Allan C. Brownfeld
Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which is The Revolution Lobby (Council for Inter-American Security). He has been a staff aide to a U.S. vice president, members of Congress, and the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee. He is associate editor of The Lincoln Review, and a contributing editor to Human Events, The St. Croix Review, and The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.
The Attack on Robert E. Lee Is an Assault on American History Itself
Early in February, the City Council of Charlottesville, Virginia, voted 3-2 to remove a bronze equestrian monument to Robert E. Lee that stands in a downtown park named in his honor. Vice Mayor Wes Bellamy, the council’s only African American member, led the effort to remove the statue. In the end, this vote may be largely symbolic. Those opposed to the statue’s removal intend to file a lawsuit and point to a state statute that says Virginia cities have no authority over the war memorials they inherited from past generations. “If such are erected,” the law reads, “it shall be unlawful for the authorities of the locality, or any other person or persons, to disturb or interfere with any monuments or memorials so erected.”
The attack on the Robert E. Lee statue is, in reality, an attack on American history itself. It has been suggested that the Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial are inappropriate, since they celebrate men who owned slaves. Those who seek to erase our history seem a bit like the Taliban and ISIS, who are busy destroying historic structures all over the Middle East if they predate the rise of Islam. History is what it is, a mixed bag of mankind’s strengths and weaknesses, of extraordinary achievements and the most horrible depredations. To judge the men and women of past eras by today’s standards is to be guilty of what the Quaker theologian Elton Trueblood called the “sin of contemporaneity.”
Those who refer to slavery as America’s “original sin” should review history. Sadly, from the beginning of recorded history until the 19th century, slavery was the way of the world. When the U.S. Constitution was written in 1787, slavery was legal everyplace in the world. What was unique was that in the American colonies there was a strenuous objection to slavery and that the most prominent framers of the Constitution wanted to eliminate it at the very start of the nation.
Our Judeo-Christian tradition, many now forget, accepted the legitimacy of slavery. The Old Testament regulates the relationship between master and slave in great detail. In Leviticus (XXV: 39-55), God instructs the Children of Israel to enslave the heathen and their progeny forever. In the New Testament, St. Paul urges slaves to obey their masters with full hearts and without equivocation. St. Peter urges slaves to obey even unjust orders from their masters.
At the time of its cultural peak, ancient Athens may have had 115,000 slaves to 43,000 citizens. The same is true of Ancient Rome. Plutarch notes that on a single day in the year 167 B.C., 150,000 slaves were sold in a single market. The British historian of classical slavery, Moses I. Finley, writes: “The cities in which individual freedom reached its highest expression — most obviously Athens — were cities in which chattel slavery flourished.”
American history is flawed, as is any human enterprise. Yet those who now call for the removal of statues and monuments commemorating our past are measuring our history against perfection, not against other real places. What other societies in 1787 — or any date in history prior to that time — would these critics find freer and more equitable than ours? Where else was religious freedom to be found in 1787? Compared to perfection, our ancestors are found wanting. Compared to other real places in the world, they were clearly ahead of their time, advancing the frontiers of freedom.
In the case of Robert E. Lee himself, there is more to his story than the Charlottesville City Council may understand. Everyone knows that Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox effectively ended the Civil War. What few remember today is the real heroism of Robert E. Lee. By surrendering, he was violating the orders given by Jefferson Davis, the elected leader of the Confederacy. The story of April 1865 is not just one of decisions made, but also of decisions rejected. Lee’s rejection of continuing the war as a guerrilla battle, the preference of Jefferson Davis, and Grant’s choice to be magnanimous, cannot be overestimated in importance.
With the fall of Richmond, Davis and the Confederate government were often on the run. Davis, writes Prof. Jay Winik in his important book April 1865: The Month That Saved America,
“. . . was thinking about such things as a war of extermination . . . a national war that ruins the enemy. In short, guerrilla resistance. . . . The day after Richmond fell, Davis had called on the Confederacy to shift from a conventional war to a dynamic guerrilla war of attrition, designed to wear down the North and force it to conclude that keeping the South in the Union would not be worth the interminable pain and ongoing sacrifice.”
