According to the London Daily Telegraph, the latest target of the rampaging iconoclasts in Britain is the statue of Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris outside the RAF Church of St. Clement Danes in London. Sir Arthur, as his sobriquet indicates, managed the Allied bombing campaign over Germany during the Second World War. Thus it seems rather ungrateful for the anti-racist protesters chanting, like their transatlantic cousins, that “[Only] Black Lives Matter,” to want to topple the statue of the man who killed more white people (probably) than any other single Englishman. But then I suppose the image-breakers there are no more likely to discriminate than those over here who are vandalizing statues of Christopher Columbus or Abraham Lincoln.
The point being made by these children of the cancel culture is that not just a few bad actors in the present need to be canceled but the whole of our history, the good along with the bad—because, for all intents and purposes, there is no good. As a writer for USA Today put it the other day, sweeping away all this rubbish left over from the past offers the chance for “a new beginning” to the country whose old beginning is long overdue to be canceled, along with those who made it. No doubt the same is true in Britain, even though its beginnings are more distant, anonymous and obscure.
The iconoclasts of old were obsessed with images as such. The evil of the images, at least in theory, lay not in what was represented but in the representation itself, which was associated with the worship of idols prohibited by the Ten Commandments. Today’s iconoclasts, by contrast, are attacking something more intangible: not only historical memory as recorded in the images of long dead men but also the honor that their contemporaries, including those who had gone to war against them, believed was due to them. I think it is really that idea of honor, which can pay its respects to an honorable enemy, that is the threat the cancel culture fears from these old statues. If any such idea of honor were allowed to survive and thrive, it would make their own contemptuous self-righteousness appear as the mean and petty thing it is.
Of course, the cancelers may expect to be canceled in turn when some successor lot of self-righteous prigs comes along, since self-righteous priggery is all that is left to us now that the old honor culture is no more. But presumably the current cancelers won’t mind, being in some sense acolytes of the “Great Myth” over whose body (not quite dead, as it now appears) C.S. Lewis once pronounced a funeral oration:
As Heaven and Earth are fairer, fairer far
Than Chaos and blank Darkness, though once chief;
And as we show beyond that Heaven and Earth
In form and shape compact and beautiful,
In will, in action free, companionship,
And thousand other signs of purer life;
So on our heels a fresh perfection treads,
A power more strong in beauty, born of us,
And fated to excel us, as we pass
In glory that old Darkness.
That’s how Keats described the Myth for which, half a century later, Darwin was supposed to have supplied the scientific warrant. Lewis regarded it as a great, a noble, an imaginatively satisfying Myth, deserving of all honor itself, but no longer intellectually tenable. For the ignorant, the stupid, the fanatically self-righteous, however, intellectual coherence is no requirement, and, indeed, is a positive disqualification to compel belief. For them, the Myth in the form of “a new beginning,” has become trivialized and vulgarized and is no more than a pretext, like racial grievance, for their attempt to seize power. It will therefore serve them right when they themselves are dishonored, to become no more than the stepping stones of another generation’s dead selves—on its own way up to (presumably) higher things.