Rewriting History: Addressing the English Department Statement on Lee

Rewriting History: Addressing the English Department Statement on Lee

by Ben Gee '18

On September 6, 2017, Washington and Lee’s English Department released a statement on the unsettlingly recent violence that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia. The Department’s declaration incited a prolonged, uneasy debate across social media and throughout W&L’s international community of alumni, students, and staff, with contributions often mutually strained by heightened emotion and harsh words. Near the controversial statement’s conclusion, the English faculty called for a civil, candid discussion of our past: “The trauma at the University of Virginia, intimately linked to us both in space and in our shared burden of history, requires discussion guided by reason rather than reverence, compassion rather than nostalgia.” This statement challenges us to rise and meet the principles that we cherish. Here is one student’s attempt to do so.

As an English major at Washington and Lee, I have been taught by most of the Professors that signed their names to the Department’s declaration. In opposition to any ad hominem criticisms leveled at the English faculty, I wish to firmly state at the onset my highest respect for their professionalism, academic expertise, and pedagogical ability. In drafting and promulgating a statement on Charlottesville, the English faculty duly exerted their academic and personal freedoms of expression, rights of paramount importance to any thriving Republic. Regardless of one’s position on the statement’s arguments, the basic justification for the English Department to present its view on matters is beyond question. Literature has always intertwined with politics, as the careers of writers so far apart as Edmund Spenser and Alice Walker can readily attest. I raise no objection to the statement’s existence, nor to the spirit of civic engagement that prompted its composition.

However, several specific claims made by the English Department deserve more critical consideration. In discussing the responsibility to provide a safe learning environment, the statement reads:

"We affirm our commitment to making a safe space for difficult, serious conversations with students in our classrooms and offices, because being silent is not an option. Yet freedom of expression does not authorize emotional and physical violence. The rhetoric and iconography of white supremacy has no place in the academy."

As elsewhere in the statement, its clarity suffers from a deliberate lack of specificity; in lieu of making any explicit recommendations for the problems it identifies, the statement mainly trades in generalities. This careful ambiguity may shield the Department from taking any stands on policy, but it also obscures the meaning of highly charged sentences, including the following: “Yet freedom of expression does not authorize emotional or physical violence.” What does this mean, in the broader context of Washington and Lee, a small liberal arts University blessed with incredibly safe campus conditions relative to other colleges? Politically-charged violence is essentially nonexistent at W&L, unlike colleges including Evergreen, Berkeley, Middlebury and others at which incorrect political beliefs pose an active threat to a speaker’s physical well-being. What, then, do they mean by alluding to violence at W&L?

            The likely answer is “emotional violence,” a highly-contested term they leave undefined and unelaborated, save for a perfunctory mention. “Emotional violence” hints at the idea that words can be purveyors of violence, an enormously harmful mindset explained at great length in a seminal 2015 essay by NYU social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. If words are violence, then all speech becomes vulnerable to being perceived as violent and therefore censurable, thereby shedding the First Amendment’s invaluable protection of individual speech. We find emotional violence in the next sentence: “The rhetoric and iconography of white supremacy has no place in the academy.” Once again, “rhetoric… of white supremacy” and “iconography of white supremacy” are left undefined, but it is evident from the statement that the English Department considers Robert E. Lee and his memorials, both in word and substance, as redolent with the emotional violence-inducing oppression of white supremacy. According to this view, Lee Chapel, with its splendid marble tomb, commits emotional violence on passers-by; Lee-Jackson House and the President’s House each pose a threat to students’ well-being. Notes of respect and praise towards Lee, including two approving references from President Dudley this week on the morning of his inauguration, also represent a kind of insidious Lost-Cause-fueled emotional violence visited upon W&L’s historically underrepresented.

            We must not make the mistake of affirming and policing emotional violence, because doing so compromises the fundamental right to free expression by effacing the significant difference between physical violence (or the trauma of prolonged relationship abuse) and mere offense. To criticize Washington and Lee University’s tendency to unreflectingly hold Robert E. Lee in a place of institutional reverence is fine, but to equate his memorials and positive invocations with open agents of white supremacy (and thus, violence) undermines the very civil conversation that the English statement purports to advise.

