For those of you who are familiar with C. J. Sansom’s novels that center around Matthew Shardlake during the reign of Henry VIII, Iain Pears’ AN INSTANCE OF THE FINGERPOST, and perhaps the novels of Hillary Mantel that focuses on Henry VIII’s vicar, Thomas Cromwell you might do well to consider S.J. Parris’ (the pseudonym of British journalist Stephanie Merritt) novels whose main character Giordano Bruno is a true historical figure set during the reign of Elizabeth I. Parris’ exploration of Bruno’s beliefs, life’s work, and talents emerge in the first of seven novels entitled HERESY a story that has the inauspicious beginning of Bruno sitting in the privy at San Domenico Maggiore in Naples reading Erasmus’ COMMENTARIES. When he is caught with this reading material, he is forced to throw it into the cesspool. One must remember that in 1576 anyone in Catholic Naples who criticizes Catholicism is committing blasphemy and a crime that a Father Inquisitor might deem worthy of death.
The author employs Bruno’s life journey as an excellent vehicle to portray the religious schism that has overtaken Europe since Martin Luther nailed his 95 Thesis to the Castle church door in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517, and for Parris’ purpose its later impact on the reign of Elizabeth I who has rested her throne on the Act of Supremacy issued in 1558. Bruno provides a superb foil against Catholic teachings as his life’s journey consisted of joining a monastery as a teenager and taking his vows at San Domenico Maggiore which he would come to reject after thirteen years. He would wander Italy teaching and staying one step ahead of the father Inquisitor who had branded him a heretic. He would escape to Geneva, where he was also branded as a heretic this time by the Calvinist power structure, Paris, and finally to England. While in Paris, King Henri III would become his patron and would then travel on to London where he will be recruited by Elizabeth I’s spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham to penetrate the Papist hotbed at the universities at Oxford.
Parris’ dominate theme that permeates the novel is the schism between Catholics and Protestants as Bruno had traveled to England to write books which he believed would rock Europe to its foundations and search for a book that proved the universe was infinite going much further than Copernicus’ heliocentric theory of the universe, a book written by the Egyptian sage, Hermes Trismegistus. Bruno believed that a universe without end existed, as did a universal soul which we are all part of. Bruno subscribed to the view that “the divinity is in all of us and in the substance of the universe with the right knowledge, we can draw down all the powers of the cosmos. When one understands this, we can become equal to God.”
Parris’ plot unfolds as Bruno is accompanied to Oxford by Sir Philip Sidney, an aristocratic soldier-poet who he had met in Padua, and palatine Albert Laski, a conceited Polish poet. Bruno’s purpose is to engage the Rector John Underhill of Lincoln College in a disputation. Before the debate can take place, Bruno comes across the body of Roger Mercer one of the fellows who dined regularly at Underhill’s table. It appears that the rest of the college is at pains to cover up the murder and Bruno’s charge is completely changed, and it appears that someone has created a grisly scenario in the name of Catholicism or is it Protestantism. Bruno’s investigation allows Parris to accurately convey life in the English countryside during the period sprinkling in seedy taverns, mysterious bookshops, in addition to Oxford’s world renown libraries.
Parris has employed a number of characters to carry out her story line. Each character associated with Oxford and its colleges seem to reflect English arrogance and an anti-Oxford bias throughout the novel. The most important individuals include Rector Underhill’s daughter, Sophia an interesting individual who craves learning and resents the role of woman in English society. Bruno’s main foil within the college is the Bursar Walter Slythurst with other individuals like James Coverdale who will now accede to the office of Deputy Rector with the passing of Mercer, William Bernard, a fellow who had been the librarian in 1569 when the library had been purged of heretical materials, Master Richard Godwyn, a mild mannered librarian and fellow, Gabriel Norris, a student who used his long bow to kill Mercer’s assailant, Rowland Jenks, a bookseller who chopped off his own ears, Mr. Cobbett, an alcoholic porter involved in security, and Thomas Allen a student whose father, the former sub-Rector and teacher had been unceremoniously removed from the college resulting in his son’s loss of his scholarship.
Parris has written an atmospheric thriller dropping Bruno into the paranoid world of Oxford Papists which he must navigate to survive intellectually as he tries to solve the murder of Mercer, and unravel Oxford’s tangled loyalties, some of which border on treason. As the novel unfolds a number of other Oxford fellows are murdered as Bruno becomes part detective as well as a humanistic philosopher who seems ahead of his time as he tries to offer further enlightenment to Europe.
