Taking offense, these days, is a form of conspicuous consumption. It isn't about the notionally offensive thing; it's about … meeee!
And that makes offense-taking competitive.
"You want to remove a plaque celebrating Jefferson Davis? I want to tear down all Confederate monuments!"
"Pah! Just the monuments? I want to exhume the Confederate dead!"
"Well in that case I want to dynamite the Jefferson Memorial!"
"No, make that the Washington Memorial!"
And so on.
Last week, it was reported that the City Council of Delaware, Ohio had passed a resolution "ordering the bodies of all Confederate soldiers buried at Oak Grove Cemetery to be exhumed and relocated. The remains will be dumped in nearby Alum Creek Lake."
It's not just the ghoulishness that offends here, it's the sheer meanness. Ohio sent an extraordinary 320,000 men to fight for the Union – men honored with some of the loveliest monuments I've seen. Many of them had passed through in Delaware, which had training camps for both black and white soldiers. Those men treated their Confederate adversaries with dignity; but today's City Council flaunts a more aggressive piety.
There's a passage in "Gone with the Wind" where, after the war, the ladies of the sewing circle argue about whether to clean up the overgrown graves of fallen Union soldiers. Dig them up instead, say some, angrily recalling their own loved ones. But the sweet-natured Melanie Wilkes intervenes with unwonted sharpness: "Their graves are up in the Yankees' country, just like the Yankee graves are here, and oh how awful it would be to know that some Yankee woman said to dig them up. But how nice it would be to know that some good Yankee woman pulled the weeds off our men's graves and brought flowers to them. I'll pull up every weed off every Yankee's grave I can find and plant flowers, too – and – I just dare anyone to stop me!"
Behaving with humanity doesn't mean endorsing the other side's cause. I have no sympathy with the revisionist view of the Civil War as primarily an argument about sovereignty. As I've written here before, the secessionists took their stand on slavery, and did not disguise it. Those who argue that there was a democratic mandate for leaving the Union ignore the fact that black Southerners could not vote.
But here's the thing: We all agree that slavery was an abomination. Even before the Civil War, that view was gathering force, which is what prompted the rebellion in the first place. Now, it is about as universal as any opinion can be. Whom, exactly, are the pullers-down trying to convince?
You might argue that the very existence of Confederate memorials implicitly endorses the slavers' cause. But does it? Consider, for example, the monument to Richard Rowland Kirkland of South Carolina, who was killed at the Battle of Chickamauga. Here is what his inscription says: "At the risk of his life, this American soldier of sublime compassion brought water to his wounded foes at Fredericksburg. The fighting men on both sides of the line called him ‘The Angel of Marye's Heights.'" Would bulldozing his statue really say anything about slavery?
We're beyond reason here. The virtue-signalers are striving to be visibly angrier than the each other. Civil war re-enactments have been canceled. An Asian announcer who happens to be called Robert Lee was pulled from calling a Virginia University football game.
"Where does it end?" asked Donald Trump, theatrically wondering whether George Washington was now objectionable because he reflected his era's attitude to the slave trade. Actually, President Trump underestimated the iconoclasts' ambition.
While Washington was still serving his first elected term, a plaque was raised in Baltimore to Christopher Columbus, who had reached the New World 300 years earlier. Last week, that 225-year-old memorial was methodically smashed with a sledgehammer by a man who declared on video: "Christopher Columbus symbolizes the initial invasion of European capitalism into the Western Hemisphere." Incredibly, the lamentable Mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, is reviewing whether to pull the explorer's statue down from above Columbus Circle.
How much longer before we rename the District of Columbia? Or Columbia University, (which could be un-renamed as King's College)?
It's the whole American package that's being rejected here: drive-thrus and Tupperware and Maryland crab cakes and airplanes and air-conditioning and Emily Dickinson's verses and beating Hitler and Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.
I normally shudder when President Trump accuses his critics of hating their country. But, on this occasion, it's hard to argue.
Dan Hannan is a British Conservative MEP.