Playing the Indian Card

Thursday, August 24, 2017

The Human Urge to Destroy

Calvinist "iconoclastic" riot, 1566

Foreigners get noticed in a homogenous place like Korea.

Once, visiting a temple in winter, full of weekend visitors from the town nearby, I saw an exquisite tiny snow sculpture on the temple platform. Someone, out of sheer love of beuty, had created this wonderful thing that soon would melt away. I had to get a picture. Unfortunately, the film in my camera had run out. I had to step away for a minute to reload.

When I had returned, someone had smashed the snow sculpture.


For the same reason people are suddenly in a fever to destroy statues and memorials of the past everywhere.

I think they noticed the foreigner admiring it, and, because they had not built it, found this intolerable.

This has happened before, many times before.

It famously happened in the seventh century, from whence we get the term “iconoclasm.” Priceless art was destroyed throughout the Byzantine Empire. It happened in the Reformation, with the looting of churches and smashing of images. It happened in the French Revolution, the Mexican Revolution, the Spanish Revolution. It happened in the Cultural Revolution. The Taliban did it in Afghanistan, and Isis is doing it now in Syria and Iraq: going into museums and destroying everything they can.

It is one of the great dangers, perhaps the greatest danger, that civilization faces.

Obviously, there is some basic human instinct at work here.

There is a simple and pretty much absolute principle involved: Creation good. Destruction bad.

This is pure evil. It is the same drive that leads, in most of the same upheavals, to mass murders.

It is also the instinct that prompts assassinations. It is the same instinct that killed Gandhi, Martin Luther King, the Kennedys, Lincoln, or John Lennon.

A victim of European Reformation iconoclasm.

This instinct is most properly referred to as “envy.” See the story of Cain and Abel for the classic example.

Creating something significant or beautiful or good is hard work. Few can do it. Destroying something, or killing someone, on the other hand, is dead easy. Anyone can do it. And by doing it to something or someone good, significant, or beautiful, one takes to oneself, in a perverse way, some of the fame of the original creator.

Take down a statue of Robert E. Lee, and you are declaring to the world, if not proving to anyone but yourself, that you are a better and a greater man than that snivelling little Robert E. Lee. And better than the artist who created the statue as well, or the people who organized and supported its creation, I suppose.

All else is alibi.

An interviewer once went to prison to interview Sirhan Sirhan, the murderer of Bobby Kennedy. Sirhan had been working out. When the reporter appeared, he struck a bodybuilder pose, flexed his muscles, and said “So now what do you think of Sirhan Sirhan?”

That, I think, is a window on the soul of an assassin. 

Bamiyan Buddha, destroyed by Taliban.

They want to be someone important. They want to do something big, and they think tearing down something big is their main chance.

God help us, but we are at a time in history when the assassins are being given free rein. There are a lot of them around, given a chance. Hitler had no problem finding willing executioners. They are constrained at most times only by legal sanction.

Quickly, more quickly than many might have imagined, the call to tear down all traces of Confederate memorials in the US is metastasizing, feeding on this basic and base instinct like a fire on gasoline. The oldest American memorial to Columbus has just been destroyed by some vandals in Baltimore. A city in Ohio has banned celebration of Columbus Day.

This could be awkward. If we now have to remove all references to Columbus, we will need, for starters, to rename British Columbia, the nation of Colombia, Columbia University, and Columbus Ohio. And God help us if they twig to Amerigo Vespucci being a colonizer. We will have to rename the USA, plus two continents. But that is the direction we are heading, at warp speed.

In Canada, among the victims so far are poor defenseless Hector Langevin, Egerton Ryerson, Lord Cornwallis, and Sir John A. Macdonald. The teachers of Ontario—teachers!--have just demanded that any schools named after Macdonald be renamed.

But they had better be careful what new name they choose. There is no telling who or what is next. In Ghana, a university has just removed a statue of the racist Mahatma Gandhi.

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