On Monday night at the Republican National Convention, Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk called President Donald Trump the “bodyguard of Western Civilization.”
Kirk is a political huckster, but the idea that Western Civilization needs defending is not wrong.
The past few months have seen angry mobs across the country tearing down statues of Christopher Columbus, America’s Founding Fathers, and even abolitionists. Anti-colonialist and anti-capitalist graffiti has become a regular feature in areas where “peaceful” protestors converge. In liberal circles, such destruction is viewed as righteous and cleansing, so much so that even elite journalists like Nikole Hannah-Jones of the New York Times praise the vandals for advancing their mission of rewriting history (and then later delete their tweets).
The people pulling down monuments to the past are often asked what they plan to replace those markers with. The New York Times Magazine has finally provided us with an answer, one that should concern anyone who cares about historical and cultural literacy in 21st century America.
The Times asked several artists to reimagine monuments since, as they note in passing (and in the passive voice, so they won’t have to use words like “vandalism”) that “More than a third of these monuments have been removed since May 25 of this year alone.”
The first artist featured, Ibrahim Mahama, proposes a statue of Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of Ghana, a man he describes as “arguably one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century and a Pan-Africanist.” He adds, “His belief in creating a system that was designed to promote economic liberation across the African continent while working with the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War was very unpopular but had promise for rethinking systemic discrimination and injustice.”
Nkruma was a lot more than “unpopular.” In 1964, in an article called, “Portrait of Nkrumah as a dictator,” the New York Times observed that more monuments to Nkrumah were the last thing the leader needed: “Ghanaian stamps bear his portrait. At night, his name flickers in neon lights over Kwame Nkrumah Circle. A bigger-than‐life‐size statue of him stands before Parliament. Commentators on Radio Ghana call him The Redeemer, The Conqueror, His Messianic Majesty. In Ghana today the man who led the nation to freedom seven years ago has proclaimed a new ‘revolutionary phase’ in which dissent has become a crime against the state.”
As for the kind of ruler Nkrumah was and the values Mr. Mahama seeks to memorialize today? In that same 1964 report, the Times described Nkrumah thus: “In Ghana today, the only safe expression of dissent is silence. The press has been muzzled. Judges may be fired, and court verdicts reversed at Nkrumah’s pleasure. Parliament is a rubber stamp for Nkrumah’s Convention People’s Party. No other party is legal. The C.P.P. has officially become ‘the vanguard of the people in their struggle to build a Socialist society’—words whose similarity to the 1936 Soviet Constitution is hardly accidental.”
This wasn’t merely the view of Ghanaians; the Times noted that a Detroit newspaper described Nkrumah as the “Black Stalin,” which, given his policies, seems apt. According to reporters at the time, Nkrumah initiated a “ruthless purge of ‘antiprogressive’ and ‘bourgeois’ elements in the civil service, the schools and universities, the police and the army.”
Mr. Mahamra, by contrast, praises Nkrumah as a leader whose “spirit embodies both the anticapitalist and anti-neocolonial agenda, and promises freedom and justice for all mankind, including every life and nonlife form.”
Another featured artist, Rindon Johnson, confessed, “When I was asked to propose a monument, my first impulse was to sand away the faces on Mount Rushmore, but this form of reclamation reifies the violence of settler colonialism and dispossession.” Instead, as a “Black American trans man,” he proposes “the creation of a series of large spherical boulders that will eventually grow moss, lichen, plants, and flowers. These multivalent forms could be installed in many U.S. landscapes, as there is nowhere that white supremacy has not touched.”
The piece de resistance in the Times’ gathering of artists is the monument proposed by the artist/activist collective known as Decolonize This Place, which wants to replace the monument in Columbus Circle in New York City because “monuments to figures like Christopher Columbus, George Washington, and Theodore Roosevelt are symptoms of domination in the psychogeography of the city.”
To members of the collective, whose idea of art includes vandalism like this and whose Twitter feed features banner images promoting the BDS movement and anti-law enforcement statements like FTP (for F**k The Police), the concept of art isn’t really the point; activism is. The collective spends more time protesting museums than studying the art housed inside of them. (They also like to vandalize subways with anti-police graffiti and call it art).
No wonder, then, that the collective rejects labels like “public art” in favor of “the deployment of the remnants in an escalating insurrectionary process, one in which the people will have torn them down and delivered them into a festive heap at what was once called Columbus Circle.”
They would call this the “Garden of Our Miseries.” They describe it as a place “in which the heroes of murder and empire decompose as so many ruins, providing a space of public reflection on the disastrous course of Western civilization. Stripped of their vertical, phallic power, the fragments of these columns and statues become the symbolic centerpiece and physical anchor for an organizing hub aiming to de-occupy the Upper West Side, from the Time Warner Center and Lincoln Center to the American Museum of Natural History, Central Park and the luxury condos that surround it.”
But not all of our new guardians of civilization decry luxury: the Times features another artist who proposes to turn Rikers Island Detention Center into the “Nanny Goat Hill Pleasure Gardens,” a space that would include “a sauna for queer and trans people to be naked in nature; a shelter for homeless survivors of intimate violence; a polycultural food source available for sustainable foraging; a bar.”
As these proposals suggest, Western Civilization needs far more than a single bodyguard to defend it. It needs people willing to push back against such efforts to rewrite the past and challenge those who claim to be erasing monuments to past atrocities, but who are really only replacing them with new ones.