What really lies behind the widespread desecration of statues and memorials.
Iconoclasm is generally defined as the destruction of sacred images, usually for religious or political motives. America is experiencing an epidemic of iconoclasm and it did not begin in Charlottesville. For several years there have been numerous incidents of vandalism of Confederate statues, fallen officer memorials, and veterans’ monuments. The widespread desecration of statues and memorials throughout the country directly corresponds to the increase in anarchist, socialist, communist, anti-police, anti-government and anti-Trump movements.
Throughout history and across cultures, regime change always begins and ends with the destruction and removal of symbols. Iconoclasm is one of the most powerful strategies for cultural revolution. From the French Revolution to the Bolshevik Revolution to the Islamic State, regime change has been accompanied by the destruction of statues, paintings, monuments, sacred objects and other symbols identified with the previous government.
The first wave of contemporary American iconoclasm began in June 2015 after the mass murder of nine parishioners at the historically black Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina. A widely circulated photo of the self-identified white supremacist, Dylann Roof, holding a gun and a confederate flag definitively linked confederate symbols to white supremacist violence. Subsequently any and all things Confederate were designated as undeniable symbols of racism. Black nationalist, socialist and communist groups began organizing campaigns against Confederate flags and statues that they perceive as symbols of slavery, injustice, racial oppression and white supremacy.
The iconoclasm campaign had its first big success in July 2015 when the Confederate flag on South Carolina’s statehouse grounds came down after 54 years at the Capitol. During the debates over its proposed removal dozens of confederate statues were vandalized. Walmart, Sears, Amazon and other companies removed Confederate merchandise from thousands of stores across the U.S. Organizers discovered the power of iconoclasm and began targeting statues, names and memorials. A counter movement ensued to preserve the Confederate statues and monuments as historical symbols of American history and Southern heritage. Supporters of Confederate symbols were placed in the untenable position of having to defend slavery.
The grievance for the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VA was the proposed removal of the Robert Edward Lee Sculpture. Because the rally was organized by neo-Nazi, white nationalist and white supremacist groups who wore KKK regalia and proudly displayed Neo-Nazi symbols, the debate over Confederate symbols became intrinsically intertwined with fascism and white supremacy. Hundreds of counter protestors showed up resulting in violent clashes between demonstrators and the death of a counter protester. Subsequently, arguments and rallies in support of Confederate symbols were eclipsed by emotional visceral reactions to white hoods, swastikas, Nazi salutes and images of violence. Charlottesville ignited a second more virulent wave of iconoclasm.
Immediately after the Charlottesville rally, Confederate statues and plaques were removed from public parks, cemeteries, plazas and government buildings in cities across the country. Politicians are calling for the removal of all Confederate monuments from public spaces and legislation is being introduced to remove Confederate statues from the U.S. Capitol building. Other statues were vandalized and destroyed. In Durham, NC protesters toppled a bronze statue of a Confederate soldier outside the Old Durham County Courthouse. They did not just remove the statue. They lynched it. Video of the incident shows a woman climbing a ladder to the top of the statue and tying a rope around the soldier’s neck. Dozens of other activists participated in the lynching, pulling the statue to the ground, cheering and taking turns kicking, spitting and standing on the fallen soldier. This went beyond vandalism. It was a collective ritual execution. Historically, iconoclasm encompassed formally executing statues and effigies of people in their absence or long after they were already dead. People were posthumously declared enemies of the state and were sentenced to death. Statues were imprisoned, tried and sentenced. Then they were ritually punished by hanging, burning, defacing, dismembering and decapitating in staged public executions. Other historical acts of iconoclasm included ritually debasing, humiliating and physically assaulting statues.
Ritually murdering a statue represents a form of magical thinking, specifically referred to as ‘sympathetic magic’, which implies that you can injure, humiliate, or murder a person by injuring or damaging an image of him.
