Tuesday Talk: Sinking The Robert E. Lee

There is bit of controversy about the removal of statues honoring the confederacy. Is it southern heritage or an homage to slavery installed during the Reconstruction and civil rights era? Is it a slippery slope, with Maryland removing Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney’s bust because he authored the hated Dred Scott decision? He wrote some other decisions, too, in his 30 years as chief justice.

There is a sound argument that this isn’t, or at least need not be, a slippery slope. We can distinguish people who are “honored” for their acts of racism versus those who have statues for accomplishment, but who were also flawed people.

Then again, they destroyed a statue of Christopher Columbus. Genocidal rapist or “discoverer” of America, which itself is problematic colonization? And rather than leave the question to a deliberative body to decide, some guys just smashed it in the dark of night. Will our capital be located in the District of Tubman?

The problem with the sound argument against the slippery slope is that it relies on a thoughtful analysis. Mobs are singularly ill-suited to thoughtfulness. If one applies chaos theory to the past, nobody looks very good. Not slaveowners Washington and rapist Jefferson.

Some contend that it’s the people’s country, so let the people decide. Then again, the people did decide when the statues were erected in the first place, when places were named and these were the named chosen. Now there are new people, and they want to choose something else? But do they? It’s not as if the mob is taking a vote, or reflects the public at large. Does America want to eradicate the past, and if so, who and how much of it?

Perhaps the most problematic of the confederates is Robert E. Lee. Sure, he led the confederate army, but he did others things as well. He was commandant of West Point and had a barracks named after him. Should his name be removed? After the Civil War, he was president of a university in Lexington, Virginia, which has born the name Washington and Lee since 1870. Should his name be disappeared everywhere?

It’s true that the retired Confederate general played an important role in our university’s history. But if the Washington and Lee community is not more willing to critically evaluate one of our patron saints — and modify how we celebrate him — we only legitimize the “causes” of white supremacists who latch onto statues of men like Lee because they symbolize the subjugation of black people.

There are two levels of problems reflected here. The first is the problem of honoring a man who is intimately tied to a racist war. The second is whether failure to eradicate his existence makes one “complicit” in his cause. This is a belief of “white privilege,” that the failure to disavow, or do so strenuously enough, things that are deemed wrongful today means you are complicit in their evil. If you’re not against them, you’re for them.

But Robert E. Lee?

In his short tenure, Lee nearly reinvented the place. He championed the sciences, joined the Lexington Law School to the college, introduced what would become our hallmark honor system and established some of America’s first collegiate journalism and business classes, and he turned down more profitable jobs to do so. He worked to ensure that Northern and Southern students studied together and pledged to devote his “remaining energies to training young men to do their duty in life.”

But this is the same Lee who led the Confederate army against the Union to preserve the status quo of slavery in our nation’s bloodiest war. Lee is often defended as a product of his time, but at least one other Virginian, George Henry Thomas, became a notable Union general. Later, as a college president, Lee was also mostly unwilling to discipline students involved in attempted lynchings and kidnappings of black women who lived nearby.

Touring our campus, though, you wouldn’t even guess that Lee was on the losing side of the Civil War.

Most students, even those admitted to Washington and Lee, are aware of the outcome of the Civil War, fortunately, so it’s unlikely anyone would be misled.

Over the years, much of this has found its way into our culture, for better or worse. Will there never be a remake of the Dukes of Hazard? Should Al Jolson be heard to sing about a steamship?

Who decides? On what basis? And how does one stop the beloved mob once they get up a head of steam?

34 thoughts on “Tuesday Talk: Sinking The Robert E. Lee

  1. Andrew Cook

    If the fight were really about General Lee, or the depictions of him, then a simple placard similar to the one WB uses should suffice. Unfortunately, it’s not.

    On the left, you have a bunch of kids playing King of the Offended Hill. It’s an attention-seeking competition for who has the most victimhood, or who is the most woke, where peoples’ reputation rides on who can be the most histrionic. And they’re so far gone that, to them, it seems perfectly natural and reasonable to punch other human beings in the face, to silence them in the name of “unsilencing” others.

