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Duty, Dishonor, & The South

We could all use more Robert E. Lee right about now

As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve begun to read Michael Korda’s 2015 biography of Robert E. Lee.  It’s to my shame that I have reached my 50th year knowing very little about the life and character of Lee. I don’t know about other Southern readers, but the idea that we Southerners — white ones, anyway — are steeped in Civil War history is simply not true. Or at least it wasn’t true in my experience. It’s wrong to generalize from one’s particular experience, of course, but insofar as what happened to me is a reliable guide to education in the rest of the South, the problem is not that we were indoctrinated with a romanticized view of Southern history. The problem is that so many of us were given little to no history at all.

It’s strange, actually. One of my cousins told me about visiting our grandmother during his 1950s childhood, and listening to her and the old folks sitting on the front porch talking about the War — the Civil War, not World War II. Her grandfather had been a Confederate soldier, so the War was close to her lived experience. Besides, time and culture moved a lot slower then, certainly in rural Louisiana. It must not have felt so far away, the War.

Something happened with our parents’ generation. That knowledge, and that consciousness, was not transmitted. I think there are at least three reasons why:

  1. As with the Christian faith, they wrongly assumed that this knowledge was part of the cultural wallpaper, and did not require any special effort to transmit to the next generation;
  2. They were the first generation in which mass popular culture became a vigorous reality, propelled in large part by the spread and ubiquity of electronic media; this caused a profound cultural shift that they could not really understand, given that it was unprecedented in history, and they were in the middle of it; and
  3. The Civil Rights movement, and the defeat of Southern white segregationists, made it difficult to talk about the War and Southern history

There are no doubt others, but these, I think, explain a lot. Mine was the first generation in our Louisiana parish to attend integrated public schools. My sense is that at least among us white kids, our parents didn’t talk about these things because they understood that integration was a fact, and it had to be made to work, because it was for the common good. It wasn’t that they tried to hide the Civil War from us, necessarily. It’s just that we didn’t talk about it. And believe me, in the 1970s, that was easy to do. Arthur Fonzarelli and Vinnie Barbarino were infinitely more real to us than Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee. Had our parents and our teachers tried hard to catechize us in Civil War history, we almost certainly would not have cared.

This is why I think the idea that most Southern white people want to preserve Confederate monuments because they are Lost Cause racists is way off base. Nobody down South takes the “South Shall Rise Again” types seriously, and certainly not as seriously as jittery Northerners do. This is just my intuition, but it seems to me far more likely that the Southern sentiment comes out of an instinct that says, By attacking these statues you are attacking our ancestors, which is to say, you’re attacking us. I don’t know how serious whites are about defending the statues. In New Orleans, whatever white folks felt privately, there wasn’t much on-the-street resistance to removing the Confederate statues, and not enough political resistance to stop the city from doing it. Now that the Take ‘Em Down NOLA activists are pushing further, we’ll see what happens.

Point is, I believe it’s a mistake to assume that white support for leaving the monuments is about defending white supremacy. It probably has more to do with fear of dispossession. As I wrote in my Samuel Huntington post on iconoclasm, citing the political scientist Carol Swain — an African-American who has written on white nativism — a variety of powerful forces are coalescing now to raise and to concentrate white racial consciousness. Among them is a sense among a certain class of whites that they have no roots — a conviction that leads them to find identity in victimization.

The real tragedy in all this, it seems to me, is that you can’t really be dispossessed of the things you’ve already thrown away. In my reading of the Lee biography to this point, he really and truly comes across as a true gentleman in every respect. I’m not that far into it, and already I can see why, when a citizen wrote to President Eisenhower asking him why he kept a portrait of the traitorous Gen. Lee on the wall in the Oval Office, Ike answered him like this:

Respecting your August 1 inquiry calling attention to my often expressed admiration for General Robert E. Lee, I would say, first, that we need to understand that at the time of the War between the States the issue of secession had remained unresolved for more than 70 years. Men of probity, character, public standing and unquestioned loyalty, both North and South, had disagreed over this issue as a matter of principle from the day our Constitution was adopted.

General Robert E. Lee was, in my estimation, one of the supremely gifted men produced by our Nation. He believed unswervingly in the Constitutional validity of his cause which until 1865 was still an arguable question in America; he was a poised and inspiring leader, true to the high trust reposed in him by millions of his fellow citizens; he was thoughtful yet demanding of his officers and men, forbearing with captured enemies but ingenious, unrelenting and personally courageous in battle, and never disheartened by a reverse or obstacle. Through all his many trials, he remained selfless almost to a fault and unfailing in his faith in God. Taken altogether, he was noble as a leader and as a man, and unsullied as I read the pages of our history.

From deep conviction, I simply say this: a nation of men of Lee’s calibre would be unconquerable in spirit and soul. Indeed, to the degree that present-day American youth will strive to emulate his rare qualities, including his devotion to this land as revealed in his painstaking efforts to help heal the Nation’s wounds once the bitter struggle was over, we, in our own time of danger in a divided world, will be strengthened and our love of freedom sustained.

