The woke jihadis’ ideological enemy is not dead people, but living people who appreciate how our world was built, by people who got many things right.
By John Pepall
PEOPLE WHO HEAR that a statue must be taken down, or that a building, a street, or an institution must be renamed, may think that knowledgeable people have discovered that those who were remembered, honoured by the statue or the name, were bad. That mistakes had been made and helpful people have stepped forward to correct the mistakes.
Several articles in The Dorchester Review have shown that there have been no mistakes, that the people remembered were not bad and that those who have attacked them are not disinterestedly deploying new knowledge.
The outbreak of statue-toppling and renaming is something much more than a mere tidying up of our physical memory. Its manner, the literal toppling or defacing of statues, gives a clue to its spirit.
When people remembered from the past are attacked they are generally cited for their support of policies or institutions that are now universally, or at least overwhelmingly, condemned. Those remembered are not remembered because of their support for what is now condemned, but for their prominent role in their time: Egerton Ryerson for his role in establishing public education, Sir John A. Macdonald for his role in Confederation, building the railway, or the National Policy. What they are condemned for, residential schools or restrictions on immigration from China, were secondary aspects of their public life, and not condemned in their time, rather generally thought good.
A defence against statue-toppling might therefore, often does, proceed by acknowledging the target’s faults, but arguing that his merits outweigh them. This often concedes too much to the attackers and only encourages them. It is a form of appeasement. The attackers will not be appeased. They are absolutists. Ryerson’s thoughts on schooling for the indigenous were genocidal. Whatever good he may have done, and they are not ready to concede he did any, cannot save him. He was simply evil and must fall.
To plead in extenuation that people in his time thought his ideas were good only encourages the attackers. For their targets are only proxies for those who raised the statues, or named things, and, by extension, those who left them there for over a century, and those who defend them now.
Sir John A. was targeted precisely because he is the central figure in Canada’s political history. Those who attack him will not be satisfied by having all statues of him and his name on buildings or institutions removed. The country he played such a large role in founding and led for almost two decades cannot escape so lightly. Cancelling Macdonald is only the first step in a revolutionary project.
Usually statue-toppling comes after a revolution or regime change. The post-modern revolution begins with the superstructure of symbols and ideas and envisages a world without memory, or common understanding, in which fanatics’ dreams can be fulfilled.
The argument is not about the past. It is about the present. What I have called the post-modern jihadis are determined that our public spaces and our public discourse, and even our private thoughts, must be purged of any memory of how people saw things in the past. The jihadis’ enemy is not dead people, but living people who appreciate how our world was built, by people who no doubt got much wrong, but also got much right. Like most of us.
We are in an ideological war and despite the compelling defences mounted for Macdonald, Ryerson, and others, it is not going well. Appeasement and surrender are the most common outcomes of the battles so far.
Ryerson didn’t stand a chance. The night his statue at Ryerson University was toppled the University’s President Mohamed Lachemi issued a statement reporting that there had been a “peaceful protest” and that “an hour after the last of the people left, a truck arrived on Gould Street and proceeded to pull down the statue of Egerton Ryerson.” A self-driving truck with an automatic lasso? “The statue will not be restored or replaced.” A Standing Strong Task Force was already considering what to do about the statue, the university’s name and “and other elements of commemoration on campus.” The criminals who had vandalized the statue were never pursued.
Ten weeks later the University’s Board of Governors unanimously approved all twenty-two recommendations of the Task Force, including renaming the university.
Ryerson’s fate was sealed from the moment the attacks on him began some years ago. The University pursued a policy of ardent appeasement. Consultations began immediately and they and the Task Force were dominated by activist ideologues. Three years before its toppling “Ryerson University … installed a plaque to accompany the Egerton Ryerson statue … as a reminder of the university’s commitment to truth and reconciliation. … The plaque addresses the role of the university’s founder [sic], Egerton Ryerson, in the establishment of residential schools.” No one in the University administration would either defend Ryerson the man or question the principle of damnatio memoriae by which he was to be cancelled. Over three hundred faculty demanded it. Many faculty, and very many students, may not have cared enough to say no. Even though Ryerson’s cancellation was in the cards, the enragé vandals had to have their day.