    On the right, you have a bunch of nutjobs who view any attempt at change as an attack, be it on their faith, or their history, or their pocketbook, an attack which must be stopped at all costs. They exist not for the greater good of the community, but merely for their own social or economic, which they misconstrue as a public benefit. They’re so far gone that, to at least one of them, it seems perfectly natural and reasonable to run other human beings down with a car.

    Neither side is genuinely willing to compromise. Neither side actually cares about any individual person or statue. Trying to mollify one side by erasing any one thing deemed offensive will just confirm that they’re right and let them move on to the next thing, getting another histrionic fix. Trying to mollify the other by, as I’ve heard it said, “ignoring the temper tantrums” will just confirm that they’re right and let them move on to the next thing, pillaging the commons for personal gain. But actually trying to mediate the underlying issues isn’t politically expedient, so let’s just remove a statue and see if that makes people shut up. Because politics is _easy_, right?

    1. B. McLeod

      It is leftist Gleichschaltung. Per our friends at Merriam-Webster –
      Gleichschaltung: the act, process, or policy of achieving rigid and total coordination and uniformity (as in politics, culture, communication) by forcibly repressing or eliminating independence and freedom of thought, action, or expression.

      “Progressive” leftists who incessantly press to impose their politicized views on every aspect of our society differ from the Nazis they disparage only in the views they seek to impose.

      1. PseudonymousKid

        You’re throwing away a ton of nuance. I get shit for saying Republicans and Democrats are practically the same. This is the same and deserves the same. Horseshoe theory is nonsense.

        So they both oppose the status quo, what does that really tell us?

    2. PseudonymousKid

      Hi Andrew Cook,

      You’re simplifying the split as much as the statue-tearer-downers are simplifying Lee. The two sides, if they really are that, can’t be too far gone, unless you think the ship has already completely sailed on compromise. You don’t think we’re doomed too, do you?

      What happens when two parties are at an impasse? They can compromise. They can barter. They can fight. We could always pick 6-12 random people to use as jurors and let them decide. Not sure that would work here. Maybe 100 jurors would work better. Don’t ask the federal judge around these parts what he thinks of our near thousand-year history with jury trials.

      The springs aren’t going back in the mattress. Time to change the playing field to make mediation expedient. Can we?


      1. Andrew Cook

        Hi PK,

        You’re right that I’m oversimplifying, and it does a disservice to everyone no matter their views. I’m just frustrated that the people in my life seem to be drifting further and further away from center, and I keep having to censor my own opinions lest I be cast out for my heretical beliefs, from people on either side.

        The largest challenge that I see is that the parties with visibility have no interest in coming to the table. Neither genuinely wants to compromise, neither wants to barter. Both sides want to fight, but neither wants to come out and say that, instead grasping for the casus belli of the day. Nuanced argument is what everyone needs but no one wants. You’re right that we need to get them to put this to bed, but I’m not seeing how we can accomplish that.

        There are individuals who have the position and apparent authority to try to mediate things. Their largest problem is that they think that one quick action will fix things: all this ugliness will go away if I just retain or disinvite that one speaker, rename or leave alone that one building. But it’s never that simple; that’s the excuse, not the reason, and another excuse can easily be found. How do they dig down into the underlying arguments? How do we incentivize them to?


        1. PseudonymousKid

          Hi Andrew,

          Who isn’t frustrated besides the uber-wealthy?

          Maybe the government is inept by design or maybe the country outgrew the design, but it has to change. I don’t have any fond memories of a functional government, so going backwards doesn’t seem like a solution. Going forward seems impossible too. That leaves sideways, I guess. Let’s break it up, restructure it, and see if we like the results. We can rebuild it. We have the technology. Better than it was before.

          Then again, Cynicism keeps whispering that the status quo exists for a reason and that reason is to feed the ever-increasing greed of the uber-wealthy. Even with all our nickles combined, there’s nothing we could do to fight that at this point. Luckily, the vast majority of people have nothing to lose in the fight anyway.

          Rather than talk about capitalism and risk the rotting fruit being flung this way, I’ll leave it there. Nothing about the fix will be quick or easy or painless. Hopefully we can limit the damage to hurt feelings. Something has to give at some point.


