Thursday, July 23, 2015

Robert E. Lee and the dignity of defeat

While I was visiting my family in the Deep South, verbal battles raged on social media and in the
local newspapers about the desirability of removing all monuments to Confederate leaders, and renaming streets and squares. The murders in Charleston, inspired by (or at least blamed on) a romantic notion of the Confederacy as some sort of lost glory for the white race, rendered every one of those tributes questionable. Ideas were floated in New Orleans to rename avenues like the Jeff Davis Parkway after notable African-American contributors to the city (Xavier University President Norman Francis was one of the suggested honorees). The mayor recently proposed dismantling the monument in Lee Circle, but this is one monument that was not a belated attempt on the part of the KKK to create a past in its own image, having first been dedicated in 1877, less than twelve years after Lee's surrender.

I think Robert E. Lee is the one Confederate leader we ought to recognize with honor. Not because he led an army. Not because he fought for slavery or under the more palatable (and universally acceptable) banner of "states rights." We need Robert E. Lee as an example of dignity in defeat, just as we need to recognize Ulysses S. Grant not only as a President, but as a general who did not demean his adversary or place a crippling burden on the surrendering army. Lee and Grant saw a greater good at stake than the victory of one or the other army: their war correspondence acknowledges the desire to stem the loss of blood and property on both sides. That was what the surrender at Appomattox sought; that was the only motivation Lee had to put pen to paper.

So many times in social media, the climate really does resemble a battle in which the favored weapon is the ad hominem comment, with the lawsuit running a close second. It is not enough that florists and bakers be ordered to provide a product or service; they must receive crippling fines and sentences to re-education programs, and forever bear, in references on social media by the victorious party, the scarlet letter (H for "hater"). They are the losers. They aren't allowed anything but scorn.

That is why I would prefer to see New Orleans' Lee Circle remain as it is: not as a monument to the supposed glories of the Old South (New Orleans never did really fit in to that "Gone with the Wind" image), but as a reminder of the immense dignity even of the defeated, and an exhortation not to crow over the loser, or heap punishments upon them (history proves that this only creates resentment and leads to new wars). The stature of Robert E. Lee testifies that, even when someone is "on the wrong side of history," there can still be much about them that deserves honor.

No comments: