Monday, September 04, 2017

Supporting Robert E. Lee is no longer an acceptable position

I am a German Jew, a descendant of holocaust survivors.  I am also a Southern boy, having spent my formative years from age 5 through 24 in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia.  I tell you this to provide some perspective on what I am about to say: Robert E. Lee had many fine qualities.  So did Adolf Hitler.

Bear with me.

In the aftermath of World War I, the Allies were determined that Germany should never rise again.  So they forced her to disarm, and to accept a harsh regimen of reparations which she didn't have the means to pay.  The result was historic hyperinflation in the early 1920s.  (To this day Germany has a mortal fear of inflation, which is one of the reasons that Euro monetary policy is as tight as it is.)

The value of the Mark had stabilized by the mid-1920s, but not before it wiped out the savings of ordinary Germans and decimated her economy.  Then in 1929 the Great Depression hit.  By 1933 Germany had been hurting badly for nearly 20 years.  Hitler rose to power on a simple, straightforward promise: I will fix this.  (All we have to do is expel the Muslims Jews!)  And Hitler did fix it, in no small measure because he had the brass to tell the allies to take their disarmament treaty and stuff it.  In ten short years, Germany once again became not only prosperous, but the pre-eminent economic and military power in Europe.

But none of that matters, because all of Hitlers achievements and positive qualities are rightly overshadowed by two overarching facts: first, he presided over the holocaust, and second, he decided to invade Russia.  Had he not made that second mistake, Hitler would be remembered very differently today.  Germany likely would have won WWII, and Hitler's history would have been written by happy, prosperous, victorious Germans rather than Jews and Americans.

And all this is as it should be.  It is good and right that Hitler is remembered as the very embodiment of evil, notwithstanding that he rescued the German economy and  loved animals.

For Robert E. Lee things went rather differently.  Like Hitler, he too lost his war, but unlike Hitler his was a civil war, and he was the beneficiary of an extraordinary stroke of luck: just days before the American civil war ended, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.  He was succeeded by Andrew Johnson, a Democrat (Lincoln founded the Republican party) and a southerner from Tennessee who was sympathetic to the South.  Johnson oversaw the first four years of the reconstruction process, and helped lay the foundations for 100 years of Jim Crow laws.

Time and the vagaries of politics have blunted the memory of what Robert E. Lee and the Confederates really fought for: Slavery.  You will hear people rationalize secession as being about honorable causes like freedom and states rights, but the truth is it was about slavery.  Don't take my word for it: read what the seceding states had to say about it:
The people of Georgia having dissolved their political connection with the Government of the United States of America, present to their confederates and the world the causes which have led to the separation. For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery.
...
With these principles on their banners and these utterances on their lips the majority of the people of the North demand that we shall receive them as our rulers. The prohibition of slavery in the Territories is the cardinal principle of this organization. ... We refuse to submit to that judgment...
...
Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery -- the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun.
It goes on and on.  Really, you should follow the link and read the whole thing.  It's quite an eye-opener, and it leaves no room for doubt: Robert E. Lee and the Confederate states were fighting to preserve chattel "negro slavery", to use the phrase that the Confederate constitution used to enshrine it as a fundamental right.  The right of white people to own black people as property, to buy and sell and bind and rape and whip and even kill as they pleased.  (Well, you could kill your own slaves.  Killing someone else's slaves was punished as destruction of property!)  There are more laws on the books today protecting animals from cruelty than there were in the antebellum South protecting slaves.

This is the Southern heritage that Robert E. Lee and the confederate battle flag stand for.  There is nothing the least bit honorable about it.  It is every bit as thoroughly and irredeemably shameful as the heritage of Nazi Germany, and the only reason one is remembered fondly and the other is not is two accidents of history, one fortunate, one not so much.

After 152 years it is time to wake up.  No more excuses.  The Declaration of Causes, along with the rest of the South's sordid history is available on line for anyone to read.  The South fought to preserve slavery.  Robert E. Lee fought to preserve slavery.  Not mint juleps.  Not hoop skirts.  Slavery.  Chattel slavery of black people by white people.

I say this to you as a Southerner, because I am a Southerner.  I love the South.  I grew up in Tennessee.  I know all the words to Rocky Top.  Firefox was a book to me long before it was a web browser.  The South is full of natural beauty and cultural richness and good-hearted people.

But there is no honor in the Confederacy.  And there never was.

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Postscript: I want to give a shout-out to Doug Baldwin who wrote his own essay on the same topic two years ago.  Unfortunately, the original essay seems to be gone, but the excerpts in the CBS Sports story were a big factor in motivating me to write this piece.

BTW, Doug Baldwin is a really impressive dude.  Not only is he a professional football player, he has a B.S. from Stanford.  And he is apparently an exceptionally talented writer.  Props to you, Doug.