Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Iconoclasm And Violence

Samuel Huntington and the intensification of culture war

On Sunday night, Social Justice Warriors in Baltimore filmed themselves desecrating and damaging a 225-year-old monument to Christopher Columbus — this, in the name of racial and economic justice:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iFSW0id36FA&w=525&h=300]

Late last week, someone desecrated a statue of St. Junipero Serra in Mission Hills, Calif. The Franciscan priest is hated by Social Justice Warriors for his work in establishing mission churches in the 18th century.

In New Orleans earlier this summer, vandals spray-painted ‘TEAR IT DOWN’ on a statue of St. Joan of Arc standing in Jackson Square. Take ‘Em Down NOLA is the name of the activist group that successfully brought down four of the city’s statues of Confederate figures. The organization said that those opposed to taking down the statues was “the racist white capitalist establishment in New Orleans, seeking to preserve white supremacy”. Now they’ve expanded their mission:

The group is seeking the removal of 13 statues in the city, including the equestrian monument to Andrew Jackson in Jackson Square. That monument, which commemorates Jackson’s victory at the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812, has been a particular target of the group because Jackson owned slaves and, as president, was responsible for violently forcing Native Americans off their land in what came to be known as the Trail of Tears.

The group also wants the city to rename dozens of streets, buildings and institutions. In all, there are more than 100 symbols it wants removed or renamed.

In Houston late last week, someone vandalized a Christopher Columbus statue. On Monday in Houston, police arrested a man on charges that he tried to plant a bomb next to a Confederate statue. Reports the Houston Chronicle:

Andrew Schneck, 25, who was released from probation early last year after being convicted in 2015 of storing explosives, was charged in a criminal complaint filed in federal court, Acting U.S. Attorney Abe Martinez said in a statement Monday.

Schneck was arrested Saturday night after a Houston park ranger spotted him kneeling in bushes in front of the Dowling monument in the park, Martinez said.

When confronted Saturday night in the park, he tried to drink some of the liquid explosives but spit it out, officials said.

The ranger then asked if he planned to harm the statue, and he said he did because he did not “like that guy,” according to a sworn statement submitted in federal court by an FBI agent investigating the case.

More NFL players are taking a knee instead of standing for the National Anthem, because racism. At USC, some black students and woke fellow, um, travelers are damning the name of the school’s mascot, a white horse named Traveler, because it shares a name as Gen. Robert E. Lee’s mount. For that matter, according to an op-ed contributor for The New York Times, enjoying college football at all is probably racist:

This attachment is less surprising when we consider that sports fans typically use their fandom as a means of telling themselves who they are. Sports fandom has become, to borrow a term from the philosopher Michel Foucault, a practice of subjectivization — a phenomenon in which individuals subject themselves to a set of behavioral regulations, and by doing so, acquire a sense of their own identities.

Just as a practicing Christian may create and obtain new forms of self-knowledge through confession, prayer and the observance of Lent, a sports fan can come to understand himself as a particular sort of person — a Southerner, for example, or a “real man” — by adhering to certain rituals, like reading the sports page and watching ESPN every day to gather more and more knowledge about his team, by talking with other fans about that team in the right ways (and proving that he knows more than them), by learning and participating in the songs, chants, dress, tailgate rituals, game-day traditions and home décor choices of its fans.

The extraordinary reach of football into fans’ lives makes perfect sense when we see it for what it is: the most popular mechanism in contemporary America for cultivating a sense of self that is rooted in a community. In a world of uncertainty, fragmentation and isolation, sports fandom offers us clear winners and losers, connection to family and community — and at its best, the assurance that we are really No. 1.

… Yet this “we” of fandom ought to give us pause — perhaps just as much as the scandals, the violence and the exploitation that surround the game.

And our disease is spreading to England. The Guardian — of course — published someone calling for Nelson’s Column to come down from Trafalgar Square, because he was a defender of slavery.

Lord Nelson, one of England’s greatest heroes. My God.

Whether or not any or most of these people will succeed in their goal is not my concern here. Rather, I’m interested in what this new period of iconoclasm tells us about where we are as a society, and where we may be going.

