absurdist masterpiece

 The Trial. (A scene from the 1962 movie version directed by Orson Welles.)

As with all true believers, our statue smashers are tenacious, their sense of moral probity and entitlement unshakeable and unsettling. There is an irredeemable arrogance at play, as they assume the divine right to dismiss and destroy, even as they display their ignorance of history (no, John A. Macdonald was not responsible for the establishment of Residential Schools). Suppose you doubt their motives or believe they haven’t the right to destroy public monuments. 

Our monument mashers exemplify Dostoyevsky’s quip from The Brothers Karamazov, “The more I love humanity in general, the less I love man in particular.” They exhibit that same glow of universal brotherhood expressed in G.K Chesterton’s quatrain from his poem The World State:

The villas and the chapels where

I learned with little labour

The way to love my fellow man

But hate my next-door neighbour.

The British novelist L.P. Hartley in The Go-Between remarked that, “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” Yes, they do. They hold different values, pursue other goals and subscribe to diverse notions of vice and virtue. Even the most cursory inquiry into the past should spark the insight that people who lived in other times thought and believed differently from us.

Studying history is an attempt to enter the foreign country of the past in the only way we can, namely via the intellect, reading about and learning of our forebears through an act of the historical imagination. One needs to go about doing so, if not exactly on their terms, at least with an open mind and an appreciation of the conditions and limitations that they lived under.

The wokesters refuse to do that. Statue-smashing is the most visible manifestation of our age’s anti-intellectual ahistoricism. Underlying it is widespread and rancorous resentment of the apparently limitless imperfections of those who populated a long-vanished world, coupled with utter denial, ignorance, or denigration of all that was good, glorious, uplifting and accomplished the hard work of building the civilization we inhabit.

Why do so many want to crush the cultural vertebrae linking past and future? Why this aggressive dismantling of our shared history which, as with every nation and culture that has ever existed, includes shortcomings and injustices?

Woke Totalitarianism

It is, of course, complex. But one detects among the statue smashers more than a whiff of fascism, of tendencies that, while manifested in greatly differing severity over time – the burning of Harry Potter books is still not the same as Kristallnacht, and thank God for that – point distressingly to a totalitarian mindset. One does not make this claim gladly or lightly.

As the word suggests, totalitarianism claims absolute, universal laws that provide a “total” explanation of history, plus the right to impose a total solution on the subject society, denying any independent or higher authority (such as a constitution, cultural norms and traditions, or religion). Hannah Arendt provided the most incisive analysis of the phenomenon in her 1951 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism. She argued that totalitarian movements are different from mere revolutionary movements in that their aim is “not the…transmutation of society, but the transformation of human nature itself.” According to her analysis, totalitarian movements are “mass organizations of atomized, isolated individuals.”

She further noted that totalitarian rule, far from being lawless or arbitrary, appeals to supra-human laws. For example, Nazism declared that the laws of nature had decreed the Aryan race to be superior to all others: “Underlying the Nazis’ belief in race laws…is Darwin’s idea of man as the product of natural development.” The unequivocal laws of nature, so the Nazis’ mad thinking went, determined that those of Aryan blood were the world’s rightful rulers. Similarly, Marxism appeals to the invariable law of historical progress. In Arendt’s words, “Totalitarian rule is quite prepared to sacrifice everybody’s vital immediate interests in the execution of what it assumes to be the law of History or the law of Nature.”

Totalitarian “laws” occupy the sacred status of first principles. They make claims about the world that Karl Popper in his 1959 book The Logic of Scientific Discovery called “non-falsifiable,” which is to say immune to science’s empirical tests. Arendt notes that, for example, the word “race” in racism does not signify any genuine curiosity about the human races as a field for scientific exploration but is instead the “idea by which the movement of history is explained as one consistent process.”

True Believers, then and now.

Ideological thinking is contemptuous of the empirical realm. Facts are seen only through the lens of an a priori, explanatory theory. Ideologies start not from an inductive, practical attempt to understand the world. Instead, as Arendt writes, they proceed from “an axiomatically accepted premise, deducing everything else from it.”

