This debacle is just the latest example of “progressive” cultural censorship in a city once renowned as a bastion of free speech. Our purgative program began in 2018, when an 1894 statue titled Early Days was removed from a cluster of statues near city hall called the Pioneer Monument, at the behest of the city’s Indigenous activists. The piece, or at least most of it, was undeniably retrograde: It showed a Spanish priest looming above a cowering, seated Native American, with a debonair vaquero striking a proud pose nearby. The city’s art establishment remained silent as the statue was hauled away: The bloody 2017 riot in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee made it anathema on the left to question the destruction of monuments deemed objectionable by groups deemed to have standing. But the fact that Early Days was taken down without much opposition meant that the beliefs underlying the decision to remove such monuments, the issue of who gets to determine their fate, the implications of removing them, and the possible alternatives to removal, were never seriously discussed. As the renaming debacle demonstrates, such a discussion is urgently needed.
Those who demand the removal of art like Early Days, or insist that schools named after objectionable figures must be renamed, are acting on the assumption either that the continued presence of these works and names in the public sphere constitutes an official endorsement of a racist, colonialist, or otherwise objectionable message, or that the messages they send are so hurtful that they must be erased. Both assumptions are weak.
Suppose a 400-year-old statue in a town square depicts something that has not been societally acceptable for centuries. Should that statue be removed? Is there any real point in publicly renouncing the ideology prevalent during, say, the era of the Salem witch trials?