No Atlas — Just the Shrug

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At a press conference on July 9, Nancy Pelosi said something that made me think. How often does a politician make anyone do that? In my experience, not very often. So this event should be memorialized.

Here’s what she said. Someone (finally!) asked her a question about what she thought about all the statues that are being torn down “by mobs in the middle of the night.” At first she looked confused, or perhaps just surprised that anyone would ask such a question. Then she said:

People will do what they do.

And here are the thoughts that this remark inspired in me.

First I thought, here’s a person who, barely six months ago, was constantly reminding America that “no one is above the law.” In All About Eve (which I am constantly reminding everybody of — sorry!), the title character says, “I can’t believe my ears,” to which Addison DeWitt, the great theater critic, replies, “A dull cliché!” A little later he reproves her for telling “a stupid lie, easy to expose, not worthy of you.” Eve Harrington is presented as a very clever person, and the lie certainly wasn’t worthy of her intelligence. I’m not sure I’d say the same thing about Pelosi and her “no one is above the law.” It’s certainly a dull cliché, but hardly unworthy of her. And despite its dullness, she got everyone else in her party to recite that cliché, often (as by Kamala Harris) with oratorical solemnity befitting the most challenging pronouncement of philosophical principle. The cliché was voiced as if nobody knew it was a cliché — in fact, as if nobody had ever heard it before, and as if nobody knew that the allusion to “no one” applied solely to Donald Trump, then being impeached by Pelosi and friends.

Nancy Pelosi said something that made me think. How often does a politician make anyone do that? In my experience, not very often.

This was no bravura display of genius. But to go from “no one is above the law” to “people will do what they do” — that’s amazing. The contradiction, of course, is flat, obvious, and damning. Trump was absolutely not, in no way! above the law, but now that Pelosi wants the votes of the BLM and Antifa crowd, what the hell? Go out and violate those laws! Just make sure you do it in public, and you curse Trump while you’re doing it.

That’s bad. And there’s worse. Though a cliché, and subject to critical examination about the meaning of at least one of its terms, “no one is above the law” actually means something. What does “people will do what they do” mean?

Literally, it means nothing. But here’s another thing I thought. Not all meaning resides in words — far from it. If Pelosi had been speaking as a sin-sick Calvinist, contemplating the evil nature of the human race, mournful tone and gesture would have imparted some significance to the otherwise vacant phrase. Yes, sadly, people do what people do! And by tone and gesture, she did impart significance to her words — not moral significance, but the rejection of it. Her tone conveyed a contemptuous lack of interest. Her whole body shrugged. She didn’t use the words, “So effing what?” but that meaning was clearly communicated.

A little torrent of thoughts followed that one through my brain. Thoughts such as these:

Pelosi’s performance was barely noticed. Even conservative media didn’t make very much of it. Perhaps that was an effect of the daily debasement of thought and language by every political person from the president to the demonstrator-on-the-beat. Now even the conservatives may be opining that “people will do what they do.”

Even a few years ago, however, a comment such as Pelosi’s would have ended the career of any politician holding an office that wasn’t in the safest district in the world — supposing that it could not be convincingly explained as having been misinterpreted, taken out of context, et cetera. (Pelosi does get sent to Congress by one of the safest districts in the world, but she doesn’t hold her speakership that way.) It would have been viewed, not so strangely, as an incitement to mob violence. Don’t tell me that change is good and the problem is my difficulty in adapting to change. A change that made politics even a little bit literate and just a little less than wholly destructive would be easy for me to adapt to. The change just noted is not that kind.

They intensely want to be returned to office, and that is the only thing they want. No other goals, no other values can be expressed or even intellectually entertained.

Another thing Pelosi said at her press conference was, “I’m not one of those people who is wedded to a, Oh, statue of somebody someplace is an important thing.” Once you’ve decoded that utterance, it may seem strange that she continues to wage a relentless campaign to rid the Capitol of all statues honoring “traitors,” i.e. one-time supporters of the Confederacy. She doesn’t shrug about them. For her, the Civil War is suddenly not yet over. But does that mean she appreciates, and in her own way honors, the importance of gesture, be it verbal or nonverbal, in word or in stone? Does that mean that when she shrugs she is doing the same thing as when she attacks — issuing signals that should be granted their proper semiotic weight, not merely dismissed, like her words, as empty or self-contradictory?