In the analysis of today’s woke social justice warrior, history and its offspring, contemporary society, are animated by “systemic racism” combined with “white privilege” and its sense of civilizational superiority. This is the BLM movement’s premise and there are no conceivable tests that could disprove it. In Popperian language, the claim is “unfalsifiable.”

And herein resides the steely train of totalitarian thought. Like the closed, axiomatic systems of logic or mathematics, ideologies are exempt from reality, from the world in which human life occurs. Arendt sums it up this way: “Ideological thinking…proceeds with a consistency that exists nowhere in the realm of reality.”

Most Canadians seem to believe that totalitarianism can’t take root here and, even if a remnant possibly lurks in China, is essentially confined to history. Such complacency is belied by contemporary zealots of various stripes, all of whom are convinced that their ideology or manifesto or holy book or prophet has revealed, at last, “the mysteries of the universe.” If that’s as far as it went, and we were talking merely about some mystic contemplative in a remote monastery or temple, why should we worry?

But today’s true believers are a danger to us all because they intend to act on their beliefs. They are willing to sacrifice you and me and the entire commonweal on the altar of one or another of the inexorable laws of history, nature or God. And should a memorial to a man or woman stand as a silent rebuke to the true believer’s ideology? The Taliban blew up the ancient Buddhas in Afghanistan. A few years ago, some of the world’s most precious antiquities were destroyed by Islamist radicals in Syria. Canadian statues, too, must be knocked off their plinth.

Going to the Source

Smoothing the way for these totalitarian tendencies has been the educational failure of the progressive, “child-centred” educational reforms that swept across North America early in the last century and became entrenched in schools everywhere. Progressive education is greatly indebted to the American pragmatist philosopher John Dewey, who summarized his educational theories in 1938’s Experience and Education. Dewey harboured a deep-seated anti-intellectualism, including a contempt for the study of history. For the past 90 years or more, young Canadians, rather than engaging in disciplined inquiries into the past, have been taught “social studies.”

Kieran Egan, Professor Emeritus of Education at Simon Fraser University, has called social studies “the most educationally devastating curricular innovation to emerge from the progressive movement.” Pedagogically, social studies emphasize “critical thinking skills” rather than historical dates, timelines, causation and so forth. The dates of Confederation or what caused the Riel Rebellion are not considered historical facts that Canadian citizens should know but are useful insofar as they provide fodder for teaching “critical thinking skills.” It is claimed that this generic skill will allow students to think critically about anything.

Keeney - Inset 7

Progressive education, and its failures: Educator John Dewey (left) popularized ‘child-centred’ school reforms; Canadian scholar Hilda Neatby (right) skewered the

results of this trend in her 1953 book So Little for the Mind: An Indictment of Canadian Education.

An unanswered question is whether thinking is even a “skill”. More importantly, can anyone think “critically” about anything without first accumulating a substantial body of knowledge? Knowing whether a given claim is true or false would seem rather helpful to “thinking critically”. Nevertheless, the teaching of ostensible “thinking skills” long ago shouldered aside teaching actual history.

Another significant aspect of Dewey’s thought – his scientism – further eroded the study of history. He insisted that “the scientific method is the only authentic means at our command for getting at the significance of our everyday experiences of the world in which we live.” (Emphasis added.) As Allan Bloom noted in his famous The Closing of the American Mind, Dewey “regarded history as irrelevant or as a hindrance to rational analysis of our present.”

The study of history became useful only if it lent itself to social progress. And how could the truth about the past be allowed to stand in the way? The requirements of social progress – social “justice” – demand that the monuments come down. A few decades ago, these were figurative monuments – the content of a child’s education. Today, they are the physical variety.

Canadians should remember that progressive education is an American import. In her 1953 polemic So Little for the Mind: An Indictment of Canadian Education, the historian Hilda Neatby lamented progressive education’s assault on Canada’s proud educational tradition:

[It is]…the application of scientific techniques with unscientific optimism…[Our] bored graduates are ignorant of things that they might be expected to know…They are not stupid…they are only ignorant and unaware of the exacting demands of a society from the realities of which they have been carefully insulated.

