“And this is exacerbated by a situatedness in a contemporary culture that has removed the sort of guardrails that would tell a would-be troublemaker that to defile something like a grave or a tribute to those lost in a mass casualty terrorist attack is unacceptable…”
n honor of the 20th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, a group of students at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri placed 2,977 American flags on Mudd Field, a grass lawn at the center of campus. There was one for each victim of the terrorist attacks. It was a kind tribute on the part of these college students, many of whom would have been infants or even yet to be born at the time of the attacks. However, shortly after the scene was set, a Washington University student by the name of Fadel Alkilani was caught on video uprooting the flags and cramming them into a series of blue trash bags. When later questioned as to why he would do such a thing, Alkilani sought to justify his actions by saying they were an act of protest against the American military interventions that took place in the wake of September 11th and “American imperialism” more broadly, as if the victims of these attacks were complicit in the sorts of foreign policy decisions that Alkilani decries. (And this is not even to mention that American interventions in Afghanistan in response to the attacks were, at least initially, not only justified but also constituted a moral and security imperative.)
The Mudd Field incident was just one in a series of recent acts of vandalism across the United States, where American flags honoring the dead were targeted for defacement. Just days before, on or around September 8th, a series of American flags draped over a highway wall in Riverside, California to honor the 13 American service members killed in Afghanistan on August 26th was ripped apart. And, on the evening of July 3rd, 21 American flags placed at a cemetery in Anderson, South Carolina in honor of veterans buried there were found burned in a heap, the second time this had happened at that cemetery within the past two years.
This also comes at a time when Canada has borne witness to four of its Catholic Churches, along with an Anglican Church, being burned to the ground this summer. (Grace Presbyterian Church in Calgary was also covered in red graffiti on July 3rd.) Here, in the United States, the lust for vandalism has extended beyond just graveside flags to grave markers themselves, such as with the February, 2021 vandalism of an Atlanta cemetery containing 3,000 unknown Confederate war dead. The increasingly frequent ransacking of gravesites, a maniacal practice that should have been confined to some of the most regrettable historical cases such as the 1793 destruction of tombs at the Basilica of Saint-Denis, is something I warned against also in my June, 2020 Merion West essay “And They’ve Come for the Founders” when condemning the desecration of a memorial to unknown American casualties of the American Revolution in Philadelphia. Yet, it has continued, as memorial after memorial has been targeted for defilement.
Now, those leading these acts of destruction may appeal to a variety of explanations for their actions, from reasonable concerns about the Catholic Church in Canada’s historical approach to indigenous peoples living there (the suspected motivation for the church burnings this past summer) to objections to the aims of the Confederate States of America (at least the stated reason for tributes to the Confederate war dead being vandalized). However, one cannot help but conjecture that post hoc justifications notwithstanding, the impetus lies more in a sort of ecstasy in destruction itself, an all-too-human tendency whose existence has been correctly identified by a number of penetrating observers, including Roger Scruton. Scruton’s description of the mania that characterized the May 68 demonstrators as they were “shouting their heads off in the street, burning the cars belonging to ordinary proletarians, whom they pretended to be defending against some imaginary oppressive structures erected by the bourgeoisie…They were enacting out, if you like, a self-scripted drama in which the central character was themselves” comes to mind. The idea here is that—whether it be Alkilani, the youth of May 68, or those who would take it upon themselves to target tributes to recently deceased American service members—individuals engaging in such acts can attempt to justify them after the fact by appealing to any number of ideological motivations. The reality, though, is that the origin of their conduct likely lies in a failure of self-restraint: a failure to impede that ineluctable pull toward creating chaos. And this is exacerbated by a situatedness in a contemporary culture that has removed the sort of guardrails that would tell a would-be troublemaker that to defile something like a grave or a tribute to those lost in a mass casualty terrorist attack is unacceptable, and that should he be completely unable to check his craving for mischief, he might instead throw a glass bottle against a neglected wall or streak at a football game rather than disrupt those things that, by any reasonable definition, constitute what is sacred. (1)
Lest one be quick to dismiss the sort of argument I am making by labeling me now as an irredeemable fuddy-duddy unduly wedded to sentimentality or symbols, I would respond that I appreciate an irreverent or even an outlandish statement as much as anyone else; however, there are certain things that ought to be treated with respect or, at the very least, delicately. For instance, standing out amid the host of tributes to the late comedian Norm Macdonald circulating in recent weeks was one where Macdonald, hardly a prude, chastised a contestant on Last Comic Standing for taking what he saw as a cheap shot at Christianity: “I don’t think the bible joke was brave at all. I think if you’re going to take on an entire religion, you should maybe know what you’re talking about.” This is not at all to say that to joke about Christianity (or religion in general) ought to be off-limits; as the success of The Babylon Bee has made clear, when done delicately and when coming from a place of general appreciation rather than scorn, such jokes can be not only prized for their comedic value but also for the penetrating critiques, at times, contained within the barbs, the sort of criticisms that might only be thoughtfully advanced by those who know the faith well and have taken the time to engage with it, shortcomings and all.