Iconoclasm often accompanies radical, even violent, change in a society. The word comes from the Greek meaning “image-smashers,” and was first used to describe a turbulent period in the Byzantine empire in which the Emperor attempted to ban the use of religious icons as idolatrous.  He failed, as you can see by visiting an Orthodox church today. But the word stuck because it was useful.

Whether religious or political (e.g., French revolutionaries, militants in China’s Cultural Revolution), real iconoclasts are violent. The damage Reformation-era iconoclasm did to religious art in Europe was incalculable. For example, in England:

Even now there is denial about the scale of the erasing of our medieval past. The Tate estimates we lost 90% of our religious art. It was probably even more than that. The destruction was on a scale that far outstrips the modern efforts of Islamist extremists. And it was not only art we lost, but also books and music.

We think of Henry VIII and the destruction of the monasteries, but that was not the end of the destruction, it marked the beginning. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, hailed the reign of his son, the boy king Edward VI, as that of a new Josiah, destroyer of idols. After his coronation an orgy of iconoclasm was launched. In churches rood screens, tombs with their prayers for the dead, and stain glass windows, were smashed. The Elizabethan antiquarian John Stow complained, some of this Christian Taliban “judged every image to be an idol”, so that not only religious art, but even the secular thirteenth century carvings of kings in Ludgate were broken.


The civil war, and the further destruction it brought, took place two generations after England had gone through what has been described as a “cultural revolution designed to obliterate England’s memory of who and what she had been”. There was not much of that past left. In our cultural history the Reformation is nearly always depicted as a force that opened up England from a closed minded past. But it was our knowledge of that past that was closed and if one future opened to us, we will never know what might have been, not least in art.

That’s often what iconoclasm tries to do: erase cultural memory. The zealotry with which iconoclasts go after their targets has to do with their conviction that the image, and what it stands for, is so offensive that it cannot be tolerated, nor can its defenders be reasoned with. They can only be conquered by force.

In the case of our present iconoclasts, what they are attacking are aspects of what leftist academic critics “whiteness”. It is understandable why black Americans and others would object to monuments commemorating Confederate figures (though it is worth asking why all of a sudden removing these objects became an urgent imperative at this particular time). But those statues are the low-hanging fruit. As the New Orleans protesters signal, any American figure who had anything to do with slavery is on the hit list. Donald Trump was not wrong to wonder if George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are going to be next. Both men were compromised by slaveholding.

The argument in favor of eliminating Confederate statues but not those of the slaveholding Founders is that we honor the latter in spite of their owning slaves, but the former have monuments built to them because they fought to preserve slavery. That’s a reasonable position to take, but it assumes that reason is driving this iconoclasm. Why is Columbus under siege, both in his monuments and in his holiday (e.g., the Oberlin, Ohio, city council just voted to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day)? Why are vandals going after St. Junipero Serra and St. Joan of Arc?

Because they represent European culture and civilization, which entails Christianity. Because, in the minds of the iconoclasts, they represent whiteness. 

This morning I picked up a book from my shelves that I haven’t looked at since it came out in 2004: the late political scientist Samuel Huntington’s Who Are We? The Challenges To America’s National Identity. It was startling to read Huntington in light of recent events, including most of all the Trump election. It was even more startling — and deeply dismaying — to read Huntington and consider that the odious white nationalists might have a clearer understanding of what’s going on now than respectable people. Let me explain.

Huntington, who taught at Harvard, writes that the country has been losing a sense of coherent identity for some time now. It’s not that Americans were a homogeneous people, but rather that its Anglo-Protestant founding culture was able to assimilate immigrants. This has partly to do with strong belief in the “American Creed,” a commonly held set of assumptions about what the nation stood for: liberty, equality under the law, equality of opportunity (if not of result), individualism, populism, limited government, and free-market economics. These ideas, Huntington said, came out of Protestant England and its reception of the Enlightenment.

On assimilation, the glaring exception, of course, were the descendants of the unwilling immigrants among us: those of African slaves, for whom the American Creed did not apply. Nevertheless:

American national identity peaked politically with the rallying of Americans to their country and its cause in World War II. It peaked symbolically with President Kennedy’s 1961 summons: ‘Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.’