On the whole the novel is well conceived, and once the reader acclimates themselves to Parris’ dialogue, they will become engrossed and will be exposed to a fascinating historical mystery. The next installment of Parris’ Bruno series PROPHECY examines an astrological phenomenon that portends the death of Elizabeth as her throne is constantly threatened by her Catholic cousin, Mary Queen of Scots.
(Queen Elizabeth I of England in her coronation robes, c.1600)
When one thinks of James Earle Carter III (Jimmy) many would argue that he achieved extraordinarily little as President and some describe his administration as a total failure. On the positive side as Douglas Brinkley argues in his THE UNFINISHED PRESIDENCY: JIMMY CARTER’S JOURNEY BEYOND THE WHITE HOUSE Carter’s post-presidency has been the most effective and impactful of any former president in American history. The diminution of the Carter presidency is somewhat unfair as luck was never on Carter’s side and his somewhat prickly self-righteous personality rubbed people the wrong way. But to be fair one cannot take away the numerous accomplishments that the Carter administration was responsible for.
To begin, the Camp David Accords was the most successful peace treaty since the end of World War II, the Panama Canal Treaties prevented war in Central America, normalized relations with China which revitalized trade between the two countries, expanded the CDC role into global health, instituted new pollution controls, increased consumer protection, implemented civil service reform for the first time in a hundred years, increased the number of women and blacks on the federal bench, doubled the size of our national parks, deregulated trucking, airlines, and utilities, placed intermediate nuclear missiles in Europe – reflecting his toughness, oversaw a Pentagon that developed the B2 bomber and other high tech weapons that the Soviets could not match, provided aid to anti-communist forces in Afghanistan, and a human rights policy that contributed to the winning of the Cold War. This would seem to have been a strong record to run for reelection, but 1979 saw a number of events beyond Carter’s control that gave the United States a black eye – the seizure of American hostages in Iran and a failed rescue attempt, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and an increase in the price of oil due to actions by OPEC sending an American economy already tottering over the edge with inflation until a tailspin. The interesting thing is that had Carter been reelected he would have continued to foster a sound energy policy and would have acted on the coming environmental crisis and perhaps the world we live in would at least have been cleaner and perhaps the dramatic climate changes we all observe might have been lessened.
The question is what we should make of this man and have we misjudged him and his presidency. In Jonathan Alter’s new book, HIS VERY BEST: JIMMY CARTER, A LIFE, the first full length biography of Carter the author attempts to answer those questions and analyze his role in American and because of his post-presidency world history. Alter presents a president who is an enigma. On the one hand he comes across as a pious Christian and a moral individual, however certain personality traits seem the polar opposite. Extremely stubborn and self-righteous at times he rubbed people the wrong way as he could not suffer fools gladly and he often appeared hypocritical, particularly in dealing with members of Congress. Alter, the author of three New York Times best sellers and a former senior editor at Newsweek has produced a well-documented analytical approach to Carter’s life and part of his thesis revolves around the idea that much of what Carter accomplished as President paved the way for future successes in foreign policy, the environment, and politics which were not necessarily clear at the time they were instituted.
Alter correctly points out that part of Carter’s problems politically was that he was a “real” outsider and had difficulty acclimating himself to the way things were done in Washington. It is exceedingly difficult to pigeonhole Carter as a progressive or a conservative as it depended on the issue where he might fall on a political continuum. However, if there is an overarching label, we can apply to Carter it would center around some sort of moral ideology. Alter provides the reader with intimate details of Carters early years growing up in Americus and Plains Georgia, a boyhood that corresponded with the Depression.
Alter provides numerous insights into the person Carter would become. His lifetime mantra developed in high school as he learned that “we must adjust to changing times and still hold to unchanging principles,” a moral code that could produce success but also failures throughout his life.
Alter points to two key relationships for Carter. He delves into Carter’s marriage to Rosalynn and what emerges is how supportive they were of each other and created a true partnership. Carter would never have been as successful as he was without her be it his pre-presidential, presidential, or post-presidential years. She was involved in all decisions in their marriage and his career and he would not have experienced his personal successes without her input. The second important relationship was with Admiral Hyman Rickover who became a father figure for Carter and demanded that he always do his best and live his life as if he had something to prove.
