Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Robert E. Lee Redux

Oh, all right.  I'll take the bait.  (I presume this is what the people want and I want to give the people what they want).  I officially dedicate this post to Jordan French (though I'm not taking aim at him or anything he's said in particular since I only read the very end of his Facebook thread--I'm just honoring him because it was indeed his thread that motivated this post).

What is so bad about honoring, not Jordan French, but Robert E. Lee?  "NoMoreDonations" in the comment section on Facebook rhetorically ejaculates, "Robert E. Lee?  Are you freakin' kidding me?" but that's hardly an objection or an explanation let alone an argument.  For the sake of this post, I am going to set aside several issues which are worthy of discussion in their own right.  Among them I will set aside the history and motivation behind having a Robert E. Lee Day.  I will set aside that it is on the same day as MLK Jr. Day and whatever causes brought this about.  I set aside most of the entire biography of Robert E. Lee.  I will have nothing to say about these matters largely because I am ignorant about the historical facts of the matter--being a Northern victor by heritage, I've never cared (and, after all, we know to whom the spoils of history writing goes).  In fact, I shall largely abstract from Lee the man to consider someone in general (though on occasion I shall return to Lee).

The question that I will raise seems to me preliminary to those other questions: whether it is illicit to honor someone who has owned slaves, was a racist, and who believed that slave owning was not immoral. 

Some reasons against honoring such a person:
1. The wrongness of slavery is great.  Beside the various cruelties sometimes attached to the practice, the moral egregiousness is in owning a person--treating a person as property and not an end in himself.  Anyone who has engaged in or supported such a practice has engaged in or supported something that is morally abhorrent.  If one has engaged in or supported what is morally abhorrent then this trumps any virtues or deeds otherwise worth honoring.  Therefore, etc.
2. Honoring such a person is politically insensitive.  To honor a slave holder is to tacitly pay homage to slave holding which is offensive to people with an ancestry of slavery.  Therefore, etc.

Ad 1: First, slavery is morally egregious for the reason mentioned, and its egregiousness is great.  Nonetheless people are, in part, products of their time.  Was Lee culpable for his racist beliefs?  If so, it is a strike against him.  If not, his sins (considered as his) are less egregious.  This historical matter I leave for others.  Second, the history of the world until the recent past is a history of slave ownership.  Our calender makes reference to men who were slave owners and advocates of slave ownership.  Our Founders owned slaves.  Philosophers of the Enlightenment were all racists by our current standards (even though their work in part brought an eventual end to slavery as known in the West).  Until the very recent past, most persons would be guilty of holding racist attitudes and beliefs.  And so on.  As such, few people until very recently could be honored.  But surely that is an extreme view.  Third, we in fact honor people who are flawed all the time.  MLK Jr. plagiarized his dissertation and cheated on his wife--the very person to which he should have been closest; he did things which almost everyone in his own day would have considered wrong (indeed by many as a mortal sin).  Nonetheless, the man is more than his indiscretions.  We can partition those parts of him or his life that are not honorable and still pay homage to the great works and man who did them.

Ad 2: Whatever is politically insensitive to one group, the opposite is bound to be politically insensitive to another group.  It is hard to avoid political insensitivity in politics.  As well, there is no good reason to think that honoring a slave holder thereby pays homage to slave holding or racism, just as honoring an adulterer does not thereby pay homage to adultery.  Finally, everyone has an ancestry of slavery.  It just depends on how far one wants to go back.  My namesake, Cicero, owned slaves.  For all I know some of my own ancestry traces back to my namesake.  Or suppose I find out that my ancestry traces back to his slaves.  In either case, should I feel slighted if people pay homage to Cicero--not in virtue of his attitude towards slavery but in virtue of his other virtues?  I don't see why.

There may be other in principle ( or de jure) objections to honoring a slave holder that I am overlooking (this is a blog post after all, not a journal article or dissertation).   And even if there are no other in principle objections there may be as practiced (or de facto) objections to honoring Robert E. Lee given the costs/benefits analysis run through a utilitarian or consequentialist calculator .  Even if one doesn't think someone should be sensitive to a particular issue, does not mean that it's prudent to be insensitive given people's beliefs, feelings, etc.  And so forth.  (At the same time I personally don't take well to "insensitivity bullies.")

Feel free to comment (though I'll be pressed for time to join in).  If you do, try to stay roughly on topic.  I will delete excessive snarkiness, rudeness, name-calling, and the like. Also, there is a preference for non-pseudonymous authorship--I'm inclined to choose fortitude over cowardice.


  1. To drop another nugget of trivia: Robert E. Lee's birthday is actually January 19th.

    If Robert E. Lee day is patently offensive because he fought for the Confederacy, there are more celebrations we need to reevaluate. For example, Democrats around the country do a lot of fundraising at "Jackson Day" or "Jefferson-Jackson Day" dinners. The Jefferson in question was, as near as I can tell, a slave-owning Virginian. Andrew Jackson's racial legacy can be summed up as "Trail of Tears." But little is said of the decision to raise money by praising the legacy of these jokers. Teddy Roosevelt was a eugenicist. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes--still revered as one of the smartest jurists and finest writers we've produced--put the force of the constitution behind forced sterilization ("Three generations of imbeciles is enough," was his famous quip). Anyone rushing to praise Woodrow Wilson would do well to remember that he re-segregated the armed forces and the Pentagon. And FDR? "Japanese Internment Camps," an idea he threatened and bullied the Supreme Court into backing.

    Perhaps Lee nevertheless deserves a seat on the pantheon of American villains. But if he does, he is neither alone nor seated as king of the gods.