Robert E. Lee & Volunteer Networks to Solve Crime

Sunday October 3, 2021

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Transcript

What Happens Next is a podcast where experts are given just SIX minutes to present their argument. This is followed by a Q&A period for deeper engagement.

This week’s topics include Robert E Lee and Bellingcat: How a volunteer network solves crimes.

Our first speaker today will be Allen Guelzo. He is Director of the James Madison Program Initiative on Politics and Statesmanship at Princeton University. Previously, he was the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College. You may recall that Allen spoke on What Happens Next about the monuments controversy, and today he will discuss his new book which is a biography of Robert E. Lee. I hope to learn about why the confederate general has such a continuing historical relevance.

Our second speaker is Eliot Higgins. Eliot started an organization called Bellingcat that works with volunteers to solve war crimes using open source video and data. Bellingcat has successfully exposed some major atrocities such as exposing that a Russian missile shot down a Malaysian airliner over the Ukraine. Bellingcat’s volunteer network also proved that Russian agents used a biological weapon to kill a double agent on British soil. I hope to learn from Eliot how he successfully put together an organization with 1000s of volunteers to solve crimes faster than the world’s best law enforcement agencies.

                                                              
 
 
 
 
 

Allen Guelzo

Topic: Robert E Lee
Bio: Director of the James Madison Program Initiative on Politics and Statesmanship at Princeton University. Previously, the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College.
Reading: Robert E. Lee: A Life is here

Transcript

Allen Guelzo
Larry, it is a pleasure once again, to be talking to you and to your audience, and today, I’m going to talk about Robert E. Lee, who in the days before the American Civil War could have been considered the very model of an American soldier. He was the son of a revolutionary war hero, Light-Horse Harry Lee, protégé of George Washington. He entered West Point in 1825. Did so well, he graduated in 1829 second in his class. Went into the elite core of engineers and earned his most impressive military bouquets serving under Winfield Scott in the Mexican War. He was Scott’s Chief Aide in the dramatic campaign from the coast of Veracruz to Mexico City in 1847 during the Mexican American War.

He later then served as Superintendent of West Point, then from 1855 to 1861, Lee was the Lieutenant Colonel of the 2nd Cavalry. And then finally, with the outbreak of the Civil War, he was offered Field Command of the United States forces to deal with the breakaway Southern Confederacy.

And at that moment, he turned his back on more than 30 years of service and took command, first of the Virginia State Forces, and then of the biggest Confederate Field Army, the army of Northern Virginia, which he led to many victories, but finally was compelled to surrender in 1865. Almost nothing in those preceding 30 years gives the slightest hint of the decision he made to leave the army, to reject his oath to defend the United States, to really commit treason against the United States.

So the great question about Robert E. Lee is why? Why did he do it?

His general answer in 1861, was that he was a Virginian, and when Virginia seceded from the Union and joined the Confederacy, he was obliged to follow them. But really was he? Robert E. Lee was born in Virginia in 1807, but he’d grown up in Alexandria, which was then part of the District of Columbia and most of the places to which he had been assigned in his long career, as an engineer were other places; Georgia, St. Louis, Baltimore, New York City. In fact, the curiosity is that he actually spent more time consistently in New York than he did almost any other place in the country.

What Lee could not ignore were two very important factors that were confronting him. First of all, his father, the great Light-Horse Harry Lee, had been a real hard luck husband and father, and he left his family for the West Indies when Robert was only six years old. The shadow that Light-Horse Harry cast over the Lee name was one that Robert struggled all his life to redeem, so there’s always this broad streak of perfectionism in his behavior. But he also yearned to breathe free of his father’s reputation in other ways. He wanted independence. He wanted to be his own man. And in one sense, when he marries Mary Randolph Custis, he’s marrying into one of the first families of Virginia. That’s an attempt to stake out a realm for himself.

But Lee also yearns for security. While most of his contemporaries in the army resign their commissions and go into private practice, he stays in the army because it’s secure employment. Now the hinge factor where this touches his decision was the family estate at Arlington. This is today the great National Cemetery, but in Lee’s day, it was his wife’s property. It was the property of the Custis family. He lived there and it was as much to protect Arlington for his family, as it was for Virginia, that he chose to resign his commission and refused the offer of command. But that’s only one factor.

The other factor in Lee’s decision is his expectation that there really was not going to be a Civil War after all. He makes this decision on April 20th, 1861. Now, hard as it may be for us to appreciate this, in April 1861, even after the secession of the Southern States, even after the firing on Fort Sumter, it was not clear that the crisis would only result in a Civil War. Lee could have simply resigned and stayed neutral, or he could accept the invitation extended to him to take command of Virginia forces and play the role of mediator between Virginia and the Union, and thus achieve by peacemaking, a fame greater than his father had ever enjoyed.

