White males are unpopular in America these days, especially if they are dead and commemorated by a statue. Three years ago, in simpler times, it was only Confederate Civil War heroes who faced the opprobrium of Das Woke Volk. In the latest bout of iconoclasm, however, their statues’ fate has been shared by almost anyone out of the past even tangentially connected to the suppression of people of color. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson? Slave owners, tear them down. Christopher Columbus? Never actually reached any part of what is now the continental United States, but explored the Caribbean, where Spain later introduced slavery, so down with him. Ulysses S. Grant? Led the Union armies to defeat the reviled Confederacy and later prosecuted the Ku Klux Klan, but his in-laws owned slaves and are believed to have given him one, whom he then freed. Tough call, but not for San Francisco, where an angry mob toppled his statue. Abraham Lincoln? Famously freed the slaves, but may have spoken disparagingly of them. Vandalise the tall, stovepipe-hat wearing bastard! Jimi Hendrix? Who knows, but he did play the now-criticized American national anthem at Woodstock fifty years ago … and in those benighted times of peace and love no one found the courage to say a thing. Get him!
The proposition that a foreign ruler whose reign ended 750 years ago in another country inspires racial hatred in America today would be too ridiculous to merit comment
Who knows where it will end, but even non-Americans of yesteryear who failed to live up to the standards of the 2020 post-George Floyd Left are now liable to censure. As the Indian (but not the American) media has widely reported, Gandhi’s statue in central Washington, DC was vandalized and had to be covered in plastic wrap. Saint Junipero Serra, a Spanish priest who ministered in California long before it became American, fell alongside General Grant in San Francisco. In the early days of the recent iconoclasm, protesters in Louisville, Kentucky damaged a statue of Louis XVI, the ill-fated monarch dethroned by the French Revolution, who is nevertheless remembered with gratitude by Americans for France’s military contributions in the War of Independence.
It is Louis XVI’s antecedent Louis IX (reigned 1226-1270), however, who has now been targeted for purposeful destruction in this American jacquerie. Emboldened by the recent removal of a local Columbus statue, organizers of an internet petition signed by nearly a thousand people has called for the city of St. Louis, Missouri, not merely to remove a bold bronze equestrian statue of him that stands in the city’s Forest Park, but also to rename the city altogether, “to something more suitable and indicative of our values.” Unfortunately for humorists, no suggestions were made.
On June 27, about two hundred militant anti-Louis protesters assembled before the saintly monarch, facing off against a determined band of counterprotesters, mainly Catholics led by a local priest, Father Stephen Schumacher, who led them in praying the rosary for a king who was canonized for his immense acts of charity for the poor and sick of his realm. A police line separated the two camps, but some of the statue’s defenders were nevertheless violently assaulted. Unfortunately for proponents of law and order, no arrests were made.
Those who grew up in America when history was still taught in that country may remember that St. Louis, which lies west of the mighty Mississippi River, was originally a French settlement founded in 1764 by fur traders as a commercial outpost connecting the continental interior with the Spanish Southwest over land and, via New Orleans, with the rest of the world. They named it after a saintly king from their country’s storied past, the patron saint of their reigning monarch Louis XV, and the name stuck after a frustrated Napoleon sold the vast Louisiana Territory (named for another Louis – the XIV in this case) to the United States in 1803. As the city’s trading importance faded, it assumed a new role as a gateway for settlers heading West.
Louis IX’s statue dates from a later era, when the city of St. Louis, in a sign of the tolerant internationalism we are now all supposed to embrace, hosted the 1904 World’s Fair, immortalized in the 1944 film Meet Me in St. Louis. Officially known as The Apotheosis of St. Louis, the statue was a temporary plaster structure that greeted visitors at the fair’s entrance. The bronze replica recently in contention was installed in the city’s Forest Park two years later, in 1906. Louis IX’s iconic profile became part of the city’s iconography, remaining an unofficial symbol until the unique Gateway Arch, a stylized structure of rising nearly 200 meters high to celebrate the settlement of the American West, opened in 1965 (no protests against it yet, despite the ill treatment of Native Americans during the Western settlement).
Apart from Louis IX’s gender and skin color, what was the offence of this medieval ruler, the only King of France ever to be canonized?
Apart from Louis IX’s gender and skin color, what was the offence of this medieval ruler, the only King of France ever to be canonized? He died in 1270, long before there was an “n-word” for him to use had he spoken English, a language that did not then exist in recognizable form. According to the poorly written petition to remove his statue, however, he was “a rabid anti-semite [sic] who spearheaded many persecutions against the Jewish people.” “Centuries later,” it continues in a fanciful adaptation of the historical record, “Nazi Germany gained inspiration and ideas from Louis IX as they [sic] embarked on a campaign of murderous genocide against the Jewish people. Louis IX was also vehemently Islamophobic and led a murderous crusade against Muslims.” For the organizers of this odd campaign, “it’s an outright disrespect [sic] for those who are part of these faith communities to have to live in a city named after a man committed to the murder of their co religionists [sic].” Why the organizers “have to live” in a place with a name they find objectionable is not clear, but their point of view very much is.
The proposition that a foreign ruler whose reign ended 750 years ago in another country inspires racial hatred in America today would be too ridiculous to merit comment were the threat to America’s heritage – be it of an important city’s founding by pioneering migrants or of the inclusive World’s Fair that later celebrated global diversity – not so violently serious. Of course there is no indication that the French fur traders invoked Louis IX to scare and oppress Muslim and Jewish populations that did not exist in the primordial wilderness of the eighteenth-century North American Midwest. Nor is there any evidence that putting up a commemorative statue of the city’s namesake over a century ago – to greet visitors to an avowedly internationalist World’s Fair, no less, was conceived with malice and bigotry toward anyone.
Happily, the anti-Louis crowd did not get its way. Nearly 6,000 people have signed a counterpetition calling for the statue to be left alone. The Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis issued a statement that disparaged the movement to remove the statue, arguing instead that present-day collaborations between faith communities “can help us move forward.” The Catholic Archdiocese of St. Louis complemented that sentiment stating, “St. Louis is an example of an imperfect man who strived to live a life modeled after the life of Jesus Christ. For St. Louisans, he is a model for how we should care for our fellow citizen.” Less pleasantly, a couple of days later a different group of protesters marching in St. Louis found themselves on the wrong end of firearms aimed at them by a middle-aged white couple – substantial Democratic Party campaign contributors, no less – who claim to have felt threatened by the protesters and have justified their actions by invoking Missouri’s not inappositely named “castle doctrine,” which broadly allows the use of deadly force to protect private property. Their leftist politics notwithstanding, they are now Fox News heroes and have been invited to Trump reelection campaign events.
A simpler statement in this Middle American mess came from one of the counterprotesters, for whom Louis IX “symbolizes deep faith and convictions.” “I stand for him,” she said, “and I stand for those Catholic virtues and those Catholic values that I think are important, like courage, faith, and love.” Those values are by no means limited to Catholics, but if all Americans could embrace them, they may yet find themselves blessed with hope as well.
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