A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

The Fight to Control the Narratives of History

Monday night I watched the PBS documentary on Robert E. Lee. It was well done and informative. I learned some things about Lee that I did not know before, such as his obsession with discipline and his desire to excel and to be the best he could be as a military cadet and eventually an officer. I knew he was quite intelligent, but I had no idea how intelligent he truly was. I also learned that Lee believed slavery was a necessary evil and that slaves were better off in America as slaves than in Africa as free persons. This in an important point because there is a narrative in existence that tells a different story-- the story of a Virginia gentleman who called slavery a great evil and who fought for the Confederacy only because he could not draw his sword on his native Virginia. It turns out that such mythology is based on a letter written by Lee to his wife Mary Custis Lee on December 27, 1856 with certain quotes taken out of context. Here is the full quotation of the germane portion of the letter:

In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country.

It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things.

How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence. Their emancipation will sooner result from the mild & melting influence of Christianity, than the storms & tempests of fiery Controversy. This influence though slow, is sure. The doctrines & miracles of our Saviour have required nearly two thousand years, to Convert but a small part of the human race, & even among Christian nations, what gross errors still exist!

While we see the Course of the final abolition of human Slavery is onward, & we give it the aid of our prayers & all justifiable means in our power, we must leave the progress as well as the result in his hands who sees the end; who Chooses to work by slow influences; & with whom two thousand years are but as a Single day. Although the Abolitionist must know this, & must See that he has neither the right or power of operating except by moral means & suasion, & if he means well to the slave, he must not Create angry feelings in the Master; that although he may not approve the mode which it pleases Providence to accomplish its purposes, the result will nevertheless be the same; that the reasons he gives for interference in what he has no Concern, holds good for every kind of interference with our neighbors when we disapprove their Conduct; Still I fear he will persevere in his evil Course.

So while Lee viewed slavery as an evil that would one day end, he believed that it was currently necessary as a way to teach blacks to finally learn one day to govern for themselves. Moreover, he viewed its abolishment before the time of God's Providence as detrimental to the "white race." Thus he not only supported the continuance of the institution of slavery, he was willing to fight for its preservation until the time when Providence would dictate otherwise. Lee clearly saw the North as forcing God's hand on the slavery.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War. This month 150 years ago South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas seceded from the Union. We Americans seem to have a fascination, a love affair, and an obsession with the War Between the State. The reasons for this is for another post at another time, but over the next four years as we perhaps focus more intently once again on that extremely bloody period in American history, we will also find that there will be a fight to control the narrative that not only explains the Civil War, but American history before and since.

A week ago, friend and blogger, Bob Cornwall published a very thoughtful post on remembering the Civil War without the spin. While I quibbled with him somewhat in the post, his main point was spot on-- the reason for the Civil War was first and foremost centered on the issue of slavery. And while states rights was a narrative swirling in the air before, during, and after the war, the South went its own way and was willing to commit its sons to war because of the singular issue of slavery. And anyone who attempts to downplay that narrative is indeed spinning the history.

Thankfully, most of us have long abandoned the idea that history is nothing more than places, eventss and dates, a simple explications of happenings in Sgt. Joe Friday mode of "give us the facts, Ma'am." History has meaning, but the meaning is not always clear. History and narrative are inextricably related. One cannot extract one from the other and make any sense of the events that change the lives of many.

Of course, there are those large narratives of history that are so obvious it is hard to imagine that anyone could or would contest them. Slavery as the cause of the Civil War is one of them. But the true difficulties we encounter in history are not the clear and obvious stories, but the more ambiguous narratives, the mixture of good and bad, the complexity of happenings and actions. Does the fact that General Lee fought in favor of a great evil, a terrible blemish on the face of American history, mean that we can say nothing good about him? And in order to say anything good about him, do we need to try to sanitize the obvious history and make the War Between the States about something other than what is so obvious from history? How do we measure the life of any woman or man-- individuals who are frail and stuck in their time even though they have the possibility of transcending the limitations of their culture, morals, and values? And what about us? When our lives end, how do we want others to measure us-- we who are frail and who are also stuck in our time and its culture with its morals and yet given the possibility of moving beyond them?