Starting in the 1960s, writes Huntington, “deconstructionists” of national identity encouraged “individuals were defined by their group membership, not common nationality.” Pushing identity politics was a time-tested strategy for colonialist regimes, for the sake of dividing and conquering subject peoples. But the governments of nation-states instead focused on uniting their disparate peoples. (Indeed, the Civil Rights Movement was about compelling the white majority to extend the promises of the Constitution and the Creed to black Americans — in other words, to fully unite them to the whole.)

Huntington says that this did not start from below, but was imposed from the top, by American political, legal, and cultural elites. He writes, “These efforts by a nation’s leaders to deconstruct the nation they governed were, quite possibly, without precedent in human history.”

By 1992, the liberal historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. warned that all this had become “a cult, and today it treatens to become a counter-revolution against the original theory of American as ‘one people,’ a common culture, a single nation.” Huntington continues, talking about how the promises of the Civil Rights movement were turned on their head by racial preferences:

This replacement of individual rights by group rights and of color-blind law by color-conscious law was never approved by the American people and received only intermittent, passive, and partial acceptance by American legislators. “What is extraordinary about this change,” the distinguished sociologist Daniel Bell commented, “is that, without public debate, an entirely new principle of rights has been introduced into the polity.” “Group rights and equality of condition,” Belz agrees, “were introduced into public opinion as a new public philosophy that distinguishes among individuals on racial and ethnic grounds and that ultimately denies the existence of a common good.” The implications of this view were cogently stated by the Thernstroms: “Racial classifications deliver the message that skin color matters — profoundly. They suggest that whites and blacks are not the same, that race and ethnicity are the qualities that really matter. They imply that individuals are defined by blood — not by character, social class, religious sentiments, age, or education. But categories appropriate to a caste system are a poor basis on which to build that community of equal citizens upon which democratic government depends.”

If you want to talk about racializing American society, it didn’t start with Richard Spencer and his crew. Led by elites, America has been balkanizing along racial and ethnic lines since the late 1960s. Multiculturalism, that 1990s buzzword, led to colleges emphasizing ethnic studies and non-Western courses, and devaluing those in Western civilization. Huntington, quoting Schlesinger Jr:

“The mood is one of divesting Americans of the sinful European inheritance and seeking redemptive infusions from non-Western cultures.” At the turn of the century, none of fifty top American colleges and universities required a course in American history.


He who controls a culture’s memory controls the culture. Huntington says that if a nation “is a remembered as well as an imagined community, people who are losing that memory are becoming something less than a nation.”

One of the most remarkable things about Huntington’s narrative is how this disuniting of America was led by elites, despite resistance from the population. Look, from the vantage point of a nation led by President Donald Trump, at this passage from Huntington’s 2004 book. The political scientist is talking about the simple demographic and political fact that whites, especially white males, are losing power and place in US society:

It should not be difficult to see that “rebellion” and the reasons for it. It would, indeed, be extraordinary and possibly unprecedented in human history if the profound demographic changes occurring in America did not generate reactions of various sorts. one very plausible reaction would be the emergence of exclusivist sociopolitical movements composed largely but not only of white males, primarily working-class and middle-class, protesting and attempting to stop or reverse these changes and what they believe, accurately or not, to be the diminution of their social and economic status, their loss of jobs to immigrants and foreign countries, the perversion of their culture, the displacement of their language, and the erosion or even evaporation of the historical identity of their country. Such movements would be both racially and culturally inspired and could be anti-Hispanic, anti-black, and anti-immigration. They would be the heir to the many comparable exclusivist racial and anti-foreign movements that helped define American identity in the past.

Huntington points out that should they emerge, “the new white nationalists” (the term is political scientist Carol Swain’s) will not be like the fringe extremists. They don’t advocate white supremacy, but rather “racial self-determination and self-preservation.” They will reject national identity, and locate culture in race. They don’t want white culture replaced by black or brown culture.

Furthermore, whites attracted to these ideas will be those sick and tired of preferential treatment policies that violate the American Creed and disadvantage them. They will, Huntington predicts (remember, he wrote this in 2004), be stirred up by the loss of jobs and widening income inequality due to globalization. And they will hate the media for using what they consider to be bias against them. Finally, immigration may make them feel that they have their backs against the wall.

