Prologue: Historical Background
In the period from roughly 641AD to the so-called Triumph of Orthodoxy in 843, the Byzantine Empire, based in modern Istanbul, went through a period of instability, both internal and external. The period is known as the Byzantine Dark Age or the Iconoclastic Controversy. As a result of the rise of Islam and its expansion, the Byzantines lost the rich eastern provinces which they ruled since the first century BC. The Byzantines lived in a religious age, and so to explain this collection of failures, they turned inward.
Specifically, they believed that they had lost god’s favour because of some sin or other. The sin that the Emperors of this period chose to focus on was Idolatry. Orthodox Christianity assumed an increasingly visual form as it evolved across the centuries. Depictions of important religious figures, including Jesus himself, were common. This many in the clergy, and eventually the government, saw as idolatry.
Iconoclasm in the ‘Modern’ World, Part One: ISIS
During 2015, as they waged war on anything non-Islamic, the so-called Islamic State destroyed precious historical buildings and statues. The world quite naturally responded with revulsion. Here we saw the destruction of buildings and monuments because they did not fit into a group’s preconceived ideas. In this case, it was religion which has quite the history of cultural destruction in the name of faith, but religion is by no means unique. Ideology, with its rigid demands that reality conforms to it rather than the reverse, creates the desire to destroy any icons/images that are antithetical. ISIS was just a particularly egregious example. This is but one example of people’s feelings getting hurt having widespread destructive consequences.
Iconoclasm in the ‘Modern’ World, Part Two: Literature
As recently as 2019 (although this controversy is quite old) we witnessed attempts to ban classic works of literature from study at school. The targets were Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Their crime? Use of the N-word dramatic chord. These gems of American literature – the land of the free home of the timid it seems – contained ‘language’ that ‘made some students feel uncomfortable’. As Harper Lee herself noted, the irony of refusing to study books with anti-racism themes over the use of racist language is explosive. The language is designed to make people feel uncomfortable. It exposes the horrific nature of racism.
Refusing to study this book because it contains a particular word is a form of iconoclasm. Even if we do not burn the book itself, because people are uncomfortable with it we must exclude it from the curriculum. What is the difference between the Byzantine Iconoclasts destroying images they saw as blasphemous, ISIS doing the same thing and these literary examples? In all three cases, something has to go because muh feels. Screw – you. The world is not required to accommodate your feelings. Things are going to make you uncomfortable. Get used to it. Cotton wool is not a sustainable living environment. Grow up.
Iconoclasm in the ‘Modern’ World, Part Three: Entertainment in 2020
The example I am about to discuss, that of the Fawlty Towers episode The Germans, has been abandoned and the episode remains available. I want to discuss what I see as the Iconoclasm at play here, so some background is necessary.
There were demands that the BBC remove the Fawlty Towers episode The Germans. This is where Basil (John Cleese) famously does a parody of Hitler including a funny walk reminiscent of The Ministry of Silly Walks from Monty Python. It also includes this brilliant exchange around ‘the war’
German Customer: Will you please stop talking about the war?
Basil: ME? You started it!
German: We did *not* start it
Basil: Yes you did you invaded Poland
Calls to ban this episode, like those with Lee and Twain’s books, utterly miss the point. First of all the ‘you started it’ scene is brilliant and typical of the misunderstandings common in Fawlty Towers. Second, the ‘woke mob’ misses the point that Cleese is making fun of Hitler by speaking gibberish and walking around like an idiot. Cleese’s physical comedy adds much to the scene.
Analysis: Missing the Point
The fact that the mob utterly missed the point of the scene and saw ‘comedy around Hitler’ and yelled ‘BAN IT’ says much about the current state of popular culture. Comedies about World War 2 abound: Hogan’s Heroes, ‘Allo ‘Allo and Dad’s Army among others. These comedies were actually part of the grieving process after the war. Through satire, these shows demystified the war. They portrayed on screen a version of what it was like (edited appropriately for television).
This concept of missing the point actually applies, in two ways, to all forms of Iconoclasm discussed here. First, you cannot kill an idea. You may destroy statues, you may censor books from the curriculum, you may get comedy episodes banned, but the ideas live on. No matter how many books you burn (give them time) the ideas behind them are not going anywhere. The tighter your grip, to paraphrase Leia, the less you hold onto.
The second way these ‘woke’ clowns miss the point is their failure to ascertain the message behind what they seek to ban. Whether it was satirising and criticising racism with Lee and Twain or satirising Hitler with Cleese, failure to understand satire does not invalidate it. There is a saying that if you do not like what a sign is advertising, do not buy the product. The modern, pithier version of this is keep scrolling. People are going to say things you do not like. No individual is the arbiter of what is acceptable. Moving to ban things that even large groups of people find offensive is not the height of ‘wokeness’, it is the height of ignorance and virtue-signalling. This leads to my conclusion.
Conclusion: Wokeness as Distraction
Prediction: there will be support for this new Iconoclasm from both the corporate sector and the corporate politicians. We have already seen this in the case of the protests around Black Lives Matter. Corporate politician Nancy Pelosi as well as corporate big-wig Jamie Dimon both ‘took knees’ in solidarity. Pelosi’s fake wokeness is well known, and the reason for this is simple. Solidarity with the protests, and even supporting banning certain things, keeps the focus away from the corrupt kleptocracy that passes for a government in the west.
So I have two gripes with the new Iconoclasm: you criticise art without understanding it and you are way too easily manipulated.
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