It Must Begin with Educational Reform

As Arendt convincingly argued, a closed system of deductive logic proceeding from axiomatic first principles is a disastrous method for understanding the political realm. Regrettably, this approach has become widespread, emanating at first from our universities but rapidly spreading to other corners of our culture. The problem at root is an educational one. “Education supplies all other industries,” Neatby pointed out. “If the educational industry falters, it necessarily follows the whole structure of the nation is threatened.”

As trite as it might sound, the most plausible way out lies in educational reforms. We need to provide schoolchildren with a broad understanding of Canadian history and the history of other nations and cultures. Somewhat counter-intuitively, the best way to achieve historical understanding may be by studying the world’s religions, as the cultural critic Camille Paglia has argued. But whatever our pedagogical method, it must emphasize the cultivation of the intellect, including the historical imagination.

Our kids must once more be equipped with the cognitive tools to challenge the reductionist assertions of uni-causal historical explanations, whether “racism,” “white privilege” or the “power relations” of Michel Foucault. Particularly in high school, students should be introduced to nuanced and balanced historical accounts so that they can weigh and assess historical claims and grapple with contested interpretations of the evidence. In brief, our schools need to be made to break the stranglehold of progressive nostrums and return to the study of history as a discipline in its own right.

As for our universities, they are the scene of a dangerous misuse of history. Too many professors have abandoned disinterested, apolitical teaching and instead promote pet causes, feeding zealotry, intolerance and fanaticism. University students must be retaught to tolerate and respect ideas that differ from their own views, values or even their deeply held beliefs. 

This is, admittedly, a tall order. But need it be a losing battle, let alone futile? Some are making the attempt. Professor Mark Mercer is a member of the philosophy department at St. Mary’s University in Halifax and President of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship. In an email exchange, Mercer wrote that, “What we want is a classroom in which matters that can trouble students are discussed candidly, openly, freely, and dispassionately.” Students, he feels, can’t be forced to be respectful. “Treat people with respect or else!” cannot be said respectfully, Mercer notes with irony.

But, he believes, once students see civil behaviour in the classroom as necessary to the attempt to try to understand the matter at hand, they will begin to behave civilly. The best way of establishing an open and tolerant classroom, Mercer proposes, is “to model it oneself. Take a thesis, put it on the blackboard, ask what are reasons or evidence for thinking this true? What are the reasons or evidence for thinking it false? Let the ‘strangeness’ of academic discourse reveal itself to the students.” 

St. Mary’s University philosophy professor Mark Mercer argues students should be exposed to a variety of viewpoints and expected to discuss their opinions with others in a respectful manner.

Mercer’s advice speaks to the ancient ideals of open and free discussions, unencumbered by political allegiance or indeed, allegiance to anything but the pursuit of truth. The professoriate needs to embody and internalize the virtues of tolerance, open-mindedness, and respect necessary for academic discourse and essential for free citizens in a democracy. This will be the work of many years and innumerable battles, large and small, at thousands of campuses in dozens of countries.

Confronting the Wokesters

Then what about the hear-and-now and its most pressing matter at hand, the open and remorseless political attack on our history, culture, institutions and the central tenets of Western civilization? Social justice warriors have mostly cowed the West’s political class. Fortunately, there are some brave exceptions.

In France, despite demands that the state demolish statues that honour French historical figures involved in slavery or France’s colonial history, President Emmanuel Macron has defiantly declared that, “The republic will erase no trace or names of its history, it will forget none of its works, it will tear down none of its statues.” In a series of seminal speeches and a whirlwind of recent public appearances, Macron has pressed the message that, while France admittedly has had problems with racism, his country’s history as a whole and its role in the world has been highly positive and remains worth defending. “We should look at all of our history together, including relations with Africa, with a goal of ‘truth’ instead of denying who we are,” Macron insists.