THE CITY OF Toronto, faced with a demand that Dundas Street, a major arterial road, must be renamed was equally keen to appease. I confess I had thought Dundas Street was named because it runs to Dundas, a town now part of Hamilton, and that Dundas was named after a place in Scotland. In fact it is the other way round. Dundas the town was named because the road ran to it, and the road was name after Henry Dundas, a Scottish politician and minister under George III. I had read about him in Lecky and elsewhere but retained nothing.
Dundas had advocated the gradual abolition of the slave trade and slavery. Some historians argue he was insincere and in effect delayed their abolition. Somehow this controversy reached the ears of activists in Toronto and a petition was organized to have Dundas Street renamed.
The City promptly appropriated $250,000 for study and consultations and it was a case of “They would say that, wouldn’t they?” as the usual suspects stepped forward to say Dundas must go.
Mayor John Tory — there’s a name that should be changed — led the City Council in agreeing, at a conservatively projected cost of $6,000,000, with an ongoing “Recognition Review Project” set up to solicit further protests and spend more money on cancelling people from the past.
The cancellation of Henry Dundas after a great fuss and at great expense is an absurd extreme. People weren’t remembering Dundas as they walked across the street named after him, thinking what a fine fellow he must have been, in ignorance of, or despite, his foot-dragging over slavery. Black people could not have been made uncomfortable by his name because, like everyone else, they had no idea who he was.
But for the ideologues, once they latched on to a scrap of history, “Dundas” encoded “systemic racism” and must go at any expense.
STATUES OF SIR John A. still stand and his name remains, but his enemies have made some progress. Queen’s University, after the usual palaver, removed Macdonald’s name from its law school. Unusually, the sixty-five page Building Name Advisory Committee Final Report on which the decision was based, noted and addressed opposition to the renaming. Only to reject it with unctuous condescension.
The committee that produced the Report conducted a survey of the University community broadly defined. The sample was self-selected. 50.42% said Macdonald’s name should go, 46.95% that it should stay and 2.63% had no opinion.
At Queen’s the strong opposition to removing Macdonald’s name indicates that most people were not cowed, though some undoubtedly were.
Survey participants were invited to make comments. A content analysis indicated that these fell out closely with the Yes/No answers, with a slight margin in favour of keeping the name. The Report says: “There was some concern expressed that those in favour of keeping the name might not come forward to share their views with the Committee, given the current political climate. This was not the case.” This is disingenuous. The strong opposition to removing Macdonald’s name indicates that most people were not cowed. Some people undoubtedly were. No one who wanted to ditch Macdonald held back.
The Report begins with Principles. These are largely drawn from previous historical cancellation episodes and premise that historical cancellation is a good thing and much needed. It says:
We determined that using an Indigenous lens provided us with a helpful framework for this work, and so the Principles are structured around the sweetgrass braid. … The lessons from which this framework is drawn are general teachings for everyday life; they are not specific to the issue at hand.
… The first strand of the braid represents the seven generations who came before; the second strand represents the seven Grandfather teachings of Love, Respect, Courage, Honesty, Humility, Wisdom, and Truth; and the third strand represents the next seven generations.
In another context all this might be considered cultural appropriation. In the specific context it amounts to cultural surrender. If the lessons from which the framework is drawn are not specific to the issue why advert to them? Because now everything must be seen through an Indigenous lens?
Under the heading of “Blameworthiness” the Report considers the argument that the Macdonald’s policies were only the expression of the thinking and understanding of his time.
