“When old customs get too stubborn, they don’t let the new generation spread its ideas. So they need to be broken.” – Shiv Sanagal
Monuments of modernity forged in the quintessential modern experiment we know as America are being torn down and effaced all over this country and many other Western nations are seeing the same phenomena at play. I want to explore the reasons why this new wave of iconoclasm might be happening in a way that doesn’t look beyond the Black Lives Matter protests and the constellation of social problems that are motivating them but also seeks to look for some kind of broader context to understand this present movement. Why are young people of all colors seeking to tear down monuments that they see as fundamentally racist? Are they simply trying to efface history as some claim? Is there something deeper at play that is inclusive of resentments over racism but isn’t entirely obvious to both iconoclasts and their detractors?
I submit that there is indeed something deeper at play here. America tells itself a story that its religion is separate from its politics, and to a degree, this might be true. But, even from its founding a great deal of the American self-understanding rested on a baptism of certain religious and even eschatological assumptions under the auspices of an ascendant secularism being articulated in the nascent doctrines of liberalism and a rapidly developing capitalism. The founding of a unique American society was perceived as a fundamental break with the crumbling of a cohesive European Christendom that marked a novus ordo seclorum – a new order for the ages that was charged with an eschatological self-understanding that was so deeply believed within this society that the collapse of communism in Europe in the late 20th gave rise to the belief that history had ended. Within this most exuberant and fideistic clarion call, the liberal order envisioned and nurtured in America had emerged as the clear and decisive victor at the end of history and that the free-market liberal order could now assume global regency as the way in which all subsequent history would be modeled.
But, I am getting ahead of myself. All civilizations rest on some kind of founding myth. Here I don’t mean to say that these myths are without real historical roots, but I mean to say that the mythological foundings have a tenuous relationship with real history. The founding myth of the American nation rested heavily upon the sacred ideals of liberty. The founding fathers who enshrined these liberties in law and earned them on the field of battle quickly took their place in a desacralized American pantheon who soon became enshrined in the iconography of this emerging national ethos. Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, and numerous other fathers were given iconographic adulation that was not at all dissimilar to the manner in which ancient Rome honored gods and emperors. Over time, even the revolutionary enemies of the US in the Civil War took their place in this pantheon as romantic heroes of a distinctly Southern self-understanding of the American ideal. The late 19th and 20th centuries were marked by the iconographic impulse to concretize this story we tell ourselves about ourselves and what our society means and is, and this is where we saw the greatest proliferation of statuary and monumental memorials being erected in our cities and towns and rural areas. We became markedly adept at enshrining not only our heroes but our rebels as a society that could synthesize any number of contradictory ideals embodied by hero and rebel alike into a cohesive vision of what our history is, what it means, and what it tells us about ourselves.
However, just as a lake turns over its various layers of water at the changing of the season, America is entering into a season of social, cultural, and political upheaval. The old valences that stratify our society in terms of class, race, and more importantly values are giving way to a chaotic churning of the civic waters and will remain in a state of turbulent flux until new equilibrium can be reached. The stories we’ve told ourselves about ourselves as Americans are being rejected tout court, predominantly by younger Americans who no longer believe in the American mythos. Its narrative is no longer sufficiently coherent to synthesize its inherent contradictions, nor does its truth value correspond to the realities of the world as it is. To put a stark point on it – the statues are coming down because a significant portion of the population not only no longer believes in the story of America, they are rejecting it as false. The American mythos, for a rising number of young Americans, and all of its truisms and associated narrative are not only insufficient, they must be opposed and dismantled because they are not true.
To be certain, there is still a significant portion of the population across the political spectrum from right to left to hold to some cohesive form of the American story that enables them to confidently maintain that they live in the greatest country on Earth. However, their collective adherence to some version of the American mythos is not sufficient to maintain the tenuous balance that the polarities of American society have managed to achieve. This is because there is an emerging and significantly large enough segment of society that can no longer abide a mythology they see as false. The rejection of this myth preceded the present iconoclastic revolt, rooted in decades of those on the fringes of society offering and insisting on counter-narratives that better comported with reality. The women’s suffrage and labor movements of the early 20th Century and the civil rights and peace movements that followed, that gave way to activism for expanded women’s rights and LGBTQ inclusion and enfranchisement have provided a sufficient though at times disparate counter-narrative over time has eroded confidence in the social, economic, and political verities that once provided sufficient cohesion to this pluralistic society. What has emerged, much to the alarm of those who wish to maintain a positive relationship to the American mythos, is a conservative constituency that vociferously opposes this iconoclasm as an existential threat to their understanding of what it means to be American, and a neoliberal impulse to enculturate these revolutionary impulses into an ever-evolving mass culture in such a way that their vaunted institutions and social structures can continue to hold its place of pride in elite organs of politics, finance, education, and culture-making.