Alter’s narrative is all encompassing, and a number of aspects stand out. First, is the dichotomy that Carter presents dealing with race. He grew up in a racist region of Georgia where segregationists ruled, Brown v. Board of Education was never enforced, and African-Americans knew their place. Early on it seemed that Carter was oblivious to what was transpiring though his Christian upbringing showed him something was terribly wrong. Though Carter would come across later as a true friend of the black community he was not above using the “race card” when it would benefit him politically in campaigns for Congress and the Governorship of Georgia. The employment of “coded words” was present and he could speak at Black churches and preach equality at the same time he was supporting George Wallace. Later in life Carter would admit the error of his ways and spend a good part of his adult life trying to make up for what he did or not do early in his career. Alter does an excellent job breaking down Carter’s moral beliefs and imperfections which are highlighted by his racial attitudes and approach to politics.
The second part of the narrative that is important is how Alter dives into a number of important topics, be it the Camp David Accords, environmental policy, the Panama Canal Treaty, normalization of relations with China, human rights as a major component of foreign policy, or the appointment of Paul Volker to head the Federal Reserve and how it impacted people in the future, mostly in a positive way. In each instance Alter explains how each topic created a future that would benefit people well into the 21st century be it no major wars involving Israel and the Arab states, an energy policy that pushed for higher emissions standards, cleaner air, trade with China, and other examples. Alter to his credit points out the negative aspects of some these policies, i.e.; how China has taken advantage of its economic relationship with the US as thousands of Chinese were educated in American universities and engaging in serious industrial espionage, and how Carter’s courting of evangelicals in 1976 brought them into the political process and allowed them to evolve into the negative political force they are today.
Alter’s in depth coverage of Carter’s campaign for the presidency and his term in office is a key part of the narrative. Carter would benefit from the post-Watergate period as an outsider. His long shot campaign saw the application of Carter’s relentless approach to winning as he did in all aspects of his life. Carter, along with his “Georgia Mafia” would arrive in Washington trying to do too much too soon alienating important members of Congress and other important political leaders. His inflexibility, refusal to conform to Washington norms, and moral tone alienated many and it is amazing he accomplished what he did with an inexperienced administration who did not know how or have the desire to be involved in the political give and take needed to be successful. Despite these shortcomings the first two years of Carter’s presidency can be considered quite successful as Alter points out, but the final two years were a disaster, mostly because of bad luck and many questionable decisions by Carter who micro-managed a great deal of time during his presidency and as a result did not have enough time during the day to reach more measured conclusions.
The list of events seems endless. The situation in Iran that forced the Shah to be overthrown brought questions concerning how the Carter administration approached the problem. It was clear a lack of intelligence contributed to the Shah’s resignation, but also Carter was so busy with the Camp David negotiations he was somewhat caught blindsided by events in Iran. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan reflected a weak presidency and a resurgence of Cold War rhetoric. The nuclear disaster at Three Mile Island and what came to be known as “the malaise speech” lowered Carter’s approval rating to Nixonian levels. If this was not enough by 1979 the US economy which suffered from high inflation and interest rates, long gas lines due to OPEC policies and Carter’s attitude that the American people relied too much on conspicuous consumption did not help. In a number of instances Carter was out of his depth in dealing with these problems, particularly in confronting the Ayatollah Khomeini’s rise and the hostage situation and Alter correctly argues reflected a president “who lacked a diplomatic and clandestine imagination.”
It is clear from Alter’s narrative that Carter lacked the disposition to be an effective president, but this doggedness and self-confidence would be a major reason why he experienced such a successful post-presidency. Carter’s belief in “soft power” in foreign policy found a willing world once out of office. Human rights came to dominate his presidency with support for Russian dissidents, pressuring dictators in Latin and South America, and in Africa. This continued after he was defeated by Ronald Reagan and Alter delves into his support of the Palestinians who he felt were squeezed out of the Camp David process, supervising elections worldwide, working to gain the release of American seized abroad, support for victims of Aids and other diseases that ravaged poor countries and finding cures, Habitat for Humanity, and on and on. Carter’s later years reflected his total commitment to making a difference, his willingness to experiment with diverse projects, invest his time and emotions in numerous projects and causes, and risk his reputation in the name of helping others. In his nineties Carter would admit that his “involuntary retirement were the best years of his life.”
