Flat White

The demon of the absolute

28 August 2017

5:40 PM

28 August 2017

5:40 PM

BOSTON – UNITED STATES The word of the week over here was ‘iconoclasm’. Estimable journals have been dropping it, from National Review to The American Conservative to my own Catholic Herald:

In the ancient world, smashing pagan idols was one way to proclaim the triumph of Christ over the false gods of the world… Catholics, however, are more likely to associate statue-breaking with the tragedy of the Reformation, when sacrilege and blasphemy against Our Lady was carried out on a vast scale.

Sorry – I hope that didn’t trigger any Protestant readers. The point I’m trying to make is this: while iconoclasm is indeed the act, it’s not the ideology. These vandals don’t hate statues qua statues, like radical Christians and Muslims. Most of them don’t even want to destroy them – they want them moved to museums. (And some conservatives agree.)

The minority going around burning and graffitiing them are just that: a minority. They’re the same petulant clique of Lefties who feel victimized by the existence of busty superheroines. They’re the same sort of people who induce a coughing fit whenever they walk past someone smoking a cigarette. Someone dialled up their moral outrage to 11 and ripped off the knob. And if they could treat smokers the way they treat statues of Confederate general without being arrested for manslaughter, they would.

Not to say there isn’t something inherently creepy about the act of iconoclasm. There is. Burning statues is always a bad sign, for the reasons NR, TAC, and CH listed above. It is. Statues – whatever their historical context – should be preserved for the same reason wicked books like Mein Kampf and The Turner Diaries should be preserved: so we don’t fall into the habit of thinking we can kill bad ideas or unpleasant memories.


These iconoclasts, like the Nazis and Stalinists, have been seized by what Russell Kirk called “the demon of the absolute”. It’s commanding them to reorder society, down to the last public park in the last rinky-dink Southern township, into a utopia. The closer they get the greater their sense of urgency – and the more their individual wills melt into the demon’s.

Think about it. Whatever you want to say about religious iconoclasts, they were acting on their serious theological beliefs. They had long-standing objections to ‘idolatry’, and so they did something about it. Evil, yes; but understandable.

As for these progressive iconoclasts, there was no prior indication that the Confederate statues vexed them in any way. One day, purely by chance, the demon set its eyes on Robert E. Lee; within hours, thousands upon thousands of progressives were demanding it be removed immediately. You’d think Bobby Lee suddenly started leaking radioactive sludge. It was as though nothing in the world was more important than destroying his image. Today. Now. RIGHT NOW.

That’s what’s most bizarre about this whole episode. It’s not that they want to get rid of the statues, which I understand. What’s really disturbing is the terrible impatience. Eventually, these protestors will just run in circles screaming until they collapse from dehydration. The demon of the absolute is definitely obsessive-compulsive.

Michael Davis is US Commissioning Editor for the Catholic Herald.

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