Because of several sociological factors, Huntington says that middle class and lower middle class whites have come to see themselves as victims. He quotes another political scientist who says these whites feel that they have no real culture or identity, so they are embracing victimization.

Whites, in sum, will start to act like any other ethnic or racial group in America. I have to confess that reading Huntington makes me question the (yes, liberal) media narrative on this new battlefront in the culture wars. Broadly speaking, the media construe the conflict as racist whites reacting to minority progress. No doubt there’s truth to that, but that is not the whole truth, or even most of the truth. What we’re seeing might be thought of as the entirely predictable and normal reaction of a particular group within a pluralistic society, when members of that group come to believe that they are losing ground. In this sense, when white grievance and protest is presented by the media as solely a manifestation of racism, it allows others to justify dismissing those grievances and consider themselves morally responsible for doing so.

Huntington again, citing Swain’s 2004 book The New White Nationalism In America:

The makings of serious white nativist movements and of intensified racial conflict exist in America. Carol Swain probably overdramatizes the possibility, but her eloquent warning deserves serious though. We are witnessing, she says, “the simultaneous convergence of a host of powerful social forces.” These include “changing demographics, the continued existence of racial preference policies, the rising expectations of ethnic minorities, the continued existence of liberal immigration policies, growing concerns about job losses associated with globalization, the demands for multiculturalism, and the Internet’s ability to enable like-minded individuals to identify with each other and to share mutual concerns and strategies for impacting the political system.” These factors can only serve “to nourish white racial consciousness and white nationalism, the next logical stage for identity politics in America. As a result, America is “increasingly at risk of large-scale racial conflict unprecedented in our nation’s history.”

Well, that’s cheerful.

It is remarkable how much Huntington focuses on the wide disparity between elites and the public on these issues, stretching over 50 years. I couldn’t help but think of the recent Marist poll showing that the broader public is far more supportive of leaving Confederate statues alone than the news reporting would have us believe.

Huntington also talks about the bottoming out of public trust in government and institutions. It’s been declining since 1960s. Today, only the military, police, and small business are the only institutions in whom trust has been stable or grown. Think about what that means. Aside from small business people, by far the most trusted institutions in society are those armed and charged with defending it from foreign enemies and maintaining internal order. If that doesn’t tell you something about how our society is coming undone, you are ineducable.

Huntington puts a troubling question to his readers:

Because of the Creed, “many Americans came to believe that America could be multiracial, multiethnic, and lack any cultural core, and yet still be a coherent nation with its identity defined solely by the Creed. Is this, however, really the case? Can a nation be defined only by a political ideology? Several considerations suggest the answer is no. A creed alone does not a nation make.”

He says that historically, American identity has involved four key components: Race, Ethnicity, Culture (especially language and religion), and Ideology. Race and ethnicity as a defining core of nation is long gone. Culture is “under siege” (even more so today than when Huntington wrote his book). All that’s left is ideology — that is, the Creed. Writes Huntington: “For the Creed to become the sole source of national identity would be a sharp break from the past.”

He points out that the only other examples we have of creedal nations are the communist countries. This is not an encouraging thought. After the ideology failed and the coercive power of the state collapsed, those countries more or less came apart along ethnic lines. China is the great exception, but it held together, he says, because of the widely shared Han Chinese identity.

Huntington concludes that because the American Creed emerged from Anglo-Protestant culture, it probably won’t survive its demise.

Finally, the Harvard political scientist predicted that the rise in US religious consciousness in the 1980s and 1990s would would increase. He was quite wrong about that, as we now know. At end of book, Huntington cites research showing that globally, “those countries that are more religious tend to be more nationalist.” I suppose this would help explain white Evangelical support for Donald Trump. As regular readers know, I am averse to nationalism mixing with the Christian religion, because it can easily lead to Christians making an idol of the state. That said, the data Huntington cites would lead one to predict that the decline of Christianity in the US will also hasten the unraveling of the social and cultural fabric.

If Christianity, with its universalist values, is declining, then something will take its place. Something will fill the vacuum it leaves. We should not at all be surprised if this turns out to be a heightened, even militant, racial consciousness. This is the logical outcome of identity politics. 

