America is not one nation.
It’s more like an ever-simmering cauldron of local and regional allegiances and grudges — social, moral, political, geographical and financial.
And good luck to any man — whether a president, a preacher, a restaurateur or a pop singer — who would dare try to keep everybody happy for more than five minutes at a time.
It’s interesting, if not always pleasant, when two opposing niches of America rub up against each other. There’s always a chance that a scuffle will break out, like when two captive rhinos shoulder toward the same food trough.
Other times, the factions pass in the night, with barely more than a raised eyebrow on either side: So that’s what happens on the other side of the fence.
I’m guessing that’s what happened in this week’s calendar entry, which features an event my grandfather never celebrated.
How do I know my grandpa never celebrated Robert E. Lee’s birthday?
He wasn’t a Southerner by birth, residence or self-proclamation. In ninety-plus years of life, it’s likely that he never crossed the Mason-Dixon line. Like Gil Scott-Heron’s old Uncle Henry, he was never known to board an airplane, either.
Compared to my grandpa, I am positively worldly, having savored boiled peanuts in Charleston, red beans and rice in New Orleans, tacos in San Antonio, and Piggly Wiggly house-brand soda in Savannah.
That said, I had no idea people celebrated Robert E. Lee’s birthday in a widespread fashion, and I was surprised to see it come pre-printed on a wall calendar. It’s not on any of the ones in my house, I’m sure of that.
According to Wiki, no fewer than seven Southern states mark the Confederate military leader’s birthday.
Three of them commemorate it on the same day as Martin Luther King Jr. Day. That strikes me as the sort of folly that future generations will find risible, like duck-and-cover drills or witch trials. (Does any other country produce queasy retroactive laughs quite like America?)
I suppose you could argue that every state should embrace Robert E. Lee Day, though, because the old general was pretty much America on a horse.
By all accounts, he was a gentleman of intelligence, grace, piety and humility, not to mention a strong military leader.
And yet, the inescapable bottom line is that he put all of these qualities to work in support of a brutal and inhuman social system. He flew the flag for home, honor — and the right of one human being to buy and sell another.
The collision of the righteous and the venal, the lofty and the self-serving, the honorable and the crabbed, the pure and the fouled … is that not America?
Perhaps it is not American nature but human nature that is so bitterly divided. Still, the story of Robert E. Lee makes me picture a country that can see the right things to do, but cannot bring itself to commit to them. That’s what I see in the mirror, and in the headlines, and in the sky on the Fourth of July.
I am not sure what my grandpa did when he got frustrated with his country — as he surely did, being a thoughtful man in a turbulent time. Perhaps he went to bed, and hoped the freezing rain and glare ice would melt away in the morning.
That sounds pretty good.
Happy belated Robert E. Lee Day.