An idea may have “some merit as a philosophical problem,” but speaking from a university with a historically distinguished philosophy department they dismiss a philosophical problem as immaterial. The idea, and its counterpoise, the denial of responsibility of people “still living” for wrongs in the past in which they had no part, are philosophical objections that cannot be “taken seriously.”
The muddle of so much cuteness takes some disentangling. Why must the acknowledgement that people have suffered and need help require the assignment of blame? Have we no responsibility to help those who have suffered from natural disasters? Would it be enough, taking them as Acts of God, to close churches and other places of worship and leave the victims of disaster to their fate? How does blaming dead people for wrongs help the living who suffer from them? Why rope in the issue of reparations for slavery? Are people living today really to blame for slavery a century and a half ago? Calhoun, OK, but he won’t be paying any reparations. The responsibility to help those who suffer the long term consequences of slavery and Jim Crow today is not dependent on people today being blamed, or helped by blaming people in the past.
WHAT IT COMES down to is the search for a scapegoat. By cancelling Macdonald, or Ryerson, we can atone for sins, which, of course, we have not, and never would have, committed. For some it is a painless way of checking “White Privilege” while continuing to occupy privileged positions. The authors of the Report are not admitting to any sins, and cannot imagine that future generations may think they have done wrongs as great as those they accuse Macdonald of. For all Macdonald’s or Ryerson’s faults they were better men than those who promote or connive at their cancellation.
The whole Report is at once a prosecutor’s brief and a hanging judge’s sentence. The moral complacency of the committee, which was unanimous, except for the University’s fundraiser, who abstained for obvious reasons, was perfect.
The trump card of the topplers and renamers is the hurt feelings of those the target allegedly offended. The Report says
Throughout the consultation process, the Committee consistently heard from Indigenous, racialized, and marginalized groups that the current name of the law school building creates feelings ranging from exclusion to trauma.
What can one say to that? Can one deny the trauma, or that it necessarily follows from the remembering of Macdonald? That I, a senior white male, have been distressed by the attacks on Macdonald? Whose distress is more, or counts more? Is my distress a pathology of White Privilege? I should suck it up. I do. But I will not shut up.
In the case of Dundas, of whom not one in ten thousand knew a thing, the City reported, referring to options short of full cancellation,
The working group notes that these three options do not take into account the unequal impact that the commemoration of Henry Dundas has on Black and Indigenous individuals. QuakeLab described the ‘visceral reaction [Black and Indigenous community leaders] had to these proposed solutions, and their feelings that these solutions are disingenuous and inauthentic to honouring the City’s commitment to fighting racism,’ and caution that a public debate about these options could risk becoming a divisive process with the potential to draw anti-Black and anti-Indigenous rhetoric and racism.
Even to debate the renaming is intolerable.
There has grown up a whole industry of consultants, HR departments, diversity officers, and human rights bureaucrats to enforce woke ideology.
QUAKELAB “IS A full-stack inclusion [emphasis theirs] agency that provides the tools, expertise and methods to take your vision for inclusion from idea to action,” an ideological consultancy retained by the City to tell them what they would. Curiously, QuakeLab condemns what it calls Trauma Mining, or Trauma Porn, as somehow in the service of White Privilege. It “is ‘using other people’s trauma to shock our system to galvanize support. …’” How then could QuakeLab discern the “visceral reaction …?”
This emotional blackmail is basic to cancellations of both the living and the dead and the stifling of free speech that is on the rise everywhere. A principle emotion deployed and cultivated is hatred, as evidenced by the vandalism that the authorities indulge.
The administrators, and politicians who facilitate such cancellations, and the governors or councillors who rubber stamp them, may see themselves as decent, level-headed, mainstream actors, simply responding to stakeholders’ concerns, and far from radical or extreme. They may be motivated by cowardice and appeasement, but more importantly they are conformists following ideological fashion.