Such are the reasons that I proudly display the picture of this great American on my office wall.

If the aggrieved men and women of the South — and of the United States of America — had even a third of the character that Robert E. Lee had, we would be in much better shape than we are. The problem is not the persistence of the graven image of Robert E. Lee in American life. The problem is the profound lack of Lee’s character traits in American life.

After President Trump’s foul, self-aggrandizing tirade the other night in Phoenix, I thought about how in the hell it was that a culture — Southern culture — that professes to honor the character traits embodied in Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and the rest, can embrace as its champion a vain, fat-mouthing Yankee con man who is a respecter of nothing. Trump has exactly one classic Southern character trait: a willingness to fight. But then, absent the rest of them, that makes him no different than a trashy barroom brawler.

My TAC colleague Emile Doak wrote the other day about how the decline of contemporary country music tracks the decline of its audience. He writes:

The genre that once spoke to the “cheatin’ and drinkin’” of Middle America—the good and the bad—has gone silent. As country music transforms, its audience continues to grow. But the escapism that permeates country’s recent hit-making formula reveals the depth of the problems that plague the regions traditionally composing country music’s fanbase, and offers a unique glimpse into the motivations behind the Trump phenomenon. After all, vague rallying cries like “Make America Great Again” speak to a sense of loss, without actually requiring the painful introspection necessary to identify that which has been lost. Tracy Lawrence may have been right that a revival of the proverbial front porch could provide some solutions. But discussing solutions requires recognizing problems—which, as the Billboard charts show, contemporary country fandom isn’t inclined to do.

Again, I say: they can’t steal from you what you already threw away. That’s something none of us in this country — white or black, rich or poor, North or South or East or West — want to talk about. It’s so much easier, and so much more politically useful, to complain about what They are doing to us. Think, people!

And you monument iconoclasts, you think to about what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it. Yes, it’s so much easier to tell yourself that as soon as a statue comes down, your life will improve, and America will be greater for it. Your life won’t improve one bit, and because you will have made some of the most hard-up-against-it people in the country hate you, and our common problems that much more difficult to solve, you will have made America worse. Former Atlanta mayor and Civil Rights leader Andrew Young understands this, telling NPR the other day:

I’m saying these [Black Lives Matter activists] are kids who grew up free, and they don’t realize what still enslaves them — and it’s not those monuments.

What worries me is that this country will turn to the right so that it’ll — be taking down Martin Luther King’s statue next when the racist majority takes over. And I’m saying that a minority can’t be provoking a racist majority that is still underemployed, undereducated and dying faster than we are — that the issue is life and death – not some stupid monument.

Call me sentimental, but I bet if we all had more Robert E. Lee in our hearts, people like Donald Trump and the zealous iconoclasts wouldn’t gain any footing there.

UPDATE: I responded to a left-wing reader who read the Korda biography of Lee, which discusses Lee’s cruelty, and said that having done so, he sees no reason to deny either the good or the bad sides of Lee:

Yes, that’s right (about there being no need to deny either side of him). I am still closer to the beginning of the Korda biography, yet I have no need to believe that he was all bad or all good. There is something about Americans that cannot stand ambiguity when it comes to character. Nobody is proposing Lee for sainthood, for heaven’s sake. It seems to me that one lesson of his life is that all that honor and decency cannot protect a man from falling captive to a wicked cause. Yet that he served a wicked cause does not obviate his honor and decency. This is a mystery of human character. It’s something that is perfectly clear to anyone growing up in the rural South, at least in my generation and prior: that deeply good (white) men and women can profess evil things, regarding race. This is a common experience. Back in high school and college, when I got “woke” about race and the racial history of the South, I got on my high horse about it, and was extremely judgmental about it. Over the years, though, I came to realize that I could not reconcile the tension in a satisfactory way, and would just have to live with it. To believe that Southern whites of the pre-Civil Rights era were nothing but evil simply was not true. To believe that they were all good, and that slavery and Jim Crow were minor blemishes on their record, was also not true. That tension is like a bone in the throat, and I can easily imagine why so many people on either side of the issue want to come down on one side or the other. But that doesn’t make it true. The longer I have lived and the more I’ve come to know about history in other countries too, the more I see that the simplistic narratives we choose to live by cannot really bear scrutiny. For example, I had always assumed that the French revolutionaries were basically decent, though they went too far in some cases. And then I went to France and studied the Revolution, which disabused me of that naive thought. But I could not with an easy conscience sympathize with the ancien regime, whose cruelties and injustices were impossible to deny. It seems to me that to enter history with open eyes is to cease to be a fundamentalist about such things.

I should add here that if there were no Confederate monuments today, I would not support building any. But the fact that they do exist means that at some point in our history, for good or for ill, people — or at least the power-holding majority — believed that what those men fought for should be honored. I am not 100 percent opposed to removing statues, but I think it should not be done rashly, out of a mob’s passion. How could we be certain that statues we erect today, to honor the people and the causes we believe to be honorable, won’t be ripped down tomorrow when our descendants judge us?