Alter’s chief argument is that Carter “was a surprisingly consequential president.” Alter’s account is ably sourced and fluidly written and is one of the best presidential biographies that have been published in the last decade. Alter convincingly demonstrates that Carter should be admired for sticking to his guns in many areas that in the end, even decades later, would prove beneficial to the American people as opposed to politicians who negotiate away their beliefs in their constant need to be reelected.
(Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter speaking in New York on July 12, 1976)
Today we find ourselves living in a world where more and more people are turning away from democracy and supporting governments which have authoritarian tendencies or promote outright autocracy. For historian, Anne Applebaum this movement has been somewhat personal as she opens her latest book, THE TWILIGHT OF DEMOCRACY: THE SEDUCTIVE LURE OF AUTHORITARIANISM by describing a New Year’s Eve party she and her husband Radek Sikorski, who at the time was deputy foreign minister in a center-right Polish government threw to usher in the year 2000. Most of the participants were Polish friends, journalists, and civil servants. The majority of the guests were conservatives and anti-communists, and most were optimistic about the future. Fast forward twenty years, Applebaum is no longer friends with most of these individuals and she does her best to avoid them as many of her former guests seemed to have joined forces with demagogues and authoritarian leaning types. Applebaum, in a mixture of historical trends and her own biography tries to explain why as she investigates the struggle between democracy and dictatorship zeroing in on trends in Hungary and Poland, which for her and her family is a partial home. Applebaum, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of a series of books dealing with the Soviet Union; RED FAMINE: STALIN’S WAR ON UKRAINE, IRON CURTAIN: THE CRUSHING OF EASTERN EUROPE, 1944-1956, and GULAG: A HISTORY provides important insights as to why liberal democracy seems to be under siege, and how authoritarianism is on the rise.
Since 1989 the evolution toward democracy from the former Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe seems to have stalled as rightist authoritarian leaning governments have come to power, particularly in Poland and Hungary. Once they assume control these governments manipulate the levers of power to consolidate their reign relying on lies, dismissal from government positions, conspiracy theories, and inculcating the masses with a xenophobic and victim oriented messages. According to the author there is no single explanation as to why this has occurred and she states upfront that she has no “grand theory or universal solution” to offer, but she is correct in stating that “given the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy. Indeed, if history is anything to go by, all our societies eventually will.” For Americans this seemed implausible until the events of the last four years and many believe that the election of 2020 points to Trumpism as an aberration, however the storming of the capitol on January 6, 2021, and recent votes in the US Congress seem to make this fear even more of a reality for the future.
Applebaum argues that the key to a construction of an autocracy is the demagogue and what attracts people to that type of individual. This movement is not limited to a particular position on a political continuum as it is present on the left and the right, but at present it appears it leans toward right wing extremists who have achieved power in western democracies. This “new right is more Bolshevik than Burkean: these are men and women who want to overthrow, bypass or undermine existing institutions, to destroy what exists.” They are diverse groups with a number of agendas, but all “seek to redefine their nations, to rewrite social contracts, and, sometimes to alter the rules of democracy so that they never lose power.”
According to Applebaum resentment, revenge, and envy, not radical loneliness drives these individuals. A case in point is the Law and Justice party in Poland which has taken control and purged the Polish media resulting in an increase in political violence through the manipulation of reality. The government and its supporters have constructed a new world view that employs modern marketing techniques and social media campaigns using lies and an alternative reality which increases political polarization and inflames people’s sense of right and wrong as they absorb what Applebaum refers to as “medium sized lies” and conspiracy theories put out by political leadership. In Hungary, the lies center around the “superhuman” power of liberal billionaire George Soros who is blamed for importing thousands of Muslim migrants to Hungary to destroy the country. In Poland, the lies rest in part on the Smolensk conspiracy that refers to the death of the Polish president Lech Kaczynski and senior military leader in a 2010 plane crash. In both countries the younger generation no longer remembered Communism, so new reasons are created to distrust politicians, businesspeople, and intellectuals who supported liberal ideas. This alternate reality explains away complex phenomena and provides its supporters with “privileged access to the truth,” and power for those who have constructed the new world view.
