Modern Progressives as the New Iconoclasts

Progressivism was born in no small measure from opposition to the rule of law, because it wanted to overthrow the Constitution by means other than the amendment process, if necessary.  But today progressivism’s opposition to the rule of law is not confined to the Constitution.

The latest example comes from Yale, a bastion of progressivism.  There a dining hall employee purposely destroyed a stained glass window that depicted African Americans picking cotton, because he found it offensive. Initially, Yale fired him and referred him for prosecution. But after protests from professors and students, Yale declined to prosecute and is in negotiations to reemploy him. The protesters celebrated his act of “civil disobedience.”

The support for this act of vandalism and Yale’s pusillanimous climb down are misguided on many levels. Begin with the more minor issue—the aesthetics of the window itself. A friend who has studied the window suggests that in fact it portrays the dignity of African-Americans laboring under the injustice of slavery or peonage. In any event, I am sure that the Yale art history department regularly teaches that works of art can have many and complex meanings to different people.

But it is certainly possible to believe that this work should be moved, because some find it offensive.  The crucial point is that it was not up to the Yale worker to make this decision, still less to shatter the window.  The argument that his “civil disobedience” should excuse him is foolish. First, civil disobedience requires the law breaker to be punished, at least if the law he violates is not itself unjust. And a law forbidding the destruction of others’ property is obviously just.

Second, civil disobedience generally requires non-violence. And shattering the window was a violent act, as made all more clear by the passerby who was hit by a shard from the shower of falling glass. Perhaps sometimes violent civil disobedience is justified, but only if it is proportionate to the injustice. And violence is hardly proportionate to offense some might take from a picture window.

It is not civil disobedience that the protestors are celebrating but iconoclasm—destroying hated symbols.  But iconoclasm has no place in civilized society at peace, let alone at a university. Symbols are expressions. We may oppose the ideas they express, but should not destroy the symbols any more than we should attack the speaker of ideas we oppose.

And sadly a mark of modern progressivism has become its policing of symbolic expression. That is also the reason that progressives want to force those with religious objections to provide support for same-sex marriage ceremonies even in jurisdictions where it is obvious that same-sex couples could easily procure those services elsewhere. It is an old story that progressives lack commitment to the rule of law. But modern progressives are the new iconoclasts as well.