Robert E. Lee, revolution and the question of historical memory

Robert E. Lee, revolution and the question of historical memory

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Robert E. Lee
This article was originally published on The Abbeville Blog on June 5, 2017.

Two weeks ago, New Orleans removed its Robert E. Lee Monument, one of four that the city decided to take down. As well, Charlottesville, Virginia, currently finds itself in the midst of a rancorous debate over its Lee statue. All over the South and the nation, moves are afoot to take down monuments, remove flags, hide any symbols that in any way honor or remind the present generation favorably of the Confederacy and the “lost cause.”

There has been much written about what the removals mean. How should we see these attempts to radically erase, uproot and alter portions of our history?

It goes without saying that each generation interprets the past — its past — to enhance, justify and confirm its view of itself. Certainly, the politically correct, cultural Marxist Left, which spearheads the effort to “cleanse” our society of Confederate symbolism, has erected its own set of symbols, totems and myths to legitimize its present activities and its extreme revolutionary zeal. Thus, in the place of Lee, Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson, we witness the rising cults of Nat Turner, Harriet Jacobs, “the Secret Six” abolitionists and the rehabilitation and virtual canonization of the bloodthirsty fanatic, John “Pottawatomie” Brown. In the America of 2017, we have a whole new set of martyrs and saints, whose message is carefully massaged and congealed and then presented as models for us and for our children. And there can be no dissent from this new imposed vision.

The historical profession, almost to a man has joined in, with the likes of Stalinist historian Eric Foner, now heralded as the nation’s “leading historian on slavery and the War.” Everything revolves around slavery and racism as the sole causes of the War and an almost unexpungeable stain that each generation must strive to overcome. Put very simply, it was historic white oppression that had to be defeated and destroyed as part of the advancing historical process, a process that is posited as inevitable and irreversible. It is represented as the latest conquest of the “Idea of Progress.” And that campaign, that ideological narrative for the Left, continues with the present efforts to banish symbols honoring anything to do with the Confederacy and its leaders, even if morally irreproachable individuals like Robert E. Lee are included in the cross hairs.

Hollywood, once 60 years ago eager to honor the heroes and paladins of the Lost Cause, now paints anything Confederate as inherently evil, perhaps rivaling the Nazis in unredeemable brutality. How many times in recent months have we heard crudely educated college students from vaunted Ivy League schools, weaned on Hollywood “blockbusters” like “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” and indoctrinated by cultural Marxist professors, parrot such slogans? Is their foul-mouthed sloganeering any different, really, from the high class academic sloganeering of Foner and others of his ilk?

What distinguishes the cultural Marxist historians’ narrative from earlier views is not just its social omnipresence, but its rigid dogmatism that brooks no disagreement, no opposing views. Certainly, 60 or 70 years ago there were superb historians who looked at the War Between the States differently. We only have to mention a few: Charles Sydnor, Francis Butler Simkins, William A. Dunning, Avery Craven, Charles Ramsdell and so on. Today they still are read, but only to illustrate how an earlier generation of historians “misread” history or, worse, attempted to cover up the “sin of slavery” and “white oppression.” Even arguably the greatest recent historian of the South, the late Eugene Genovese, comes in for his share of opprobrium and disdain from the culturally Marxist-dominated historical establishment for his profound and sympathetic probing of the thinking of antebellum Southern whites (e.g., The Mind of the Master Class).

But even back then, even if we suggest that many writers treated the South and the Confederacy with a degree of understanding, even sympathy, there did not exist the kind of extreme scholarly totalitarianism that we find in the academy and in publishing today. A Charles Beard could frame the American Founding in strongly economic terms, while others disagreed in scholarly tomes. The conflict of 1861-1865 was seen as both “repressible” and “irrepressible” (to use the title of a study by Arthur Cole, the term used first by William Seward). But there was no rigid “historical iron curtain” that dictated how historians thought and what they wrote.

And that difference distinguishes the earlier age from our own: For we are victims of a fanatical ideological zeal that increasingly knows few limits. Emerging out of this fanaticism is a type of religious commitment and conviction that dispenses with any opposing narrative as “fascist” or “racist” or “homophobic” and discards any inconvenient fact as “meaningless,” if standing in the way of the inevitable political and cultural objectives. Nothing must stand in the way of progress.

In fact, that onrushing “progress” has no end, no finality and cannot really end, for it is the revolutionary process, itself, that becomes the meaning and actual lived goal for its adherents. Theirs is a Revolution that, like a mortal illness, must continue and ceaselessly unwind, increasingly more unhinged and more unsubtle, as it goes along. But the objective of that Perfect Society where all racism, sexism, homophobia and misogyny are banished, where complete equality of status and income are obtained, where the “chains of established religion” and traditions are broken, that apocalyptic paradise on earth will not be and cannot be achieved.

Every Revolutionary movement, every “ism,” posits a final, perfected society. Whether early pre-Reformation zealots like the Cathares or Lollards, various millenarian sects, the Illuminati followers of Adam Weishaupt, or the socialists, anarchists and Communists of more recent times, a future utopian vision is held up as the final goal, the final stage in mankind’s torturous path to earthly happiness and perfection. But that chimerical objective is always an illusion, and usually a bloody one, strewn with the corpses of thousands, even millions of victims, who stood in the way of its realization.

And with that latest revolutionary impulse comes the destruction of traditions, beliefs and customs that have given society its actual foundation, its memory, those age-tested and handed-down ways of life that anneal and clothe society and protect it from decay and disintegration.

It is no exaggeration to see the attacks on the Lee statues and Southern symbols as part and parcel of this current assault, which aims not just at those more prominent artifacts of the Confederacy, but also takes aim at the very presence of Western and Christian civilization, itself. For, in fact, none of it can stand if the cultural Marxist narrative of irreversible and onrushing Progress, as they understand it, succeeds. It all must go, be removed, taken down, revised, re-interpreted.

The present campaign to remove Confederate symbols, then, should be viewed in this light. And it must be stoutly opposed with that full understanding.

— Boyd Cathey

Boyd D. Cathey holds a doctorate in European history from the Catholic University of Navarra, Pamplona, Spain, where he was a Richard Weaver Fellow, and an MA in intellectual history from the University of Virginia (as a Jefferson Fellow). He was assistant to conservative author and philosopher the late Russell Kirk. In more recent years he served as State Registrar of the North Carolina Division of Archives and History. He has published in French, Spanish, and English, on historical subjects as well as classical music and opera. He is active in the Sons of Confederate Veterans and various historical, archival, and genealogical organizations.

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