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Tuesday, August 15, 2017

A Bit of Perspective, Please!

Look, I get that to descendants of African slaves, being confronted throughout the southern United States by daily reminders of a regime that chose to secede from the Union rather than bow to Federal demands to abandon the cruel institution of slavery, must be demoralizing and degrading.

But trying to sanitize the south of its Confederate symbols and monuments - especially at this late date - smacks of partisan showmanship more than cultural sensitivity.  After all during the deliberately harsh period called 'reconstruction', the carpetbagger functionaries had ample opportunity to nip such pride-filled, nostalgic public displays in the bud.

And it is worth noting, that a confederate memorial on Martha's Vineyard that I noticed on many of my family vacations to that Massachusetts Island, still stands proudly and unchallenged to this day!  In fact, in an article about that monument's re-dedication ceremony after having been lovingly restored in 2001, contained the following breath of fresh air:

This monument was proposed,” said Mr. Streit, “not as an attempt to justify or rationalize the cause many in the South fought for. We should be clear from the beginning that this monument is not about excusing or explaining the grotesque and inhuman system of slavery. This monument was conceived and built as an icon of healing — as a testament to our nation’s need to come together again in spite of all the killing, all the casualties, all the destruction that both sides endured.”

And let's be very clear, Robert E. Lee was not a demon in need of a modern exorcism ceremony.  He was no more or less passionate about the institution of slavery than many of his former West Point Colleagues who opted to fight on the Union side.  After careful consideration (he had been offered command of the Union Army by Lincoln), Lee decided his loyalty to his home state outweighed his loyalty to the Union (not an uncommon sentiment at a time when that very issue was at the center of secessionist debate).  So he decided to resign his commission in the U.S. Army and accepted a commission as the commander of the armed forces of the State of Virginia. 

The idea that violence erupted in 2017 over the proposed removal of a statue of General Robert E. Lee from a public park is both misguided and devoid of historical justification.  After all, once the Union turned Lee's family plantation into its National Cemetery (does Arlington ring a bell?), any future insult to his memory rather pales by comparison.

And if someone were to posit that any symbol reminiscent of slave-holding regimes must be removed and destroyed, I would ask if that should apply to the Romans as well?  Should we tear down all remnants of the Roman empire, or are some chapters of history more worthy of preservation than others?

While you're pondering that, consider the fact that the Romans oversaw the capture and cruel servitude of far more slaves than the confederacy ever did!  In fact, the staggering number of Jewish slaves that were exported to the Italian peninsula by the Romans after the destruction of the second Temple was reported by contemporary historians to have been so great that it ruined the market price of slaves for decades afterwards.

I'm not trying to be glib here.  I'm just wondering out loud if we (and by 'we' I am talking about everyone), aren't trying a little too hard to score points by lashing out at the dearly held talismans of our political opponents?

I'm Jewish.  So it stands to reason that the sight of Nazi imagery such as swastikas and SS uniforms should be repugnant to me.  And on some level,they are.  But I was starting High School when United States Supreme Court ruled that the use of the Swastika is a symbolic form of free speech entitled to First Amendment protections, and determined that the swastika itself did not constitute "Fighting Words". Its ruling allowed the National Socialist Party of America to march. [source]

That stuck with me.  I was angry about it at the time... but on some level it was reassuring that the laws and institutions of my country were deemed strong enough to withstand such poor treatment and blatant abuse.  

Further, I remember an AP history teacher explaining to us that it was downright inspiring that the opposing sides had fought their battle largely in the courtroom, and not on the street, as would have happened in a country with a weaker constitution and/or an imbalance of powers between the various branches of government.  "Taking the law into their own hands", he had said, "would have been the surest sign that they had no confidence in the rule of law.".

In the end, I'm sad to say that as shocking as I found the lethal car attack on the crowd demonstrating against the neo-Nazis, what has been haunting me at night is the scene that followed shortly afterwards, where left wing demonstrators took the law into their own hands and settled the central issue of the dispute by summarily tearing down and destroying the contested statue of General Lee.

As tragic as the car attack was, it was a one-off criminal offense perpetrated by a hate-filled madman.  That the left-wing mob deciding to bypass the courts and decided for themselves what is and isn't fit to display in a public park, will echo for years, and will probably be seen as a precedent to be emulated elsewhere by those wishing to right real or imagined wrongs.  After all, a length of rope and a towing hitch are far cheaper and more expedient remedies than years of legal wrangling with an uncertain result.

This was a test case in American history every bit as important as the National Socialist Party of America v. Village of Skokie.