What is ironic according Applebaum is that the language of the European radical right – the demand for revolution against elites; the dreams of cleansing of violence and an apocalyptic cultural clash is eerily similar to the language once used by the European radical left. It can be seen in Poland, Hungary, Venezuela, and certainly is on the rise in the oldest and most secure democracies in the world.
In perhaps her best chapter “The Future of Nostalgia” Applebaum does a nice job summarizing how “restorative nostalgic conservatives fought for Brexit (in the United Kingdom). The desire for chao, the realization they underestimated the cost of the extraction from the European Union, and the numerous lies to gain public support are carefully laid out.” It is ironic how the Tories even allied with Poland’s Law and Justice party in the European Parliament as they argued against censuring Orban’s actions in Hungary. Applebaum’s deep dive into Brexit, along with her discussion of Boris Johnson who she was quite familiar with reflect movements that are similar to the United States and show how politicians in both countries seem to have either lost control of their supporters or have not thought out the implications of their actions.
Another major strength of Applebaum’s narrative and analysis is her command of American and European history. It is on full display in her discussion of historical events and movements in Poland, Hungary, and Russia and how they have set the foundation for autocracy in those countries. Her analysis of the Dreyfus Affair in 1894 in France and its comparison to the fissures in the current American body politic is both thoughtful and accurate. The split in French society between Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards seems to mirror what is currently occurring in the United States as friendships are ruined and society has been reorganizing itself over the last two decades. Applebaum describes another dinner party, as opposed to the earlier gathering in Poland, this time at at David Brock’s Georgetown home in 1993 whose guests included the likes of David Brooks, Robert Kimball, Bill Kristol, John Podhoretz, Dinesh D’Souza, David Frum, among others. In 1993 these individuals seem to have an ideological community of fate, but over the next twenty years they have split, each going their own way and some refuse to even talk to each other.
This bifurcation is epitomized by Applebaum’s discussion of Laura Ingraham’s ideological evolution from a Reaganite to a Trumper over a similar period of time. The views she espouses on Fox News each evening contributed to the exacerbation of tensions in American society and led to the events of July 6, 2021 . Ingraham’s despair revolves around an America that is a “dark, nightmarish place where God speaks to only a tiny number of people; where idealism is dead; where civil war and violence are approaching; where democratically elected politicians are no better than foreign dictators and mass murderers; where the ‘elite’ is wallowing in decadence, disarray and death.” For Ingraham and her ilk America has rejected old values and universities teach people to hate their country. The result is that “any price should be paid, any crime should be forgiven, any outrage should be ignored if that is what it takes to get the real America, the old America back.” Donald Trump has mastered this undercurrent and has become the epitome of the rhetoric of the restorative nostalgia by railing against the establishment and moral decline. If everyone is corrupt, we have a moral equivalence, so it is acceptable to support a corrupt president. The real reality is the “deep state bureaucrats who manipulate voters.
As Bill Keller writes in the July 19, 2020 edition of the New York Times, “Applebaum believes the usual explanations for how authoritarians come to power — economic distress, fear of terrorism, the pressures of immigration — while important, do not fully explain the clercs. After all, when Poland, where she begins her investigation, brought the right-wing nativists of the Law and Justice Party to power in 2015, the country was prosperous, was not a migrant destination, faced no terrorist threat. ‘Something else is going on right now, something that is affecting very different democracies, with very different economics and very different demographics, all over the world,’ she writes.” Keller goes on to write that “a recurring problem in this book is that most of the clercs* refuse to talk to Applebaum, leaving her dependent on the public record and the wisdom of mutual acquaintances. But she makes the best of what she’s got. She is most sure-footed when appraising intellectuals who have lived in, and escaped, the Soviet orbit. From Poland, she moves on to Hungary, then to Britain and finally to Trump’s United States, with detours to Spain and Greece, in pursuit of the fallen intellectuals.
She identifies layers of disenchantment: nostalgia for the moral purpose of the Cold War, disappointment with meritocracy, the appeal of conspiracy theories (often involving George Soros, the Hungarian-American and, not incidentally, Jewish billionaire). She adds that part of the answer lies in the ‘cantankerous nature of modern discourse itself,’ the mixed blessing of the internet, which has deprived us of a shared narrative and diminished the responsible media elite that used to filter out conspiracy theories and temper partisan passions. This is hardly an original complaint, but no less true for that.”