This is what I mean by constantly saying that Social Justice Warriors of the Left have no idea what kind of demons they are summoning from the Right. And American elites of all kinds have no idea what they are doing by pushing the “diversity is our strength” lie. We are seeing from this side of the Atlantic how the resolute refusal of the European political and cultural establishments to take the radical challenge from mass immigration seriously is opening up a big space for the radical right to flourish. It’s going to happen here too, for somewhat different reasons, ones I’ve explored in this blog post.

The other day in The Atlantic, Jonathan Haidt wrote a perceptive essay about how Trump’s reaction to Charlottesville violated a powerful American taboo. It begins like this:

Taboo and sacredness are among the most important words needed to understand Charlottesville and its aftermath. Taboo refers to things that are forbidden for religious or supernatural reasons. All traditional societies have such prohibitions—things you must not do, touch, or eat, not because they are bad for you directly, but because doing so is an abomination, which may bring divine retribution. But every society also makes some things sacred, rallying around a few deeply revered values, people, or places, which bind all members together and make them willing to sacrifice for the common good. The past week brought violent conflict over symbols and values held sacred—and saw President Trump commit an act of sacrilege by violating one of our society’s strongest taboos.


That torchlight march, and the main rally the next day, gave the country the shocking spectacle of fellow Americans chanting “Jews will not replace us” while making Nazi salutes and anti-black slurs. It was a rejection—a desecration—of the story shared by most Americans in which we are not a nation based on “blood and soil,” we are a nation of immigrants who accepted the American creed. That creed includes the idea that “all men are created equal.” Americans know that we do not yet live up to our aspirations, but publicly accepting the premises of the nation’s founding documents is a requirement for political leadership in America. To deny those premises is blasphemy, and so white supremacism, the KKK, and neo-Nazis are by definition blasphemous.

By the way he handled the Charlottesville violence (appearing to equivocate):

In that moment, Trump committed the gravest act of sacrilege of his presidency. In that moment, the president rendered himself untouchable by all who share the belief that Nazis and the KKK are not just bad—they are taboo.

I’m not so sure about that. The new ABC News/Washington Post poll shows broad disapproval of the way Trump handled Charlottesville, but strong approval of it among Republicans. If you go deep into the poll, you’ll see that 83 percent of Americans believe it is unacceptable to hold white supremacist views. That would appear to validate Haidt’s thesis. Happily, white supremacy remains a taboo.

But it is plain that most Republicans do not believe Trump violated that taboo. That is no small number of Americans. Whether you believe they are right or wrong in that assessment is not the point. The point is that on an issue of intense feeling — a feeling that Haidt correctly likens to religious conviction — there is no broad agreement on what constitutes violating that taboo. My sense is that among elites — including Republican elites — there is shared conviction that Trump touched the third rail. But that sense is not shared by the broad mass of GOP voters any more than the Republican elite’s 2016 disgust by candidate Donald Trump was.

Along those lines, I would love to see polling on the extent to which whites (Southern and otherwise) see attacks on Confederate monuments as an attack on white supremacy, and the extent to which they see these attacks as assaults on them. Again, notice the ABC/Post poll, which shows that an overwhelming majority of Americans reject white supremacy. The PBS/Marist poll from last week showed that only 27 percent of all Americans believe that Confederate monuments should be taken down. The racial breakdown is: whites 25%; blacks 40%; Latinos 24%.

It is reasonable to assume that a nation in which over 80 percent of the people believe white supremacy is unacceptable, but only 27 percent believe the Confederate statues should come down, is not a nation that sees those statues as symbols of white supremacy. So what do they symbolize? And who do they symbolize? The answer is important.

In light of Samuel Huntington’s book, it seems to me that the culture war has shifted into a dangerous phase, accelerated by both Donald Trump and progressive militants, who feed off each other. Our unity is fragile — more fragile than people think. This is not the time to be iconoclastic towards cultural symbols. The fact that we are seeing iconoclasm emerge, and that it is not only unchallenged, but actually encouraged by liberal elites, is a bad sign for the future. Remember how we started this post: with a recognition that iconoclasm usually accompanies or precedes actual violence.

The disassembling of the American Creed has been a 50-year project of American elites, but we are all going to reap the whirlwind. You cannot destroy symbols of people’s identity without calling forth rage.