And sadly, when scholars look back on this week's events through the clear lens of time, it will be the American left that will be held responsible for breaking faith with the constitution, and with the institutions that document so thoughtfully established and carefully nurtured.

To be sure, there were monsters worthy of eternal revulsion before and during the Civil War.  But Robert E. Lee - a deeply principled gentleman and exemplary military officer -  certainly wasn't one of them.  It is troubling that his statue became the rallying point for people General Lee would have found irredeemable and repugnant... and that his statue was ultimately illegally toppled and destroyed by people in whose company he would have probably felt far more comfortable.

Now you say something, Jordan.

Posted by David Bogner on August 15, 2017 | Permalink


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I have no confidence that we are going to vote our way out of this mess.

Posted by: antares | Aug 15, 2017 3:04:27 PM

Should the statue have been illegally torn down? Absolutely not. Should there be statues all over the place down here honoring people who are traitors? Absolutely not. Every one of them should be taken down, and if they need to survive, placed in a museum. But they, and the rebel flag, should not be proudly displayed on government property. If people want to put these things in their yards, fine. But I for one could do with a little less protest about how the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery and how it's just about heritage. If it were really about heritage, then surely these lovers of the south should have been first in line to shout the nazis down when they attached themselves to the southern cause. Except they haven't been, and they're only opening their mouths now because a statue was torn down. That speaks volumes.

Posted by: Amanda Rush | Aug 15, 2017 3:44:38 PM

This "blinding flash of intellect" came just in time..

Posted by: Marsha | Aug 15, 2017 3:56:16 PM

Allowing for statues of Robert E Lee is no different than statues of Erwin Rommel in Germany (thank God this did not happen). They were both good generals that openly supported and fought for bad causes. Lee had field slaves and even at Arlington the conditions were bad. Rommel saw the anti-Semitism of Germany and said nothing about it until he thought Germany would be compromised by Hitler's insane hatred for Jews. Lee however fought to defend states that relied on slavery as the basis for their economy he would never have freed his slaves. Neither Lee or Rommel should be venerated and in God’s name neither should have statues to them. This isn’t sanitizing history it is putting it back in its correct perspective. If the Union had been as thorough in re-educating the South as the allies were with Entnazifizierung (denazification) after WWII then the US would not be in this situation now. If this had been done after the civil war there would be no Jim Crow laws, no segregation and no need for the civil Rights movement of the 60’s. This is just deconfederatization 152 years too late. My first reaction to this was that someone should shove a stick of dynamite up the rear end of Lee's horse and be done with it, but that would only make a martyr out of a horse's A--, pun intended. Personally these monstrosities belong in Museums not in public parks.

Posted by: Bill Arends | Aug 15, 2017 4:12:30 PM

Forgot to mention - When three slaves escaped, Lee had them tied to posts and whipped—50 lashes for the men, 20 for the woman—and then had their backs washed with stinging brine. Lee may have been ambivalent to slavery as an institution but he practiced it with full force of its horrors.

Posted by: Bill Arends | Aug 15, 2017 4:27:27 PM

antares ... So far we have.

Amanda Rush ... Benedict Arnold was a traitor. Robert E. Lee was a general in a conflict where one side felt that the time had come to leave the union and the other side felt it was important enough to use force to stop them. Lee was not arrested or otherwise legally punished after the war, which supports my position. He had his family home confiscated (his family was eventually compensated for it after he died) and he was denied the right to vote. But he was never accused of being a traitor, so please be careful when throwing out that word. It has a very specific meaning. Lastly, the argument is not over whether "the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery and how it's just about heritage". The argument is about whether the war was fought over slavery or to settle whether states rights or federal authority should dominate the relationship between the two. I've heard very smart people argue both sides of that argument quite convincingly... so I wouldn't act as though 'the science is settled'.

Marsha ... sleeplessness helps my idea machine.