But Robert E. Lee knew the war was over. Grant was magnanimous in victory and, Winik points out,
“. . . was acutely aware that on this day, what had occurred was the surrender of one army to another — not of one government to another. The war was very much on. There were a number of potentially troubling rebel commanders in the field. And there were still some 175,000 other Confederates under arms elsewhere; one-half in scattered garrisons and the rest in three remaining rebel armies. What mattered now was laying the groundwork for persuading Lee’s fellow armies to join in his surrender — and also for reunion, the urgent matter of making the nation whole again.”
Appomattox was not preordained. “If anything,” notes Winik,
“. . . retribution had been the larger and longer precedent. So, if these moments teemed with hope — and they did — it was largely due to two men who rose to the occasion, to Grant’s and Lee’s respective actions: one general, magnanimous in victory, the other gracious and equally dignified in defeat, the two of them, for their own reasons and in their own ways, fervently interested in beginning the process to bind up the wounds of the last four years. . . . Above all, this surrender defied millenniums of tradition in which rebellions typically ended in yet greater shedding of blood. . . . One need only recall the harsh suppression of the peasants’ revolt in Germany in the 16th century, or the ravages of Alva during the Dutch rebellion, or the terrible punishments inflicted on the Irish by Cromwell, and then on the Scots after Culloden, or the bloodstained vengeance executed during the Napoleonic restoration, or the horrible retaliation imposed during the futile Chinese rebellion in the mid-19th century.”
If it were not for Robert E. Lee’s decision not to blindly follow irrational instructions to keep fighting a guerrilla war indefinitely, the surrender at Appomattox never would have taken place and our nation’s history would have been far different. Fortunately, our American tradition has never embraced the notion of blindly following orders, particularly if they involved illegal or immoral acts. No American could ever escape responsibility for such acts by saying, “I was simply following orders.”
The effort to erase our past, as the Charlottesville City Council proposes, comes about, in large part, because we know so little about our own history. Pulitzer Prize winning historian David McCullough declares that:
“We are raising a generation of people who are historically illiterate. We can’t function in a society if we don’t know who we are and where we came from.”
More than two-thirds of college students and administrators who participated in a national survey were unable to remember that freedom of religion and the press are guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. In surveys conducted at 339 colleges and universities, more than one-fourth of students and administrators did not list freedom of speech as an essential right protected by the First Amendment.
If we judge the past by the standards of today, must we stop reading Plato and Aristotle, Sophocles, and Aristophanes, Dante and Chaucer? Will we soon hear calls to demolish the Acropolis and the Coliseum, as we do to remove memorials to Washington and Jefferson, and statues of Robert E. Lee? Must we abandon the Bible because it lacks modern sensibility? Where will it end? As theologian Elton Trueblood declared, “contemporaneity” is indeed a sin. We would all do well to avoid its embrace.”
Free Speech Is Not Only Under Attack at Our Universities, But “Objective Truth” Itself Is Referred to as a “Racist Construct”
Free speech is not faring well on the nation’s college and university campuses. In mid-April, the University of California at Berkeley canceled a scheduled talk by conservative author Ann Coulter in what The New York Times called “the latest blow to the institution’s legacy and reputation as a promoter and bastion of free speech.” In a letter to the Berkeley College Republicans, which was sponsoring the talk, two vice chancellors said the university had been “unable to find a safe and suitable venue for your April 27 event . . .”
In February, a speech by controversial right-wing writer Milo Yiannopoulos, also sponsored by the College Republicans, was canceled after masked protestors smashed windows, set fires, and pelted the police with rocks. The Washington Post notes that:
“The decisions by U.C.-Berkeley to cancel both events are especially notable given the campus’s role during the 1960s and 1970s as the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement and its long tradition of social protest.”