On January 8, 2015, the day after the Charlie Hebdo shooting in Paris that claimed twelve lives, David Brooks published a New York Times column entitled “I Am Not Charlie Hebdo.” (2) In it, he argued that despite the social media refrain “Je suis Charlie,” for the most part, this self-identification is inaccurate:
“The first thing to say, I suppose, is that whatever you might have put on your Facebook page yesterday, it is inaccurate for most of us to claim, Je Suis Charlie Hebdo, or I Am Charlie Hebdo. Most of us don’t actually engage in the sort of deliberately offensive humor that that newspaper specializes in.
We might have started out that way. When you are 13, it seems daring and provocative to ‘épater la bourgeoisie,’ to stick a finger in the eye of authority, to ridicule other people’s religious beliefs.
But after a while that seems puerile. Most of us move toward more complicated views of reality and more forgiving views of others. (Ridicule becomes less fun as you become more aware of your own frequent ridiculousness.) Most of us do try to show a modicum of respect for people of different creeds and faiths. We do try to open conversations with listening rather than insult.”
Brooks’ point is that the degree to (and manner by) which Charlie Hebdo criticized Islam—as well as Christianity, at many other points—was unnecessarily crude and outrageous for the sake of being outrageous. Unlike The Babylon Bee, Charlie Hebdo routinely took pleasure in, as they say, crossing the line. (Needless to say this is hardly a justification for the barbaric act of violence carried out against the publication’s staff.)
It is that same juvenile taking of delight in slaying sacred cows for the purpose of provocation alone that has arguably guided many grotesque displays that have been unconvincingly passed off as art, whether it be Piss Christ (1987), Virgin in a Condom (1992), The Holy Virgin Mary (1996), or, to a lesser extent, La Nona Ora (1999). It is for similar reasons that periodic efforts to deface the American flag under the guise of art—such as took place at an exhibit at the University of Kansas in 2018—provoke the anger that they do. Although evocative forms of protest (or commemoration) can resonate in ways that their milder alternatives may fail to, to take a hammer to certain symbols, including ones on behalf of which people pledge to die, rightfully causes outrage. And that outrage, a sort of political manifestation of what Leon Kass called “the wisdom of repugnance,” perhaps tells us something about the underlying state of mind of those whose iconoclasm cannot stay within the realm of the reasonable.
Writing in The Los Angeles Times in February of 2013, the Catholic author and journalist Charlotte Allen defended Pope Benedict XVI, the then-pontiff, from the frequently levied (and rather unimaginative) charge that he was too concerned with aesthetics, that his affinity for ornate dress and baroqueness more broadly amounted to an intolerable act of choosing style over substance. Allen, as she narrates, had a different take: “He has reminded a world that looks increasingly ugly and debased that there is such a thing as the beautiful—whether it’s embodied in a sonata or an altarpiece or an embroidered cope or the cut of a cassock—and that earthly beauty ultimately communicates a beauty that is beyond earthly things.” (3) It is this defense of the symbolic that applies similarly to some of the other representative objects discussed above, and there are thoughtful aesthetic arguments also to be considered that go beyond the mere admonition, “Stop doing that; it’s tasteless to be so disrespectful.”
Unfortunately, our current age of post-propriety has not been content to confine itself to attacking only graves and religious symbols. It also goes beyond the erosion of manners and decorum, such as has been attentively documented by Peggy Noonan. It takes place amid a broader elevation of the uncouth; as Merion West’s Alexander Zubatov has hinted at time and again, an inversion has taken place in which time-honored virtues are now maligned, and vices and previous points of shame are actively celebrated and encouraged.
