Charles Kenneth Roberts

Politics, History, Culture

Category Archives: History

“The Self-Defeating Logic of the Attack on Pearl Harbor”

This is the text of a talk I gave to the Randolph County Historical Society, titled “The Self-Defeating Logic of the Attack on Pearl Harbor.”

The title of my talk today is “the self-defeating logic of the attack on Pearl Harbor.” I’d like to discuss why Japan attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor and why, despite being a short-term victory, it ended up being a long-term failure.

There are many examples in history of winning a battle but losing a war. Sometimes, it’s the fact of winning that battle that loses the war. I don’t think there’s a better example of this than the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, which has gone down in history as “a date which will in infamy,” in the famous words of American president Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Imperial Japanese government believed that its attack would accomplish a number of different aims that would guarantee Japanese success and power in the Pacific. As it turned out, the very act of attacking Pearl Harbor ended up guaranteeing that Japan could never maintain a position as the leading power in the Pacific. Read more of this post


Southerners, southerners, and southerners

People were rightly critical of this idiotic tweet sent by Virginia gubernatorial wannabe Corey Stewart:

idiot tweet

But I am glad for it. Perhaps you, like me, are a history professor teaching American history, and it’s the end of the semester, so you’re in the middle of or getting into a discussion of secession and the Civil War. This tweet is a perfect teaching moment, a distillation of everything wrong with how we talk about secession, the Confederacy, and the South.

Stewart’s comment is about the wrongly-described “Confederate” monument (actually a monument to an attempted Reconstruction-era white supremacist insurrection). Stewart describes “a Yankee” and “a Southerner” as though these are real and natural categories. The implication is that someone from the North and someone from the South would have opposite perspectives about this monument. Stewart’s understanding of “Southerner” means white supremacists who supported the Confederacy; the South’s black population, or for the matter the large white Unionist population and whites like Italians who also faced racialized violence, is completely erased.

I think I am going to start class today with this tweet.

Perhaps the most important part of this tweet, which really does an amazing job of packing so many wrong and bad assumptions into so few characters, is the “don’t matter” part. This rhetorical maneuver asserts that people who oppose white supremacist public monuments don’t care about history, southerners, or the South. People on Twitter have clever comebacks about how really? nothing is worse?, which is fun and enjoyable, but we shouldn’t allow the rhetorical boundary-setting of this tweet to go unchallenged. Nobody is saying these monuments or the history they represent don’t matter; they mattered, and still matter, all too much.

Thinking about teaching online II

I am once again revising the way that I teach online classes, a process I previously documented here. For a while, I have been doing discussion-based online classes, but I have cut more and more from the course, and now it has become a very simple thing. I’ve slimmed the class down to a single imperative: do you know how to ask and how to answer historical questions about the period this class covers? If students can do that (which means at least a familiarity with a variety of different skills and knowledge), I will feel like I have done my job.

When I first started teaching online, I had students take weekly quizzes (always multiple choice, because that’s what works for online quizzes), and I never felt like they really learned anything from it. All it proved was that students were familiar enough with the textbook chapter to look up vocabulary terms before the time ran out on the quiz. I never really liked giving quizzes in the first place, online or face-to-face; they have always felt punitive, a way to force students to do the readings. Being a historian isn’t learning an unconnected series of facts (though of course you do have to know things to do history). But like a lot of people, I gave quizzes because I took quizzes when I took a history class, so that’s what you do.

I cut quizzes from my online classes two years ago, but I think I was letting that mentality influence my approach to the online class. Last fall, my on-campus American history classes wrote review essays (of The Marrow of Tradition and Why We Can’t Wait, both of which I recommend for use in the survey), so I had my online class write the same essays. Great! Except, no, not great. Those books worked as a way to bring in and discuss primary sources and how we understand what we know about history and all sorts of other history-class-type-questions. But access to primary sources isn’t a problem in an online class: If you have the internet, you have access to more primary sources than you can ever use. In my online classes, we already look at primary sources every week, so adding these two books to what we were doing broke the rhythm of the course. It wasn’t clear how the assignments belonged to the class or furthered its learning goals, because they didn’t. I know very well that an online course is different from a traditional one, but it’s so easy to let what we’re used to doing creep into teaching in new environments, even when we’re being careful about how we do it.