Bill Arends... Your mention of Rommel is appropriate, but not for the reason you probably think. He is the only senior member of the German WWII military leadership whose memory was allowed to be marked with an annual ceremony after the war. That should tell you something about how different he was than some of his more ideologically motivated colleagues, and how principled people who are associated with problematic causes shouldn't always be painted with the same brush. As to the slave escape incident you mentioned, I am not familiar with it. But there is an entire Wikipedia page discussing Lee's views on slavery which I think you will find more nuanced and scholarly than one unattributed incident. And it is worth noting that you and I are far more complex individuals than one incident in our lives would suggest. I think the same could be said of Lee.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Aug 15, 2017 4:47:02 PM

Your post is so wrong headed I do t know where to begin. First of all, you are conflating, or appear to be conflating two different events. The Nazi demonstration in Charlottesville was in response to the city government decision to take down the statue of Robert E. Lee, who by the way was a traitor, an oath breaker, and a slave owner. Don. Or believe lost cause revisionism. It was a decision made by democratically elected representatives of a municipality. The tearing down of a confederate statue was not even in the same state, and was a spontaneous act of a mob. In that limited way, you are correct. Mob rule is a bad thing. And yet.
The statues of confederate leaders were not erected until most of the participants in the civil war were dead. They were part of the "lost cause" movement, which was a revisionist reading of history that recast the confederates as paladins fighting for freedom, rather than a white aristocracy trying to maintain their death grip on an enslaved people whose servitude was enforced with horrific violence. That is what the civil war was fought over. The statues are memorials, which are tools to teach history. Those tools were erected in the south to make it very clear to the children and grandchildren of the slaves that they weee I fertile, and that their continued subservience would be enforced through law, Jim Crow statutes and poll taxes, and violence, the KkK, which was expressly founded as a paramilitary organization by one of the most odious confederate generals, to relitigate through violence and murder the freeing of the slaves and the defeat of the traitorous south.
Please do not try to defend any soft reading of these statues. They are political and racist tools of oppression, and were designed that way. We know a lot more about the causes and aftermath of the civil war than we did even thirty years ago, and the lost cause revisionism upon which you base your assessment has long been discredited.

Posted by: Jordan Hirsch | Aug 15, 2017 5:04:42 PM

Jordan... Many, but certainly not all of the civil war statues were attempts to romanticize the confederate cause. I'll grant you that. But just as nearly every new England town has a civil war memorial in its square, so do nearly every southern town. Cities had even more ornate commemorative statues. Both sides lost a staggering number of men and absolutely all of their innocence. Yes, Lee was a slave owner, but so were most of the founding fathers. Where is your contempt for them? As to his being a traitor, I would ask you, respectfully, to look up the word. I happen to subscribe to the northern narrative of events, but at that point in time, the Union was a relatively young association, some of whose members felt it had outlived its usefulness. I'm uncomfortable with the idea that any state is stuck with the Union and has no recourse to hold an internal vote to secede. For instance, if I lived in one of the fly-over states, I might think my continued presence in the union served other people's agendas more than it did my own. But that is my opinion and has no bearing on the larger discussion. If Lee were truly a traitor, he would have been arrested and tried as one. He was offered command of the US Army. He declined. He resigned his commission. So far nothing traitorous. He took a commission in a state army... a state which held a democratic referendum to leave the union. I've made a bit of a study of some of the Union atrocities during the civil war. You really don't want to call the entire south traitorous. And the Jews were not loved in either place. But that being said, the Secretary of State, Secretary of War and Attorney General for the Confederacy was a Jew named Judah Benjamin. Major-General Ulysses S. Grant issued General Order 11 in December of 1862 expelling all Jews from Tennessee and accused them all of profiteering; All of them! Only Lincoln's personally stepping in an cancelling the order saved the Jews. Lastly, after checking I see I made an error between two separate statues. But you have to admit that is still quite troubling.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Aug 15, 2017 5:20:52 PM

Agree strongly with Jordan. I'll add that the date I've seen given for the installation of Lee's statue in Charlottesville was in 1924. At a time when although slavery "de jure" had been eliminated 60 years previously, a form of slavery "de facto" was firmly entrenched in the South. Jordan's observation that these statues were indeed "political and racist tools of oppression" gives rise to an interesting question: If we accept that Robert E. Lee was a gentleman with a sense of honor and dignity, may we not speculate as to whether or not Lee himself would have disapproved of the use of his image to justify what was a form of continued oppression 60 years after the question was supposedly resolved by the Civil War...?

Posted by: Mike Spengler | Aug 15, 2017 6:41:14 PM

Thank you, Treppenwitz, for being willing to challenge the prevailing paradigm. None of us like NAZI's, especially Jews, but I am glad that the US Constitution and other documents of justice like it enumerate that freedom of speech is for everyone, regardless of popularity. And vigilante violence is not justice.

I find it sad that small town politicians were willing to engineer a situation like this (again) instead of controlling extremists groups like the Neo-NAZI's and ANTIFA. I find it sadder that the ideals of journalism has been so neglected as to engineer and manipulate the vast amount of reporting on this tragic situation.

