THE RECENT NEWS that the University of Notre Dame, responding to complaints by some students, would "shroud" its dozen 134-year-old murals depicting Christopher Columbus was disappointing. It was not surprising, however, to anyone who has been paying attention to the widespread attack on America's past wherever social justice warriors congregate.
Notre Dame may not be particularly friendly to its Catholic heritage, but its president, Rev. John Jenkins, demonstrated that it remains true to its Jesuitical (if not, quite, its Jesuit) inheritance. Queried about the censorship, he said, apparently without irony, that his decision to cover the murals was not intended to conceal anything, but rather to tell "the full story" of Columbus' activities.
Welcome to the new Orwellian world where censorship is free speech and we respect the past by attempting to elide it.
Over the past several years, we have seen a rising tide of assaults on statues and other works of art representing our nation's history by those who are eager to squeeze that complex story into a box defined by the evolving rules of political correctness. We might call this the "monument controversy," and what occurred at Notre Dame is a case in point: a vocal minority, claiming victim status, demands the destruction, removal, or concealment of some object of which they disapprove. Usually, the official response is instant capitulation.
As the French writer Charles Peguy once observed, "It will never be known what acts of cowardice have been motivated by the fear of not looking sufficiently progressive." Consider the frequent demands to remove statues of Confederate war heroes from public spaces because their presence is said to be racist. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, for example, has had statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson removed from a public gallery, while New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has set up a committee to review "all symbols of hate on city property."
However, it is worth noting that the monument controversy signifies something much larger than the attacks on the Old South or Italian explorers. In the first place, the monument controversy involves not just art works or commemorative objects. Rather, it encompasses the resources of the past writ large. It is an attack on the past for failing to live up to our contemporary notions of virtue.
In the background is the conviction that we, blessed members of the most enlightened cohort ever to grace the Earth with its presence, occupy a moral plane superior to all who came before us. Consequently, the defacement of murals of Christopher Columbus--and statues of later historical figures like Teddy Roosevelt--is perfectly virtuous and above criticism since human beings in the past were, by definition, so much less enlightened than we.
The English Department at the University of Pennsylvania contributed to the monument controversy when it cheered on students who were upset that a portrait of a dead white male named William Shakespeare was hanging in the department's hallway. The picture was removed and replaced with a photograph of Audre Lorde, a black feminist writer. "Students removed the Shakespeare portrait," crowed department chairman Jed Esty, "and delivered it to my office as a way of affirming their commitment to a more-inclusive mission for the English department." Right.
High schools across the country contribute to the monument controversy when they remove masterpieces like Huckleberry Finn from their libraries because they contain ideas or even just words of which they disapprove.
The psychopathology behind these occurrences is a subject unto itself. What has happened in our culture and educational institutions that so many students jump from their feelings of being offended--and how delicate they are, how quick to take offense--to...