I think students do the best in any class when it is clear what the point is. Why are we reading this book or asking these questions? It has been evident at times that students did not understand the point of discussions, for example, because they did not understand how a particular essay or primary source related to the larger historical context. To make sure that students understand what we’re doing, I have taken what I think is the most important single part of being a historian and made it the entire class.

So, what does the course look like now? It’s all built around asking and answering historical questions based on our textbook (The American Yawp, which includes some primary sources) and some outside readings, videos, and additional primary sources I provide each week. Except for the first week (which is about how to ask a good history question and the famous Five Cs), students are required to write one good history question and answer it, in the form of a shortish essay. My history students are writing weekly essays. Since you can look up anything on the internet now, there are very strict requirements that this be their own words, because writing something in your own words means you have to understand it (ideally), and cited. In addition, students have to respond to three other students’ posts, expanding on their questions and essays and discussion in some way. The essays and discussion are collectively half the grade (30% questions and essays, 20% discussion).

I have done something similar to this in the past, but all due once a week. This made discussion worse, since frequently a big chunk of the class wouldn’t post until the day of the deadline. So, this semester, questions and essays are due on Wednesdays, with discussion taking place by Fridays. This means slightly less time is potentially available for discussion, but I found that most of the discussion takes place in two or three days anyway; it’s hard to sustain conversation much longer than that. Will students be confused about multiple weekly deadlines? I hope not! There is always a bit of a learning curve in the first couple of weeks of an online class; my expectation is that everyone should understand the groove by the end of week three.

Jonathan Rees said that he had the problem of asking too little discussion and writing in his online classes, which led to weak discussions with small classes. I think I had the opposite problem: I have in the past asked students to write three questions and answer three other students’ questions; this resulted in some students writing hurried answers, and it led to a scattershot discussion which saw lots of questions but few good answers. My hope is that fewer “starter” posts will result in more substantial conversation. I also hope that the responsibility of having to answer their own questions will lead to be a more thoughtful formulation of each student’s question.

In addition to the questions and discussions, two exams make up the other half of the grade. The fun part: These exams will be, as much as possible, made up of the questions that the students themselves wrote; I will be going through the discussion each week and pulling out the best questions and the things students are the most interested in to make up a study guide for the midterm and final exams. I may have to provide them with questions if they miss important stuff, which would (hopefully) be a learning opportunity about how to ask the right questions about historical material. But the goal is to get to a situation where students know how to ask the right questions about historical material, and then the tests determine how well they know the answers to those questions.

I am trying to boil my online classes down to the essence of history as a discipline. This semester, I have all the work laid out ahead of time, but if it goes well, next time I will only lay out the first half and give myself the option (should the students be ready for it) to add more sophisticated assignments in the second half. That means more work for me, but it would be enjoyable work.

2016 and watersheds

The 2016 election has been a uniquely depressing experience. Somehow the Republicans managed to nominate, from a candidate pool ranging from awful to merely incompetent, the worst possible option: a racist authoritarian whose existence is a stinging rebuke to the notion of American meritocracy and who undermines easy assumptions about the progress of equality in America. Hillary Clinton, practically the embodiment of what people mean when they complain about hawkish neoliberalism, is somehow the good guy in the 2016 race.

One element that makes the race so unpleasant is its steady presence: the downside of being constantly connected is that you’re, well, constantly connected. Social media and cable news overflow with obnoxious political commentary, stories of Trump’s latest bigoted gaffe, or horserace commentary. You sometimes feel like you can’t get away from this horrible experience through which the American people are inexplicably putting themselves.

