The Cowardly Incoherence of Name-Changing, Statue-Toppling, and other Iconoclasms

The Stanford University campus in Stanford, Calif., in 2017. (Noah Berger/Reuters)A few activists succeed in demonizing Father Serra and removing a mission bell, but progressives still want the names ‘Stanford’ and ‘Yale’ on their résumés.

My undergraduate alma mater, UC Santa Cruz, recently agreed to remove a mission bell donated years ago by a local women’s club.

The university ceded to the wishes of one Valentin Lopez. He is the chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band.

Val brought forth concerns to us about the symbolism of the bell. He spoke of the historical injustices and oppression that the bell represents to the Amah Mutsun and indigenous populations. It was such a compelling statement of impact and I am pleased we have been able to work in partnership with them on the removal. Our students have also given voice to the need to remove the bell.

So said Sarah Latham, vice chancellor for business and administrative services at UCSC.

The triumphant Lopez added, “These bells are deeply painful symbols that celebrate the destruction, domination and erasure of our people. They are constant reminders of the disrespect our tribe faces to this day.” Latham offered no clarification about the definition of “students have also given voice,” in terms of numbers of students or votes. Neither the taxpayers of the state-funded institution nor the alumni were surveyed. Apparently, no one wondered, while considering the list of impediments to the progress of Native Americans, just how high an offending bell at UC Santa Cruz ranks.

About the same time, at San Francisco’s Washington High School, it was announced that an 83-year-old mural chronicling George Washington’s life was slated to be removed, destroyed, or covered up, owing to “accusations of racism.”

Yet the artist, Victor Arnautoff, was a leftist who in 1936 had sought to offer a realistic view of what he thought was a flawed American history. No matter. The school board caved to the objections of one Virginia Marshall, apparent spokesperson for “the Alliance of Black School Educators,” who demanded the removal: “It is a racist mural. My history should not be racist but it is. I came from slaves.”

Apparently thus spoke Zarathustra. And, presto, the board of education then caved, vowing to find the $375,000 to $825,000 to Trotskyize the mural and please Virginia Marshall.

No one meekly suggested that perhaps 20 to 30 annual tutors might be hired for the same sum to address any perceived asymmetries in comparative school achievement. A cynic might add that there are greater challenges to achieving parity for black public-school students than a historic mural. (I would suggest either recalling the school board, providing more vouchers and access to charter schools, or inculcating a new ethos among wealthy progressives that would lead them to enroll their children in inner-city public schools and match their elevated rhetoric with concrete reality.)

These examples of destruction or removal could easily be multiplied. My graduate alma mater and current employer, Stanford University, recently removed the name of Father Junipero Serra from two buildings and a mall on campus. Yet to avoid too much disruption (and perhaps to allay fears of alumni donors), it did not erase all things referencing the now odious Serra from other more recognizable streets and places.

As Stanford put it, describing the deplatformed and defriended Father Serra: As founder of the missions of early California, he was responsible for “harmful and violent impacts of the mission system on Native Americans, including through forced labor, forced living arrangements and corporal punishment.”

Epidemics of iconoclasm (from the Greek “breaking of icons”) erupt often throughout history, usually but not always in a religious context. And is not political correctness our era’s version of religion?

In our own time, we remember the Taliban’s recent destruction of the monumental sixth-century “Buddhas of Bamiyan” statues in Afghanistan, or the torching of priceless manuscripts in Timbuktu by Mali Islamists. The arguments for such destruction were not unfamiliar to American leftists and identity-politics activists: Such icons were hurtful to particular marginalized groups and an affront to their dignity and therefore must vanish.

The destruction of pictures, books, statues, and icons occurred periodically during Byzantine, Catholic, and Protestant church history, and was usually marked spurts of religious fanaticism, intolerance, and fear. Indeed, in early Byzantine history, iconoclasm was in part driven by frontier Christian towns, terrified that Constantinople’s use of ubiquitous symbols of Christ and Church fathers might provoke their neighboring Muslim adversaries into violence. We forget the role of fear and cowardice in iconoclasm, ancient and modern.

Politics of the day of course often determined who or what was defaced or destroyed. Yesterday’s deified Roman emperor was today’s persona non grata. Recently deceased Roman grandees suffered damnatio memoriae (damnation of memory) and so, Soviet-style, had their faces erased from stone imagery — albeit sometimes bodies were left intact as a money-saving gesture, in perhaps history’s first example of the efficacy of interchangeable parts.

