Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Robert E. Lee Wasn't a Good Guy, But That Misses the Point

NPR's On Point had an interesting discussion this morning with Michael Korda, author of a new biography of Robert E. Lee. The show made a point of also inviting Gary Gallagher onto the program, which set up an interesting tension between two very different figures, the former a popular author of fiction and several accessible biographies, and the latter a respected academic expert on the civil war.

One of the inevitable topics the discussion ventured into is Robert E. Lee's relationship to slavery. Korda strongly argued that seeing Lee through the lens of slavery is to miss most of what he was about. In doing so, we insert our modern preoccupations into a foreign world and demand that this historical figure possess the same sensibilities we do. Then Korda trotted out the old, "he was a man of his time" defense.

Three quick points:

It seems to me that Korda is absolutely right to be wary of overlaying the past with our own agenda in such a way that we miss what was actually occurring.  We have to be able to empathize with historical figures if we are to have any hope of understanding what their world was like. Notice, empathy is a quite different thing from sympathy. Empathy is, I would argue, the foundation of useful historical knowledge.

That being said, I think Korda is doing something more here. Too often, empathy can dissolve into squishy nothingness that leaves us sputtering, "Well, he was a man of his time after all..." This attitude is ultimately incoherent, because it relies on an arbitrary definition of what was considered "normal" at any given time. If the overwhelming majority of people of your class and birth were of a certain view, then you are granted absolution. But what if the issue splits people 60-40 rather than 90-10? Where is the line between hero and villain? Was William Lloyd Garrison not a man of his time? Was his life experience so dramatically different from that of numerous other antebellum whites? How do we account not just for his political radicalism, but for his absence of racial prejudice? There is a fine line to walk here. When we speak of people being "of their time," it ought not be a statement of absolution for them, but indictment for us. Put another way, the endpoint of properly practiced historical empathy is not redemption for the people we study, but a more sober assessment of ourselves and humanity. I don't look at Lee with empathy so I can conclude that, in the end, he was a decent sort of chap. (What kind of phrase is that? It must be said with a British accent, right?) Rather, I look at him with empathy so that I am able to acknowledge that I probably would have done at least as badly if I were dealt his hand of cards. Instead of rehabilitating Lee, I use him to confess my sinfulness. You can, and should, look at it much more broadly too. Lee's failures, our own failures, are often the result of human action in a scarred, distorted world that compels us to act unjustly. And we most likely can't see our deepest acts of injustice for what they are. Few of us are generals as Lee was, but we're all subject to the proverbial fog of war. It blinds us to the fact that we are often on the side of selfishness, greed, and oppression.

Finally, I think Korda's defense of Lee was entirely too dismissive of the power of the Lost Cause narrative. He didn't seem to realize that if he wants to defend Lee he ought to do so in careful terms that unequivocally reject the racist hagiography that has surrounded Lee for over one hundred years. This narrative is so strong that many people don't even realize that Lee was a slaveholder. And they certainly don't know that his army practiced slave-raiding in their ventures into the North, or that his policy was to enslave black troops captured on the battlefield. It will be interesting to see more response to this book as it develops. One of the few academic reviews of one of Korda's previous books, a biography of Grant, called it "incorrect and ill-informed," but granted that Korda was at least a "master of distracting or pretentious analogies and foreign references." So there's that.

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