Musing 7.10.20


I haven’t thought of Eric Schwartz for years, but lately he has been on my mind a lot. I’ll return to him later.

When I was growing up, I was a huge fan of Robert E. Lee. I am sure it had something to do with my father loving history. We visited almost every battlefield east of the Mississippi. We followed the lives of Lincoln, Lee, and Jackson from cradle to grave. I had the freedom to pick any hero I wanted, and I picked Lee. There was a small Confederate flag and picture of Lee on my bedroom bulletin board, I wore a Washington and Lee University sweatshirt. For the sixth-grade speech contest, I memorized his farewell address to his troops after the surrender at Appomattox Court House. I regretted that I was born in boring Ohio as opposed to vital Virginia. I rooted for the South. That was me at 12. While I would have considered myself a strong supporter of civil rights, I never reconsidered my hero worship of Lee.

Enter Eric Schwartz. I met Eric my senior year in college. He was from Los Angeles and held dual citizenship in the United States and France. His Jewish mother had fled France during the Nazi occupation. Eric was very smart and talented; I respected him. My favorite quotation of his was, “I like to say absurd things to see if we can whittle them down to something sane.” He went to Yale Law; I went to Yale Divinity. In the summer of 1974, we rented a beach house on Long Island Sound with several friends. It sounds more exotic than it was. One week some of his relatives visited from France. Of course, their English was much better than my French. On Saturday afternoon a handful of us were watching a PBS show on great American homes which featured Lee’s childhood home Stratford. Why were we watching TV at the beach on a Saturday? It must have been raining. One of our French visitors said he had never heard of Lee. Who was he? I was incredulous. How could anyone not know about the wonderful Lee? Simultaneously Eric and I answered the question. I said, “He was one of the greatest Americans.” Eric said, “He was one of America’s greatest traitors.” I realized that this was not Eric’s saying something absurd to be whittled to something sane. This was already sane. He had thought this through. I have since wondered if his mother’s experience gave him this clarity.

We looked at each other like we were nuts. I challenged him, and his answer was simple. “Lee defended slavery. Slavery is evil.” I was defenseless.

The scales fell from my eyes. I didn’t have to get rid of the picture and flag. Mom had thrown those out with my baseball cards when she converted my bedroom to a sewing room. I had outgrown the sweatshirt; it was by then a paint rag. I did re-examine history and knew that the story of the Lost Cause was a re-working of the real story of slavery, Northern and global economic complicity, Jim Crow, and the country’s sin of racism.

Does it matter to learn the real story? To quote William Faulkner, “The past is not dead. It is not even past.” That is still so true. We need to get the past straight so as not to continue the sins of the past. Our present arises from the past. Our future arises from the present. Learning the real story means I don’t have all the answers. It means I am not as smart as I think I am which means I am free of the burden of destructive arrogance. I would like to think that we can create a perfect future world. That is naïve, unrealistic, and harmful. Yet, we can work to create a better world. That is humbler and healthier. It acknowledges our fallibility and need of each other. Humility listens, grows, and betters itself and others.

I am thankful for Eric’s lesson in humility. He did whittle something absurd down until it was sane. Me.

Hope you are safe, well, and cool.