French revolutionaries, like our modern iconoclasts who topple statues of Confederate soldiers in the night, often went wild destroying monuments, portraits, and names affiliated with the Ancien Régime and the Catholic Church. Like frontier posses who stormed jails to lynch detained suspects, such gangs often relied on numbers and darkness.

When I lived in Greece, it became a parlor game in my Athenian neighborhood to count how many time nocturnal political vandals would chop off the bronze head of the Harry Truman statue. His apparent sins at that time were that, years earlier, he had funneled American money to war-torn impoverished Greece and thus curtained its chance of enjoying the benefits of Soviet Communism with its Balkan neighbors of the era. Since then, poor twelve-foot bronze Harry has been guillotined, graffitied, painted, bombed, and toppled, according to the current anti-American gripe of the day.

So iconoclasm of the past and our current social-justice statue-topplers, aggrieved name-changers, and angry image-removers are often predictable. Here are a few of the rules of their ancient and modern wars on the past.


The agitators are never democratic and rarely act with any popular mandate or consensus. UC Santa Cruz did not hold a referendum to see whether Valentin Lopez enjoyed majority student, much less community, support. Many in the Latino community, as traditional Catholics, might hold a more balanced view of Father Serra, given the crowds of present-day tourists and worshipers who daily frequent the California missions. That demographic fact may be why an otherwise hyper-political and often unhinged California state government apparently does not dare rename, remodel, or close down the touristy missions.

Instead, in most cases, bureaucrats simply react to the loudest and most bothersome agitation. Their assumption is that political activists can easily smear their résumés, while the silent majority of citizens is mostly too busy to object and will not rally en masse to their sobriety.

Bureaucratic and Careerist

When the wild demands of a few are made to destroy this or rename that, the race is on among administrators, bureaucrats, and careerist state officials to appease rapidly, and in the most unctuous fashion, usually by employing bureaucratese such as “harmful” and “hurtful” and “impacts” — without any real research into the complexities of the history in question, which so often is paradoxically tragic rather than simplistically melodramatic. Anyone who has served on a dean or provost’s search committee will be familiar with the embarrassing boilerplate letter from the applicant that references his past progressive dexterity in caving to such demands, the more obsequiously the better for future advancement.

Opportunistic and Selective

Rarely do the revisionists who wage war on history offer any rational and systematic agenda for their otherwise spontaneous tantrums. Father Serra is a demon because his views of civilization included transforming California from a sparsely populated land of impoverished native peoples into a Catholic outpost of the Spanish Empire, to be supposedly enriched by faith, commerce, agriculture, communications, and literacy — an agenda that included coercive beating and cultural transformation.

But is Father Serra a Hitlerian figure to his contemporary enemies or just a nuisance? Translated, does that mean Lopez is satisfied that he gets credit for removing one obscure bell at UC Santa Cruz, when there are still hundreds of such iconic bells dotting the ancient El Camino Real that joined the missions? Would he be willing to take on much of the working classes of the California Latino community who may feel that Serra’s legacy enhances their religious heritage and whose anachronistic ideas of “progress,” mutatis mutandis, nonetheless helped make California the sort of place that was preferable to, say, Oaxaca and thus worth risking one’s life to cross the border to reach?

Stanford justifies its selective Father Serra name-changing by citing the “violent impacts” of his “forced labor, forced living arrangements and corporal punishment.”

How rich the vocabulary, given that many social reformers of the last 150 years have targeted Leland Stanford himself — maligned as the “robber baron” and “Big Four” schemer, founder and donor of Leland Stanford Jr. University — with precisely that allegation. The usual writ is that Stanford brutally imported Asian laborers as construction workers in his vast railroad archipelago. He wrote freely about their racial inferiority, and he exploited them mercilessly as he built a vast fortune, much of it central to founding the university that now bears both his son’s and, by extension, his own family name.

When I was a graduate student in 1975, undergraduates (at least then far less hypocritical than their contemporary descendants) voted to rename their own university mascot from “Indians” to “Robber Barons,” a plebiscite whose results were quickly nullified by administrators.

In the pantheon of race, class, and gender villains, many historians might rank Stanford as a Serra coequal who justified his civilizing mission in terms of breaking eggs to make an omelet.