I think that’s true. There is a violent intensity about that Pelosi shrug. The nature of the intensity, however, is neither moral nor intellectual; it is always strictly and mindnumbingly political. I see the Republicans, who do their best not to object to acts of violence and vandalism, as shrugging in the same way. They intensely want to be returned to office, and that is the only thing they want. No other goals, no other values can be expressed or even intellectually entertained. It’s all politics, all the way down. The assumption is the same as that of the Marxist or “anarchist” revolutionaries, who hold that all evil in this world results from inequalities of political power, and that the way to remedy the situation is to give them power over everything.

What this means in practice is that nobody cares about such a nothing thing as a statue, or if he cares, he gets it wrong, because he sees nothing about it except politics, and his own kind of that.

I am distinctly not an admirer of Woodrow Wilson. It’s fair to say that I hate him. He was a racist of an especially disgusting kind, happy not just to segregate but to humiliate, and his actions in regard to the Great War and the so-called peace that succeeded it helped to destroy many millions of lives. But it will be a sad day for me as an Episcopalian when the so-called National Cathedral (really just the Episcopal cathedral in Washington, jumped-up into something “national”) blasts open his tomb and flings his corpse into the street. (It has already obliterated Robert E. Lee from its window commemorating large events in American history. Lee, by the way, was an Episcopalian.)

Why would I feel like that? I’ll tell you. Wilson wasn’t some government flunky who died a week ago, whose cronies demand that streets be named for. He is part of history, real history. Nobody has a fresh quarrel with Woodrow Wilson. For better or worse, he was a world-historical figure. His incorporation into the ecclesiastical architecture recognizes his historical importance. It gives the nave of the cathedral some interest, even if the interest is the derisory one of people like me. I don’t visit the cathedral to worship Wilson; I visit it, if I do, to worship God. I know the difference, and so does everybody else. To picture someone crying out in terror because he entered the church and beheld the tomb of Wilson — that’s what people supposedly feel when they confront the monuments of racists and imperialists and so forth. But nobody feels that way. Even little children don’t — even if you compose terrified and outraged letters and mail them out in the children’s names.

Wilson is a hard case for me, because most of the things for which he is memorialized are things I detest. But I don’t make the mistake of working myself into imagining that he’s memorialized for his racism. I know that’s not true. If anything, he’s memorialized for qualities that his newly generated critics — including the flunkies at Princeton who are busy erasing his formerly prestigious memory at that institution, of which he was once the self-righteous and divisive CEO — are themselves very pious about: internationalism, modern liberalism, custodial government.

Woodrow Wilson was a racist of an especially disgusting kind, happy not just to segregate but to humiliate, and his actions in regard to the Great War and the so-called peace that succeeded it helped to destroy many millions of lives.

Let’s move on to Thomas Jefferson, for whom I have some admiration. His statues are being removed. Why? Because he was a slaveholder, hence frightening to college students and other living beings. But that’s not why those statues were created. They were not created to honor a significant slaveholder, of whom there were many. They were created to honor, as his tomb records, the “author of the declaration of American independence, of the statute of Virginia for religious freedom, and father of the University of Virginia.” If you don’t know that, you don’t know enough to make any demands. That Declaration, by the way, was the favorite argument of the abolitionists, who used it with enormous effect. But several of the statues toppled by demonstrators happened to be those of abolitionists. Shrug. Who cares? People will do what they do.

Here’s the last thing, and very important to me. It isn’t morality, or history, or politics. It’s art.

I have a very well-developed contempt for Napoleon Bonaparte. (If you want to know why, read the summary of his career in Harold Nicolson’s magnificent The Congress of Vienna.) But the last thing I want is for his tomb in the Invalides to be blown up, and his ashes scattered to the winds. Why? Because not only is it fully involved in history, it’s also an impressive work of architecture. What do you want in its place? A supermarket? A Bureau de la Diversité, de l’Equité, et de l’Inclusivité?

