On October 12, 1870, a good man closed his eyes on this world. Although loved by many, and respected by most at the time of his death, history has since laden Robert E. Lee with abuse and hatred. The change has been long coming, but Dylann Roof’s 2015 racist shooting raised disgust to a fever pitch, and provided a call to action for all who already thought sourly of General Lee. Following Roof’s violent outburst of hatred and white supremacy, the southern region of our country underwent a purge of much of its Confederate history. The acting assumption seems to be that if only we can erase any memory of the Confederacy and slavery, racism will finally be a thing of the past. In the days of #metoo and #believewomen (as if women had but one mind among them), and the Kavanaugh hearings, it’s worth pointing out that before we tear men apart, or tear down their statues, we are duty bound to know the facts of the case, no matter our personal feelings toward, or disagreements with, the male in question.
Both Brett Kavanaugh and Robert E. Lee have been victimized by mob frenzy, an approach to disagreement that bypasses any search for truth. While Kavanaugh’s story remains unfinished, Robert E. Lee’s completed life provides food for thought. This man, known primarily for his dignity, his dedication, and most of all his outstanding leadership and military prowess certainly merits honor. He should be remembered with respect by history, with prayer on the day of his death, as well as being commemorated with statues. Toppling statues of Lee will not remove the shame of slavery from American history. Rather, refusing to recognize nobility among enemies—even historical ones, demonstrates symptoms of a culture purposefully ignorant of history, as well as one unable to dialogue when in disagreement.
While the Civil War continues to divide supporters into camps of North or South, both sides ought to be able to recognize nobility and greatness in the other when applicable. In the case of General Lee, known for his virtues more than anything else, monuments to honor him are most fitting. Such a monument affirms neither slavery, nor racism of any kind. Rather, liken it to the honor due other great generals of history: Scipio Africanus, Hannibal Barca (not to be confused with Hannibal Lector: know your history not your Hollywood!), and in more recent memory, Germany’s General Erwin Rommel. These men should be remembered with honor, not because of the society from which they sprang, but rather for their skill in war, their loyalty, and their leadership. They should be revered not only by their descendants, compatriots and sympathizers, but even their military enemies. In fact, many Allied leaders, both political and military, praised General Rommel as a noble and worthy enemy whilst he was yet alive, and the War ongoing. Winston Churchill himself commended General Rommel in the House of Commons thus: “We have a very daring and skillful opponent against us, and may I say across the havoc of war, a great general.” Also worthy of note, Germany still publicly honors Rommel, despite the shame of the Nazi regime. While Rommel may have been an unfortunate subordinate to Hitler, the General’s first loyalty was not to the dictator but to Germany; therefore his virtues as a leader can be honored distinct from his associations to Nazism.
Similarly, although General Robert E. Lee may have been a principal member of the Confederacy, his loyalties were primarily to Virginia rather than to the preservation of slavery, or even to the cause for secession. In fact, when it comes to the issue of slavery, according to author H.W. Crocker III, Lee not only advised Confederate president Jefferson Davis to distance the Confederacy from those who defended slavery, but further, “Lee had his entire life believed in gradual emancipation. In his own affairs, he had no slaves of his own and freed every slave he inherited from his father-in-law’s estate before the Union attempted to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation on the seceded Southern states.” Immediately following the Civil War, though animosity between North and South had hardly died, Lee held the respect of the entire nation. Crocker states, “Soon after the war’s end, he was increasingly regarded not merely as a military genius but as someone to be venerated by the South and by the North, to be venerated, indeed, throughout the Western world as a great man.” His reputation as a world-class tactician, peerless leader, and humble gentleman extends beyond the bounds of this country, and beyond the limits of his own time.
Why, then, has popular opinion so suddenly turned against him? Dylann Roof’s violence may have been a catalyst, but cannot be the only cause. Two things also contribute: 1) Common knowledge of history is abysmal, therefore many know next to nothing of Lee, and 2) popular use of language allows for no distinctions or dialogue when one finds oneself at odds with another. From presidential debates, to university protests, to street brawls and Heather Heyer dying on the road, and to the Kavanaugh hearings, the proper use of language has hit a perilous low, and the complete absence of dialogue, a deadly one.