Part of this is a reflection of the increasingly (and regrettably) partisan nature of American political culture, but I also think part of it is a need to make the race more exciting than it actually is. Like play-by-play announcers insisting that anything can happen in the fourth quarter of a 45-14 football game, the clickbait/24-hour news media has a vested economic interest in obscuring the extent to which the election has already been decided. In all likelihood, the race is over, and Donald Trump has lost. Most organizations predicting the outcome, as the New York Times forecast indicates, overwhelmingly favor Clinton:


Scrolling down to the state-by-state predictions, Trump would have to hold on to all the Republican states, win every toss up state, and pick off one of the states leaning Democrat to win. Polls can be wrong and anything can happen etc etc etc, but a huge Clinton win picking up 350+ electoral votes seems far more likely than a Trump win by any margin.

There are a few explanations for this state of affairs. One obvious reason that Trump is losing is that he’s Trump. Clinton is a weak candidate, and the things that are necessary to be good at campaigning are not her strengths (or are outside her immediate control, like the continued influence of sexism). But Trump is just about the worst imaginable candidate, magnifying Clinton’s strengths like political experience and temperament for the job while minimizing her weaknesses because he shares so many of them.

I’m curious how much of this is bigger than Trump, though. Demographic forces and political shifts appear to have favored the Democrats for several presidential elections in row (Congress and state elections being a different matter). Since the end of the Cold War, the smallest electoral margin any Democratic president has managed was John Kerry’s 251 in 2004, also the only time since 1988 a Republican won a majority of the popular vote. The two Republican victories were extremely narrow; the Democratic wins have been solid.

I wonder if historians will look at the 2008 presidential election as one of those watershed elections, like 1896 or 1932, that permanently changed the political landscape. 1896 seems like a good comparison: a partisan era when Democrats usually had safe states to count on, but a time when Republicans almost always had the advantage going into a presidential race.

And yet! Republicans hold a solid majority of the political offices around the country. Republicans make up a majority of governors and, even in this awful national year, expect to hold on the House of Representatives with a toss-up for control of the Senate. Maybe a better analogy is 1968, when the New Deal coalition broke and, ushering Republican dominance in presidential elections against Democratic control of Congress.

That said, one can easily take this kind of talk too far; I remember people talking about the inevitable generation of Republican ascendancy even after the 2000 election. Barack Obama’s election may represent only unhappiness with the unpopular George W. Bush and a desire for change, while a Clinton victory might best be understood as a referendum on the exceedingly unfit Trump. But it looks to me like most of the trends at a national level favor the Democrats; it would take considerable Democratic incompetence or scandal (or something attributed as such) to shift the balance.

The Free State of Jones

I saw Free State of Jones last night, and I really liked it. It was historically accurate, as much as I think a film like that can be. Puncturing the myth of a solid South during the Civil War is crucial, and making Reconstruction an important part of the story is much needed.

This review will have spoilers, if you haven’t seen the movie (and you should!).

People who know a lot more than me can tell you about the specifics of the history, but I’m particularly interested in one aspect of the movie as a movie, rather than as history. Smart reviewers like Christian McWhirter and Glenn Brasher agreed with critics who found the last act of the film, about Reconstruction, the weakest. Admittedly it’s a small sample size (my wife and myself), but the audience I watched the film with found the Reconstruction sections, jumping ahead using photographs and captions, just fine. The captions perhaps didn’t capture the realities of Reconstruction, but watching a black man registering sometimes illiterate voters and seeing what became of him as a result made Reconstruction real and weighty in a way I haven’t seen done before. I think it works as a whole for a few different reasons.

The most obvious reason is that the movie is just well made. Good character building and good plotting can make up for each other; we’re invested in the world and the people. Viewers care about what happens next. I particularly liked the way that Rachel’s story was so carefully told, not as explicit in its depictions of horrors as, say, Twelve Years a Slave, but still making clear that even the best-treated slaves faced unthinkable hardship and mistreatment. Matthew McConaughey almost edges over into White Savior territory, but the film makes it clear that the participation of blacks is just as crucial as is the participation of whites in the brief blooming of African American political participation.