Pundits across the cable news world have relied upon Applebaum throughout the political changes evolving since the election of 2016 in the United States. Her commentary as well as her writing is clear, concise, and presents an element of her personal experience. A problem that emerges that may have thrown off any optimism she may have considered is that of COVID-19. Autocrats have used the pandemic for their own purposes be it Hungary, Poland, or the United States which makes the future extremely unclear, but the perspective Applebaum brings is food for thought and quite scary how people can be manipulated by the needs of autocrats and there is no clear ending as to which way the world body politic may evolve.
*all those who speak in the world in a transcendental manner.
On January 6, 2021, the US Capitol was marred by an invasion of a mixture of Trumpists, military militias, white supremacists, and a collection of other conspiracy toting insurrectionists. What was very disconcerting for me apart from the violence is how these individuals wrapped themselves in a flag – the Confederate flag. During the Civil War, the Confederate flag never reached the Capitol, now 150 years later it was proudly carried by numerous thugs and treasonous persons who threatened to hang the Vice President and kill the Speaker of the House. These events resonated with me further as I read retired Brigadier General Ty Seidule’s new book, ROBERT E. LEE AND ME: A SOUTHERNOR’S RECKONING WITH THE MYTH OF A LOST CAUSE as he grapples with his personal history from growing up in the south and being acculturated with false premises that the Civil War was fought over states’ rights, tariffs, economics, Lincoln’s racism, or government overreach. Seidule takes the reader on his own journey of discovery as he passed through college, a thirty year career in the military, and finally as head of the History Department at West Point. During that sojourn he came to realize that he was raised as a southern gentleman whose education and socialization was built around certain myths and outright lies concerning the causes of the Civil War.
Seidule’s voyage raises a number of disconcerting issues that are currently bedeviling the American body politic and society – the negation of facts. Seidule gave a lecture that went viral in which he argued that the war between the states that resulted in more deaths than any war the United States has ever fought, but the Civil War saw Americans killing Americans. The author argued that the war was fought over slavery. The result was a nasty response through emails, letters, and personal comments, some of which were quite threatening. Seidule was incredulous and proceeded to reexamine his life’s passage to try and examine how his historical research forced him to confront his past and explain how he has undergone his own reeducation.
Throughout the narrative Seidule is obsessed with facts and truth as he tries to understand how he was duped for so many years. To understand the author’s past, it is important to delve into his hero worship of Robert E. Lee as a boy and later as a young man. He saw Lee as a brilliant general even in defeat as he possessed a “noble aura” about him. Even in defeat at Gettysburg Seidule saw “an opportunity to showcase Lee’s true character and his standing as a gentleman.” Seidule later realized that the reason he idolized Lee and the Confederacy was because the culture in which he grew up worshipped Lee and as they proclaimed their racism. Lee was seen as the most dignified man in history, but Seidule would come to realize that “the United States fought against a rebel force that would not accept the results of a democratic election and chose armed rebellion.”
After carefully reviewing the most impactful books he read as a young man Seidule focuses on Margaret Mitchell’s GONE WITH THE WIND in trying to understand his own brainwashing. Mitchell’s novel and David Selznick’s film of the same name created the lens that millions of people saw the Civil War and helped perpetuate the “Lost Cause myth.” Despite their defeat Confederate leaders remained unrepentant. Soon they would create a new narrative to justify racial control and white supremacy. Seidule argues that “The Lost Cause became a movement, an ideology, a myth, even a civil religion that would unite first the white south and eventually the nation around the meaning of the Civil War.” The Lost Cause produced a flawed memory; a lie that formed the ideological foundation for white supremacy, Jim Crow laws, which employed violence and terror to maintain a drastically unequal and segregated society. The Lost Cause myth argued that white southerners fought for many reasons – protective tariffs, states’ rights, freedom, the agrarian dream, defense, etc. etc., but none of those who espoused the myth mentioned slavery. The problem is that the facts all point to the Confederate states seceding to protect and expand their peculiar institution.
The Lost Cause brings about secondary myths to support the overall argument. First, the “obedient servant or happy slave myth,” living on a plantation they loved and that took care of them. The reality was that the plantation was nothing more than a slave labor farm. The second myth was that the southern cause was doomed from the outset because the Yankees had more money, material, and manpower – might over right. A third myth is that Reconstruction was a failure as African Americans weren’t ready for freedom, the vote, or holding high office. Seidule examines all aspects of the Lost Cause myth and debunks them all by presenting actual historical events and movements. The Lost Cause would serve as the ideological underpinnings for a violently racist society.
