A century and a half ago, the great conservative critic Thomas Carlyle railed against the statue-monuments going up all over Britain – “black and dismal” he called them, “like a set of grisly undertakers come to bury the dead spiritualisms of mankind.” But despite their ugliness the statues for him were not the real problem. They were nothing more than symptoms of an underlying anarchy in the modern world. Mankind had so lost sight of the truth that “Supreme Hero and Supreme Scoundrel are, perhaps as nearly as is possible to human creatures, indistinguishable.”
In his latest column, David Brooks tries to channel Carlyle for the 21st century. We build lousy monuments, he argues, because we have lost the ability to follow “just authority.” The cancer of rebelliousness started among intellectuals and has since spread to the masses. Now we don’t honor any authority because we all think we’re better than everyone else. In our vanity we can no longer conceive of heroes or build convincing monuments.
Brooks has probably been spending too much time around his fellow pundits, who, after all, are paid to be vain and to pretend that they’re smarter than everyone else. I’ve spent a lot time around public monuments over the past thirty years, and I think it’s fair to say that most people actually want to honor them, even when the monuments don’t deserve it. For better or worse we still crave monuments and the myths that support them.
Not only are public monuments going up as often as ever, but they are getting bigger and bigger. No longer is a mere statue sufficient as it was in Carlyle’s time. Now we give our heroes several acres. Were we to take up Brooks’ suggestion and follow Eisenhower’s example, we might start by building more modest monuments, attuned to the original spirit of our democratic experiment.
If there is a vanity in our built memorials, it is the vanity of American exceptionalism, the vanity that says our authority is just simply because it is our authority. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is one of our few war memorials that isn’t vain in this way. It is indeed tragic, as Brooks laments, but for good reason: in our hubris we thought we knew better than the Vietnamese themselves what kind of leadership they should have. We showed the same conceit in the Phillipines in 1903 and in Iraq in 2003. Brooks is right that our institutions weren’t markedly better a century ago. When it comes to war, our national vanity has been remarkably consistent.
Carlyle understood something about authority and vanity. He believed that “just authority” had to be demonstrated and earned, not merely asserted. But we live in an age, like his, in which civic discourse has become so debased by marketing and mendacity that even legitimate authority is thrown open to question. In an age of manipulation it’s hard to tell the difference between a hero and a scoundrel. And in such an era, ironically, we crave monuments more than ever.