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Why I've Been Looking at the Greatness of Robert E. Lee

By   Follow Me on Twitter     Message Andrew Bard Schmookler     Permalink
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Much of my work the past four years was devoted to calling the attention of my countrymen to the unmistakable pattern of evil --lies, crimes, war-mongering, sadism, greed, divisiveness, shredding of agreements-- being manifested by a pernicious group of people who'd risen to hold the highest offices in the land.  The worst of humanity's potentialities were thus displayed.

But along the way, I also took some time to appreciate some of the more splendid examples of humankind.  One of those exemplars whom I studied, and about whom I wrote, was the great German man of letters, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe—not only a creative genius but also a splendid specimen of a human being.  (See for example ‘Enthusiasm is "the God Within": Part of Goethe's Admirable Gift,’ at .) 

More recently, I took some time to explore America’s reputedly greatest president, Abraham Lincoln.  (See, for example, “Lincoln's Empathic Approach: A Passage from A TEAM OF RIVALS by Doris Kearns Goodwin,” at .)

And of course, in this same category of greatness I would propose (at least tentatively) the inclusion of Barack Obama-- at least so he has impressed me to this point, after more than a year of watching him very closely.

In the past few weeks, I've begun exploring the life of another American who also seems to me deserving of inclusion on this list of exceptionally fine human beings:  Robert E. Lee.


Last summer I moved back to an area I lived in a decade before, in Virginia.  Moreover, I live in a very conservative part of Virginia.  Out here in the Shenandoah Valley, I regularly do radio shows discussing the issues of our times. 

I’d done this radio work here most enjoyable through the 90s, but during the just-ended Bushite era, doing radio discussions on political matters was often, to put it mildly, a challenge-- and one not always pleasant to meet.  A large proportion of my listeners --and of the callers to those shows-- have been among those Americans who gave George W. Bush their full and enthusiastic support.  Many of them have also spent hundreds, or even thousands, of hours having their thoughts and feelings shaped under the influence of the likes of Rush Limbaugh.  The dark forces that have arisen on the "conservative" side of the American spectrum have brought out some of the least appealing of these people's potentialities, the "worse" angels of their nature.

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All this has left me with two challenges.  The more obvious one is that I'm looking for ways to appeal to their better angels.  And the other, more personal, is that I'm looking for ways to feel good about living among these Bushite supporters.  I had a great feeling about it back in the 1990s, but these years of proto-fascist darkness have left a bitter and sour taste in my mouth regarding the conservative strains of the culture hereabouts.

With respect to both those goals, it seems important to declare here once again that I do not believe that any side in our cultural divisions has a monopoly on goodness.  As I see it, there are aspects of the true and the good and the beautiful to be found on both sides.  In other words, I do not believe in reducing these Bushite supporters to the dark side of them that's recently been elicited by their ill-chosen leadership.

That's where Lee comes in.

My impression, from my limited knowledge of Lee, is that if there's any single figure in history who embodies the best of the Virginia culture, it would be Robert E. Lee.  So I decided to study up on Lee to see if he did indeed deserve this image as the ideal Virginian.

If he did prove to be admirable, that would help me to appreciate better the culture in which I am embedded.  And if he did prove to be an exemplar, his example might also prove useful in calling my Virginian neighbors to their better selves.

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Lee, I've now discovered, is indeed an admirable figure.  Perhaps there's a bit of Southern hagiography going on in some of what I read, but he seems to have been genuinely a man of admirable character:  complete integrity, thoroughly a gentleman, possessed of diverse and considerable gifts, and a man of great heart.

He's also cut from very different cloth from me, a man who is on the other side of many of the cultural lines that dissect American culture. 

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Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is (more...)

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