As Jadis, the White Witch/Queen of Eternal Winter in Narnia once said, “A door from the world of men; I have heard of such things; this may wreck all”. Clive Staples Lewis, “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.”
If there ever were a god who personifies the door from or to the world of men, or any other portal, it would be the Roman god Janus, the two-faced deity who looked forward and backward through time and space. Janus was among the most ancient of the distinctively Roman gods, one of my earliest girlfriends/ crushes in life was named “Jana”—Janus’ female counterpart and closer cognate to the Hindu Ganesha-Jayanti. Ganesha is the elephant-god whose “pachydermal” strength and size permit him to remove all obstacles from the way—like an elephant charging through the forest (or anything else, I guess). Janus personified and presided over the obstacles themselves—especially barriers, passages, and doorways in particular.
As through the barriers of time we fly on our annual travels to and from the dimensions of one year to another, we pass each year through the month of “January” named for this particular god of most apparently ancient and revered antiquity in the Indo-Germanische Ur-sprach und Ur-Gesselschaft as they (the proto-Indo-European language and society) might have existed in some vague yet certain to have been real at one time Indo-Arisches Ur-Heimatland.
New Year’s Eve-to-New Year’s Day is the generally recognized boundary or liminal moment between one year and the next, but I would suggest that the joint celebration of General Robert E. Lee’s birthday together with Reverend Martin Luther King’s birthday this coming Monday January 17, 2011, is a much more profoundly liminal, Janus-like moment—Robert Edward Lee’s birthday (January 19, 1807) looking backwards towards the Old Confederacy, and the Old Constitutional Federal Union from which it sprang, and Martin Luther King’s Birthday (January 15, 1929) which (at this point in time also looks back) albeit on the Post-Robert E. Lee South of Reconstruction and Jim Crow more than on the early Republic.
I grew up taught to love and revere General Robert E. Lee as the brilliant military commander under whom my ancestors fought in 1861-1865. And although I’m sure that MLK and I would have disagreed on many particular questions of policy, I cannot help but feel deep and profound awe when I re-read Reverend Martin Luther King’s letter from the Birmingham Jail, to which I can personally relate so many times more than his “I have a Dream” speech which is by far the best known of his speeches. I do believe that Martin Luther King was a man after Jesus Christ’s own heart—the heart of a revolutionary bludgeon against legal tyranny and hypocrisy on the part of a self-centered elite. But I see so much of myself in Robert E. Lee’s life, internal conflicts, and career that I cannot help but feel closer to the Confederate leader—even though my life, frankly, is more that of a civilly or uncivilly disobedient activist. Does it have anything to do with my status as a white man, son of the South? Of course it does. And it tortures my mind and conscience, because I realize the contradiction—-Lee was a product of the Establishment who remained an instrument of the establishment. MLK was a product of the underclass who always remained an instrument of the underclass struggling for some measure of equality. I am a product of the establishment and child of upper class (read “rich”) family who, having lost it all or most of it all to what he perceives as serious injustice and governmental-corporate malfeasance has dedicated his own life to the assisting struggles of the underclass, of all underdogs, and of the disenfranchised.
When recently in Baltimore I went to several of the Thurgood Marshall exhibits scattered around Thurgood Marshall’s home city and was similarly moved by the struggles of the First African-American Justice of the United States Supreme Court. I do not think he was a good lawyer, and he was frankly an abysmal justice—but he was definitely in the right place at the right time, and his struggle for freedom is much like mine. The airport between Baltimore & Washington, located closer to Annapolis where my son studies at St. John’s college than anywhere else, has one of these exhibits and in fact the BWI Airport is called the “Thurgood Marshall” International Airport. Strange that there is no airport named after John Marshall, Chief Justice of the United States from 1801-1835, even though this Justice Marshall is justly credited with forming and shaping the modern Anglo-American tradition of constitutional jurisprudence in the United States. John Marshall was former and shaper to the same degree that Thurgood Marshall was formed and shaped by the times in which he lived, and was an effective and competent participant in those times and events.
When checking out how the transition in my lifetime had occurred between the mid-January celebration of Robert E. Lee’s Birthday and the Mid-January celebration of Martin Luther King’s Birthday, I was more than mildly surprised to learn that Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, and Mississippi all jointly designated the Third Monday in January as Robert E. Lee day AND Martin Luther King Day. In Florida, January 19, is still Robert E. Lee Day, but not a paid holiday, so nobody gets an extra day off, while in Virginia the day is jointly Robert E. Lee, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s birthday. I’ll bet there are a lot of racially segregated parties this weekend with very few crossover members attending both.
