You know, when one considers it carefully, the current denigration of Robert E. Lee, the calumnies about who he was and what values he represented, what his beliefs were, his actions, his examples and his aspirations, pretty accurately reflect what we’ve become.
He may have been among the most decent public men in American history, perhaps among the ones most torn by the Civil War. I empathize with him when I imagine the choices I’d be faced with if I had to defend the United States from foreign invasion while opposing our policies (as I all too frequently do). A rock and a hard place without an acceptable resolution. Had the objective of the Civil War been to end slavery his decision might well have been different but as Lincoln made so clear on numerous occasions, especially in his first inaugural address and in response to a letter from Horace Greeley, that was not the case. Although the issue of slavery was a catalyst for the secession of the Southern States, its elimination was not the Union’s objective when it embarked on the invasion of the states in rebellion. Lee opposed secession but as he made clear, while he would not take arms against the Union he loved he would defend his state against an invasion by anyone or anything.
That, of course, was not true of most Confederate leaders although it may well have been all too true of most of their troops. History has a way of surprising those who take it seriously and really seek to find the truth about our past. The vast majority of Southerners were not slave owners and the vast majority of Northerners were not abolitionists. It is probable that the majority in the North did not approve of going to war to force the South back into the Union. And of the supporters of emancipation, too many did so because they saw in freed slaves not only a cheap source of labor, but a group large enough to reduce laborers’ wages all around. In effect, not ending but expanding slavery, kind of like what is happening as employment becomes contract labor today. Nothing about the Civil War seems to have been really noble except its inadvertent consequence: freedom for African Americans. But that made it all worthwhile. Apartheid and the ensuing separate but equal reality neither were nor are justifiable for any reason, whether in the United States or in Israel or anywhere else. Freedom and an end to official toleration of slavery (unfortunately it still exists): that was something very special, perhaps akin to dying and finding oneself in Heaven.
The drive towards equality and equity and the common welfare in the United States has always been a process of short spurts followed by long periods of regression; a process characterized by hypocrisy and self-delusion more than anything else, but still, one that over the long term has made headway. However, we are not in “spurt mode” today. Not because of the current president, he at least represents a bit of change and a slap in the face of the traditional powers that impede our quest for common welfare, but because of the inertia imposed on us by those who today shout the loudest against racism and white supremacy and neo-Nazis, but who use their massive resources, not to solve our problems but to exacerbate the divisions among us, to polarize us a means of recovering the power they lost when, under the leadership of Bill and Hillary Clinton, they abandoned their base, moving on to the greener pastures of Wall Street and Hollywood.
We are fast becoming everything Robert E. Lee was not: we are polarized and intolerant and dishonest. We invade others to maintain our own version of neoliberal slavery while ignoring real problems at home. We support real racism and real apartheid by our closest allies while loudly declaiming shock at their continuing existence here. Hypocrisy has replaced honor as our highest value, hypocrisy being much more comforting and useful, at least in the short term. “Honor” is now usually just a word, not much more, to all too many of us. To Lee, it was “the sublimest word in the English language” and he understood its meaning.
After the Civil War Lee became president of Washington College, now Washington and Lee University, and worked for reconciliation, tangibly supporting the education of former slaves, a Lee family cause since before the war. Unfortunately, his vision has yet to be realized and now seems less likely than it did decades ago. Disadvantaged minorities, including blacks but also Hispanics and Muslims, are still not much more than pawns for political opportunists and sources of entertainment for elitist wealthy young whites perhaps feeling unfairly left out of real suffering, playing at revolution without really understanding the stakes.
Yep, we’ve turned away from Robert E. Lee in many more ways than the destruction of statuary and monuments by a small group of very loud and frequently violent vigilantes. Once one crosses the qualitative ethical threshold of destroying others’ cultural icons, it is usually not too long before our own icons become victims to someone else’s vengeance in the guise of cultural priorities but really, almost always just tools of political expediency. Pendulums tend to swing from one pole to the other, actions to breed reactions, destruction of symbols being but a step in the slippery slope towards social deconstruction.
There are times when social deconstruction is not only acceptable but necessary. This was not one. What we are seeing are the tantrums of losers seeking to punish those who dared block the coronation of their very strange queen, throwing monuments instead of dishes, a sociologically blind tantrum and damn the consequences: they expect to be there to pick up the pieces preferring to rule in Hell than to stand on the sidelines in Heaven.
Of course, the pieces are all too likely to be us.
© Guillermo Calvo Mahé; Manizales, 2017; all rights reserved. Please feel free to share with appropriate attribution.
Guillermo Calvo Mahé (a sometime poet) is a writer, political commentator and academic currently residing in the Republic of Colombia although he has primarily lived in the United States of America (of which he is a citizen). Until recently he chaired the political science, government and international relations programs at the Universidad Autónoma de Manizales. He has academic degrees in political science (the Citadel), law (St. John’s University), international legal studies (New York University) and translation studies (the University of Florida’s Center for Latin American Studies). He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com and much of his writing is available through his blog at http://www.guillermocalvo.com.