Burning the Past

I AM OBLIGED to denounce an article I recently stumbled across in the New Yorker, which to my eyes represents the worst American tradition of stuffy Puritanism and obnoxious, totally officious, interference in the affairs of other countries. This not to speak of the deeper question it inadvertantly raises, of America’s profoundly ambivalent relation to history, which even now is erupting forth in the contemporary attempt to purge America of its “slave-owning icons”—folly which I have already commented on.
      The article of which I speak poses the question (quite as if it were perfectly legitimate to presume that every nation in the world should hate itself with the same fervor as America), “Why are so many Fascist monuments still standing in Italy?” For evidently it is not enough to go hunting for such game in one’s own country; one must go about moralizing insufferably on every one elses’ turf, as well.
      Now, the author of this piece, one Ruth Ben-Ghiat, is, by her own description “an expert on fascism and its memory,” which makes it particularly curious that she should desire the physical elimination of so many traces of that memory. Or rather, I should say, all of this would be curious, if a neat indication of the author’s real motives were not furnished precisely in her name. Be that as it may, it is essential to clarify that when Ben-Ghiat speaks of “Fascist monuments,” she is not referring merely to this or that little statue thrown into this or that dusty corner of old and crumbling buildings. She references openly, among other things, the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana and the statues in the Stadio dei Marmi. She is speaking that is to say of essentially every public work of art or architecture which was put up in Italy between the years of 1922 to 1943.
      It is to be wondered if she makes any distinction between monuments which were raised by the Fascists in open glorification of Fascism on the one hand, and monuments which happened to be raised in the epoch during which the Fascists ruled. But really such refinements are beside the point, for when one is dealing with a “Professor of History” who is willing in perfect composure and without any awareness of proposing an offensive absurdity to recommend razing entire buildings because their architects were not good liberal democrats, it is quite beside the point to argue over any subtlety so fine as artistic intent.
      I have made this observation before but it bears the repetition: this kind of generalized resentful ire against of the past, and the accompanying zeal to utterly erase the evidence of what we judge to be past wrongs, has no clear boundary, no clear terminus. The same logic could promote the destruction of the Colosseum, in which countless “oppressed souls” lost their lives, or the elimination of the White House, which was built for slave owners, and by the slaves themselves. Once one begins on the course of whitewashing history, one is not soon done with that Herculean labor, and there will be much rubble and much dust, and, inevitably, much blood, before one has had one’s fill.
      What is really at question here, of course, is not even Fascism, so much as Nazism. That is the real bone of contention in the question of “Fascist monuments,” the real horror that one wants somehow to redress. It is not Mussolini as such, but rather Hitler, with whom Mussolini allied himself, that one wishes to brutalize and demonize and finally eliminate from annals of history. I say “one,” which is of course polite; in truth one knows who really desires these things, just as one knows precisely who it is that most fervently wants to defeat Lee a second time and smudge Columbus out from the national ledgers in America. Ben-Ghiat’s article here is but the latest most consistent move in a campaign which proposes to eradicate the memory of a regime which burned books, by burning the monuments of the same.

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