I also think this movie matches the times, capturing the zeitgeist of our less optimistic age. As Glenn notes, “Further, perhaps audiences SHOULD walk away from a Civil War movie with a dejected feeling of “was it all in vain?” as white supremacy is restored in the post-war South.” This is not a happy time for American political culture; police brutality toward African Americans is clearly not going away, and Trumpery runs rampant. It’s been clear for a while that improvements in race relations and opportunities for minorities in America have stalled out. Some important gains have proven to be small victories that don’t address larger structural and social problems.

But the most subtle reason I think that the movie works is because of how it’s structured in terms of the roles that the characters play. Newton Knight is the main character of the film, but I don’t think he is a protagonist. Knight seems like the protagonist; he does a lot of stuff, and he’s the most famous actor. But the protagonist of a movie is who (or what) drives the plot. Knight wants to not fight in a war for rich people, he wants Confederates to stop taking his neighbors’ stuff, he wants to maintain the interracial community he has created. This is all reactive! You can have a protagonist who is reacting to things if they drive the plot forward (Luke Skywalker), but Knight doesn’t.

The real protagonist of the movie is the Confederacy itself, or more generally the existing system of white supremacy, embodied in a series of unlikable villains. White supremacy sets the plot in motion (before the movie begins), it drives the action, and it changes the most over the course of the film. What does this protagonist want? It wants to maintain itself; it wants to survive – a classic protagonist’s impulse. The film starts at the beginning of Newton Knight’s story, but for the protagonist it’s in media res; the movie starts, after all, in the middle of a battle in the middle of the Civil War. We the audience should already know but are reminded frequently that the Civil War is over slavery; that’s taken for granted. White supremacy has begun a war to protect itself. To survive it must win the war; to win the war it must take from its non-slaveholding population and protect the system of slavery.

I think you could say this movie has two opposing protagonists; Knight decides what he wants (the declared principles of the Free State of Jones), but it takes him a while to get there (which happens – it takes The Dude half the movie to figure out his narrative in The Big Lebowski). But I think Knight works best as the antagonist. The protagonist wants things, but Knight is trying to stop it. He is effective, but he isn’t necessarily decisive. Due largely to off-camera events (something that is emphasized when Sherman doesn’t provide much help – the larger Union effort doesn’t see southeast Mississippi as strategically important), white supremacy falls to its lowest point.

White supremacy tries to keep up the same system, forcing Moses’ son back into the fields, but that doesn’t work in the long run. We see Knight stand up against black codes, but so does the United States Army. The jumping ahead during Reconstruction doesn’t happen at the protagonist’s peak, but at its nadir. So white supremacy changes; instead of fighting in the open in battles and seizing crops, it takes shape in fraudulent vote totals and men in masks setting fire to homes or committing murder off-screen. Newton Knight changes a little, but white supremacy changes the most.

I don’t know if this entirely explains the difference between audience reactions (as of right now 71% approved at Rotten Tomatoes) and the critics’ views (42% approval). Critics might see this clunky structure as a problem. But I think audiences identify with Knight. He’s who you want to be (unrealistically so, but that’s the point of movies): bravely standing up to a larger system, doing the right thing even if you’re facing a system you ultimately can’t defeat.

Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History

The Igon Value is probably the most famous mess up, but my personal favorite Malcolm Gladwell error, the most Gladwellian, the Platonic Ideal of Gladwell, is his New Yorker article which became the basis for a book, “How David Beats Goliath.” In it, he looks at the unconventional but successful strategies that underdogs often use to upset apparently better opponents. His main example is the full court press in basketball, and the subjects are a relatively untalented group of 12-year-old female basketball players who just smash the competition. Why doesn’t everybody embrace this insurgent strategy?

