Against Dogmatic Cultural Cleansing in the Public Space

The cry will go out to destroy Mt. Rushmore, because all 4 presidents depicted there were racists — were. Dogmatic cultural cleansing is gaining popularity. But for these men, those were the times. Those were the currents of thought that were prevalent. It’s demanding too much after the fact to create a sanitized history. Removing memorials that elicit all sorts of thoughts and feelings, for and against, disrespects the experiences of the past that belong to everyone in the country in memory. This disrespects the people of the past who erected these memorials. Wrong or right, they lived according to their lights and darknesses. The destroyers act as if they have found and know the truth for all time and as if they know how to make it explicit to the eye and mind, but do they know that truth and do they know how to memorialize it? Do they have a right to destroy that which annoys them?

In our time, now to create a present that’s sanitized according to particular currents of thought that are now held by particular groups is to accord respect to these thoughts and groups. Are these deserved? Does the proclamation of one’s purity and virtue on slavery justify the power of certain self-selected groups to destroy the memorials erected by past Americans?

If libertarians united and demanded similar kinds of purification rites against all those in America’s past who have been anti-libertarians, would not their case be even broader than the case being made by memorial-bashers today? What a massive excision would be involved in removing the works of our anti-libertarian forefathers. However, the case for doing so is as weak as the case for destroying Mt. Rushmore.

The past in memory belongs to all of us as it happened. The past in its public physical forms belongs to those in the past who created these forms. They left them as an inheritance to be preserved. They’d erode over time perhaps or be taken or removed or relocated, but they were not meant to be destroyed because of the aggression of past human beings. We were not bequeathed them to be destroyed because they annoy some of us or because of the sins of the fathers or because we wish to erect new monuments to our supposed purity and virtues or because of political motives disguised as virtuous ones.

The Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, writes “Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson will be removed from the CUNY hall of great Americans because New York stands against racism.” This is a cheap shot that wounds the hall’s purpose and history, which is “to honor prominent Americans who have had a significant impact on this nation’s history.” The state is a trustee or a custodian of this property, and that means that it should be fulfilling a duty to the creators to maintain their works. It should not be culturally cleansing the art works because anti-racism has recently become a popular rallying point for political elements that have a political agenda.

If all property were private, this matter would be a libertarian no-brainer. In our world, much property is officiated over by governments. In such cases, we can ask what treatment would be appropriate if they were private. The governments, often cities, hold them in a variety of ways, because the land was sometimes donated and the statues were paid for and made in a variety of ways. We have to ask to whom the statues belong in order to get some idea of the government’s just role in protecting their heritage. They basically are held in trust for the people who built them and paid for them.

We are surely not going to find that they belong to people who are upset because the statues are of people who were slaveholders or racists. One does not gain ownership because one is unhappy about something that belongs to others or about something one has no real claim to. Tearing down statues or pressuring governments to remove them is going to be in many cases a rights violation, a disrespecting of the rights of their dead and buried owners who left them as an inheritance to be kept up by various governments typically.

If a private society were to collect these statues, which may be available at bargain prices, they could perhaps be arranged to make for a profitable tourist attraction.


1:56 pm on August 18, 2017