          1. SHG Post author

            The top five companies by market capitalization as of the first quarter of 2017:
            1. Apple
            2. Alphabet (Google)
            3. Microsoft
            4. Berkshire Hathaway
            5. Amazon

            Only one existed a generation ago. All those “frustrated uber-wealthy”? It comes. It goes. Having lived a wee bit longer than you, when the economy is good and people are making money, they don’t need the government as much and are generally fine with it. When they’re sucking wind, the dysfunction of government becomes an obsession. The problem isn’t government. It’s jobs. It’s money. It’s the economy, stupid.

            1. PseudonymousKid

              More soma for the masses will do the trick.

              I didn’t say the uber wealthy were frustrated. I said they were the only ones who aren’t. I agree with you. Money is the great pacifier. The dysfunction of government is a product of the dysfunction of the economy. People aren’t getting richer even though the economy is still growing. What gives? Oh, right. Billionaires and the system that creates them are sacrosanct. Look elsewhere like at statues for the real problems dividing the rest of us.

              Where can I pick up my soma ration again?

            2. SHG Post author

              The reason I noted the top five capitalized companies is because it’s not sacrosanct. They didn’t exist a generation ago, and now here they are. Tomorrow, maybe yours (or your kid’s) will be up there. That’s America. At any given moment, it seems as if nothing can ever be done. But no matter how terrible it seems, change happens. It may not necessarily be good change, but it will be change. Nothing stays the same.

  2. Ryan

    My Northern Virginia (liberal Virginia) public education taught that Lee was probably the greatest Virginia patriot ever, certainly up there with Washington. It taught that slavery was not why Lee choose to fight for the confederacy and that he probably secretly didn’t like slavery. He just couldn’t fight against Virginia, and if Virginia had stayed in the Union, he would have too. He is presented as a very honorable man, military genius, and a tragic hero. Lee is everywhere you go in Virginia, I doubt there is a town in Virginia without a street or park named for him. He is tied up with Washington, and presented as if he has royal blood.

  3. Lee

    “And rather than leave the question to a deliberative body to decide, some guys just smashed it in the dark of night. ”

    And there lies the real problem. Are we to be a republic, or a democracy that is ruled by the whims of the mob? We know that the Founders were concerned with exactly this, as shown by their writings at the time.

    “Hence it is that democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and in general have been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths … A republic, by which I mean a government in which a scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect and promises the cure for which we are seeking.” — James Madison, Federalist Papers No. 10.

    But that is apparently not woke enough for today and the media and the left are normalizing mob violence – as long as it is directed at the right people. Of course, any student of history knows that no one cannot guarantee that he or she will not become the target of the mob at some future date.

    It makes it hard not to despair.

    1. SHG Post author

      The “real problem,” or just the first problem. Even if we get beyond the mob, are the moment’s sensibilities sufficiently “right” to overcome a couple hundred years of history? We can’t glue history back together if “the people” of the next generation decide this generation wasn’t as woke as it thinks it is.

      1. B. McLeod

        Well, we can’t glue the statues back together, but there will be pictures and records of their existence. Studying those pictures and records will be important for scholars trying to comprehend the frame of reference for the period in which the statutes were created, and the periods in which they have existed. “Woke” ignoramuses may make history harder to find and harder to accurately understand, but they won’t destroy it.

          1. B. McLeod

            That is really the way it has been for some time, so far as accurate history is concerned. Common citizens have some general notions, but historic characters and events are usually mispresented to a degree, and almost always highly summarized for popular consumption. Any texts used below university level are likely to be on a par with Disney movies.

  4. PseudonymousKid

    No one decides. Let Lee be Lee and stop caring about what other people do. If you think a group of people is celebrating Lee because he fought to continue slavery, then ask them if that’s what they’re doing and mock and shame them if they tell you that’s why. They deserve worse.

    Preserving history is important. Something something repeating mistakes of the past and all that. We don’t get nearly as appalled at Aztecs sacrificing humans as we do at our forebears being racist as shit. We don’t destroy Aztec artifacts, do we?

    In 200 years how will the future look back at us? From their eyes, we’ll probably look closer to the racists than we do to them. At least I hope so.

    What happens if the mob can’t be silenced by cooler heads? That’s the bigger question. Rather than continue messing up the comments with my drool, I’ll leave that one to someone else. At what point would violence be OK? It has to be OK at some point, doesn’t it? We aren’t pacifists.

