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America’s Monumental Existential Problem

Unlike Russia (say), we know how to tear down, but we don't know how to build up
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The Democrats deleted the tweet … but this is how they think. Could you have imagined as recently as 2016 that in four years, the national Democratic Party would denounce Mount Rushmore as a site of white supremacy? This is not some college professor or liberal newspaper columnist. This is the Democratic Party.

It’s mind-boggling. This is not going to go away anytime soon, either. We are going to be fighting this for the rest of our lives. These people really do hate America. Look:

Read this powerful essay by Aris Roussinos, writing for the UK site Unherd, on the meaning of this monumental moment in the life of the West. Excerpts:

It is natural to read a culture’s attitudes to its monuments as expressions of its social health. They are the symbolic repository of any given culture, and deeply imbued with political meaning. When civilisations fall and their literature is lost to time, it is their monuments that serve as testaments to their values, to their greatest heroes and their highest aspirations. Statues, great building projects and monuments are stories we tell about ourselves, expressions in stone and bronze of the Burkean compact between generations past and those to come. As Atta’s thesis states, the architecture of the past is imbued with moral meaning: “if we think about the maintenance of urban heritage,” he wrote, “then this is a maintenance of the good values of the former generations for the benefit of today’s and future generations.”

It is only logical then, for the terminal crisis of liberal modernity to play out in culture wars over monuments, as the fate of a monument stands as a metaphor for the civilisation that erected it. It is for this reason that conquerors of a civilisation so often pull down the monuments of their predecessors and replace them with their own, a powerful act of symbolic domination.

The wave of statue-toppling spreading across the Western world from the United States is not an aesthetic act, but a political one, the disfigured monuments in bronze and stone standing for the repudiation of an entire civilisation. No longer limiting their rage to slave-owners, American mobs are pulling down and disfiguring statues of abolitionists, writers and saints in an act of revolt against the country’s European founding, now reimagined as the nation’s original sin, a moral and symbolic shift with which we Europeans will soon be forced to reckon.

Roussinos quotes from this Viktor Orban interview from a couple of weeks back. From the Radio Kossuth interview:

“I also see that law enforcement and police are on the streets and yet there is a wave of violence. Statues are being toppled, the conditions are deplorable, and there are gang wars on the beautiful streets of small towns in civilized Western European countries,” Orbán said. “I look at the countries of those who are advising us how to conduct our lives properly and on good governance, proper operation of democracy, and I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.”

Damn right. Back to Roussinos:

In contrast, in a recent speech to mark the centenary of the hated Treaty of Trianon, Orban specifically cited the historical monuments of the Carpathian region as a testament to the endurance of the Hungarian people throughout history: “the indelible evidence, churches and cathedrals, cities and town squares still stand everywhere today. They proclaim that we Hungarians are a great, culture-building and state-organising nation.”

Read it all.

What can we Americans build anymore? We don’t build — we either tear down, or we build things that aren’t worth preserving. A friend of mine, a commercial architect, told me last year how much he hated much of what he does for a living. It’s all soulless, disposable crap, he said — and that’s what people want. If you build something more permanent, it limits your options. Best to make it functional and easy to tear down, so you can build new piece of crap there. Here’s the thing that stuck with me about that conversation: the architect doesn’t want to do that kind of work, but there is no commercial market for anything other than that. Churchill once said, “We shape our buildings, and afterwards, our buildings shape us.”

Roussinos brings up the new Orthodox military cathedral that Putin has constructed. I’ve been meaning to write about it for a couple of weeks, after watching this clip of it:

What an overpowering work of architecture. What troubles me about it, a bit, as an Orthodox Christian is that it is dedicated to military might. In the original plans — dropped under criticism — there were to be mosaics depicting Stalin and Putin, as well as celebrating the annexation of Crimea. Unlike many American Christians, I am divided internally about mixing nationalism with religion — but I do recognize that that view is massively ahistorical. I don’t judge the Russians on this; their cathedral is also a memorial to those who died in defense of the Russian homeland. No one who knows even the slightest thing about the way the patriotic Russians fought the Nazis, and how they suffered, can begrudge them something like this. I don’t bring it up in this context to argue about its appropriateness. Rather, I want to say that a nation that can build a monument like this to its God and to its greatness is a nation of immense depth and power.

Could we build anything like this in America? Don’t be absurd. We don’t have the internal strength and imagination to do so. And therein lies a tale. We are a nation that allows scum to throw red paint onto statues of our Founders, and to pull down a statue of Union soldiers who died in a war to end slavery, and few if any of our leaders say a word.

Did you ever see the 1966 Russian film Andrei Rublev? It’s ostensibly a dramatized biography of Russia’s greatest iconographer, a man of the Middle Ages, but in truth we don’t know much about him. It’s a movie about the Russian soul. Despite the incredible violence and harshness of life in medieval Russia, it was still able to produce astonishing churches and icons. The film portrays the Russian genius not for making beauty despite great suffering and misery, but making it because of great suffering and misery. It is true that Russia today is suffering in many ways. Some American trads have a habit of romanticizing Putin’s Russia; that’s a mistake. And yet, for all its problems, Russia is still a nation that can raise a church like that. Watch Andrei Rublev, and you might see that new Moscow cathedral in a different way.

We are not Russians. We don’t have their history. Rachmaninov’s “Vespers” could not have been written by an American. Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue” could not have been written by a Russian. Vive la différence, etc. The point is, we Americans have managed to talk ourselves into hating our roots, hating our fathers, hating the traditions that made us who we are. We sense that the nation is slipping away from us, but “Make America Great Again” is kitsch. Trump makes golf hats, but Putin builds cathedrals.

Seriously, if you’re a Russian, you look at that cathedral and you feel pride in your nation, and a sense of its deep roots. We in America have been taught for a generation or two to look with contempt and guilt upon our monuments and historical architecture. Well, it worked.

Roussinos writes:

It is surely no accident that this is a moral panic driven by millennials, an evanescent generation without property or progeny, barred from creating a future, who now reject their own past in its entirety. This is the endpoint of liberalism, trapped in the eternal present, a shallow growth with no roots from which to draw succour, and bringing forth no seeds of future life.

Fair enough, but who made the Millennials? Who deprived them of their heritage? Who raised them to be this way?

One clue: On Sunday, Trump retweeted a video of his elderly supporters in The Villages, a 100,000-member Florida retirement community that is the world’s largest of its kind. They were clashing publicly with some aged Trump haters. He apparently didn’t realize that one of them barked “white power” as he pootled away with his wife on a golf cart. Here’s a 2014 story about the culture of The Villages. Basically, the old folks are having swingers’ parties, and there’s a black market in Viagra. Having lived for three years in Florida, and having heard these stories about retirement communities there myself, I completely believe it. But look, it seems to me that a country whose elderly — considered by most societies to be repositories of wisdom and dignity — aspire to be perpetual rutting teenagers is not a country that has much to look forward to. If you want to have a future, you need a past.






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