Throughout the country, assaults on free speech are widespread at our colleges and universities. In March, author Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute was forced to abandon a lecture at Middlebury College in Vermont. The professor who was hosting him, a liberal Democrat, was assaulted. Recently, Notre Dame students said that they felt “unsafe” at the prospect of Vice President Mike Pence speaking at their commencement. In April, the Student Senate at the University of California at Davis voted to remove the American flag from their meetings. One student declared that the flag “represents a history of genocide, slavery and imperialism.”
Things at our universities are becoming increasingly difficult to understand. The Wall Street Journal reports that:
“Every year, Stanford asks its applicants an excellent question: ‘What matters to you, and why?’ Ziad Ahmed of Princeton, N.J. summed up his answer in three words. His essay consisted of the hashtag ‘#BlackLivesMatter’ repeated 100 times. He got in.”
Carrying things to an extreme even unusual for the advocates of political correctness, a group of students at California’s five college Claremont Consortium says that objective truth is itself a “myth” espoused by “white supremacists.” This came after Pomona College President David Oxtoby released a statement in defense of free speech after conservative author Heather MacDonald of the Manhattan Institute had an event disrupted at nearby Claremont McKenna College.
President Oxtoby’s letter was met with a list of demands by minority activist students who called MacDonald “a white supremacist fascist supporter of the police state,” and objective truths, such as those cited in the Declaration of Independence, “a means of silencing oppressed peoples.” The authors, Dray Denson, Avery Jonas, and Shanaya Stephenson, received 22 co-signers. They said that silencing conservative speakers, like MacDonald, whose work has been published widely in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and other newspapers and journals, is a valid option for activists since such speaking engagements constitute “a form of violence.”
During her lecture, MacDonald was attempting to discuss the rise of anti-police attitudes when she was derailed by protestors banging on windows and shouting “F--k The Police” and “Black Lives Matter.” Campus security ultimately forced MacDonald to live stream her lecture from a near-empty room across campus.
In his letter, President Oxtoby wrote that:
“Protest has a legitimate and celebrated place on college campuses. What we cannot support is the act of preventing others from engaging with an invited speaker. Our mission is founded upon the discovery of truth, the collaborative development of knowledge and the betterment of society.”
This call for free speech was rejected by the student protestors. They wrote:
“Free speech, a right that many freedom movements have fought for, has recently become a tool appropriated by hegemonic institutions. It has not just empowered students from marginalized backgrounds to voice their qualms and criticize aspects of the institution, but it has given those who seek to perpetuate systems of domination a platform to project their bigotry. Thus, if our mission is founded upon the discovery of truth, how does free speech uphold that value?”
The students said that the very idea of objective truth is a concept devised by “white supremacists” in an “attempt to silence oppressed peoples.” They declare that:
“Historically, white supremacy has venerated the idea of objectivity and wielded a dichotomy of ‘subjectivity vs. objectivity’ as a means of silencing oppressed peoples. The idea that there is a single truth —‘the Truth’ — is a construct of the Euro-West that is deeply rooted in the Enlightenment, which was a movement that also described Black and Brown people as both subhuman and impervious to pain. This construction is a myth and white supremacy, imperialism, colonization, capitalism, and the United States of America are all of its progeny. The idea that truth is an entity for which we must search, in matters that endanger our abilities to exist in open spaces, is an attempt to silence oppressed peoples.”
The assault on Heather MacDonald, viewed as a mainstream commentator, not an extremist, was particularly harsh. The students write:
“If engaged, Heather MacDonald would not be debating on mere difference of opinion, but the right of Black People to exist. Heather MacDonald is a fascist, a white supremacist, a War-hawk, a transphobic, a queerphobe, a classist, and ignorant of interlocking systems of domination that produce the lethal conditions under which oppressed peoples are forced to live. . . . Engaging with her, a white supremacist fascist supporter of the police state, is a form of violence.”
