David Brooks on “The Robert E. Lee Problem”

Brooks, DavidHere is a brief excerpt from an especially thoughtful article written by David Brooks for The New York Times. To read the complete article, check out other resources, and obtain subscription information, please click here.

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The debate about the Charleston Bible study shooting has morphed into a debate about the Confederate battle flag and other symbols of the Confederacy. This is not a trivial sideshow. Racism is not just a personal prejudice and an evolutionary byproduct. It resurfaces year after year because it’s been woven by historical events into the fabric of American culture.

That culture is transmitted through the generations by the things we honor or don’t honor, by the symbols and names we celebrate and don’t celebrate. 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.

Lowering the Confederate flag from public properties is thus an easy call. There are plenty of ways to celebrate Southern heritage and Southern life without choosing one so enmeshed in the fight to preserve slavery.

The harder call concerns Robert E. Lee. Should schools and other facilities be named after the great Confederate general, or should his name be removed and replaced?

The case for Lee begins with his personal character. It is almost impossible to imagine a finer and more considerate gentleman.

As a general and public figure, he was a man of impeccable honesty, integrity and kindness. As a soldier, he displayed courage from the beginning of his career straight through to the end. Despite his blunders at Gettysburg and elsewhere he was by many accounts the most effective general in the Civil War and maybe in American history. One biographer, Michael Korda, writes, “His generosity of spirit, undiminished by ideological or political differences, and even by the divisive, bloody Civil War, shines through in every letter he writes, and in every conversation of his that was reported or remembered.”

As a family man, he was surprisingly relaxed and affectionate. We think of him as a man of marble, but he loved having his kids jump into bed with him and tickle his feet. With his wife’s loving cooperation, he could write witty and even saucy letters to other women. He was devout in his faith, a gifted watercolorist, a lover of animals and a charming conversationalist.

In theory, he opposed slavery, once calling it “a moral and political evil in any country.” He opposed Southern secession, calling it “silly” and a rash revolutionary act. Moreover, we shouldn’t be overly guilty of the sin of “presentism,” judging historical figures by contemporary standards.

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That said, Brooks then acknowledges other perspectives on Lee, then concludes with his own thoughts and feelings about him. Here is a direct link to the complete article.

David Brooks became a New York Times Op-Ed columnist in September 2003. He has been a senior editor at The Weekly Standard, a contributing editor at Newsweek and the Atlantic Monthly, and he is currently a commentator on “The Newshour with Jim Lehrer.” He is the author of Bobos In Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There and On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense, both published by Simon & Schuster. The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement, published by Random House in March 2011. His latest book is The Road to Character, also published by Random House (April 2015). As he explains, “I wrote this book not sure I could follow the road to character, but I wanted at least to know what the road looks like and how other people have trodden it.”

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