The conservative case for toppling statues: Why ‘bad men’ shouldn’t be revered in the public square

Interesting categorization of monuments of historical figures:

It may have been the easiest political no-brainer of the year when Conservative leader Erin O’Toole rushed to condemn the unruly mob that brought Sir John A. Macdonald’s statue tumbling down in Montreal last month.

Even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has won elections by outflanking the NDP to the left, thought about it for a day or two and then denounced the “vandalism” that has “no place in a society that abides by the rule of law.”

For support and to help convince conservatives, Levy points to the words of 18th century Scottish economist Adam Smith, who gave the world “the invisible hand” of the free market and whose classical liberal economics were vital to 20th century conservatism.Smith believed we are hard-wired to venerate powerful people, whether they are morally upright or not, and that this is an impulse we should fight back against.

“Even when the order of society seems to require that we should oppose them, we can hardly bring ourselves to do it,” wrote Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. We look at political leaders in “delusive colours in which the imagination is apt to paint in,” creating a “peculiar sympathy.”

Levy also points to the words of Lord Acton, who famously said that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

Levy argues that if Smith and Acton are right, then we are honouring the wrong people almost across the board. And that extends to people like Macdonald, whose triumphs in government are marked in equal measure by outrages, said Levy in an interview with the National Post.

“There’s no doing without Macdonald in Canadian political history. But that doesn’t mean that celebration has to be a uncritical or has to conceal what is actually a very complicated institutional legacy,” said Levy.

In an article for the Niskanen Center in the United States, Levy divides these historical leaders into three categories. The first are people who committed dishonourable acts and are celebrated precisely for those acts, like Jefferson Davis, who is remembered as the president of the confederacy during the U.S. civil war and a defender of slavery.There are also people who lived unimpeachable public lives, like George Washington, who also owned slaves in his private life. When Washington is publicly revered, it’s for his role as a founding father rather than his private sins.

In Levy’s view, Macdonald represents a middle-ground because he is venerated for a record that has troubling moments along with the great triumphs.

“His wrongs were official wrongs. The head tax and the treatment of First Nations, those are as much a part of his legacy as building Confederation in a way that differs from the private slave-owning of American founders,” said Levy. “That means that his legacy is contested in the same way that the moral character of Canadian Confederation is contested. And I don’t think there’s any way to set aside either part of that.”

Smith believed that we sympathize with the dead and pile on affection, especially “when they are in danger of being forgot by everybody.” Because the dead can’t defend themselves people are moved to do it for them or to hold off on criticism.

Levy’s response to that is simple: Sir John A. could handle criticism when he was alive and he can surely handle it now.

“We not only overestimate the moral standing of rulers, we overestimate the harm in moral criticism of the dead,” wrote Levy.

Although conservatives are more likely to defend statues and monuments, progressives are not immune from the phenomenon that Smith describes. The death of United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg provoked a massive wave of grief, even beyond the borders of the U.S.

“I absolutely think we’re seeing that Smithian dynamic at work,” said Levy. “There’s been 15 years worth of half tongue-in-cheek idolatry about her. There’s a wildly excessive personalization of the relationship to her.”

It’s not just world leaders either. We venerate celebrities and athletes, no matter how many times they disappoint us.

The polling on these monuments suggests that many people are more disturbed by the mob action than the actual removal of the statues. When Trudeau gave his comments about the incident in Montreal he singled out the lawlessness for criticism and almost nothing else.

Levy believes, though, at the heart of it is our out-sized and often irrational affection for the people who lead us.

“There is widespread and justifiable aversion to the sight and the phenomenon of people no one elected taking matters into their own hands,” said Levy. “But the politics of taking statues down through lawful procedures gets so controversial that I’m inclined to doubt that the mob scene is really what’s doing most of the emotional work.”

Source: The conservative case for toppling statues: Why ‘bad men’ shouldn’t be revered in the public square

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

2 Responses to The conservative case for toppling statues: Why ‘bad men’ shouldn’t be revered in the public square

  1. gjreid says:

    For better or for worse, people personalize history. History is the history of people, large and small. Certainly, let us discuss the bad and the good, and let us not idealize the men and women of the past; let’s look at them as they were – humans operating in extraordinarily complex environments, often under huge pressure, often under extreme time constraints, and doing what – most of the time – being in the system they were in – they thought was right, or necessary, or justified.
    Removing the statues would probably just mean removing what is left of history entirely rather than casting a critical eye upon it.
    We are, presently, such a self-righteous, sanctimonious, know-it-all generation, particularly academics who seem to have become instruments of politically correct and dogmatic Agitprop and not educators, teaching by New Rote and enforced Bafflegab rather than by critical dialogue.
    This continual one-sided, decontextualized, ideologically motivated settling of scores with the past – a present-day sport of calculating ambitious academics and squalid ideologues – is also a diversion from real economic, social, and community problems.
    It is cowardly, too, since Macdonald and the others are not here to defend themselves.
    It is also, in its more calculating Machiavellian versions, a form of provocation – try to polarize, try to poison debate, try to make dialogue – and hence democracy – impossible.
    Such exercises serve, of course, academics with ambitions: speak the Newspeak and you can intimidate colleagues and zip to the Top.
    It’s showbiz, essentially, the flipside of odious Trumpism, and it has very little to do with really solving problems of racism, inequality, or injustice, problems of the first nation peoples, of struggling immigrant communities, and so on.
    Indeed, the “woke” ideology, in all its forms – and it is largely a spillover from the agonizing Great Republic – is a great way to drive people, young and old (and I have talked to a number of them, including “racialized” – an odious Agitprop expression – young people), into the arms of the Right.
    By the way, far from “idealizing” people like Macdonald, very few young people now know who he was or what he did, or care, except that they do know he did some awful stuff, including practicing “genocide” on a great scale, clearing the way for evil “settlers” to “appropriate” half a continent. I don’t think there’s much danger, anymore, in the context of that sort of education, of idealizing anything, or believing in anything – including believing in this country.
    On a personal note, I was sitting, with my niece, on a wonderful warm late afternoon, near the equestrian statue of Edward VII in Toronto. Kids – Black, Asian, White, Whatever – were crawling all over it, goofing around, having fun, their parents sometimes reining them in, sometimes, maybe, explaining who the guy on the horse might have been, if they read the plaque. “That’s the way to treat history,” I thought, “Have fun, play around – those kids, the future is theirs, if we don’t spoil it for them.” Lightness is a wonderful thing.

  2. Andrew says:

    Agree. In many ways, protesters take the easy way out, focusing on the symbolic, simplifying history and avoiding understanding, rather than the hard slog of addressing the concrete issues of systemic barriers.

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