There are all kinds of problems with this that actual basketball experts can tell you about, but my favorite part is that a central bit of evidence is the 1995-1996 Kentucky Wildcats men’s basketball team. Skinny underdog Rick Pitino learned all about the value of long shot strategy and took plucky upstart Kentucky basketball to a championship. That 1996 champion, nickamed “the Untouchables,” is widely considered one of the best and most talented basketball teams in college basketball history, with nine players eventually making it to the NBA. They would not have been a bad team in the NBA in 1996. So, yeah: Kentucky won with a full court press, but that team could have won  with virtually any defense or offense any basketball team in America runs. There’s a lesson here – we know that professional sports teams often use strategies which are objectively less efficient than others – but one that’s resistance to pleasant generalizations or pat lessons.

Malcolm Gladwell’s new podcast miniseries, Revisionist History, is about what you’d expect from Gladwell after two episodes.* It has a collection of fantastic stories and anecdotes, wonderfully told, that refuse to work as any larger moral or lesson. Like so much of Gladwell’s work, the failure of inductive reasoning, the inability to take individual facts and create successful larger theories, results in a whole that is less than the sum of the parts.

The less egregious but less entertaining second episode,”Saigon, 1965,” looks at U.S. efforts to understand what was going on in Vietnam. How could different people look at the exact same intelligence reports, Gladwell asks, and come to completely different conclusions about what the chances for American victory in the Vietnam War actually were? It turns out, three people with different life experiences can look at the same pieces of evidence but come to completely different conclusions. Yes! OK. And? Well, that’s pretty much it.

The first episode makes the flaws of Gladwell’s particular brand of toe-dipping journalism a bit more apparent. “The Lady Vanishes” starts with a really great story about Elizabeth Thompson Butler and the unprecedented success of her painting, The Roll Call. Butler reached almost the heights of the British art world, doing better than any female painter in Victorian England could expect. Gladwell compares this to the misogyny faced by Australia’s first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and to the Holocaust (!). The link, Gladwell asserts, is a psychological concept known as “moral licensing.” Once a person has done something good, they believe it gives them a license to do something bad; going to the gym in the morning may strengthen your conception of yourself as a healthy person but also undermine it by giving you license to drink a milkshake because after all you are a health-conscious person so it must be OK. “I can’t be racist, I have black friends!” is a cliche for a reason. These people all faced the same problem: given a little bit by society, that society in turn felt justified in treating them all the worse thereafter.

I like pop psychology as much as the next guy, but this is abysmal historical analysis. Gladwell wonders how Germans could laud the Jewish poet Berthold Auerbach in the 1800s but then launch into a policy of genocide in the 1930s. Gladwell answers this by asserting that, once Germans had treated one Jew well, they felt licensed to treat others poorly. Besides of the obviously flaw of conflating an individual’s psychological behavior with a large and varied community’s actions, this ignores something that actual historians are well aware of: context and change over time. The Germany of 1860 is not the same as the Germany of 1900 or 1940. Antisemitism increased almost everywhere in Europe in the late 1800s; Germany isn’t necessarily the most antisemitic country in Europe prior to the interwar period. The things which make Germany unique aren’t about moral licensing – it’s about war and nationalism and colonization (I didn’t notice Gladwell mention the Herero Wars, which seems a far more significant issue than some poet).

But the biggest problem with attributing all of this to moral licensing is the obvious one: it’s not moral licensing. Sexists who attacked Julia Gillard didn’t engage in moral licensing because they saw no inherent moral virtue in having a female prime minister. Racists who attack Barack Obama see no or negative value in having a black president. There are some subtle propagandists who use Gillard or Obama to prove that their countries have overcome historical sins, but these aren’t people feeling morally licensed; they’re opportunists. Do people who accused Obama of being a secret communist Muslim Kenyan really get some moral boost out of Obama’s election? Do they feel justified by the success of an individual they opposed from the beginning? German Nazis didn’t see the acceptance of Jews in previous generations as some good deed which meant they could engage in less morally right behavior. They saw the acceptance of Jews into European society as a great wrong, and they believed they acted in the right in remedying the error.

