The past few years have witnessed in these United States an orgy of something once thought confined to revolutionary dictatorships: the mass removal of all statues deemed ideologically offensive to the regime.
In our country, it began with the ongoing removal of Confederate statues and monuments – heedless of the fact that their erection had been a sign of national reconciliation after a titanic blood-shedding unlike anything North America had seen before (or thus far). Then it was the turn of Christopher Columbus, for the high crime of introducing European
civilisation to these shores.
Now the craze centres on purging artists from the national memory whose great crime was conforming to the national mores. Stephen Foster’s statue went down in Pittsburgh, and Kate Smith’s has been razed in Philadelphia. Their crimes? Using black dialect in songs – whether composing them (Foster) or just singing them (Smith). Never mind that Foster was our first great national composer and whose songs such as Nelly was a Lady were the first to imply that black people had lives and emotions of their own. Never mind that the “objectionable” songs Kate Smith sang were also sung by black singers. By our standards – or at least those of the folk who matter in media and government – they are racist, and so must go down the Ministry of Truth’s memory hole, as Orwell might have said.
But there is a major problem with all of this, and the removal of Kate Smith’s statue is symbolic of it. Her best-known song – now banned from Yankee Stadium – was Irving Berlin’s patriotic anthem, God Bless America. First written by Berlin (whose own record shall no doubt soon send him to join Foster and Smith) for a World War I review, he recycled it for the next conflict, and it was memorably and stirringly introduced by Kate Smith on the radio, a rendition immortalised in the film This is the Army.
The song’s opening lines, “While the storm clouds gather, far across the sea, let us swear allegiance to a land that’s free …”, seem painfully ironic today. At the time, however, these lyrics provided comfort in a dark period, and reminded a country deeply divided between pro- and anti-interventionists of what united them.
The truth is that, while our United States do indeed have a common history and heritage, we have never had bonds of common religion and culture. In order to function as a nation, from practically the beginning we have had a sort of national faith, composed of equal parts mythologised history, reverence bordering upon worship of the constitution and national symbols, and a shared Judaeo-Christian moral consensus. With the last of these shattered in the 1960s, the maintenance of the remaining two – especially in the absence of any alternative animating philosophy for the country – became all the more important. But our cultural and political leaders, members of the American version of the Generation of ’68, are determined to gut those as well, with the ferocity of a cancerous animal biting out chunks of its own flesh. So it is that the devout Catholic and philanthropic Miss Smith must be purged.
Yet while Smith’s reputation is being savaged, that of another lady of the same era remains sacrosanct. This was a woman who never crooned songs in black dialect – at least not in public.
So in the modern view she was not a racist. However, she did favour the gradual elimination of non-whites from the population, a position that won her fan mail from Nazis and Klansmen – and she attended at least one rally of the latter. Today, the organisation she founded to accomplish her goals is considered a charity and receives public funding – even at the federal level – as well as accolades from non-white political leaders.
Who was this crafty lady who evokes such ignorant hypocrisy on the part of our leadership? Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood. But her organisational offspring need not fear defunding, and her images at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, Boston’s
Old South Meeting House and Rowan University are safe.
The best motive one can give the iconoclastic leadership is something akin to that of the Party in Nineteen Eighty-Four – if one does not have the words to express thoughtcrime to oneself, one cannot engage in it. The problem is that in real life such inability gives way to undirected, senseless rage. By encouraging the destruction of the remaining symbols that have served to bind us together – and doing so in such an arrantly ignorant and hypocritical manner – our elites may well be pandering to one section of their subjects. But they do so at the price of enraging another. As the old Civil Rights song puts it, “It’s a hard rain’s a-going to fall.”
Charles A Coulombe is an author and lecturer based in Los Angeles and Vienna