Nihilism: noun, pronounced NIGH-il-ism “A viewpoint that traditional values and beliefs are unfounded and that existence is meaningless and useless.”
— Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary
Nihilism is not a word with which we are widely familiar, but it describes a situation about which our country, if not our civilization, is experiencing. The road to today’s nihilism started with the justifiable removal of tributes to Southern leaders such as Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis. They were traitors to the Union.
With 21st century understanding, taking away Southern tributes is entirely legitimate. Saying that Jefferson Davis, who had been a United States senator and the U.S. secretary of War before the Civil War, didn’t deserve to be venerated is entirely appropriate. To erase his entire history, as nihilists demand, ignores the more complex history that he brought into the Confederacy as its president.
Were our current circumstances limited to removing monuments to the Lost Cause, no one should be too aggrieved. Unfortunately, the current nihilism screams that America’s very existence as the most democratic country on earth is illegitimate. Four of our first five presidents owned slaves. As repugnant as that is, it is nonetheless a fact. Does that mean that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe are any less among our Founding Fathers?
George Washington, the Father of our Country, led the Continental Army that achieved America’s independence. Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, enshrined the concept that “all men are created equal.” James Madison was the principle architect of our revered Constitution, and James Monroe established America’s preeminence in the Western Hemisphere. In our current fit of nihilism, is the greatness of these men to be swept into the dust bin of history because they were not perfect?
Until recently, the Democratic Party celebrated its founding with an annual Jefferson — Jackson dinner. No more. The Emancipation Statute in Washington, D.C. is under attack because, in the words of one nihilist, “Lincoln didn’t liberate nobody.” If so, it begs the question of why we are observing Juneteenth, the date in 1865 when the Emancipation Proclamation first was read in Texas.
The statue of our greatest naturalist president, Theodore Roosevelt, in front of the American Museum of Natural History, must be removed because its rendering is offensive. The Sierra Club has repudiated its founder, John Muir, “The Father of Our National Parks.”
Even Planned Parenthood of New York is disassociating itself from Margaret Sanger, its founder, since she embraced eugenics, a popular, if bogus, theory in Sanger’s time.
Chistopher Columbus didn’t discover the New World because, as the nihilists now say, the New World was never lost. His statues must come down after being desecrated. In an ultimate act of nihilism, a statue of Ulysses S. Grant was toppled even though he led the armies that preserved the Union and created the circumstances that permitted the end of slavery in the United States.
Nihilism equates arson, vandalism and looting with legitimate protest. The victims are just collateral damage in service to the destruction of traditional values and beliefs. One of the new phrases in current parlance is “cancel culture.” It means that any point of view to which anyone objects must be shouted down. Informed debate is elitist and unworthy of consideration. Nihilism prevails.
Perhaps the greatest artistic creation thus far in the 21st century is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. Nihilism refutes the notion that success, achievement and creativity are worthy of respect.
Alexander Hamilton is the person who almost single-handedly created the monetary system that makes the U.S. dollar the most valued currency in the world, but the fact that Hamilton was also a slave owner must cancel anything else that he may have accomplished. As for the musical, nihilists dismiss Miranda’s creative work because, in their opinion, only the unworthy elites can afford its tickets.
Nihilism need not prevail, but it is essential that society be aware that nihilism represents the rotten apple that may contaminate all that it touches.
Cullen M. “Mike” Godfrey is an attorney and essayist who lives in College Station.
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