This is a classic expression of political iconoclasm: destroy the statues of power and you topple their control. The ancient Egyptians destroyed the faces of Pharaohs’ statues and erased their names from cartouches because they believed that statues contained the spirit of a person. To destroy the soul of a dead enemy they simply broke the statue’s nose making it impossible for the figure to breathe, effectively ‘killing’ the statue. The statue of General Robert E. Lee outside Duke Chapel on Duke University’s campus was similarly vandalized. Parts of General Lee’s face had been chipped off, including all of his nose. Historically, facial mutilations were both political and a common method of punishment. Rhinokopia, cutting off the nose, was a widely recognized form of punishment and iconoclasm in several cultures throughout history. Facial mutilation is a form of stigma, a method to disempower, humiliate and shun. Symbolically people and statues who have been mutilated are broken things, their value is diminished.
In Arizona, a monument dedicated to Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president during the Civil War, was tarred and feathered. Tarring and feathering is a form of mob vengeance used in feudal Europe and the early American frontier. It is a form of public torture and humiliation where the victim is stripped naked, has pine tar poured over their body and feathers thrown on them that stick to the tar. Sometimes the person was publicly paraded, the goal was justice through pain and public shaming. In Oklahoma in 1917 members of the KKK tarred and feathered seventeen members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in in an incident known as the Tulsa Outrage. It was widely reported that Heather Heyer, the woman who was killed at the Charlottesville rally was a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). The symbolism of tarring and feathering the Confederate monument could very well have been someone familiar with the Tulsa Outrage incident, a tribute to Heather and/or perpetrated by a member of the IWW as they have been active in recent protests
The extraordinary disproportionate outrage, hysterical virulent attacks and calls for removals of statues indicates that communist, socialist, black nationalist and other organizations have successfully stigmatized Confederate symbols as taboo impure objects. In classic thought reform techniques, a demand for ‘purity’ is used to program moral values into believers. The world is sharply divided into the pure and the impure, into the absolutely good and the absolutely evil. The good and the pure are those ideas, and actions that are consistent with totalitarian ideologies and policies; all other viewpoints are considered bad and impure. Impurity signifies the ‘other’ and is experienced both physically and spiritually as a harmful threatening substance of the outside world that keeps attacking, contaminating, defiling and corrupting the sacred world of true believers. True believers have to protect themselves and their communities against this threat of defilement and to get rid of it once the contamination has taken place. Communities have to cleanse themselves by expelling, or proscribing the things and people whose presence defiles the community.
Confederate symbols are not simply insulting and disrespectful, once they are designated ‘taboo’; they symbolize impure contagious evil that must be cleansed from the country. The irrational fear of contagious impurity explains the excessive and disproportionate hatred exhibited by protesters and their violent attacks of confederate statues. Impurity is symbolically contagious. It infects protesters who transfer it to the public who transfer it to politicians. Hence the statues, what they symbolize including the values that America was founded on, are experienced as an existential threat. Obliterating American values as we know them is the objective of the Iconoclasm campaign.
Iconoclasm is often accompanied by a similar practice known as ‘damnatio memoriae’, the official practice of obliterating the memory of a specific individual as a method to purge their name, writings and ideals from history. The current Confederate iconoclasm campaign also involves renaming public parks and buildings. In June 2017 Charlottesville renamed Lee Park to Emaciation Park and Jackson Park to Justice Park. Damnatio memoriae, or oblivion, literally meaning ‘condemnation of memory,’ was a punishment of those that dishonored the state. Offenders were literally erased from history in what the Romans viewed as a fate worse than death.
In his classic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell referred to the practice as ‘vaporization of ‘unpersons’ where a person was erased from society, the present, the universe, and existence. A person who defied the Party would be taken out of books, photographs, and articles so they would be gone from all citizens’ memories, even friends and family and it would be a thoughtcrime to say the unperson’s name or think of unpeople. The removal of confederate statues represents the vaporization of unpersons, making it a thoughtcrime to remember the past. The current epidemic of American iconoclasm is a harbinger of a cultural revolution whose goal is to fundamentally transform America’s past and future.