Sunday, June 28, 2020
One of the things you know if you were brought up as a Catholic in a Protestant country, as I was, is how the attempted extirpation of England’s historic Catholic faith was enforced not just by executions, imprisonments, and public burnings but also by the destruction of monuments, statues, artifacts, paintings, buildings, and sacred sculptures. The shift in consciousness that the religious revolution required could not be sustained by words or terror alone. The new regime — an early pre-totalitarian revolution imposed from the top down — had to remove all signs of what had come before. The items were not merely forms of idolatry in the minds of the newly austere Protestant vision; they also served to perpetuate the rule of the pope. They could be occasions for treason, heresy, and sin.
The impulse for wiping the slate clean is universal. Injustices mount; moderation seems inappropriate; radicalism wins and then tries to destroy the legacy of the past as a whole. The Taliban’s notorious destruction of the great Buddhas of Bamian in Afghanistan was a similar attempt to establish unquestioned Islamic rule. “Muslims should be proud of smashing idols. It has given praise to Allah that we have destroyed them,” Mullah Mohammed Omar explained. This was the spirit of Paris in 1789 as well. “If we love truth more than the fine arts,” the Enlightenment figure Denis Diderot remarked, “let us pray to God for some iconoclasts.” (He was also the lovely chap who insisted that “humankind will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.” And in the French Revolution, of course, he almost got his way.) The Romans, for their part, eventually decided that the only way to govern Jews was to physically destroy their Temple in Jerusalem.
Iconoclasm is not just vandalism and violence. It is a very specific variety that usually signifies profound regime change. That’s why the toppling of old Soviet monoliths in the 1989 liberation of Eastern Europe was so salient. They were important symbols of that sclerotic Soviet emp