The great temptation for all of us is to read history in a way that confirms our own convictions, our own agendas. We do this not only in what we affirm, but also in what we attempt to deny. Perhaps the first step in looking at our history truthfully is to admit that in the midst of the obvious good and evil, there is also an ambiguity to life, to events, to people that simply cannot be summarized in a brief paragraph. Perhaps in order to understand the history that makes us who we are, we need to sideline our politics in favor of a reading of history that affirms and yet challenges, embraces our victories and owns our defeats.

The old adage is indeed true-- those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Those who win control over the narratives of history will either learn from its story or live it all over again.

May it be the former.


chuck tackett said...

Very nice post Allan, thank you. I disgree with one aspect of your interpretion of Lee's letter, reading it to say that Lee views slavery, not its abolition, as a greater evil to whites than blacks. However, that's not really the point I wanted to raise.

I completely agree with your sentiment on how we view history and narrative and that's probably one of my biggest struggles with our current political process. I question, though, how much we should be worrying about the measurement of people, including ourselves, focusing more on measuring events.

We tend, as a culture, to focus on the people in events, making them into heroes or villains. Often they become the primary story. It may be a natural human tendancy but I think it's one we need to discipline ourselves to avoid. I believe that we get much better results when we focus on the events more than the people.

Sharp said...

Excellent post!

I am a devoted Lee buff, having read on him since I was a wee lad. I was raised with the narrative of The Lost Cause and states rights, etc. and Lee was definitely a Christ-figure in our household. My dad even shares Lee's birthday! In the intervening decades I've gained a more balanced flawed-but-admirable-man-of-his-times estimation of him.

Lee's legacy is a perfect case of the narrative-controlling impulses of the factions you describe so well. It became de rigeur in the 1970s and 80s to demonize and revise him. Perhaps it was a necessary corrective to the unchecked apotheosis he'd enjoyed for a century after his death. But I'm happy to say there has been a bit of a balance restored in the past 15 years or so. (I'd recommend Emory Thomas's Lee bio as representative of this approach.)

Lee was a remarkably fascinating man, an enigma to this day. Certainly a study in perfectionism and discipline but, above all, 19th century ideals of duty and honor. His whole life is a monument to trying to live down the failures of his father by attempting to have none of his own. It was a form of reverse filial piety that produced great achievements but also doomed him to lifelong melancholy.

Note: Chuck is correct. Lee was saying slavery itself was the worse evil for whites, presumably because they were "forced" (?) to enslave fellow humans for their own good. I'm sure the average slave would disagree but I'm just trying to describe the mindset.

Allan R. Bevere said...

Chuck and Sharp, thanks for your comments and also your corrective on my misreading of Lee.

Robert Cornwall said...


Thanks for this post -- and to your commenters -- I'm sure Lee was a complex man, who had both good and bad points to him, but let's not let him off too easily on the slavery issue. He may have seen slavery as a necessary evil for the "civilizing" of the Black race, but that doesn't make it right, any more than the idea that putting Native Americans on Reservations or Japanese in internment camps was for their own good!

These next 5 years will give us much opportunity to ferret out the various aspects of the War between the States!

Of course, I'm a Union Man!!

Allan R. Bevere said...

Bob, an excellent point, and I have no desire to let Lee off the hook. What I was trying to suggest was that history is a complex thing and so are human beings. Nevertheless, we can also sort through the complexity in order to draw clear conclusions about right and wrong, good and evil. Just like us today Lee was in some sense "trapped" so to speak in his context, but he also had the means to transcend it just as John Wesley did a century before Lee to condemn slavery in no uncertain terms. And, yes, his idea that slavery was a means to the civilization of blacks is nonsense, and there were many in his day who stated as such. Of course, there were many in those days who wondered whether African Americans were smart enough to govern and lead and create a civilization. Abraham Lincoln was one of them. The Great Benefactor of the slaves doubted whether as a race they were equal to whites. Of course, Lincoln was dead wrong, but such are the complexities and unfortunate foibles of history.

I am trying to resist both extremes-- one using the complexities of history to muddy the waters so that we can be agnostic on right and wrong, good and evil, and the other ignoring the complexities so that one does not have to engage the kinds of facts what one would prefer to ignore.

Bruce said...

This is interesting. Controling the Historical Narrative is closely related to controling the Theological Narrative. Reiger, who wrote Remember the Poor, raises this issue by using the phrase, the underside of history. Herzog also raised the issue when considering "southern" religion to civil religion that leaves no room for the black, poor, and other people living on the edges of society.