The assault on Western Civilization at our universities is hardly new. In the 1980s, Jesse Jackson led a group of militant students through the campus chanting, “Hey Hey, Ho Ho, Western Civilization Has Got To Go.” The opposition to transmitting our culture and civilization is based on the unusual idea that only books, music, and art created by men and women who share our own racial or ethnic background can be meaningful to us and should be transmitted. Under such a notion, only Jews could read the Bible, only Greeks could contemplate Plato or Aristotle, only those of English descent read Shakespeare, and only Italians appreciate Dante or Leonardo da Vinci.
Western culture is relevant to men and women of all races and backgrounds, particularly those living in the midst of our Western society — such as the students at Pomona College. The distinguished black scholar W. E. B. Du Bois recognized this reality when he wrote more than a hundred years ago:
“I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line, I walk arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out of the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously, with no scorn or condescension. So, wed with truth, I dwell above the veil.”
When the attacks upon transmitting Western civilization began at our universities, in his address to the freshman class at Yale College in September 1990, Donald Kagan, Professor of History and Classics and Dean of the College, declared:
“The assault on the character of Western civilization badly distorts history. The West’s flaws are real enough, but they are common to almost all the civilizations known in any continent at any time in human history. What is remarkable about the Western heritage, and what makes it essential, are the important ways in which it has departed from the common experience. More than any other it has asserted the claims of the individual against those of the state, limiting the state’s power and creating a realm of privacy into which it cannot penetrate. . . . Western Civilization is the champion of representative democracy as the normal way for human beings to govern themselves, in place of the different varieties of monarchy, oligarchy, and tyranny that have ruled most of the human race throughout history and rule most of the world today. It has produced the theory and practice of separation of church and state, thereby creating a safe place for individual conscience. At its core is a tolerance and respect for diversity unknown in most cultures. One of its most telling characteristics is its encouragement of itself and its ways. Only in the West can one imagine a movement to neglect the culture’s own heritage in favor of some other.”
Our civilization is now under attack on many of our university campuses, as is the idea of objective truth itself, as the students at Pomona College have shown us. When will universities finally decide to remove from their campuses students who silence the speech of those with whom they disagree? When will alumni cut back their contributions to institutions that embrace identity politics and limit the speech of those who dare to differ? This is a serious challenge to our institutions of higher learning. Some of them are resisting. Others, such as Berkeley, seem to be acquiescing. It is hard to imagine student protestors who deny that there is such a thing as “truth” being taken seriously. That many take such irrationality as legitimate discourse tells us as much about today’s academic world as it does about those who would destroy free speech.
The Russian Revolution at 100: Remembering the Naïve Westerners Who Embraced It
One hundred years ago, Russia’s czar was overthrown and Communism began its reign. Sunday, March 12, is the date generally recognized as the start of the uprising. In Moscow, no celebrations are planned. Evidently the country remains too divided over Communism’s legacy. Mikhail Zygar, a Russian journalist and author of the book All The Kremlin’s Men, points out that:
“Vladimir Putin cannot compare himself to Nicholas II, nor to Lenin, nor to Kerensky because that is not Russian history to be proud of. In terms of 1917, nothing can be used as a propaganda tool.”
Communism’s toll was a heavy one. The Black Book of Communism, an 846-page academic study, holds Communism responsible for the deaths of between 85 million and 100 million people worldwide. It estimates that the ideology claimed 45 million to 72 million in China, 20 million in the Soviet Union, between 1.3 million and 2.3 million in Cambodia, 2 million in North Korea, 1.7 million in Africa, 1.5 million in Afghanistan, 1 million in Vietnam, 1 million in Eastern Europe, and 150,000 in Latin America.
Through all those years, many intellectuals in the West insisted on disassociating Communism from the crimes committed in its name. Incredibly, in retrospect, we see many Western academics, clergymen, journalists, and literary figures not resisting Communist tyranny, but embracing it, defending it, and apologizing for it.