When quite conventional people take the knee, spout “Black Lives Matter,” “Diversity and Inclusion,” “Truth and Reconciliation,” “Decolonisation,” and “check their privilege,” they are like the greengrocer in Vaclav Havel’s “The Power of the Powerless” with his “Workers of the World Unite” sign. They will not live in truth. There is perhaps nothing wrong with workers of the world uniting. But the phrase carried ideological baggage the greengrocer did not believe in, understand, or care about. He put up the sign to conform and keep out of trouble. Much more trouble than the facilitators of statue-toppling might face if they showed some stomach. But those facilitators will not trouble themselves to live in truth, to look critically not just at the details of the prosecutors’ case in each instance, but at the assumptions and implications on which their tendentious selection of facts rests.
I knew nothing of Dundas, remember Ryerson’s importance to public education, and admire Macdonald. There is a risk in defending against renaming and statue-toppling of aiming at too high a standard, of claiming that those remembered were quite wonderful people. Macdonald has in any case been perhaps set up too high in a kind of emulation of Americans’ reverence for their founders. Those who trouble to study history can make their own judgments.
I think Pierre Trudeau was a bad man and Lester Pearson pretty shabby. But I will not campaign to have their airports renamed, because I accept the right of my contemporaries to express to me another view. And even more the right of my forebears.
The managerial ‘facilitators’ of woke will not trouble themselves to live in truth, to look critically at the details of the prosecutors’ case in each instance or at their assumptions.
Statues and other public remembrances are the past speaking to the present. Most of us pass by statues and find them merely decorative, or not, according to taste. Most people could not even say who the person remembered was. We should do well to seek out and learn a little history. But not like prosecutors looking for crimes or judges ready to condemn. Rather to let the past speak to us and help us to understand how they saw things then and how our world came to be. The woke want to censor that past, as they want to censor the present.
Statue-toppling is only one front in the war of the woke, those people who sometime around Y2K were in receipt of a revelation and without study, thought, argument, or experience, know with perfect clarity and precision what is, and always was, right and wrong. And not only have they perfect knowledge, they are good people, morally perfect. They would never have owned a slave, or bought something produced by slave labour, suggested residential schools, or restricted immigration. Such is their perfection that it is their duty to command us all to follow them, and cancel all who will not.
As the woke see it, the world built before their revelation is throughout corrupt. Its language, its institutions and manners, its “social constructs” and its memory need a thorough purging. In a reversal of the old principle, « Tout comprendre est tout pardonner » they give us « Tout comprendre est tout condamner. »
Though the power of the woke is growing, they are for now more influential than powerful. Their long march through the institutions has been triumphant and their slogans and rituals are ubiquitous. They have cancelled both the living and the dead.
There has grown up a whole lucrative industry of consultants, HR departments, diversity officers, and human rights bureaucrats to enforce woke ideology. Many people have made good money from the attacks on Ryerson, Macdonald, and Dundas. Some don’t even believe in or understand what they are doing. It’s just good money.
THESE ARE THE vanguard of the post-modern revolution. It is not usual for a revolutionary vanguard to be publicly-funded and so welcomed. If they can do all they project, the revolution will be easy and it will be all power to the woke.
Over forty years ago, when “political correctness” was in its infancy, Havel wrote:
In the democratic societies, where the violence done to human beings is not nearly so obvious and cruel, this fundamental revolution in politics has yet to happen, and some things will probably have to get worse there before the urgent need for that revolution is reflected in politics.
The “revolution” he was writing of was a turn to “living in truth” in opposition to Communist orthodoxy. Things have got worse and living in truth is increasingly hard in democratic societies. The urgent need for living in truth is here.
The defeat of the post-modern jihadis will require a long struggle on many fronts. There can be no appeasement. Rather, where ground has been ceded it must be recovered. Toppled statues must be returned, and names stripped must be restored. Let the past speak.
John Pepall is a contributing editor to The Dorchester Review. This article appears in the Autumn-Winter edition, Vol. 11 No. 2, pp. 55-60.