“They also serve who only stand and wait.”
In 1652, when John Milton wrote Sonnet 19, he lamented the blindness that was distracting him from his goal. He ends the poem with “They also serve who only stand and wait,” a line used more often than “I’ll have what she’s having.” But Milton isn’t ordering a drink, he’s making the point that with steady patience we can surmount our most pernicious enemies.
In a time of rogue and random rage, Milton offers guidance. As vandals tear down historical symbols that inflicted unthinkable distress to some, the country recedes into fearful anxiety because society has not been given the chance to ponder the issue as a community. A wake-up call should not be followed by torching the bed. There are better ways to get attention. To those who say the vandalism has placed the issue on the table, I would offer that is like the forest fire arson claiming credit for the green sprigs that follow.
While I have great sympathy for anyone whose ancestors were enslaved or brutalized, as mine were in both the Scottish lowlands and Nazi Europe, I also know that the limbic brain of mob hysteria thirsts for instant gratification, not healthy debate. The purpose of such an outcome is virtue signaling and social followers jumping on the bandwagon. Andy Warhol was right about everyone having fifteen minutes of fame, but he didn’t realize those quarter hours would be used by the few to muzzle the many. Wouldn’t it be better to gain the consensus of the realm first through understanding, education, reflection, and debate?
In the United States, more than a dozen statues have bit the dust, including a new rendering for Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Va. Whether one considers it activism or art, Lee was draped in a bath of “Pride” color with a BLM logo on his horse, Traveller, the Civil War’s most famous animal. But statues commemorating immigrants have been torn down in the same mob hysteria.
Some localities are so worried they are taking preemptive moves to safeguard statues, as with Teddy Roosevelt’s in front of the Museum of Natural History. If you accept the conventional wisdom, protesters objected to the image of a Native American Indian and African man standing beside Roosevelt. On July 4th, a statue of black abolitionist Frederick Douglass was toppled in Rochester. Yeats had this in mind when he wrote: “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…”
As the poet correctly predicted, things are falling apart. Students at the University of Wisconsin are calling for the removal of a statue of Abraham Lincoln. The center isn’t holding as the temper of our age turns towards the extremes of violence. “It is worse than a crime, it is a mistake,” according to Talleyrand.
I would pose a business question first: Who are these students taking the reins of institutions that will continue for hundreds of years? They may spend as little as three of four years taking classes before they go on to high paying jobs and become completely disengaged from the institution. What kind of property rights accrue to the short term tenant?
To the governmental authorities, we should ask why are the statues still standing? Does history benefit from their presence? Why haven’t you done something about it before now? These are fair questions. To the protesters and agitators, society poses a different question: have the miscast heroes been replaced by statues of Martin Luther King, Jr.? Or did they walk away, leaving the debris to be cleaned up by first responders in a time of COVID?
We are in uncharted waters. Virtue signaling protesters trying to redecorate the landscape won’t end well. Arriving at a consensus of the realm is a better path to take and a prerequisite to a new world order. A victory over symbols is not the same as a symbolic victory. We should aim higher, as Milton said, “When I consider how my light is spent…to present my true account,” so that those who come after us will know we not only removed but improved.