We are nearly eight months into the weirdest year in modern memory, with the dynamic—if not terrifying—forces of chaos and confusion dictating the nation’s course. But amid the turmoil, America’s collective attention has lit on something more staid.
Two weeks ago, Nazis and people who don’t mind marching alongside Nazis marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the proposed removal of a Robert E. Lee statue. The protests turned violent, but President Trump bizarrely defended the statue and the protest and some of the “very fine people” he said were there to support it. If people are allowed to rip down any old statue that hurts their feelings, the reasoning goes, who’s to say that George Washington isn’t next?
I’m not going to give Trump credit for inventing the “What’s next, George Washington?!” line of argument; he’s proven that he’s not creative or intelligent enough to do much more than pithy branding and self-promotion. But the president is parroting a popular white-nationalist talking point, one designed to bait liberals and progressives into action on an issue that really should be several thousand down on the list of agenda priorities.
Of course, anybody with a third-grader’s critical-thinking skills can elevator pitch the difference between a statue of George Washington and the Confederate statues that cropped up across the southern U.S. during the 1920s and beyond. As many have pointed out, George Washington is memorialized as a great figure in American history despite the fact that he owned slaves; Robert E. Lee et al. are memorialized because they stood up for the right to own slaves. Further, no George Washington statue was erected specifically to intimidate entire marginalized populations out of public spaces, to essentially piss on public parks as a mark of ownership. Reconstruction, and Jim Crow-era confederate statues were. Easy.
Apparently not easy enough. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is but one of the progressives who have fallen for the white-nationalist false-equivalency bait. This week, he told reporters during a news conference that he would consider removing, among others, the statue of Christopher Columbus that sits in the middle of its eponymous circle at the southwestern corner of Central Park.
Christopher Columbus is in no way a moral hero, nor should he be. Nobody is arguing that his bloody history is morally aspirational. He was a bad guy.
But this argument is both idiotic and cynical; idiotic because, for reasons I mentioned above, the Columbus statue is not alike in form or purpose to the Confederate statues that are being ripped down in the dead of night across the South. It’s cynical for Mayor de Blasio because getting the public to focus on statues rather than his policy shortcomings is an easy photo opportunity win for a progressive mayor in a progressive city.
Would most people march to keep a statue of Christopher Columbus from being torn down? Probably not. Would they be similarly moved to action by a decree that the statue stays? I’m skeptical that any of the sudden public-art preservationists or opponents in the news care much about them at all when they’re not a means to achieve publicity.
In the same way, it’s not difficult to see why the issue of statues would be a seductive one for a politician looking for a place to put a soapbox. They’re public, they’re physical objects, they appeal to nostalgia, they are symbolic of larger angels, of greater evils.
De Blasio is an unpopular mayor who has failed to deliver on many of his promises. He hasn’t stemmed the out-of-control cost of housing in the city, hasn’t rid Central Park of the cruelty of carriage horses, and is facing a massive homelessness problem, one he can probably survey from the helicopter that takes him to the gym most mornings.
That de Blasio, of all people, is glomming on to this issue serves him by giving him a shiny object to wave at a small group of ardent progressives. At the same time, it’s a disservice to the millions of New Yorkers (and Americans, for that matter) who would prefer their elected officials focus on almost anything else.