Europe’s Complex Rebuttal to American Wokesters

by Donald Smith

On the periphery of Rome, not far from the Vatican, stands a towering obelisk named for Benito Mussolini, Italy’s fascist dictator and ally of Adolf Hitler. On a recent visit to the city, my taxi driver knew exactly where it was and found nothing remarkable about a request to go there.

The Mussolini Obelisk, standing watch over the Foro Italico sports complex, served as the starting point for my atypical tour of the Eternal City’s ‘fascist architecture.’ At the very outset, our tour group asked our guide: Why has the Mussolini Obelisk not been removed from what appears to be a place of honor?

For an American visitor, it was the obvious question. We have become accustomed to the removal of the likenesses of Confederate generals and even Christopher Columbus from public places. But it was not a difficult question for our guide to answer: ‘In Italy, we view it as history.’ Efforts to remove it had fizzled.

The loss that comes from laundering the past was made clear to us in the historical lesson our tour group received that day — a lesson that would have been impossible if cancel culture, American-style, had prevailed.

This is the beginning of “Italy’s Non-Cancel Culture,” an article by Howard Husock, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.  Husock’s article appeared in early April.  In late April, Elon Musk went on Real Time With Bill Maher and discussed the “woke mind virus” that’s infecting nearly everything nowadays.  Musk talked about his own experience with “cancel-culture, American style.”  

John Sexton, in his article on Musk’s appearance, said that Musk remarked that “many parents weren’t aware of what their kids were being taught. He offered an example, something a friend had told him about his daughters’ experience in school in the Bay Area. The father was asking his girls about the first presidents of the United States. The girls brought up George Washington and the father asked what they knew about Washington. ‘Well, he was a slave owner,’ they replied. Asked what else they knew about him, they drew a blank. ‘That is the woke mind virus, exactly,’ Maher replied.”

When I’m not writing about Virginia and Confederate heritage issues, I’m writing and speaking about the history of Cold War Berlin and the American occupation of Germany.  (Every history nerd needs a niche, and that’s mine).  Recently I e-mailed an associate about the status of a memorial in Berlin to the American forces who protected the city during the Cold War:  two Huey helicopter blades mounted on a pedestal.  They commemorate a decade-long U.S. Army operation that safeguarded a small West Berlin village that was completely surrounded by Communist-controlled territory.  The Army kept a Military Police (MP) detachment in the village.  Because the Americans couldn’t drive to the village — the Soviets wouldn’t permit it — they flew there by helicopter.  The villagers erected the monument in the early 1990s, shortly before Germany reunified and the American military left Berlin.  I asked my associate if we should be concerned that the city might not maintain the memorial.

He had a bigger concern: many of his German friends felt that America wasn’t a “model democracy” anymore.  To be fair, they weren’t concerned about our statues — they couldn’t believe we elected Donald Trump.  But I was struck by the fact that, more than three decades after the Cold War ended, many Germans still looked to America as something to emulate.  They still care about the example we set.

The French are watching America too, and they see signs of the same “woke virus” infection Musk and Maher discussed on Friday.  “Will France end up going woke? The jury is still out,” says Justin EH Smith, an American philosophy professor at Paris University,” in a December 2021 BBC article titled “France Resists US Challenge to Its Values.” “Personally I find it liberating to teach here. I don’t have to mind my every word, like I did with American students. Here, there is still a presumption that universities are a place to learn, and the staff is not there to cushion the subject matter.”  In rebuttal, anti-racism activist Rokhaya Diallo said that the “people who say France must protect itself against wokeism are the people who want everything to stay the same. Because they are the ones who benefit from the status quo …  Now it’s time for other people  — the marginalised — to be at the centre of the public sphere.”

Ms. Diallo makes a fair point.  But American wokeists are not content with bringing the marginalized to the center of the public sphere:  they insist on erasing the “marginalizers” from the public sphere.  We have sandblasted Stonewall Jackson’s name off of Old Barracks at VMI. We are on the verge of uprooting the Ezekiel Memorial from a remote part of Arlington Cemetery and removing Confederate battle streamers from Army National Guard colors.  John Tyler Community College is now Brightpoint. Are extreme actions like this really necessary, before everyone can feel included and welcomed?  Or, are the wokeists taking advantage of the national trauma resulting from COVID and George Floyd’s murder?  (Never let a crisis go to waste!)  If they are, it’s an effective tactic, but also less-than-honorable.

A nation’s heritage and culture are complex and contradictory, because humans are complex and contradictory.  If you want to draw an accurate picture of We The People, you need many different shades of gray.  (A standard image grayscale has 256 unique shades; Hollywood BDSM movies have fifty!)  The wokeists, though, seem to want to use the Boolean scale to depict America’s culture:  on (for good) and off (for bad).  The “good” stuff can stay in the public sphere; the “bad” stuff gets canceled and erased.  That sets us on a path to a future where different groups in American society will forever struggle with each other, trying to gain enough power to control the cultural on-and-off switches.  And, instead of a rich, multi-shaded heritage and culture, we’ll have a cold, shallow one.

I don’t think that’s an example that the Germans, French, Italians. — or anyone, for that matter — would want to emulate.  So, let’s not go down that path.

Donald Smith was raised in Richmond. His mother was born in a house not far from VMI, and family members still live there.