You wouldn’t? Some people would — such people as the monstres intellectuels who insisted that Notre Dame be rebuilt in postmodern style, so as to dissociate it from the political sins of the past. Which would also mean dissociating it from history, from beauty, from its lordly place in its city, from its millions of cultural connections, bad and good — but mainly good, and each one interesting in its way. What could replace them? Nothing. But the thing that would try to replace them would be a work of politics, not a work of art.

Art. Remember that? Remember that Pelosi’s party always wants to provide more and more of it, by ever more generous funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and similar outfits? Meanwhile, the party condones and endorses the massive destruction of, yes, art. The statues that earned the shrug of the Speaker of the House are art, and often they are great art. The statue of Theodore Roosevelt (not an ideological friend of mine) that stands in front of the Museum of Natural History in New York — the statue that’s going to be removed, without regard to the fact that Roosevelt provided a lot of the museum’s collections — qualifies as great art. Other endangered statues are good art — and how much do we have of that? The crap the NEA funds? Please.

Really, anyone at any time could have defiled it or destroyed it, just as you or any other human being can be destroyed or defiled by someone who gets pleasure out of doing harm.

The statue of Andrew Jackson standing in the center of Lafayette Park, across from the White House, was virtually lost, set upon by a mob of screaming “protestors” who threw ropes about it to tear it down, when the president gave the order for an armed force to save it. This statue, dedicated in 1853, is said to have been the first bronze statue made in the United States, and the first equestrian statue, and the first equestrian statue in the world “made with the horse rearing on two legs with no additional support.” The sculptor had never seen an equestrian statue before, but his work was a distinguished engineering and artistic success.

Whether a statue is a good work of art or not, it has a peculiar dignity, and a peculiar pathos. The statue of a human being stands alone, night and day. You can observe it. You can ignore it. You can study its artistic qualities. You can walk around it in the deep night, fighting your fears — not about the statue, whomever the statue represents, but about poverty and neglect and lovelessness and the deaths of friends, and your own death. You can watch it age as you age. You can make love by it. You can tell people to meet you next to it, because everyone knows — or knew — that it will always be there. But when you see it destroyed by a cheering mob, you understand how vulnerable it is — vulnerable, like yourself. Really, anyone at any time could have defiled it or destroyed it, just as you or any other human being can be destroyed or defiled by someone who gets pleasure out of doing harm. That is scary. Nazis knew this, and made sure to destroy the statues and defile the graves of people they didn’t like. They vented their hate; they also impressed the populace with the fragility of its own existence. Fear has nothing to do with art, but it has a lot to do with political power.

It has been said of bears that human beings have always loved them and wanted to represent them in art, because, of all creatures, they look and act the most like human beings. To wantonly kill such an animal feels to most people like an assault on humanity. A statue is much more intimately related to us. To see the statue of, say, Hans Christian Heg — an abolitionist leader who died at the battle of Chickamauga, fighting to end slavery — pulled from the place where it gave a sense of human life to the dreary approach to the Wisconsin capitol, was to witness the execution of a human being by a mob that neither knew nor cared what it was doing. Afterwards, I’m sure, the executioners adjourned to their favorite coffee houses to savor their feat of political libido. The event was another monumental shrug at all values except the political — in this case, politics of an especially dumb and nasty kind.

It is now being said (by some) that the use of political criteria (otherwise known as community values) to censor speech and gesture, and their culmination in art, is totalitarian. And indeed it is, because abolishing speech you don’t like comes close to abolishing thought you don’t like. But there’s something else to be said.

The other statue destroyed by the gleeful mob at the Wisconsin capitol was that of a female figure dramatizing the state’s motto, “Forward.” The statue, which was the work of a woman sculptor — supposing that you care about women — has been described as “an allegory of devotion and progress.” But people who don’t understand the allegorical language of gesture wouldn’t need to puzzle out a meaning by looking at the sculpture itself. A sign on its base said “Forward.” Apparently the mob understood as little of such things as it understood of Hans Christian Heg. And the mob didn’t care. So this is more than totalitarianism. Even Stalin had respect for art, and a great deal of respect for symbolism. What we have now is barbarism without mask or pretense, reason or excuse.

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