History has both factual and subjective components. We don't get to pick the factual parts. We do get to pick our subjective understanding or preferences. Still, I'd rather leave the history to its own period and not whitewash it with the preferences of a different and later time. Remember the good and learn from the bad. Or we won't have anything left because all of it will be offensive to someone. With any hope, societies evolve over time and grow for the better.

Posted by: Maksim | Aug 16, 2017 6:37:00 AM

I too, remember the Skokie ruling. I thought then, and think now that the court was mistaken. Nazi regalia ARE fighting words. Democracy in the US is in grave danger. Naftali Bennett had to call Trump out on the Anti-Semitism issue, and Trump's response is inadequate.

I am not going to argue the point of whether or not the removal of these statues is right or wrong.

I will argue that if you see a moral equivalency between these two groups, then you are no better than someone who can look at that can look at the murders in Halamish and call for an end to "the cycle of violence."

Posted by: Rich | Aug 16, 2017 7:20:34 AM


US Constitution, Article III, Section 3 (in part):

Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court.

IMO Jordan Hirsch is, in fact, correct: R E Lee was a traitor; that is, someone who commits treason. He was never convicted for the simple reason that he was never brought to trial.

As for the fawning admiration of Lee, I'm not having any of it. Lee is still admired and respected at the USMA, aka West Point. I think that is a mistake. Lee was a brilliant tactical commander, but he was the most benighted and biased strategic commander of the war. Forrest, A S Johnston, even Kirby were better at strategy than Lee. Lee fought for Virginia and only for Virginia, not for the Confederacy. Grant, Sherman, Porter, and Farragut were all better strategists than Lee.

Anyway, as has been stated earlier, most of the statues erected to the memory of Confederate heroes came after WWI; that is, after Birth of a Nation played in movie theaters. I grew up in Texas. I disfavor display of the Confederate flag (it is, in fact, a federal crime to display the Confederate flag) and the glorification of the Confederate cause. All this nonsense of rationalization that the Civil War was not about slavery -- tell me this: Would there have been a war without it? The Confederacy was a military dictatorship. All white men were conscripted into military service. In Texas, many escaped confederate service by joining the state militia. It was an odious time in American history, and it still stinks. I am happy the Confederacy lost. I am glad Sherman burned Atlanta and torched his way to the sea.

Back to the present, as much as I detest the Confederacy, this is not the way to erase its memory.

I said we are not going to vote our way out of this mess. You replied that we have so far. That's the key. So far. The US avoided civil war with the vote until 1860, too.

Winter is coming. It is now 1857 in America.

Posted by: antares | Aug 17, 2017 1:29:37 PM

Mr. Bogner, I hope you remember me! It's been ages since I've been at your blog. I hate to be the guy who chimes in after years and years only to disagree, but I disagree.

All the comparisons you make would be adequate if this one thing weren't true: America is battling stage four cancer levels of racism. Perhaps in your trips to liberal Martha's Vineyard you were led to believe that America is "mostly over" its racist past, but we are far from it. Roughly 37% of Americans still support Trump, and I would venture to say that a majority of them are covert racists. Harsh words, yes. Broad brush, perhaps, but racism exists in varying degrees and I am happy to declare that almost ALL Americans have some degree of racism. Even I do ... because racism doesn't end with the conscious choice of not being a racist (I'm sure you know this), but must be extricated out of the narrow passageways of our subconscious as a life-long committed effort. It is reinforced on a daily basis by our language, our body language, our neighborhood choices, our restaurant choices, etc. I will always be a racist, and will always be plagued with the task of overcoming my own racism because I grew up in a country that still *literally* keeps racist ideas on a pedestal.

Your example of Martha's Vineyard is a laughable exception to the real motivation to all 1500 Confederate Memorials that were erected in the U.S. between the early 1900's and the 1920's. They were erected for the sole purpose of keeping the black man down, and with the winking hope that The South would rise again. I think you're giving Americans way too much credit; the subjugation of black people is still entrenched in the recesses of our national consciousness. Obama's presidency brought the simmering pot to a full boil. It's a crisis that must be met with a radical response.

This movement is not partisan showmanship. It's coming from people who have learned from History. We don't want to be the "Good Germans" who don't sacrifice life and limb to preserve what is good in our country. In my opinion, our country is closer to succumbing to the cancer of Nazism than you think. Should we stand by until we get closer? How close should we get to the brink before taking an adamant stand? Even now Trump's regime is gathering the identities of all who oppose him. We are way past this issue being anywhere near partisan showmanship.

Posted by: Jim Etchison | Aug 17, 2017 7:24:10 PM

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