H.W. Crocker III: You want a restoration of America? You want more faithful, patriotic Americans? You want a happier America? Emulate Robert E. Lee.
Do you remember “good ole boys”? They liked fast cars, long-legged women, and ballcaps with Confederate battle flags. I certainly do – and I grew up in California. In the 1990s, I wrote speeches for the governor in Sacramento. Every Sunday, I had brunch at the same Mexican restaurant; and every Sunday I parked next to a car decked out like the “Robert E. Lee” from The Dukes of Hazzard. I never found out who drove that car, but I admired it; my own key chain had a laminated mini-Confederate battle flag on it; and it was not unusual in northern California to see the battle flag on the grills of big-rig truckers.
Around then, Ken Burns’s PBS series, The Civil War, was a television sensation. It was a liberal take on the war, but as was traditional back then, that meant taking the Southern point of view seriously, even sympathetically. The star of the show, whose sweet molasses drawl won many admirers, was historian Shelby Foote, who was partial to the Confederacy.
But oh, how times have changed. These days, Critical Race Theory dominates all, and its anti-American rage – abetted by Democrat politicians and more than a few Republicans – has torn down not just Confederate memorials, but the reputations and representations of Columbus, the Founders, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and just about every other former American hero conceivably at odds with “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.”
It should have come as no surprise – except to clueless conservatives – that as Confederate names come off military bases, schools, and streets, “pride” flags go running up the flagpole at every level of government, including the White House.
The Left’s objective is not just to eradicate regional pride and patriotism (now, at its lowest ebb ever). It’s not just to snap our nation’s mystic chord of memory (though if you want to revolutionize society, that helps). It’s not just to deny the military valor, genius, and sacrifice of Southern soldiers, which formerly inspired Americans North and South alike (Theodore Roosevelt, among others, reminded us that we, as a country, had the “proud right” to claim as our own “the glory won alike by those who wore the blue and by those who wore the gray. . .for both fought with equal bravery and equal sincerity of conviction, each striving for the light as it was given him to see the light”).
No, fundamentally, the Left hates Confederate monuments (and memorials to the Founders and other traditional heroes) because materialist Marxism’s ultimate enemy is Christianity, and the torn-down statues celebrated Christian men: men who put duty above self, who prayed, who believed in self-sacrifice, righteousness, service, and heroism (and recognized it in others), who trusted in God and relished life as a gift.
During the Civil War, many observers noted how Confederate soldiers, despite every misery they faced, remained carefree, happy, and resolute. They were, in fact, good ole boys. They certainly offer a stark contrast to today’s young men and women, who are the most anxious, depressed, shallow, irreligious, unpatriotic, and immoral generation in American history, even though they have I-phones, Instagram, and computer games.
Confederate officers and their men not only expressed themselves – in their correspondence or recorded conversations – better than most people today, but they knew their place in the universe. They knew what a man is and what a woman is. They understood (and for the most part tried to follow) the basics of Christian morality. They knew (or thought they did) their rights under the Constitution. They knew that patriotism and defense of hearth, home, and family were positive goods.
Chesterton wrote that “the men signed of the cross of Christ / Go gaily in the dark.” The Southern men marching beneath the Cross of Saint Andrew certainly understood that. In the words of historian Clifford Dowdey, they lived in “an age in which men held heroic concepts of life and its meaning.”
Their lives were infused with a sense of purpose. The standard to which they aspired was one of Christian heroism. And they saw that standard exemplified most especially in a man like Robert E. Lee.
While Lee is now a subject of leftist disparagement, he is, actually, the perfect antidote to the anomie and alienation of today’s young people. In a world of self-centeredness (so self-centered that young people invent “gender identities” and demand that society affirm them), Lee is the great counterexample.
When a young mother asked Robert E. Lee what she should teach her infant son, he said: “Teach him to deny himself.” Not “teach him self-expression” or “teach him self-esteem” or “teach him that good boys don’t make history.” No, “teach him to deny himself” – and to take on his duty to serve others.
For young people who are depressed or anxious (or eager to claim some sort of victim status), Lee offers the advice of a Christian realist: “Shake off those gloomy feelings. Drive them away. . . .Live in the world you inhabit. Look upon things as they are. Take them as you find them. Make the best of them. Turn them to your advantage.” He believed that God would, in the fullness of time, turn all things right. Our duty, in the meantime, was to do the best we could.
To his daughter Mildred, Lee wrote, “The struggle which you describe you experience between doing what you ought and what you desire is common to all. You have only always to do what is right. It will become easier by practice, and you will enjoy in the midst of your trials the pleasure of an approving conscience. That will be worth everything else.”
All the strange social contagions of our time – tattooing and piercing and dying one’s hair green or pink, becoming an alphabet person, and all the rest – are all about expressing one’s alleged self by conforming to what everyone else is doing. That’s why nearly 40 percent of Brown University’s students now claim to be in the grip of some sort of sexual perversity (which also, of course, raises their social standing in a tacitly anti-Christian society). It’s what drives the Left’s war on free political speech. It’s why the Left will never leave conservatives alone. Because the Left is about conformity.
That’s why we need young people to be true rebels again – to recognize that they need to be in rebellion against the world, the flesh, and the devil; to raise the rebel flag in favor of faith, family, and God.
Years ago, I was summoned by a trio of nuns to visit them at their monastery. I assumed they wanted to talk to me about my recently published history of the Catholic Church, Triumph. I was wrong. One of them said, “Oh, yes, of course, we all love Triumph, but what we really wanted to talk to you about was your book Robert E. Lee on Leadership.”
“Lee,” I reminded them, “was an Episcopalian, not a Catholic.”
“Well,” one of them said, “he’s a Catholic now.”
You want a restoration of America? You want more faithful, patriotic Americans? You want a happier America? Then we need to consign Critical Race Theory – and every other attendant aspect of cultural Marxism – to the rubbish bin, and return our nation’s traditional heroes to their pedestals. We need to teach Christian morality and heroism. We need to incorporate them into our own lives. And we need, with God’s grace, to become joyful rebels again.
You may also enjoy:
Anthony Esolen’s Remember the Boys
Brad Miner’s The End of Memory
H.W. Crocker III
H.W Crocker III is a popular historian and novelist. His classic bestseller Robert E. Lee on Leadership has just been reissued in paperback
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