On Heritage and the Sequoia named Robert E. Lee

Fresno Bee, June 21, 2020

Most Americans are ready to bury symbols of white supremacy. Let’s be done, already, with Confederate flags and rebel generals. Does anyone really care anymore about Braxton Bragg, Henry Lewis Benning, or Robert E. Lee, some of the Confederate generals whose names are fixed to American military bases?

But the president has resisted calls to purge these names. He said, “We must build upon our heritage, not tear it down.”

When someone uses a collective pronoun, it’s worth asking who is included and excluded. What counts as “our” heritage?

Is Robert E. Lee really one of “us”? He picked the wrong side and lost. How odd that we continue to immortalize him, 150 years after the fall of Dixie.

I thought about all of this while standing beneath two sequoia trees named for Robert E. Lee. The Robert E. Lee Tree is in Grant Grove up in Kings Canyon National Park. Down the road in Sequoia National Park stands the General Lee.

The General Lee is up the trail from the General Sherman Tree, the largest tree on Earth. The Sherman Tree is named for a victorious Union general. But this was not always its name. The utopian socialists of the Kaweah Colony originally called it Karl Marx.

General Lee
General Lee in Giant Forest, Sequoia National Park

The trees are indifferent to their names. They are thousands of years old. And unless we utterly destroy the ecosystem of the Sierra Nevada, these groves will endure long after the United States and its generals are forgotten.

The view from the sequoia groves is enlightening. These magnificent trees open a larger and more inclusive prospect. Our squabbles look absurd from the standpoint of millennia. The giant trees make racism and nationalism seem sadly short-sighted.

We are part of a system that exceeds the human imagination. Our true heritage includes the ancient sunlight trapped in the sequoia’s flesh. But the stories we tell remain narrow and cramped. And we seem incapable of telling the full tale of our heritage.

The U.S. is a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the idea that all persons are created equal. But Native Americans were dispossessed. Slaves were only counted as three-fifths of a person. Mormons were driven out of American states. California was taken away from Mexico. And Marxists lived in the Sierra Nevada.

Our story is complex and evolving. But often the idea of “our heritage” is used to invoke a mystical idea about identity and belonging, blood and soil. This simply does not work in a diverse nation of immigrants, some of whom came here as slaves.

Many people are fascinated by heritage. They get genetic tests and trace out family lineage. I suppose this is fun. But the heritage game is not fun for everyone. Many hyphenated Americans — Irish-Americans, Japanese-Americans, or Mexican-Americans — trace their lineage back to those who chose to come here from “the old country.” This story is not so pleasant for African-Americans.

Perhaps it is time to be done with the idea of heritage. The historian David Lowenthal argued over 20 years ago that heritage is a dangerous idea. Heritage is not history. It is, rather, a mythical and politicized interpretation of the past. It is a fable that resists critical analysis. Lowenthal explained, “heritage exaggerates and omits, candidly invents and frankly forgets, and thrives on ignorance and error.”

A walk among the sequoia offers a cure. The vantage point of millennia teaches that life is fragile and diverse. The ancient trees remind us to embrace as much of life as we can, while we can. Nothing lasts forever. Not even these giants.

Nor do the sequoia know hatred, resentment, or intolerance. These trees do not belong to a party or a people. They have welcomed birds and butterflies for 2,000 years. This is a symbol of something inclusive, lasting, and strong.

And if the Robert E. Lee trees are ever renamed — perhaps after Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez, as I might suggest — the trees themselves will remain indifferent. Heroes and nations come and go. The natural world is more substantial than any human heritage. And history is more interesting than the myths we tell ourselves about who we are and where we came from.

Nostalgia, Gay Marriage, and the Confederate Flag

Nostalgia a poor guide for morality as understanding of justice evolves

Fresno Bee, July 10, 2015

  • Gay marriage and the Confederate flag prompt reflection on historical progress
  • The sense of moral decline is misplaced
  • Let’s celebrate civility and rational discourse

d6af3df478bb4f439581a80d5d541c36-843fe42fa3174b008d1aeb7eb6abf6f2-0A June Gallup poll found that 72% of Americans believe that our morals are “getting worse.” Similar majorities have complained about moral decay every year since Gallup began asking the question in 2002. Another recent poll by the Wall Street Journalconfirmed that a majority of Americans are worried about “moral decline.”

Moral declinism — to coin a phrase for the sense of moral decadence — has a long history. The ancient Jewish prophets warned of moral decay. The Greeks accused Socrates of corrupting the youth. Ancient Chinese philosophers imagined a lost era of true men and virtuous kings.

Change is often greeted with skepticism and nostalgia. We have a tendency to view the past through rose-colored glasses. We pine for the supposed simplicity of the family home. We are homesick for a mythical time when things were purer, easier and better.

Nostalgia is, however, a poor guide for morality. There is no perfect past this side of Eden. Indeed, many are happy to leave the past behind, especially when the past includes injustice and oppression.

Consider the demise of the Confederate flag. Some Southerners may be nostalgic for the antebellum South. But most Americans understand the rebel flag as a sign of an oppressive history and view its fall as a progressive development.

Or consider the gay marriage debate. Some, like the Rev. Franklin Graham, have described acceptance of homosexuality as a sign of “the moral decline we are seeing manifest daily around us.” But for homosexuals, these are times of moral progress.

The Supreme Court’s decision to legalize gay marriage explained that the institution of marriage “has evolved over time.” It argues that we must learn from history, “without allowing the past alone to rule the present.”

Opponents reject the idea that marriage can or should evolve. Chief Justice Roberts argued in his dissent that marriage “has formed the basis of human society for millennia.” Justice Alito added, in his dissent, that gay marriage is “contrary to long-established tradition.”

But tradition is not a sufficient guide to morality. The mere fact that something is old does not mean that it is good. Slavery is as old as the Bible. Its longevity is no justification.

The same point can be made with regard to new developments. New things are not better simply because of their novelty.

The key to moral progress is independent moral judgment based upon respect for human dignity. And the best method of making progress is dignified and rational critique. We reconstruct our values by trying to understand what matters and why.

Human beings are not perfectly wise, and human institutions are not perfectly just. We evaluate and improve things by criticizing them. Enlightened social progress results from reasonable civil discourse. Genuine moral progress must be grounded in good arguments that every citizen can understand.

Claims about a culture in decline are dangerous when they fuel the fires of social conflict. Indeed, some have warned about a newly emerging “culture war.” But the war metaphor is not helpful. Fundamentalists in some parts of the world take up arms to stifle dissent and preserve irrational traditions. Value conflicts can quickly escalate and become bloody.

We should reject the notion that Americans engage in culture wars. We argue and debate — and obey the rule of law, which allows us to agree to disagree. Moral argument is complicated and difficult. And some will be unhappy as change occurs. But in our system, social change happens without recourse to the blunt instruments of violence and war.

Instead of lamenting moral decline, let’s rejoice at the role of rational argumentation in American public life. Since the bloody civil war of the 1860s, moral development in the U.S. has happened in the courts, in Congress and through nonviolent civil disobedience. That’s moral progress.

We should, however, worry about a decline in civility and rational deliberation. Internet subcultures are filled with hateful speech — and terrible arguments. Some malicious morons turn hate speech into murder. Other citizens simply tune out. The solution to that problem is obvious. We have to teach our children to be more reasonable. And we should celebrate the fact that rational argument and civil discourse still guide our public life.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/religion/article26922784.html#storylink=cpy