In a very real sense, that is too bad I guess—in the spirit of Janus and Ganesha, the lives of both Robert E. Lee and Martin Luther King represented (and up to a point, constituted) the ritual re-enactment of boundaries. One of the great boundaries that Robert E. Lee had to cross in his life was the boundary between the blue and the grey. He was a graduate of West Point and up to a point the founder of the effective U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He built up the levees around St. Louis—a kind of boundary maintenance between dry land and riverbeds—and he retained his U.S. Army commission until the secession of the State of Virginia, to which he felt a primary loyalty traditional in those early days of the Federal Republic. He believed he was a Virginian more than an American, so he respected the boundary between the State and Federal government more than most of us can imagine possible in this modern era.
For Martin Luther King, the primary boundary was one of color, between black and white, of all the symbolically and physically cordoned spaces which separated black and white in the buses, trains, schools, parks, restaurants, and movie theaters of the Southern United States and many other parts of the country as well. (In the Northern part of the United States, where de jure segregation was less rigid, de fact segregation by residential areas was much stronger. As former California Senator (and Japanese-American linguistic/semanticist) S.I. Hayakawa once explained it to us when he addressed my high school in 1973, “Southern Whites don’t care how close the Black man gets so long as he doesn’t get too high; the Northern Whites don’t care how high the Black man gets so long as he doesn’t get too close.”
So Robert E. Lee’s life was all about boundary maintenance, and Martin Luther King’s life was all about boundary destruction. Some say that Robert E. Lee’s strategy for fighting for Southern Independence in 1861-65 was hampered by his excessive respect for boundaries: when the Northern will and organization was low during the two earlier years of the war, Lee several times stood back in Northern Virginia and failed to invade Maryland and seize Washington D.C. By the time Lee finally decided to cross the boundary and go—I’ve never quite understood why—into Southern Pennsylvania (did he expect an uprising of the Pennsylvania-Dutch/German Amish in favor of the Confederacy? probably not….for Lee was a very smart and well-educated man) it was too late. The Northern Armies had become stronger and better organized and even if Lee had won Gettysburg, he could not have realistically conquered Pennsylvania—so as I say, I’ve always wondered why he bothered at all—it’s as if he was afraid frontally to attack Washington—too close to the “boundary” of his own home in Arlington perhaps? If so, his respect for boundaries really did “cost him the farm” for Arlington was seized and made forfeit.
In my world, as I’ve said so often before, I am interested in boundaries, albeit in very different ways. With regard to the law—I want to crash the remaining boundaries between Black and White in regard to the enforcement of Civil Rights—I think that the idea that Civil Rights Law is primarily a welfare program for racial minorities is just AWFUL—both un-American and Anti-American—and it is wholly inconsistent with what the Supreme Court has been preaching about affirmative action and racial categories in the law since at least 1978. I would love to see the Civil Rights Laws completely removed from their Public Welfare location in Title 42 and moved perhaps to Titles 4, 5, or 28, or perhaps entirely into Title 18. It is evil to associate constitutional rights with Welfare programs in my opinion: equally evil to using access to civil rights laws to maintain racial conflict and competition in the U.S.
Which is not to say that there should not be competition between the races, or even some degree of separation. Readers of this blog will also recall that I am a constant critic of the failed doctrines of “diversity” which suggest that everyone should mingle and mix and get together and physically as well as culturally obliterate all the boundaries between different cultural, economic, ethnic, occupational, racial, and social groups. I submit that the real appreciation and maintenance of diversity, and all the socio-economic an cultural (as well as physical) evolutionary and competitive-stimulus benefits which real diversity provides—mandates that we encourage and foster the ability of the people to test out alternative ways of life and see which ways work better for different people—and to watch these ways of life compete for the betterment of each cultural, economic, ethnic, occupational, racial, and social group. Why should we NOT want a diversity of ideas fomented by separate but parallel development? Why would we, how could we, really want a world characterized by bland homogeneity in which everyone shops at Walmart and CVS, the Gap, Starbucks, and maybe a MAXIMUM of a dozen other name-brand stores throughout the world. Such drab uniformity to me as a nightmare, but also an inevitable consequence of promoting “diversity” meaning “shake-and-bake-hamburger helper-mixed-powdered just add water world global society.”
In conclusion the Mississippi proclamation of the joint holiday we celebrate this weekend seems to me worth quoting, even if it is last year’s proclamation which I just found (Martin Luther King’s & Robert E. Lee’s Birthday):
Martin Luther King’s Birthday