Sic Semper Tyrannis: What Does it Mean to be a Virginian? (Allen, Webb, and Robert E. Lee)


The occasion for this post is that George Allen still slightly leads Jim Webb in the latest poll for the Virginia Senate race. I find this profoundly depressing, and not so much as the editor of a progressive magazine, but as a Virginian.

To be clear, this is my exact pedigree: I was born in Baltimore and raised in Virginia, Northern Virginia—and nowhere else is that modifier so loaded—in Arlington, to be precise. Arlington is, of course, home to the most famous National Cemetery, which was so enshrined when President Lincoln decided to bury Civil War dead in Mrs. Lee’s rose garden so that the Lees could never again reside in their home, which was just across the river from Washington. It was a very personal decision: Lincoln had asked Lee to lead the Union army, but the General felt that if the country was going to divide itself, he would stand with his state.

Those who are determined to preserve Lee’s godliness above all, will, if they are equality minded, point out that he was no particular defender of slavery; it was a matter of honor, the highest sacrifice on the altar of states’ rights. Maybe so, maybe not—anyway, 140-odd years have past, who cares?

Except, except, except…George Allen, whose pandering, or worse, to the meanest level of racism, masquerading as Southern Pride, has occurred in the year 2006. I don’t hold him to account for using the word nigger in the 60s and 70s. I have no doubt that he did so, if only because I challenge any American—black, white, or other—to say they’ve never used the word, in joke, in anger, out of truly felt prejudice. But here’s the rub with Allen. He hides behind regional pride (read: small-mindedness), when in fact he’s not of the region. Allen grew up in southern California, where, to be sure, racial relations have hardly been stellar, but where a kid growing up in the 60s and 70s would have surely been, had he so been inclined, exposed to a more enlightened view of others. And nothing is more disgusting than someone from a different part of the country taking on the trappings of the worst of the region to which they move—and if that adaptation is designed to pander to the basest level of the American electorate, it is worse still.

A 19-year old Allen using the N-word amongst teammates is one thing. Tossing off racial prejudices at a 2006 campaign rally, having a noose in office, and the many other indicators that Allen is at best the lowest form of political life, is another. He is either an unreconstructed bigot who is too stupid to think he’ll be caught at his bigotry, or, worse, a base politician who designs to influence voters by the fallen angels of our nature.

It is worth recalling that, after the Civil War, Lee argued that a tone of reconciliation and patience would further the interests of white Southerners. Here’s the Wikipedia version: “He repeatedly expelled white students from Washington College for violent attacks on local black men, and publicly urged obedience to the authorities and respect for law and order. In 1869-70 he was a leader in successful efforts to establish state-funded schools for blacks. He privately chastised fellow ex-Confederates such as Jefferson Davis and Jubal Early for their frequent, angry responses to perceived Northern insults, writing in private to them as he had written to a magazine editor in 1865, that ‘It should be the object of all to avoid controversy, to allay passion, give full scope to reason and to every kindly feeling. By doing this and encouraging our citizens to engage in the duties of life with all their heart and mind, with a determination not to be turned aside by thoughts of the past and fears of the future, our country will not only be restored in material prosperity, but will be advanced in science, in virtue and in religion.'”

Amen. Bigots like Allen hurt the long-term interests of the state I love. Virginia is for lovers, not haters. Sic Semper Tyrannis means “Thus Always to Tyrants.” It is the state motto. Bigotry is the worst form of tyranny.

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