Opposition and assimilation as a means to deal with not only the present iconoclasm but the deeper rejection of the American mythos are in this historical moment, likely to fail. The world that Millennials and Zoomers, and even to a degree Generation X which proceeded them have inherited is one that cannot deliver on its promises. If American Democracy is the eschatological ethos of a new order for the ages, the American Dream is the manner in which it moves from the collective ideal and becomes individuated (though generally in the most homogenized fashion). However, the American Dream is largely failing; it has excluded and repressed minorities, seen a gutted working class that transects racial lines, and now three generations who have seen perpetual wars of adventure and two major economic calamities in the space of the past twenty years no longer see the American Dream as either attainable or even in many cases desirable. The chronic abuse of power and systemic police violence and judicial abuse against blacks and other minorities are among the most significant material grievances against a mythology that has developed these repressive social structures of executive and judicial authority. Counter-revolutionary forces have been marshaled as a response to any who might call into question the veracity of the American story or challenge the social elites who rely on this mythology for power and public consent. Even when explicit rejection of the American Dream is articulated by activists, the more powerful indictment against the truisms of the American Dream are evidenced in the lives of the repressed and marginalized in this society that themselves are powerful living counter-narratives to the prevailing mythology. Of course, the powers of opposition and assimilation will seek to combat or coopt the present phenomena of iconoclasm but they will largely do so from the vantage point of ingrained paradigms that keep them from seeing that they have largely lost control of the narrative and that the old gods are being sacrificed in anticipation of a new order. No amount of opposition can succeed because those who wish to maintain and conserve the old order are routinely being exposed as golden-age thinkers who at best cannot come to grips with the fact that the arrow of time is always pointing forward and at worst embody the most pernicious prejudices that lead to the current predicament. Likewise, the assimilators among the neoliberal elite cannot see that no amount of sloganeering for Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ rights, and no amount of virtue signaling by kneeling in congress in African garb or token concessions will be able to absorb the fundamental contradictions between the demands of the iconoclasts and the present elites’ desire for continued cultural ascendency.
Alongside the odious racial inequities that present iconoclasts are seeking to combat, and which neoliberal assimilators are most keen to co-opt, are a series of additional and substantial economic and political grievances that cannot be assimilated without a fundamental change to the architecture of power in America. A large portion of the American public does not vote because they do not see the binary choices being offered to them each election cycle give any credence to their voices. A growing portion of the population are seeing their economic prospects in society constantly degraded even as the wealth gap in society widens. Many are saddled with levels of debt that are unlikely to be repaid. Many have seen a four-decade-long assault on the working class that has now bled into a good portion of the middle-class and see no reason to assume that things will actually get better. For any meaningful change to take place, wholesale reforms are in order and these are not likely to be either accommodated or tolerated by a ruling class that depends on these inequities in order to maintain their power. The American mythos is crumbling and the clay feet of its iconographic heroes are no longer strong enough to withstand the onslaught of history.
Iconoclasm is the hallmark of a society that no longer believes in itself. Medieval Christendom as it emerged in the High Middle Ages was not able to survive the iconoclasm that emerged with Protestantism and Modernity. What developed in its place was the modern nation-state after the Peace of Westphalia which increasingly came to be ruled by the liberal ideals that came out of the Enlightenment. Oddly enough, the iconoclastic spirit that gave rise to modernity needed its own mythologies to replace the older Medieval narratives that ordered society. It’s iconoclastic spirit eventually gave way to a new iconophilia that displaced the old sacred order with new images signifying this new order. In the 500 years since the Protestant Reformation and the beginnings of colonialism (both Catholic and Protestant), the gyres of history have begun to slough off its old verities and we have entered into a new age of (global) iconoclasm. Those who are shocked or surprised by this can only maintain this because they haven’t been paying attention and because their cherished cultural position demands that they maintain a level of ignorance that allows them to either cling to their old gods (as do the conservatives in the liberal tradition) or sacrifice them in a limited fashion (as do the neoliberal and progressives) that will maintain some kind of cohesion to a passing mythology.
Make no mistake, what we are witnessing in this emerging iconoclastic moment marks the stage of terminal decline for the present order. Things that cannot last don’t. The glowering inconsistencies in the American and by extension, Western mythology have come home to roost. The facts are impossible to ignore and now any image which represents the projection of this mythology, or is fairly or unfairly perceived to be connected with social repression faces destruction. Questions about whether religious iconography deserves the same treatment as secular iconography largely misses the point. Western Christianity is inextricably connected to the abuses of colonialism and has in many ways yielded its own prophetic and countercultural call in order to absorb and syncretize the liberal ideals of the dominant culture, and so is largely guilty of helping to shape the present world and its discontents. Consequently, Western Christians should not be nearly as surprised as they are that their own self-understanding as enshrined in their sacred objects with all of its continuities and discontinuities with the American mythos are facing immolation alongside any number of other sacred cows in the fires of contemporary discontent. The great novus ordo seclorum is under attack, and like the destruction of Zion in 586 BC by Babylon or the sacking of Rome in AD 410 by Aleric, the purveyors of the present order, however much they seek to combat or assimilate the emerging iconoclastic spirit are witnessing the destruction of their sacred shrines and the ideals that upheld them. What follows in the wake of the present revolution is far from clear at this point, but that it has arrived cannot be disputed.