In the political realm, though failures of decorum extensively mar the political history of any nation, as Wesley Yang correctly notes, the Trump-era in the United States has given rise to a particularly egregious disregarding of propriety in favor of pursuing ideological ends, of course under the guise of stopping the intolerable movement these actors claim is Trumpism. Notwithstanding the fact that Trumpism, in my view, is a perfectly reasonable political movement encompassing a number of desirable policy objectives, Yang narrates what former President Donald Trump engendered in his critics (4):
“The standards and practices that marked our professional classes as elites deserving of our trust in ordinary times (impartiality, procedural correctness) were no longer applicable. In a time of ‘literal white nationalists in the White House’ putting ‘babies in cages,’ these protocols would in practice end up colluding with an existential danger. Departures from those practices become not just excusable but a moral imperative. Thus was undertaken a principled abandonment of scrupulousness in reporting, proportionality in judging, and the neutral application of rules once held to be constitutive of professional authority, all in favor of a politics of emergency.”
Among the numerous glaring examples of the phenomenon to which Yang refers is the increasing popularity of the White House tell-all book, in which traditional conceptions of confidentiality are jettisoned in favor of financial incentives, a moment in the spotlight, and this dubious notion of not letting a uniquely flawed American political figure “get away with it.” It has even gone so far as to make a rogue family member’s denunciations of her uncle into a major media spectacle. (This is not, of course, entirely without precedent, given the press attention devoted to the counterintuitive pro-Trump political stances of Malik Obama and Noor bin Laden.) The breaching of attorney-client privilege, a cornerstone of a functioning legal system, was actively celebrated. There was also the effort to list the home addresses of American citizens who financially contributed to then-President Trump’s 2020 campaign, which amounted to one of the most chilling widely orchestrated acts of political intimidation yet seen in recent American history. This effort runs in parallel to another increasingly ascendant (and deeply troubling) pattern that I have criticized in detail elsewhere: that of activists showing up at the homes of political figures for the purpose of cajoling or, in practice, intimidating them into supporting favored policies. And in another instance of blurring the distinction between political speech and thinly veiled threats of violence, there was the undertaking to auction off the ability to press the button to demolish a casino formerly owned by President Trump in Atlantic City, with even Atlantic City Mayor Marty Small openly endorsing the idea. Talk about ecstasy in destruction.
I will also pause to comment on one final instance of an anti-Trump frenzy targeting a principle that I believe to be sacred, with said principle being that of maintaining a commitment (or promise) over time. This summer, the New York State Senate approved a measure to rename the 436-acre park in Westchester and Putnam counties named “Donald J. Trump State Park,” despite the fact that Mr. Trump’s name being prominently displayed on the land was a condition of his decision to donate the land to the State of New York. (5) As the anthropologist Roy A. Rappaport makes clear in his posthumously published 1999 book Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity, one of the few deeds universally condemned across all human societies is that of making a promise and later breaking it. (Apropos of our earlier conversation on the importance of symbols, as Rappaport narrates, symbols and similar types of markage frequently serve as physical manifestations of promises made.) Although history is replete with examples of broken promises, from the one offered by the Conquistadors to Atahualpa to the recent disregarding of the will of Dr. Albert Barnes and the terms he had set for how his prodigious art collection could be displayed following his death, the ease by which promises, including the aforementioned attorney-client privilege, are disregarded remains worrying, particularly when maintaining consistency in commitments over time remains a fundamental human good.
On the subject of fundamental human goods, another one relevant for our purposes warrants consideration. When I was an undergraduate, I recall a professor of mine at Duke University, Bradley Rogers, advising us that when encountering a new text or author for the first time, to read with the most charitable possible interpretation. (On second reading, his caveat held, it was far more permissible to bring that scrutinizing eye that, in practice, characterizes thoughtful engagements with a text.) While to suggest that there is something inherently sacred about offering the benefit of the doubt is perhaps an overstatement, one does notice a culture today that so often errs on the side of opting for the ungracious interpretation when the more charitable one might just as easily do. This is a topic I have explored as it pertains to offering second chances to journalists and political figures, and it is reflected in the oft-made observation that our culture today is laden with judgment but sorely lacking in forgiveness. It is in vogue to reduce people (and entire ethnic or national groups for that matter) to their worst moments. Even prodigiously talented people of years past, including the likes of John Lennon, are now targeted with hit pieces aiming to define them by their shortcomings rather than celebrating their profound achievements.
Few and far between are the moments where ambiguity can be appreciated and a decision can be made to a view a given person or event in its entirety. This was at the heart, after all, of the much-discussed decision made by President Ronald Reagan in May of 1985, even over the protestations of his critics, to do the slightly more magnanimous (and difficult) thing and follow through in laying down that wreath in Bitburg. When it comes to John Lennon or Columbus or the Wehrmacht, as the cliché goes, things are complicated, and I might wager to argue that there is a certain sacredness in refraining from assuming the most negative possible lens, to resist joining in the sort of socially diffused Cluster B personality disorder that infers malice where there is none and sees contrition as merely a confirmation of being irredeemable.