To be consistent, Stanford University might at least decide whether or not Serra nomenclature is toxic, rather than selectively blotting out a rarer Serra reference here and there on the theory that students will be pacified by a morsel of politically correct iconoclasm while gift-giving alums might go ballistic at a politically correct feast. Certainly, Stanfordites would not welcome any name change of their beloved Junipero Serra Boulevard that runs through campus; otherwise, it logically might be the best virtue-signaled target of Stanford political correctness.

Note that the university is no more likely to change the name of Stanford to something like Amah Mutsun University to rectify the theft of indigenous peoples’ lands than Yale University is willing to give up the names of its slave-owning founders. The selective outrage is not just because old white Neanderthal alumni love going to Yale or Stanford iconic football games, but rather because tens of thousands of woke nonwhite students and alumni are proud of their tony “Yale” and “Stanford” diplomas. They are not about to destroy their career investments in such a brand name on the altar of systematic and coherent politically correct name-changing.


The new iconoclasm is almost as exclusively progressive in the West as it is reactionary in the contemporary Muslim world. But the common thread, past and present, East and West, to epidemics of name-changing, statue-smashing, and mural-erasing is political opportunism fueled by fear and careerist anxiety.

Certainly — in the age of #MeToo and heightened awareness of the lifelong damage to women from rape, sexual harassment, and asymmetrical sexual relationships fueled by an imbalance of power — no one is suggesting that thousands of local and state boulevards that were renamed Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1970s should now retransition, given recent disturbing revelations that King might have allowed a rape to occur in his presence, was a serial philanderer, and often, under today’s definitions, pressured sex from younger and more vulnerable females.

No one would dare suggest that feminist icon Margaret Sanger’s name be removed from awards, dinners, or monuments, given that by any modern standard she would be classified as a racist eugenicist. She saw abortion on demand, at least partly, as a way of limiting the growth of perceived nonwhite populations. The disproportionate number of African Americans aborted through the agency of Sanger’s legacy, Planned Parenthood, seems a logical consequence of her founding ideology.

In my hometown, I certainly have not demanded that the city council remove what I see as a somewhat offensive statue of the Aztec goddess Coatlicue. She is usually portrayed as a hideous clawed mother goddess, decked out in writhing serpents, with a grotesque necklace of dangling human hearts, skulls, and hands. She was an unforgiving goddess for whom tens of thousands of innocent men, women, and especially children, many of them indigenous peoples enslaved by the Aztecs, were sacrificed. Why honor such a monster?

In such a vein, one could argue that the San Diego State “Aztecs” glorify triumphalist imperialist mass murderers, even more than the supposedly offensively named Washington Redskins do. Immigrants from Oaxaca and southern Mexico are as likely to be descendants from Tlaxcala, which resisted the Aztec Empire, as they are descendants of the Aztecs themselves. So they could be the progeny of people targeted for extinction and human sacrifice by a neighboring fascist imperialist bully.

The truth is that once the statue-smasher and name-changer gets a free hand, we should expect no logic, no respite from zealotry and bigotry. He operates from emotion, not reason, and his currency is intimidation, not persuasion, consistency, and coherence — when no official is willing to just say “No!” Taking down a mural of George Washington makes about as much sense as erasing all the thousands of streets and statues named for Caesar Chavez, who at times operated hand in glove with a nightmarish Synanon cult to denigrate his own members (“Every time we look at them, they want more money,” Chavez said in 1977, complaining about farm workers. “Like pigs, you know. Here we’re slaving, and we’re starving and the goddamn workers don’t give a shit about anything.”)

Chavez sent his union goons down to the border to beat up, intimidate, and force back illegal aliens whom he derided as scab laborers dangerous to the unionizing efforts of his familial union empire. Pressed on his derogatory use of “illegals” and treatment of the undocumented, he scoffed, “No, a spade’s a spade. You guys get these hang-ups. Goddamn it, how do we build a union? They’re wets, you know. They’re wets, and let’s go after them.” In comparison, Father Serra might seem to some benign.

The insanity that we are witnessing has little or nothing to do with icons that institutionalize disparities or impede social justice. Iconoclasm is about power — and the psychological lift that comes with exercising it.

Something to Consider

If you enjoyed this article, we have a proposition for you: Join NRPLUS. Members get all of our content (including the magazine), no paywalls or content meters, an advertising-minimal experience, and unique access to our writers and editors (conference calls, social-media groups, etc.). And importantly, NRPLUS members help keep NR going. Consider it?

If you enjoyed this article, and were stimulated by its contents, we have a proposition for you: Join NRPLUS.


NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Case for Trump.

Continue reading at National Review