The trend of modern iconoclasm seems to be gaining steam, fueled by the complicit support of a mainstream media that either overtly or covertly agrees with the message being sent by those vandalizing monuments across the US and a lack of consequence for those behind the acts.
Most recently, a bronze statue of Catholic Saint Junipero Serra, canonized by Pope Francis in 2015, was not only splashed with red paint but decapitated, and a statue celebrating Francis Scott Key, author of the Star Spangled Banner, was splashed with red paint and the words “racist anthem” scrawled across it.
Besides numerous Confederate statues that have been vandalized and even pulled down, other monuments that have been attacked include those honoring Christopher Columbus, Abraham Lincoln, former Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo, Joan of Arc and Martin Luther King Jr. In addition, the New England Holocaust Memorial and a peace monument in Atlanta have been damaged.
Such actions have taken place across the nation, from Washington state to Florida, New York to Arizona. And they are happening with increasing frequency, particularly when weak-kneed officials such as those at Duke University give criminals what they want and remove the statues after they’ve been vandalized.
Talk about an incentive to continue with extralegal measures.
And it won’t be long before statues of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and others deemed “politically incorrect” will get similar treatment.
The recent spate of illiberal behavior reminds one of Iconoclasm – the impulse to break or destroy images for religious or political reasons – that spasmodically wracked Christianity during the Middle Ages and Reformation.
Iconoclasm reared its ugly head in Byzantine Greece between 726–87 and 815–43 as a theological debate involving both the Byzantine church and state. In a lesson on the need for separation of church and state, imperial legislation by the Byzantine state barred the production and use of figural images.
Archaeological evidence suggests that in certain regions of Byzantium, including Constantinople and Nicaea, existing icons were destroyed or plastered over. Very few early Byzantine icons survived the Iconoclastic period, according to Sarah Brooks of James Madison University.
During the Protestant Reformation, a period not especially noted for open-mindedness, statues and images were destroyed in countries across Europe.
Significant iconoclastic riots took place in Zurich, Copenhagen, Munich, Geneva, Augsburg, Scotland, Rouen and La Rochelle in the 16th century, ostensibly in accordance with biblical prohibitions against graven images but no doubt as a means of furthering anti-Catholicism.
In 1549, radical Protestant preachers in London incited a mob to destroy many of the interior decorations in Old St Paul’s Cathedral. In addition, monasteries were sacked in different locales, as well.
And then there was the French Revolution, in which a wide variety of monuments, religious works and other historically significant pieces were destroyed in an attempt to eradicate any memory of the Ancien Régime.
Consider the priceless objets d’art destroyed by intolerance over the millennia. What a tremendous loss to our cultural, religious and spiritual histories.
Confederate statues were the starting point in this most recent spate of Iconoclasm, and the media, that great bastion of the First Amendment, has covered the attacks while ignoring the fact that those who mete out such violence aren’t likely to stop as this cultural inquisition continues to grow and generate increasing attention.
We live in odd times when individuals who one may very generously label as well-intentioned can’t smell their own hypocrisy. Insisting you’re part of a civil rights movement while trampling at least half of such known rights would seem to invite a primer on said liberties. Mob rule is generally frowned upon when it comes to discussing civil rights, at least where I come from.
That which may be considered – logically or not – painful historical facts are not de facto grounds for unilaterally squelching the freedoms of others.
(Top: Destruction of religion icons in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1524.)