Seidule admits that it took him decades to come to the realization that his entire educational, socialization, and cultural upbringing was based on a lie. Seidule emerged from his “intellectual bubble” with the burden of guilt that he needed to undo. The narrative is a searing account of Seidule’s upbringing and education corrected by historical facts. He transports the reader to Alexandria, Va., Walton County, Ga, and Lexington, Va. describing his own education juxtaposed against the places where he grew up and became a “southern gentleman.” Seidule zeroes in Alexandria, Va. and Walton, Ga. as his hometowns resorted to beatings, lynching’s, outright murder, the closing of public schools to avoid integration, and denying African Americans the right to vote even in cities and towns where they were the majority all designed to maintain the white supremacist south. But the author never knew about the history of these places and in a number of instances things that transpired during his lifetime.
(West Point, NY)
However, as Seidule attended college at Washington and Lee University and was exposed to research and goes through a period of self-condemnation as to how he could have been so ignorant. He unearths numerous racist actions and events following the Civil War and Reconstruction well into the 20th century. After examining the history of Alexandria and Walton County he could reach only one conclusion – both homes were part of the southern racial police state which was an integral part of creating and maintaining a white supremacist culture in the south. Seidule integrates numerous historical examples of the violence perpetrated against African Americans and how little the white power structure responded despite Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka, Ka., the 1964 Civil Rights Act, President Truman’s Civil Rights Commission, etc.
Seidule blends his own ignorance of racism and violence with historical facts throughout his life’s journey. The most fascinating recounting deals with Robert E. Lee’s role at Washington and Lee University and how he was elevated to deity status in the universities chapel and mausoleum all designed to focus on the education of a Christian gentlemen for students and viewing Lee as the godlike embodiment of what student strove to become. All aspects of the university through the 1980s were endemic to the belief in the myths surrounding the Civil War. Once Seidule came to realize the truth he engaged in a self-imposed guilt by trying to cleanse his own past and educate others as to how the Lost Cause myth came about and how to rectify it.
Seidule’s frustrations are many as he recounts how ten US Army forts are named after southern officers who fought and committed treason against their country, fostered supremacist racial beliefs, owned slaves and worked to deny African Americans the rights guaranteed in the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the constitution after the Civil War. Names like Braxton Bragg, John Brown Gordon, A.P. Hill, George Pickett, Leonides Polk, Henry L. Benning, John Bell Hood, Pierre Gustav Toutant Beauregard, and of course Robert E. Lee, all men who fought and committed treason to preserve slavery as they killed American soldiers, but their names remain on the signage as you enter these posts, despite the current legislation to try and remove them from military installations. Even as Seidule experienced his own military career he was confronted with the Confederate myths in the US Army. Once he began to teach military history at West Point, he did his best to set the historical record straight, particularly how and why portraits and monuments to Lee proliferated at West Point in the 20th century. He passionately believes the only way to correct the past was to try and make sure the Lost Cause myth did not infect his grandchildren – the tool that needed to be relied upon is historical knowledge. The past does not have to control us, especially if we understand it.
Once must commend the author’s journey of discovery and attempts to rectify his past. My only criticism is that at times the narrative is somewhat repetitive, but his overall argument that Lee is guilty of treason in support of a racist regime is dead on. His story is a microcosm of a larger portrait that has imbued the south for over 150 years. If by some “miracle” instead of reducing the study of history and government at educational institutions, we would fund and increase opportunities for more classes the divide that infects America today might be lessened. But, with terms like “fake news,” conspiracy theories involving 9/11, arguing that wildfires are caused by Jewish laser beams, Sandy Hook and Parkland murders did not occur, and QAnon members in the House of Representatives who refuse to give up their weapons on the House floor – as a result I am not encouraged.
One final thought. Seidule states that the Confederacy was formed in reaction to the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. They would go on to fight a war because they felt the election would destroy slavery. From this war sprang the Lost Cause myth, a form of “fake news.” Today we have a segment of the population that believes that the election of Joe Biden was stolen from them and it resulted in conspiracy theories that led to the attack on the capitol. What did the opponents of the 1860 and 2020 election results have in common – White Supremacy.