Just to be clear, tokenism is definitely a real thing. If historians say Elizabeth Thompson Butler was a token female considered by the Royal Academy, I am willing to believe it. But those who employ the tokenist strategy don’t do so to assuage concerns about their own moral worth. White school officials who might allow a single black student to enroll at a previously all-white school didn’t do so out of some misplaced sense of proper behavior. They did it to avoid real change.

To get to Gladwell’s main subject: the status quo which rejected female artists in Victorian England didn’t see open-mindedness or acceptance of outsiders as inherently virtuous. Conflating the crowds who came to see a painter with the elite who jealously guarded their privileges assumes a democratic culture that not every society has and not every social and political elite accepts. Gladwell mistakenly projects the values of his own society onto the historical subjects he treats. It’s the kind of mistake you expect to see in freshman-level survey classes, not the most popular podcast in America.

*Let’s ignore the fact that there is an entire class of people who do not get seven-figure book deals and still manage to “go back and reinterpret something from the past: an event, a person, an idea” full time, professionally, people called historians. Gladwell is a popularizer, etc etc.

The reviews are in

Self-promotion time!

Reviews of The Farm Security Administration and Rural Rehabilitation in the South have begun to come in. If you haven’t read my book yet (and if not, why not?), and feel like you need more convincing to pick up a copy, don’t just believe me.

“Despite a large literature on the New Deal and rural poverty, Charles Kenneth Roberts makes an excellent contribution to this body of work with his well-researched, insightful, and judicious book […]  a first-rate piece of policy history that tells a great deal about the New Deal and the problem of rural poverty.” – American Historical Review

“a concise history that provides readers with both a top-down account and a ground-level analysis of this heady New Deal program […] should be required reading for anyone seeking to understand the RA/FSA […] What this monograph does most admirably is construct a necessary top-down administrative history and wed it to local-level analysis” – The Journal of Southern History

“Overall, this book is an important addition to scholarship on the FSA and the New Deal, especially for those interested in the way federal policy played out in communities.” – Agricultural History

Repressing and celebrating the past

James Livingston has a confusing piece, “Don’t Repress the Past,” about efforts to rename colleges currently named after Woodrow Wilson and John C. Calhoun. Livingston starts the piece noting that many people we laud, from Abraham Lincoln to Franklin Roosevelt, were racists by the standards of our time, and that he teaches social theory, which means engaging with ugly characters with ugly ideas. “What goes missing from current debates about, say, Wilson,” Livingston writes, “is the humility of retrospect — the capacity to recognize the possible limits of your ideas against the obvious failings of those who didn’t have the benefit of your education.”

I find this argument baffling. I teach history, which means teaching about lots of unpleasant figures. Every discipline that I can think of will necessarily involve discussing and interpreting a whole host of truly terrible people and their ideas. You have to do this – I think it’s important to expose students to noxious or detestable ideas, if for no other reason than that they understand that such ideas exist in the world and regrettably have power.

I don’t understand what this has to do with college, buildings, or monuments named after bad people, though. Livingston describes it as “ways of forgetting the past — repressing and mutilating it rather than learning from it, or, as the shrinks would say, working through it.” A similar line of argument appeared during debates about the Confederate flag and Confederate monuments, and it was as wrong-headed then as it is here. You can teach and know history without glorifying it. And before defenders of this approach argue that there are ways to keep the names but provide historical context – with plaques or additional monuments or whatever – note that Livingston (who expressly notes that we need to keep such monuments so that “we acknowledge that we ourselves are the barbarians”) falls into the trap, describes Woodrow Wilson’s odious foreign policy as “a vast improvement on the colonial precedent. It advocated national sovereignty and economic development rather than conquest and exploitation.” We need to keep Wilson’s name around to remind us that, awful as he was, he wasn’t as bad as King Leopold? Count me out.

To get all the way ad absurdum, you can teach about Adolf Hitler without naming a building after him. I will in fact suggest that if there are any buildings named after Hitler in the United States today, we should rename them. Which, right, nobody is talking about naming a building after Hitler. But there’s clearly a line somewhere. Hitler was a racist. Lincoln was a racist. It’s untenable to say that this means we either have to have monuments to both men or to neither.