    I’ll get the mop.

    1. DCDave

      If someone held up Aztecs as paragons of virtue, and started sacrificing people to follow their example, we would have a different take on what to do with their artifacts. Only solution is education and care that people don’t feel maginalized.

      1. SHG Post author

        Some people are very good at making comprehensible analogies. Some, not so much. Some really suck at it.

        1. PseudonymousKid

          If you hold every comment and every analogy up to your high, high standards, you’re gonna be disappointed all the time. Sit back, relax. It’s Tuesday Talk time.

          The analogy fits in the context of the comment. Things important now, won’t be once everyone who cares about it so so much dies and everyone else forgets. It’s not much consolation to those living now, which is why DCDave’s critique is on point.

          You’re just mean and say mean things. Lucky for you, we’re all still savages and the statue of Lee is a monument to why we should try to be better than that. Can we go on a road trip to Virginia together, pa?

      2. PseudonymousKid

        You’re right. It’s easy to say when I’m not the one looking at the statue.

        On the other hand, I don’t see anyone bowing down to Lee or holding parades for him or killing people in his name. For a racist, he’s a much more staid figure than that. Or so I thought. We still can’t remove him from either Civil War history or even more recently when people put the statues up.

        1. SHG Post author

          It’s not entirely clear he was a racist, rather than a southerner who felt compelled to fight for his own, most of whom were racists. Jingoistic loyalty can make for odd bedfellows.

          1. Rojas

            Is not the historical record is pretty clear that there was an very small minority of whites in the country who were not white supremacists in that period?

            Sure they squabbled about the Peculiar Institution but from Lincoln down to isolated frontiersman the consensus was that whites were uniquely suited to lead the political class.

            1. SHG Post author

              If we’re talking about Lee, what is the relevance of some vague “historical record”? And more to the point, history is written by the victors. They weren’t speaking well of the southerners who were against slavery but loved their home.

  5. David

    I think you gloss over some important nuance with your statement “Then again, the people did decide when the statues were erected in the first place” In some cases this may be true, in other cases certain monuments were built with private funding and placed on public land with limited or no input of “all” the people. The purpose was not always to honor but rather to intimidate.

    Mob rule to remove all of the Lees is not the answer. Nor is the idea that once placed, it is always a bad idea to move and curate the history in an alternate location. What is missing from the debate is reasoned reflection on when, how, and why the monument was erected and its current impact. Like most problems, this is difficult and requires a nuanced solution. There is no simple answer.

    1. SHG Post author

      You’re right that it glosses over some nuance, but short of running through every statue everywhere, that’s of necessity. But this statement?

      The purpose was not always to honor but rather to intimidate.

      I understand that’s today’s spin, but I doubt that was the “purpose.” Resist changes in civil rights law, desegregation, etc., assert one’s racist heritage, sure. But affirmatively “intimidate”?

      1. David

        I don’t believe this to be the case with all monuments but looking at the distribution of when they were installed shows two spikes, one beginning around 1900 and the second around 1950. Looking at this in the context of other events of the time and looking at who paid to install them puts them in context.

        What better message can you send to a group of people who are trying to change the system than a big monument in the courthouse square. These symbols appeared concurrently with other acts such as Lynching. Some of these monuments were meant to persuade some citizens to stay in their place. I don’t think this is today’s spin.

        People invested in a system resist change as you identify. This was a way to resist and persuade the people driving change that the status quo owned the public square.

        1. SHG Post author

          Yes, I (we) know about the spikes, though it was kind of you to explain using small words just in case the big words were too scary. But posing a rhetorical question fails to prove the accuracy of your hyperbolic word. The purpose wasn’t “intimidation” because “what better message can you send.”

          Resisting change and intimidation are hardly the same thing. To try to conflate the two is dishonest. Burning crosses? Intimidation. Lynching? Intimidation. Statues? You have to prove that. You haven’t come close.

  6. KP

    Pulling down statues of the past is normal, from Communist Russia and China through American-Liberated iraq with Saddam Hussein, all he way back to the Romans where the new emporer would put his head on the old statue.

    Why would modern America be any different?? The values and freedoms that the founders fought for have vanished, the history has to go too.

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