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Friday, January 31, 2014

The Problem With Rescuing Heroes

We all have heroes. Heroes inspire, protect, and even rescue us. Often, our heroes are people; but nations and even ideologies can serve as heroes too. And we put these heroes on pedestals and, to differing degrees, treat them as gods. But the problem with doing so is that since our heroes are human or come from humans, they have "feet of clay" and thus, for each of our heroes, we must deal with cognitive dissonance when we are told about their faults. Our response to the dissonance can range from complete denial to a reluctant kicking away of a hero's pedestal to a bitter embrace of an anti-hero. In the end, our response to the news of their faults can very well reveal our own feet of clay as well.

And so we come to a blogpost from the blog, The Imaginative Conservative, written by Stephen Klugewicz entiled, Saving General Lee. The title of the post tells us quite a bit about the article. It tells us that General Lee, that is Robert E. Lee, is both endangered and worthy of being saved. He is a hero to many. And it appears that Klugewicz does a good job in pointing out Lee's feet of clay. So the question becomes, how does Klugewicz handle the dissonance?

It's not that Lee was without merits, he had more than a few. He was a military genius. He was a man of honor and duty and thus not only exhibited controlled behavior, he would be compelled to do some things which he preferred not to. Lee earned the respect of his contemporary opponents, such as General Ulysses S. Grant, as well as future presidents. He seemed to have treated his slaves whom he inherited more humanely than some of his peers and he denounced the institution of slavery. He had a high regard for humility, which he showed by his behavior, and a hatred for war. He was a man who believed in and worked for reconciliation and opposed continuing the Civil War by other means after his surrender.

So what is the threat to Lee here? It is that history might be changing its mind about him. Klugewicz notes that the attempts to erase his name from educational institutions is evidence to this. In addition, Klugewicz believes that Lee's name, like the Confederate flag is being perceived as a symbol of racism. Lee was a racist in that he believed Whites were superior to Blacks but, if this is any consolation, he exercised that belief in superiority through paternalism rather than outright dominance.

Why would History change its mind about Lee? The most obvious answer is that he was one of the major leaders in the Confederate Army. The second most obvious answer is that he defended slavery. Actually, according to Klugewicz, Lee's strong sense of loyalty to his own state was more motivating than defending slavery. However, Lee was a racist, though Klugewicz attributes this to Lee being a product "of his class and time." He believed that Blacks were inferior to Whites to the extent of supporting the idea of sending Blacks who became free out of the country.

What criticisms could we offer of Lee here? His racism was obviously wrong and attributing that to his environment doesn't help. For just as his loyalty to Virginia made him a reluctant rebel despite his problems with the Confederacy, so could a belief in equality open his eyes to the evils of racism and not just slavery. And we also have to question whether his loyalty to country, that is Virginia according to Lee, should be considered a weakness, not a strength. That is when one's actions are controlled more by loyalty to a group than loyalty to principle, a moral compromise is made. Such is the basic ethic behind tribalism and gang warfare.

But what is more interesting than the criticisms this blog can bring are some of Klugewicz's views expressed in his apologetic. Please note that he described Reconstruction as being a "bitter period" and how there was a restoration for the nation during the subsequent Spanish-American War when "White Protestant Americans again fought side-by-side against brown-skinned Catholics."

Jointly fighting another racial war, the first one being the Mexican-American War in which Lee distinguished himself, is called "national healing" by Klugewicz. Seriously?!!! And how both Reconstruction, just referenced, and the following Civil Rights movement, referred to in the next quote, were portrayed in the absence of any reference to Jim Crow is telling. It's as if the South's embracing of the "Lost Cause Myth" was only a superficial reaction to agitation.  For in response to the Civil Rights Movement, Klugewicz states that the South "clung anew to the Lost Cause Myth, making symbolic protest against desegregation of schools and voting rights for African Americans by incorporating the Confederate battle flag into state flags and by naming roads and schools after Confederate generals." 

The above, along with his view of the Civil War, should give Conservatives who agree with Klugewicz and follow his admiration for Lee reason for pause. For with what are they associating conservatism when they associate the above views and Lee with conservatism? One hopes that the above is more determined by a regionalism rather than conservatism. Otherwise, conservatism should be utterly abandoned for its compromise in morals and its blindness to its own faults. That blindness comes from maximizing personal traits of integrity while minimizing or even denying the suffering lavished on others which results from the other priorities of those who bear its name. 

Klugewicz should be praised for his honesty in describing Lee. It was refreshing. But there are some very disturbing views presented in his article as well. In particular is the view of how group loyalty is exalted above morals and principles which is ironic considering how conservatives value personal integrity. However, none of us has the luxury of playing the pharisee in Jesus's parable of the two men praying here. Each one of us has loyalties that infringe on our morals. Certainly, Klugewicz's compromises have been focussed on here, but he is not alone. He is joined by all. And the reason for pointing out his flaws here is in order to facilitate a productive change with the hopes that he could return the favor.



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