Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Being principled is great. In the right cause

It’s not enough to have a conscience.

We all tend to respect honesty and principle in politicians. Well, we don’t get that much opportunity to do so, since in the age of spin and soundbites, it’s hard to find a politician that displays much of either. Which perhaps makes us all the more admiring of those who do.

But honesty and principle, like courage, have much in common with a gun: what matters isn’t so much the thing in itself, as where it’s pointing. It would be hard to deny that Margaret Thatcher showed great courage, resolution, pure grit, but she used it to destroy communities up and down the country. Back in 1970, I taught in a mining village in South Yorkshire; today the population has fallen by over a third, and rates of unemployment or invalidity are frighteningly high. The price of the crushed miners’ strike…

Maggie: grit and courage misapplied
I can think of no better example of misapplied honesty and principle, analogous to Thatcher’s misapplication of courage and resolution, than the case of Robert E. Lee. He occupies a place of honour today, for many, as one of the great generals of history, although he fought, indeed became the leading military figure, on the Confederate side in the American Civil War. That’s the defeated side, and generally now felt to be the wrong side (except by a few diehards in the southern US).

That meant he fought on the side of states defined by slavery – it was their one common point – although he called it “a moral and political evil” and personally freed his slaves. He fought against the Union, although he considered the so-called right of states to secede as “idle talk.”

So why did he fight on the slave-holding Secessionists’ side?

His father, “Light Horse Harry” Lee died a disgraced bankrupt, but in his youth hed been a dashing cavalry commander in the army George Washington led to fight for independence from Britain. The father had claimed “Virginia is my country; her will I obey, however lamentable the fate to which it may subject me.” Virginia came first.

Likewise, Robert Lee, the son, claimed “if the government is disrupted, I shall return to my native State and share the miseries of my people, and save in defence will draw my sword on none.”

So Lee turned down the opportunity to take overall command of the forces of the Union to which he was ostensibly committed, even though it was offered to him not just by a Northerner, the President, Abraham Lincoln, but by the Commanding General of the Army, Winfield Scott – who was a Virginian like Lee. Indeed, another Virginian, George H. Thomas, had a distinguished career as a general on the Union side, and a distant cousin of Lee, Samuel Phillips Lee became an Admiral in the Union navy.

Many admire Lee’s commitment to the principle that he could not fight against his own country, which he saw as being Virginia rather than the United States.

I however have real trouble with that notion. He was undoubtedly a man of conscience, and it’s apparently honourable to live by one’s conscience. But surely the admiration ends when doing so leads to your fighting for two bad causes, secession and slavery, especially if you believe in neither?

Robert E. Lee: principled and honest,
but for the wrong cause – which he didn't even believe in
It’s like Thatcher’s courage. It would have been wonderful, employed in furthering a good cause. it was lamentable when used for a bad one.

It isn’t abstract principle that counts. It’s the concrete application made of it.

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