David Brooks is the worst even when he is right: Robert E. Lee edition

Most people have a New York Times op-ed contributor they think is the worst, right? For most people I imagine it’s either Thomas Friedman or Paul Krugman. I feel like it says something about a person who that most-disliked writer is. For me, it’s David Brooks. My mild obsession with the terribleness of Brooks continues with “The Robert E. Lee Problem”:

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.

Pretty okay so far! Brooks, who is a pro-war cheerleader of the establishment, shouldn’t be writing this, but, as a general statement, we’re okay so far.

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?

Yes, this is pretty easy, too.

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

DANGER. We have gone off the rails, over the cliff, and landed on a bus full of nuns. You cannot be fine, considerate gentleman if you engage in human slavery. At least he didn’t bring up Lee being considered a fine Christian.

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.

I’d say Grant or Sherman, but, military history and the Civil War are not my fields.

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.”

Except for black people.

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.”

Hard to improve upon Eric Rauchway’s response: “HAHAHAHAHAHAHA <draws breath> HAHAHAHAHAHA”

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.

I don’t know if “opposed” is the right or full story here, given that he became the most important single figure in prolonging the attempted secession, then the most important symbol of trying to pretend that wasn’t the case.

The case against Lee begins with the fact that he betrayed his oath to serve the United States. He didn’t need to do it. The late historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor demonstrated that 40 percent of Virginia officers decided to remain with the Union forces, including members of Lee’s family.

As the historian Allen Guelzo emailed me, “He withdrew from the Army and took up arms in a rebellion against the United States.” He could have at least sat out the war. But, Guelzo continues, “he raised his hand against the flag and government he had sworn to defend. This more than fulfills the constitutional definition of treason.”

I would not say that this is where the case against Lee begins, and it says something terrible about Brooks that secession is counted as a more immediate problem with naming some middle school after Robert E. Lee than, say, fighting a war to protect the institution of slavery. If he’d taken an oath to defend slavery, would it be more acceptable?

More germane, while Lee may have opposed slavery in theory he did nothing to eliminate or reduce it in practice. On the contrary, if he’d been successful in the central task of his life, he would have preserved and prolonged it.

Like Lincoln he did not believe African-Americans were yet capable of equality. Unlike Lincoln he accepted the bondage of other human beings with bland complaisance. His wife inherited 196 slaves from her father. Her father’s will (somewhat impractically) said they were to be freed, but Lee didn’t free them.

Lee didn’t enjoy owning slaves, but he was considered a hard taskmaster and he did sell some, breaking up families. Moreover, he supported the institution of slavery as a pillar of Confederate life. He defended the right of Southerners to take their slaves to the Western territories. He fundamentally believed the existence of slavery was, at least for a time, God’s will.

How is this even a discussion? Lee was not only a defender of slavery and a slaveholder (and being an apparently reluctant slaveholder gains you no credit), but he was among the worst of that odious class.

Every generation has a duty to root out the stubborn weed of prejudice from the culture. We do that, in part, through expressions of admiration and disdain. 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.

My own view is that we should preserve most Confederate memorials out of respect for the common soldiers. We should keep Lee’s name on institutions that reflect postwar service, like Washington and Lee University, where he was president. But we should remove Lee’s name from most schools, roads and other institutions, where the name could be seen as acceptance of what he did and stood for during the war.

This is not about rewriting history. It’s about shaping the culture going forward.

Honestly, I was genuinely surprised that Brooks got to the mostly right answer here (we shouldn’t keep most Confederate memorials or should at least drastically redo them). I’m not sure if it’s more about Brooks having a principled stand on the matter, since I’ve never really been sure what his principles are, or whether it’s just sticking to what he thinks the consensus is, but in either case, good on you.

