Politics & Media
Jun 29, 2015, 09:50AM

David Brooks Is Confused by Robert E. Lee

The Times columnist says Lee mustn’t be judged too harshly.

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Let's imagine a man; call him Joe. On the one hand, Joe was a gifted watercolorist and his family loved him. On the other, Joe owned slaves and when the government tried to take them away from him, he led an army and butchered large numbers of people. Should we raise statues to Joe's memory and honor his watercolors and his skill in killing people in defense of slavery? Or, alternately, is that a stupid idea?

The person in question here is, of course, not "Joe," but Robert E. Lee. From his sinecure at The New York Times, David Brooks weighs the watercolors and the slavery, and furrows his brow. Yes, he admits, slavery is bad and its legacy is bad: "If we want to reduce racism we have to elevate the symbols that signify the struggle against racism and devalue the symbols that signify its acceptance." So, the Confederate flag should go.

But as for Lee, the most recognizable Confederate general—must his monuments go the way of the flag? Brooks isn't sure. After all, the man was just so nice. "It is almost impossible to imagine a finer and more considerate gentleman," Brooks insists. Lee was brave, courageous and kind to just about everyone who wasn't his slave. Also, watercolors.

Brooks goes on to say that yes, Lee was a traitor and a slaver. "Lee didn’t enjoy owning slaves, but he was considered a hard taskmaster and he did sell some, breaking up families," Brooks admits. Lee whipped people and indulged in vicious cruelty, but he didn't enjoy it as much as he could have. If that's not gentlemanly what is?

Brooks sounds like an idiot because his project is idiotic. Balancing the good and bad of Lee to determine whether or not he deserves a monument misses the main point. Lee doesn't have monuments because he was a decent watercolorist, or a decent man. You don't generally get a monument erected to you for being an okay person, or for writing "saucy letters" to women, even if your wife thinks those letters are funny. You get monuments because you’re a significant political and/or military and/or civic figure.

Statues to Robert E. honor him for being central to, and skillful at, the defense of slavery. Brooks' evaluation of Lee's personal character is utterly beside the point. Take the treason and the slavery-defending away from Robert E. Lee, and you've got a pleasant guy without any statues commemorating him. Brooks eventually winds down to a wishy-washy conclusion. "Given our history, it seems right to aggressively go the extra mile to show that prejudice is simply unacceptable, no matter how fine a person might otherwise be," he says, and recommends removing Lee's name from most monuments, roads, and schools. As so often with Brooks, the pose of thoughtful moderation opens on a logical and moral vacuity. Lee, the honorable man, does not exist somewhere purified of the Lee who pledged his life and talent to treason and slavery. And in fact, the only reason Lee's name is on so much crap is because he devoted his talents to treason and slavery. His statues show that America, for more than 150 years now, has been convinced that treason and slavery were pretty cool things to devote your life to.

Refusing to venerate Lee isn't going the extra mile. It's going the first step. There’s nothing to be said for Lee that would justify celebrating him in any way. Okay, he was a decent guy. His family liked him. You know what? There have been lots of decent people in this country over the years. Many of them didn't even own slaves.

—Follow Noah Berlatsky on Twitter: @hoodedu

  • Cohen, in "The Great Warpath" muses on why Benedict Arnold is a vile traitor and Lee is not, even in the North. I don't recall he came to any conclusion. A friend of mine remarked that Lee got more Americans killed than Tojo and Hitler combined. That was out of a population roughly one-fifth of that facing the Axis. I have developed a theory that the more a man was, in the old days, required to be menacing to the lower orders, including slaves, the more elaborately courteous he was to his social equals. It is the latter that made the contemporary writings. It might be exaggerated. I've heard that even a demand for a duel to the death might be signed, "your humble and obedient servant".

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  • That's an interesting point about the status of gentleman and the South's hierarchy. I think there's definitely something to the idea that Lee's dignity/honorableness/virtue can't really be separated from his position as rich white dude in an extremely stratified society.

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  • Noah. This occurred to me after a couple of trips to Colonial Williamsburg. Take a week and your arch supports. One of the features is in the morning in the garden of one of the Big Shooters of the time. An actor comes out in costume and gives a talk of about fifteen or twenty minutes. He's Washington, Lafayette, Jefferson, etc. Then, remaiining in character, he takes questions from the audience. They're quick, articulate and knowledgeable as can be imagined. But most of them were slave owners at one time or another. And that means they must exude a kind of potential threat when dealing with slaves, if they never raise a hand or their voice. Yet in the discussions, they use the elaborate courtesy of the time. So I presumed, either connected or not, there would be a correlation, if only inverse. Old story about a Brit aristo a century and a half back riding into a small American town. Came to the smithy and asked the blacksmith: "Who is your master?" point being that in the landed aristocracy, the local big wheel quite literally owned the town. "Sumbitch ain't been born," said the smith, spitting on a highly-polished riding boot. His demeanor to high and low would probably not change much.

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  • Really good piece. You nail down what makes the Brooks column so daffy. But maybe I'm in a good mood -- I even enjoyed Richard's comments.

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