In the ethnic tradition of Anglo-Saxons, the “patter songs” of Gilbert and Sullivan have been the equivalent of contemporary rap music. Learning the repertoire was part of the expected rites of passage and, in the 1960s, I did my duty, even attaining to the heights of playing Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd, a baronet disguised as young farmer Robin Oakapple in a New York City production of Ruddigore. In the second act, portraits of Robin’s ancestor come alive and step out of their frames to curse him as he writhes in unspeakable agony. While I quickly fell from that peak in my theatrical career, I still have clippings of critical reviews that thought my plangent voice and shrieks of pain were convincing.
This came to mind when I read that the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, acting upon her instincts as tricoteuse of the Democrat party, had ordered the removal of four framed portraits of previous speakers who had fought for the Confederacy. Mrs. Pelosi then announced a desire to remove some statues as well. In this she was joined by Senator Cory Booker, who said that they caused him “hurt” and “pain.” Having mimed the agony of a baronet of Ruddigore cursed to commit a crime every day, I know what it is like to be haunted by paintings. However, Madame Speaker has no authority over statues in the Capitol, and their removal is in the province of the states that donated them.
What is now called a “cancel culture” is removing portraits and statues with a righteous fervor like that of Akhenaten, Mehmed II, and Oliver Cromwell. The problem is that such righteousness is a self-incubated indignation and often uninformed. We have had the spectacle of callow undergraduates and Jacobin debutantes in ski masks defacing a memorial to the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, which was the first African-American Regiment in New England, and a statue of Frederick Douglass, in the name of racial equality. To his credit as a Protestant, Governor William Seward once dealt with such ignorance when he protected a portrait of his friend Archbishop John Hughes by telling a group of accurately named anti-Catholic “Know Nothings” that it was George Washington in his Masonic vesture.