Honouring history: French President Emmanuel Macron (left) and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney (right) have passionately defended the necessity of preserving the links to our past.

With similar fortitude and directness, Alberta’s Premier Jason Kenney has asked for harsher criminal penalties for those who deface memorials to Canadian police and soldiers. He has also requested that the statue of Sir John A. Macdonald that was toppled in Montreal be placed on the Alberta Legislature’s grounds should Montreal decide not to re-erect it. “This vandalism of our history and heroes must stop,” Kenney declared. “It’s right to debate [Macdonald’s] legacy and life. But it is wrong to allow roving bands of thugs to vandalize our history with impunity.” He later tweeted that, “Many of those on the extreme left responsible for this kind of violence claim that Canada is an illegitimate state, all the while enjoying Canada’s rights, freedoms, privileges & prosperity.”

Canadians are unlikely to witness any such clarity or fortitude from their current prime minister, Justin Trudeau, the apologizer-in-chief. This is one instance in which his education is unlikely to be at fault, for his late father, Pierre Trudeau, stoutly resisted this nascent trend while he was prime minister. In 1984, when then-opposition leader Brian Mulroney chastised Trudeau for refusing to offer an apology to the Japanese interned during the Second World War, the late Prime Minister responded, “I do not think the purpose of a government is to right the past. It cannot rewrite history. It is our purpose to be just in our time.”

Trudeau foresaw – with remarkable prescience – that apologizing to the Japanese would open a Pandora’s Box of endless grievances. As he put it, “We could mount pressure groups across this country in many areas where there have been historic wrongs.” Apologizing for one historical injustice means apologizing for all of them. Trudeau also understood the miasma of problems that arise from a government conceding the outrageous calumny of “collective guilt” for historical wrongs.

Canada is Worth Defending

Whatever the woke movement, the news and entertainment media, most of academia and feckless politicians might have you believe, this battle is not lost. The constituency for defending Canada’s history and the prominent figures who inhabited it may be quiet and unorganized, but it appears to be vast. To take one small example, this video opposing the toppling of Macdonald’s statues, by independent conservative journalist Aaron Gunn, drew nearly 1 million views.

Keeney - Inset 10 (above)_
Mainstream pushback: A defender of British history stands guard beside a statue of Sir Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts, in Britain (above), a video condemning the destruction of Sir John A Macdonald’s statue in Montreal by journalist Aaron Gunn has garnered nearly a million views on YouTube (below).
Mainstream pushback: A defender of British history stands guard beside a statue of Sir Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts, in Britain (above), a video condemning the destruction of Sir John A Macdonald’s statue in Montreal by journalist Aaron Gunn has garnered nearly a million views on YouTube (below).

The stories we tell ourselves about our nation – including our country’s past – are fundamental to Canada’s wellbeing, if not its very survival. Like that of every other nation on Earth, our past is not without injustices. Nor does it follow that being proud of one’s country requires embracing an uncritical nationalism or contempt for “the other”. The truth is that Canada is a prosperous nation, one that is fundamentally decent, humane, and fair, in which the rule of law is widely observed, and its citizens are relatively free. And it is to our forebears that we owe this prosperity, system of laws and culture. Canadians have ample reason to be proud.

Our cultural moment is one in which the well-intentioned, the accommodationists and those who see themselves as reformers ignore the everyday truth that nations thrive or fail based on their national narrative. If you tear down what you have, the risk is immense that what follows will be worse – perhaps immeasurably so. This was true in Germany’s shift from the Weimar Republic to Nazism as it was true during the Terror of the French Revolution and has been confirmed in most revolutions since.

Revising history is no abstract game for the seminar room. It matters, and in quite a practical way, whatever the pipedreams of the woke social justice activists. Like all good Jacobins, the mob wants to demolish any sense of a shared past and reset the calendar to Year Zero. That so many want to denigrate our patrimony and destroy the statues of those who have built our country should alert us to what is at stake. For the sake not only of fairness and historical accuracy but the survival of our democracy, Canadians need to fight this scourge.

Patrick Keeney is Associate Editor of C2C Journal.

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