I will leave for another occasion the effort to define precisely what ought to be considered “sacred” and what might not necessarily meet that bar. I have, however, raised examples of a few symbols or values that are widely (and, in my view, very reasonably) considered to warrant such a description and, thus, to be insulated from being violated so gratuitously. In the case of the religious icons mocked by works such as Piss Christ, perhaps transcendence is, indeed, the relevant quality. However, others are more elusive, whether it be the aesthetic tradition arguably represented by Benedict XVI or the concept of forgiveness, the latter, of course, though featuring prominently in Christianity.
A number of descriptions are frequently floated to seek to summarize our current age. The term post-truth has been thrown around in recent years. Of the more expressly political descriptions, I am, however, more partial to legal commentator Jonathan Turley’s description of our times as characterized by “post-persuasive politics,” with the idea being that the long-standing hallmark of democracy (i.e., persuasion) has been replaced by fealty to preconceived orthodoxies. Others prefer to invoke a perennially popular adjective drawing on the pen name of a deceased British socialist, with one Merion West contributor whose work is particularly popular at our magazine choosing for his Twitter biography the line: “#OrwellWarnedUs.” Those favoring this latter characterization argue that today, we think in slogans, and polite society’s currency is lies, as its denizens are required to repeat things they do not believe time and again amid a virtue-signalling palooza. (However, as we know, this is nothing new, and even the most cursory look to history confirms this beyond any doubt.) (6) More than anything, though, I think the key feature of the 2020s thus far is the absence and, at times, even the outright maligning of the sacred. Some of this might surely be explained by the ever-accelerating trend of secularization taking the West (and parts of the East) by storm; however, it surely must go beyond that because, in years past, even if a given theology no longer persuaded one, he likely still had either the self-restraint or fear of social denunciation to refrain from doing things that are just so offensive to so many.
So David Brooks has tried to piece together the mental states of those who cannot distinguish between irreverence and pure provocation, and the essayist Pico Iyer might remind us that “One definition of an adolescent is a person who thinks that what is new is better,” with the idea being, as it pertains to this discussion, that the adolescent is the one who, at best, thinks the virtues of the past have little to teach us and, at worst, chooses openly to besmirch them. In the meantime and until the arduous work might be undertaken—if the will even remains—to recommit ourselves and particularly upcoming generations to celebrating certain time-honored ideals, we must, at the very least, take a step away from those of us who choose to assert, wisdom fallen by the wayside, that “our world is not the same as Othello’s world.” Because, upon closer examination, it is, and it always was. And given that that is indeed the case, those things that were sacred then ought also to be seen as such now.
Erich J. Prince is the editor-in-chief of Merion West.
- To this point, one wonders if in our zeal to prohibit hijinks and horseplay, particularly in the schoolyards, we have, paradoxically, opened ourselves up to enduring far greater acts of devilment.
- Although I have not been known frequently to laud the columns of David Brooks, this January, 2015 piece is indeed noteworthy, as was also his November, 2003 column “The Power of Marriage.”
- Also worth quoting in Allen’s piece is another passage that precedes the one quoted above: “Over the last couple of decades, the Roman Catholic Church has been besmirched with ugliness, scarred by clerical sexual predation abetted by clueless and self-promoting bishops. Benedict has used beauty to demonstrate tangibly that the Catholic faith that he and the members of his church share is itself beautiful and indestructible, and that it shines through despite all human efforts to wreck it.”
- Despite my general support of the Trumpian political movement, I am sympathetic to the observation put forward by a number of commentators that former President Donald Trump possesses a unique ability to bring out the worst in certain people, very much including his critics and political opponents.
- As some readers may know, my opposition to renaming things and removing past-bestowed honors is long-standing, having been discussed in my 2017 criticism of Yale University’s decision to rename Calhoun College up through my aforementioned July, 2020 essay “And They’ve Come for the Founders.” Many of those criticisms focused their lines of argument on the pitfalls of tampering with history as a living record; however, moves such as these might just as persuasively be criticized within the framework discussed above: that of the tragedy of the promise reneged upon. Another relevant argument, of course, concerns that of the injustice of judging certain historical actors by the mores of a future age. Few of us living today would likely desire for future generations to scrub us from the historical record, for instance, for eating meat, if a future epoch should judge that action to be as intolerable as slavery should animals later widely be included in the same moral community as humans.
- It is for this reason I frequently caution against the dangers of good-old-day-ism.