That said, Brooks misses the best reason for Lee’s name to be removed from public buildings and the like: Lee is the patron saint of the Lost Cause, a consciously constructed obstruction of the true causes of the Civil War and perhaps the most harmful myth of American history. Brooks even plays into this – Lee the gentleman, Lee the genius soldier, Lee the family man. Even as Americans are addressing some aspects of Lost Cause myth-making, there will always be trouble going forward until it is pulled root and branch from the collective memory.

A question/request about the Confederate flag in Columbia

I have seen a lot of gnashing of teeth about the Confederate flag potentially being removed from the South Carolina capitol. I am very confused about this. I genuinely do not see how a fair-minded, informed observer could support keeping it there.

There are to my mind two kinds of political opinions. There are a tremendous number of issues on which honest, intelligent people can disagree. This is true even for emotional and important things like abortion, gun control, health care access, and the like; I might not think you’re correct about some issue, but I understand why you think what you do.

But some positions I cannot understand. I don’t see how any honest, informed person could favor banning marijuana use but not alcohol use, for instance. The current intellectual property regime in the United States can only be understood as a protection racket designed to keep profits for the connected, still in existence only because great benefits go to a motivated few while small costs are paid by a less informed multitude.

The Confederate flag on the South Carolina capitol is, to me, such an issue. I have not, and can’t imagine, a fair and legitimate argument as to why the state should keep the Confederate flag flying. So I am asking in all honesty, if you’ve seen a real argument for keeping the flag – not one you or I necessarily agree with, but just one of any kind – please tell me, here or on the twitters.

Some wrong answers:

“Taking down the flag won’t end racism.” / “This discussion distracts from other more important issues.” True and maybe true but also entirely irrelevant to the question of whether or not South Carolina should fly the Confederate flag at the capitol.

“The Civil War was not about slavery.” This is totally wrong, but it doesn’t matter. The Confederate flag has become a symbol for white supremacy, the same way that swastikas or those SS Lightning Bolts have. It doesn’t matter whether it meant white supremacy before (although it did). If you really believe the Confederacy was not about white supremacy, then don’t use what has become a symbol of white supremacy. Even if done for noble reasons (and it wasn’t), the Confederacy was a revolt against the legitimate democratic government of the United States, and as such should not be a part of current government symbolism.

“Slavery existed in the North.” / “White northerners profited from slavery, then turned against it.” / “The North didn’t start the war to end slavery.” / “White northerners are as racist as white southerners.” / “Abraham Lincoln was racist.” This may all be true but is also entirely irrelevant to the Confederate flag today.

“You shouldn’t ban the Confederate flag, that’s censorship.” It’s not censorship for the state government to no longer promote something. If it became illegal to buy, sell, or possess a Confederate flag, then I would agree that it’s an objectionable law, just like I disapprove of censoring all sorts of loathsome other things. It’s probably useful to have it at museums or battlefields. I don’t think it should banned at private memorials to the Confederacy, although these too are deeply distasteful.

“The Confederate flag is a symbol of the bravery and honor of my ancestors.” Many Confederates were doubtlessly very brave, but it’s also true that many acts of heroism are done for wicked causes.

“The Confederate flag is a symbol of the South.” Well, the white South. If you want to include everyone, find something a bit more universal. I would personally go with something Moon Pie and R C Cola themed, but sweet tea would work, too.

“Outsiders shouldn’t tell South Carolina what to do.” Outsiders are perfectly free to tell South Carolina what to do. I agree that outsiders should not physically compel South Carolina to take down the flag; the state’s population is free to do any number of hateful things. But you have the right and indeed the moral obligation to correct such behavior through admonition and example.

“I like the flag because it upsets lefties/liberals/the politically correct/Yankees/race baiters/etc.” This makes you a bad person, or at least kind of a jerk, and spite is not a good reason for any given policy. Also, I am a lifelong southerner, indeed a native and resident of the Deep South for my entire life. Pretending that the Confederate flag only bothers a small portion of the population, or that it represents a large portion of the South, is part of what got us here.