Consider the German playwright Bertolt Brecht, who created the modern propaganda play. When he visited the Manhattan apartment of American philosopher Sidney Hook in 1935, Stalin’s purges were just beginning. Hook, raising the cases of Zinoviev and Kamenev, asked Brecht how he could bear to work with the American Communists who were trumpeting their guilt. Brecht replied that the U.S. Communists were no good — nor were the Germans either — and that the only body that mattered was the Soviet party. Hook pointed out that they were all part of the same movement, responsible for the arrest and imprisonment of innocent former comrades.
Brecht replied: “As for them, the more innocent they are, the more they deserve to be shot.” Hook asked, “Why, why?” Brecht did not answer. Hook got up, went into the next room and brought Brecht his hat and coat. During the entire course of Stalin’s purges, Brecht never uttered a word of protest. When Stalin died, Brecht’s comment was: “The oppressed of all five continents . . . must have felt their heartbeats stop when they heard that Stalin was dead. He was the embodiment of all their hopes.”
Another case in point is French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre. In a July 1954 interview with Liberation, Sartre, who had just returned from a visit to Russia, said that Soviet citizens did not travel, not because they are prevented from doing so, but because they had no desire to leave their wonderful country. “The Soviet citizens,” he declared, “criticize their government much more and more effectively than we do.” He maintained that, “There is total freedom of criticism in the Soviet Union.”
Another intellectual defender of tyranny was Lillian Hellman, the American playwright. She visited Russia in October 1937, when Stalin’s purge trials were at their height. On her return, she said she knew nothing about them. In 1938 she was among the signatories of an ad in the Communist publication New Masses that approved the trials. She supported the 1939 Soviet invasion of Finland, saying: “I don’t believe in that fine, lovable little Republic of Finland that everyone is weepy about. I’ve been there and it looks like a pro-Nazi little republic to me.” There is no evidence that Hellman ever visited Finland — and her biographer states that this is “highly improbable.”
The American Quaker H. T. Hodgkin provided this assessment: “As we look at Russia’s great experiment in brotherhood, it may seem to us some dim perception of Jesus’ way, all unbeknown, inspiring it.”
The case of New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty who covered the Soviet Union in the 1930s is also instructive. In the midst of the enforced famine in the Ukraine, Duranty visited the region and denied that starvation and death were rampant. In November 1932, Duranty reported that “. . . there is no famine or actual starvation nor is there likely to be.” In The Times of August 23, 1933, Durany wrote: “Any report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda. . . . The food shortage which has affected almost the whole population last year . . . has, however, caused heavy loss of life.”
He estimated the deaths at nearly four times the usual rate, but did not blame Soviet policy. What Americans got was not the truth — but false reporting. But its influence was widespread. What Walter Duranty got was the highest honor in journalism — the Pulitzer Prize for 1933, complimenting him for “dispassionate, interpretive reporting of the news from Russia.” The citation declared that Duranty’s dispatches — which the world now knows to be false — were “marked by scholarship, profundity, impartiality, sound judgment, and exceptional clarity.”
Walter Duranty was only one of many correspondents and writers in the 1920s and 1930s who fed their readers in the West a steady diet of disinformation about the Soviet Union. Louis Fischer, who wrote for The Nation magazine, was also reluctant to tell his readers about the flaws in Soviet society. He, too, glossed over the searing famine of 1932-33. He once referred to what we now know as the “Gulags” as “a vast industrial organization and a big educational institution.” In 1936, he informed his readers that the dictatorship was “voluntarily abdicating” in favor of “democracy.”
Somehow, liberal intellectuals, who were harsh in their judgment of the American society, eagerly embraced the ruthless dictatorship of Joseph Stalin. Concerning the forced collectivization of Soviet agriculture, author Upton Sinclair wrote: “They drove rich peasants off the land — and sent them wholesale to work in lumber camps and on railroads. Maybe it cost a million lives — maybe it cost five million — but you cannot think intelligently about it unless you ask yourself how many millions it might have cost if the changes had not been made.”