            The subject of Robert E. Lee is the most hotly contested of all, the great touchstone for our anxiety between our appreciation of our past and aspirations for the future. The English Department delivered a stinging rebuke of Lee’s exalted place in our University’s consciousness:

"If it were ever right to celebrate the contributions of Robert E. Lee as an educator, that time is past. Lee’s primary association, to many Americans and across the world, is with white supremacy… Perhaps there are ways to mark Lee’s history with the university while acknowledging the damage he committed, and that continues to be perpetrated under his banner—but we have not accomplished this yet. Clearly we have hard work to do."

Firstly, why must Lee be regarded as a white supremacist simply because many people consider him to be one? Lee’s legacy should be evaluated on its own merits, independently of what the public considers Lee’s defining characteristics. In 2016, scholars noted with dismay how Jane Austen had become a favorite author for several demagogues on the alt-right; however, Austen’s reputation thankfully did not suffer for this sudden popularity because she was wrongfully appropriated by foolish people with dangerous opinions. The case for a link between Lee and white supremacy is stronger, but we should make this determination on our own. The Civil War remains the most partisan conflict in American history, and to some extent we all act as armchair historians at times in misguided attempts to settle contemporary political arguments - but this temptation only underscores the need to approach the Civil War with caution, humility, and deference to scholarly expertise.

Washington and Lee University has historically been uniquely able to cling to Robert E. Lee’s legacy, an honor stemming from his five-year, transformative tenure as the President of the then-struggling Washington College. Had Lee not accepted the position, the College almost certainly would have ended bankrupt, and all of us would now be other places, having different conversations. The school’s survival, its honor system, academic programs, and much else derive from Lee’s indelible impact. His great influence on the school, along with the fact of his interment in the vault of Lee Chapel alongside his family, are both sources for solemn gratitude towards this former general and late-life educator.

            However, like in all matters of historical dispute, Robert E. Lee is more complicated than most of us care to acknowledge. His life paints a pair of parallel, starkly contradictory portraits - one of modest nobility and another, equally potent, of oppression and racial paternalism. Faced with a decision between his loyalties to the Union and his home state of Virginia, a decision even his most critical biographers describe as “agonizing,” Lee ultimately chose to deny his country rather than invade his state, giving his service to a rebellion founded on the singular, overriding principle of slavery’s preservation. After the war, he resolved to live in humble obscurity, avoiding public life to do his part in his nation’s rehabilitation – hence, Lee’s impactful arrival at Washington College just four months after Appomattox. While at Washington College, however, Lee did little to suppress a student chapter of the Ku Klux Klan that actively persecuted African-Americans and hindered reconstruction. Lee’s views on slavery were critical and denunciatory, but he also possessed a persistent belief that America’s white population was superior and that black Americans lacked readiness for political autonomy. He was known to treat his compatriots with kindness, and his disobedient slaves with brutality; condemn confederate guerilla resistance after the Civil War, but remain silent in the face of racist persecutions in the quasi-reconstructed South; serve the United States with bravery and distinction in the Mexican-American War, but fight strenuously against it two decades later. Lee’s legacy, even his educational record at Washington and Lee, is imbued with a kind of grimness from which we cannot escape. Nor should we ignore it, if we are to truly understand our past and seek to reconcile it with our visions of the future.

            The English Department’s statement claims that we can no longer honor Lee for his educational legacy at W&L, which is tantamount to calling for his complete removal from the honor of a college he revitalized. Because their statement remains doggedly (and frustratingly) ambiguous, the extent of the faculty’s opposition to Lee remains unclear, but the natural and logical extension of their argument entails the removal of Lee’s name from the University’s title, and his namesake chapel facing major changes in the least.

I disagree with the uncompromising extremity of this conclusion. For all of Lee’s many historical complications, the troubling beliefs and actions that stain his career even as an educator, there ought to be a fully fleshed conversation, with more solutions considered, than a mere effacement of Lee from the University. Lee ought to remain, but in what capacity, there is yet room to determine. I do not intend to suggest that Robert E. Lee is unworthy of honor, but only that if we do resolve to continue to honor him, a more complete picture of the person behind the recumbent marble mask in Lee Chapel ought to emerge. Destroying history is a tyrannical act, but augmenting history is a liberating one.

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