Sunday, June 28, 2020

Today's Book Burnings: Free Speech The Loser In Mob Rule

Below is my column in The Hill on the ongoing destruction of memorials and statues. After this column ran, I learned that one of the iconic busts of George Washington University had been toppled on my own campus. I did not learn that from our university, which was conspicuously silent about this destructive act at the very center of our campus.  There is something eerily familiar in the scenes of bonfires with police watching passively as public art is destroyed.  Such acts are akin to book burning as mobs unilaterally destroyed images that they do not want others to see.  There are valid issues to address on the removal of some public art but there is no room or time for debate in the midst of this spreading destruction.  

The media has largely downplayed this violence, including little comparative coverage of an attack on the Democratic state senator who simply tried to videotape the destruction of a statue to a man who actually gave his life fighting against slavery in the Civil War.  As discussed earlier, history has shown that yielding to such mob rule will do little to satiate the demand for unilateral and at times violent action. People of good faith must step forward to demand a return to the rule of law and civility in our ongoing discourse over racism and reform.

The scenes have played out nightly on our television screens. In Portland, a flag was wrapped around the head of a statue of George Washington and burned. As the statue was pulled down, a mob cheered. Across the country, statues of Christopher Columbus, Francis Scott Key, Thomas Jefferson, and Ulysses Grant have been toppled down as the police and the public watch from the edges. We have seen scenes like this through history, including the form of mob expression through book burning.

Alarmingly, this destruction of public art coincides with a crackdown on academics and writers who criticize any aspects of the protests today. We are experiencing one of the greatest threats to free speech in our history and it is coming, not from the government, but from the public. For free speech advocates, there is an eerie candescence in these scenes, flames illuminating faces of utter rage and even ecstasy in destroying public art. Protesters are tearing down history that is no longer acceptable to them. Some of this anger is understandable, even if the destruction is not. There are statues still standing to figures best known for their racist legacies.

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