Trading Robert E. Lee for the KKK and Nazis

By | August 14, 2017 | 0 Comments


            A fair exchange?

Some time ago, my wife and I were driving along Interstate 5 to San Diego. Suddenly I saw a cloud of dust to my extreme left. I braked hard as I saw a full-sized pickup veering across the roadway, tilted up on two wheels. We managed to avoid it as it came to rest on the shoulder, unexpectedly upright.

Apparently the driver had dozed off or was occupied texting. He felt his left wheels drift onto the median. He should have slowed down and gently steered back onto the roadway. Instead he did what so many bad drivers do ‒ he over-corrected. He cut the steering wheel sharply, throwing the truck into a side-skid and nearly flipping it over. Only luck saved him and us from a serious crash.

When we feel ourselves moving too far in one direction, the safe thing to do is to slow down and steer gently in the other direction. The unsafe thing to do is to follow our childish inclination and steer sharply to the opposite side. But this can be dangerous to the people themselves, and to all the rest of us as well.

It is my firm opinion that there is only one thing worse than a sore loser: a sore winner.

General Lee surrendered to General Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, in 1865. As Lee and his small staff mounted and began to ride sadly away, Grant and his staff came out and took off their hats as a gesture of respect for a defeated enemy.

At least two-thirds of a million men had perished in the Civil War, and hundreds of thousands of others had suffered grievous wounds resulting in amputation. It would have been understandable if Grant and his people had harbored deep resentment, even rage. It would have been understandable if they had arrested Lee and his people, or even taken them out and shot them. But they didn’t. I doubt that the idea crossed their minds. After all, the Civil War was referred to as the “Brothers’ War.” There were many cases of actual brothers fighting on opposite sides. Brothers may be angry at one another, but they are still brothers.

Did you watch Ken Burns’ masterpiece miniseries “The Civil War”? You should. Even though I am a history buff, I learned a great deal. But perhaps the most important thing I learned was the attitude of the veterans toward their opposite numbers.

Burns describes a reenactment of the Battle of Gettysburg held many years later, when the veterans of both sides had gray hair and beards, and many walked with canes and crutches. The climax of the reenactment was Pickett’s charge, when Confederate infantry braved murderous Union musket and artillery fire to charge up the aptly named Cemetery Ridge.

Pickett’s division suffered over 50% casualties and for practical purposes ceased to exist, though small numbers in fact reached the summit of the hill. In the reenactment, no live rounds were fired, of course. Nevertheless, when the elderly Confederate veterans reached the top of the hill, they were exhausted. But when they did, they embraced their former enemies, and a great sigh was heard.

If those who saw their buddies killed or maimed, and who may have suffered grievous wounds themselves, could find it in their hearts to embrace their former enemies, what prevents us, all these years later, from demonstrating even a bit of that good will and forgiveness? What bitterness or ill will prevents us from embracing our brothers?

And here is another question: If the Civil War had nothing to do with abolishing slavery and was caused by “economics,” why all the fuss about Confederate statues and monuments? Why get so excited about memorials to those who merely had different ideas about “economics”?

Of course the Civil War was about slavery. Why else did the South secede? The current push to remove Confederate statues proves that even the most progressive of progressives don’t really believe the “economics” notion.

But the basic question remains: Why be sore winners? That is, why over-correct? Why insist on steering so sharply in the opposite direction that our national vehicle risks being thrown into a skid that may prove dangerous?

When I see a statue of Robert E. Lee, I see a distinguished soldier of utmost integrity ‒ but one who felt that his ultimate loyalty was to his native Virginia rather than to the United States. True, I am not black. If I were, I might look at his image differently. But even so, I would hope that my negative emotions would be tempered by reason. I would hope that I would realize that a statue of Lee might be mildly offensive, but stirring up latent violence and incipient racism might be physically dangerous.

In an ideal world, removing the Lee statue might be a good thing. But this world is very far from ideal, as we know all too well. We have many problems ‒ a nuclear threat from North Korea, for example ‒ that are more pressing than which statues to remove. Let us think very hard before we continue over-correcting, and risk throwing our nation into a skid that could cause serious damage.

● Did we really imagine that violent campus demonstrations preventing conservatives from speaking, and Trump supporters being beaten up, and Black Lives Matter members intimidating students, and candidate Trump being forced to stop on a freeway shoulder and hike up the embankment to reach the site of his speech, and Republican Whip Steve Scalise being shot and critically wounded ‒ did we really imagine that all this incipient or actual violence would go unanswered?

● Did we really believe that the demons of racism and fascism are dead and not merely dozing?

● Did we really presume that we could teach young people the key importance of race, and not have Nazis and Klansmen agree enthusiastically?

● Did we really expect that after calling anyone who disagreed with us a “Nazi,” we would be able to recognize real Nazis, much less know how to deal with them?

● Did we really suppose that left-wing troublemakers could do whatever they pleased and not incite right-wing troublemakers? Is this perhaps what the left-wing troublemakers intended?

Trading a statue of Robert E. Lee for a gang of Klansmen and Nazis seems to me to be a very bad deal. Our ill-considered efforts to erase an unpleasant past may succeed only in resurrecting it.

If the present tries to sit in judgment of the past, it will lose the future.
– Winston Churchill

If a nation thinks of its past with contempt, it may well contemplate its future with despair; it perishes through moral suicide.
− Rabbi J. H. Hertz

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