Anyone who has seen Watter’s World history quizzes knows how cringe-worthy most of the answers are (his Memorial Day, Christopher Columbus and July 4th videos are all noteworthy). Less famous than Watter’s, this video made by In the Now and The Resident, shows how little many know of World War II. Some of those questioned did not know who Hitler was, which countries were involved, and one unfortunate soul had never heard of World War II that she could recall. Such ignorance is not only embarrassing and infuriating, but also terrifying. George Orwell in 1984 paints the terrifying nature of ignorance thus: “The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.” It may suit our purposes to remember only what we like of history, forgetting ugly patches, or brushing aside any obligation on our part. Yet, those who do not know or understand history find themselves more easily manipulated, whipped into a frenzy of fear or fury by those who control the flow of information and the use of language.
Holding a selective approach to history, one may fall into one of two camps: sentimentalist or barbarian, according to G.K. Chesterton. In one essay, “On the Return of the Barbarian,” Chesterton asserts: “That is the advantage of being a sentimentalist. You only remember what you like to remember. It is also the advantage of being a barbarian.” Failure to pass on history, and failure to learn history, means defaulting on the debt of gratitude and honor owed to great men and women of our past, to whom perhaps we owe life, freedom, or culture. This is an injustice even when barbarians may, at times, be right. Chesterton comments: “The bother with the barbarian is that he is right by accident, and sometimes does not even know why he is right. The case for the civilised man is that he is wrong by his own fault, and knows it is his own fault; and, knowing that he is wrong, may have some reason to put himself right.”
In the same way, those popular media voices championing the respect for African Americans and a rejection of slavery are of course right, but by accident. And because it is by accident, they have plundered along in inconsistencies, tearing down monuments to those who actually deserve monuments, burying uncomfortable history, and ignoring evils accepted and legal in our own time (such as abortion, euthanasia, gay adoption, and pornography, or even the slavery that continues in certain parts of the world to this day). Respect for African Americans and rejection of slavery ought to spring from a respect for the dignity of every life at every stage, but such respect is increasingly absent from contemporary culture.
Rather, the popular culture has chosen to embrace an immoral morass, accepting all kinds of deviations from the natural order, which has left many incapable of dialogue. In order to accept many contradictory ideas as possible truths, logical arguments of necessity are offensive. Relativism relates only to other relativists; tolerance has proven quite intolerant to those who hold that truth exists. And because a relativistic culture denies truth, dialogue comes to an impasse, conversations cannot occur, distinctions cannot be made (such as those which would distinguish General Lee from the likes of a General Forrest, or homosexuals from black slaves). In the Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power by Josef Pieper, the author points to the very crux of the matter: “Because you are not interested in reality, you are unable to converse. You can give fine speeches, but you simply cannot join in a conversation, you are incapable of dialogue!” Conversation and dialogue have a purpose: to seek the truth. But when truth is denied, conversation and dialogue are pursued for other ends: to obtain concessions or spread lies for the purpose of accumulating power. Josef Pieper originally wrote these words in 1974: “For the general public is being reduced to a state where people not only are unable to find out about the truth but also become unable even to search for the truth because they are satisfied with deception and trickery that have determined their convictions, satisfied with a fictitious reality created by design through the abuse of language.”
It is far, far easier to define “love” as “doing whatever you want” than to discover that the true meaning of love embraces sacrifice—the cross itself, no less. It is far, far easier to accept that one has “rights” than to accept that for every right there is a duty. It is far, far easier to accept that “tolerance” permits of every kind of indecency than to accept that intolerance can in the long run be more loving than tolerance itself. The “easier” path does not always lead to fulfillment or happiness, just as “follow your heart” does not always mean “find your greatest happiness.” Words matter, and the meaning behind them matters. Distinctions, definitions, and nuances can make all the difference in the world. It may be the difference between a culture grounded on truth and seeking truth, and a lynch-mob culture determined to demolish history in an effort to mask its own errors. With characteristic accuracy, Josef Pieper emphasizes the need for truth in society: “All men are nurtured, first and foremost, by the truth, not only those who search for knowledge—the scientists and the philosophers. Everybody who yearns to live as a true human being depends on this nourishment. Even society as such is sustained by the truth publicly proclaimed and upheld.” Truth is not optional, and if treated as such all of society suffers.
Therefore, even those who deeply disagree with General Lee ought to stand up for him now, remember him prayerfully on the anniversary of his death, and honor his memory. Rewriting history doesn’t change history or remove its errors, it merely eliminates its lessons along with examples of greatness and nobility. Likewise, failure to recognize nobility and give honor when due gives rise to the very hatred from which racism springs: the inability to recognize goodness in those who are different from oneself—whether that be in appearance, ideas, or nationality. Such an inability has its source in a refusal to dialogue in the pursuit of truth.
(Photo credit: Robert E. Lee Memorial Chapel at Washington & Lee University / Shutterstock)