W. E. B. Du Bois, the black intellectual, thought that, “He (Stalin) asked for neither adulation nor vengeance. He was reasonable and conciliatory.” It was not only Stalin who was embraced by many in the West but Mao as well. Visiting in Communist China, New York Times columnist James Reston said that he thought Chinese Communist doctrines and the Protestant ethic had much in common and was generally impressed by “the atmosphere of intelligent and purposeful work.” (New York Times, July 30, 1971). He wrote:
“China’s most visible characteristics are the characteristics of youth . . . a kind of lean, muscular grace, relentless hard work, and an opportunistic and even amiable outlook on the future. . . . The people seem not only young but enthusiastic about their changing lives.”
Reston also believed that young people from the city who were forced to work as manual laborers in rural areas “were treating it like an escape from the city and an outing in the countryside.” When Mao died in 1976, the Times devoted three pages to his obituary, but only a few lines alluded to his enormous crimes against the Chinese people. It has been estimated that Mao was responsible for the deaths of 30 million to 60 million people. The Times referred to the execution of “a million to three million people, including landlords, nationalist agents, and others suspected of being class enemies.” The Washington Post also devoted three pages to Mao, concluding, “Mao the warrior, philosopher, and ruler was the closest the modern world has been to the God-heroes of antiquity.” The Post acknowledged that some three million persons had lost their lives in the 1950 “reign of terror,” but the only victims mentioned were “counter-revolutionaries.”
In his landmark study of intellectual support for Communism, Political Pilgrims, Professor Paul Hollander writes that an important myth to be laid to rest “is the belief in the unflinching commitment of intellectuals to freedom, and particularly to freedom of expression.” In the case of the Soviet Union and other Communist societies, he notes:
“It is very clear that the absence of freedoms . . . hardly concerned the visitors or interfered with the attractions of these societies. To the extent that the lack of free expression was observed — and it is by itself noteworthy how frequently it was overlooked — it was excused or rationalized on the familiar grounds of temporary necessity, amply compensated for by the various achievements of the regimes concerned.”
In addition, states Hollander:
“Attributions of idealism and disinterestedness also call for re-examination when intellectuals move with lightning speed from vehement moral indignation and moral absolutism (generally reserved for their own society) to a strangely pragmatic moral relativism brought to the assessment of policies of countries they are committed to support. . . . Scott Nearing, who often left his home in Maine in November rather than watch hunters kill deer, defended Soviet tanks in Budapest (in 1956). . . . Such misjudgments and moral double ‘bookkeeping’ (or double standards) are in part due to the readiness to believe ‘the other side.’”
The anniversary of the Russian Revolution is particularly meaningful for those of us who are old enough to remember the reality of what Communism was really like. This writer spent time in Eastern Europe during the darkest days of Communist rule, visiting both the Berlin Wall and Czechoslovakia in 1969, shortly after the Soviet Union brutally marched into Prague and put down the attempts at liberalization. Wherever one went in Czechoslovakia, the contempt for the occupying Soviet Army was clear. At a student club I visited, when word got around that an American was on the premises, many young people came by to extend greetings. I was invited to the homes of a number of Czechs who openly declared their hostility to Communism and their desire for their country to once again join the Western world. It is fair to say that I did not encounter a single Czech who spoke well of either Communism or the Soviet Union.
As we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, we should remember how easily naïve Westerners were eager to embrace it. Vladimir Putin, who served Communism as a KGB agent, was an eager participant in the Communist enterprise. It is interesting to observe his current reluctance to celebrate the totalitarian and imperialistic system to which he devoted much of his life. Sadly, he now seems intent upon restoring as much of the Soviet empire as he can and to destabilize NATO, the EU, and our own country. Let us hope that we do not engage in the same wishful thinking about Putin’s goals and objectives that so many in the West did about Communism. Remembering those who naïvely embraced tyranny should immunize us against following such a path in the future — that is if we are willing to learn from history, something that is all too rare. *