Now, it didn’t turn out that way. Like many others Lee found the secession crisis galloping away from him, and in the end step by step by step, he found himself by 1862 as the Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. And he played that role as perfectly as he tried to play every other role in life. That he failed did not necessarily surprise him. On the way to Appomattox, he frankly admitted that he’d always expected that the war would turn out the way Appomattox showed that it would. But at least his conduct would show how he could rise even above defeat. So in the end, he still keeps that pursuit of perfection intact. But I think that’s the real nub of what we sometimes call the decision, but really a series of incremental decisions that leads Robert E. Lee away from being a model US army officer to becoming the Robert E. Lee, who becomes the great Confederate Army General.

Questions for Guelzo


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Eliot Higgins

Topic: Using Volunteer Networks to Solve War Crimes
Bio: Founder of Bellingcat
Reading: We are Bellingcat: Global Crime, Online Sleuths, and the Bold Future of News is here

Transcript

Larry Bernstein:
Eliot Higgins is our next guest. He is the author and founder of the organization; Bellingcat. His book is entitled; We are Bellingcat: Global Crime, Online Sleuths, and the Bold Future of News. Eliot, please go ahead.

Eliot Higgins:
So what I’d like to talk to you about today is disinformation and my experiences with it working at Bellingcat. It’s something that I’ve both been personally targeted with, and also encountered a lot during our work, because we work on a number of topics where there’s a lot of discussion and debate, particularly online, and also where there’s a lot of interest from state actors, in particular Russia. So we’ve had kind of years of experience dealing with disinformation, both countering it and both having to live with it as well. But the kind of pattern of behavior behind it is often something that we see repeated time and time again. When we’re talking about disinformation, it’s usually in the context of how we see it through the lens of the 2016 US election, where there was all this Russian interference and bot networks and fake news and all kinds of things like that.

But really it’s often what we’re doing to ourselves as a society rather than an outside force acting on us, even if those outside forces often take advantage of it and still do try to do that. For example, when we’ve been working on the topic of Syria, in particular chemical attacks, it became very apparent that a community was forming, a kind of counterfactual community around the denial of chemical weapon use. They would look at these various attacks that were happening, starting from 2013 onwards and always find some kind of excuse. And these communities were made up of individuals, conspiracy websites. They, over time got networked and banded together to create this alternative media ecosystem that reinforced the viewpoints by basically drawing people into that and then telling them the same stories, but from a variety of different sites. So basically just sharing the same stories and recycling them time and time again.

And the reason those communities formed is something that I think is quite crucial for understanding why disinformation occurs in the way it does. It is because people, often, who are part of these communities feel they’ve been fundamentally and almost traumatically betrayed by the source of authority that’s now telling them this thing that they have decided must be a lie because you can’t trust this source of authority. In particular, in the context of Syria, it was the buildup to the Iraq war in 2003 and the lies told by the US and UK government to justify that. Many of the people now, who make up these communities, are people who see everything through that same lens. So when we’re talking about Syria and chemical weapons, they’re thinking in terms of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and how that turned out. And all their arguments and all their thinking is framed around that kind of thing.

And what happens is you can use the example of coronavirus, where you might be someone who’s distrusting of the sources of authority who’re telling you to get a vaccination, because you may have had a bad experience with a doctor. You might not really trust the government that isn’t being particularly well led. And you decide that maybe you want to Google coronavirus concerns or vaccination problems. And you’ll immediately be directed by the helpful search engines to websites and online communities and Facebook groups that also have these same concerns. Now that’s not to say these groups are going to be people that are telling you that Bill Gates is putting microchips in vaccines, but that will be the first step on a journey that draws you into communities that might bring you to that point, because you’ll find yourself then surrounded by people who have the same concerns and have those concerns reinforced by people who have become the kind of new sources of authority in those communities.

With the case of chemical weapons attacks for example in Syria, a lot of those were activists or long-term anti-war activists, or basically people who are their kind of most active and noisiest on social media. And they don’t always make the best kind of experts. And as you’ve been drawn into these communities, in the example of coronavirus, you might be starting off with the question of, “are these vaccines safe?” And the answer may be from some people, “no, these vaccines aren’t safe, they’re quite dangerous. They can give your children autism, they have mercury in them.” So you start reading more and more stuff about that. And you find communities that discuss that topic in particular, and within that community, you’ll find another kind of sub-community of people have even more extreme beliefs. You’d think, well, it’s not just the mercury in the vaccines you have to worry about, but the microchips that Bill Gates has been putting in there.

Now not everyone’s going to go on that journey, be gone all the way in, but some people will and they tend to become the kind who praise people who make the most noise.

But what we see in some circumstances is how those communities are then effectively weaponized by state actors. And we’ve seen that in particular with MH-17 team, for example, where we’ve seen Russia taking these kinds of communities and giving them a platform on their media networks. Taking them to things like UN committees and using them for their own purposes. So I think when you talk about disinformation, you always need to say it in the context of, not what an outside actor is doing to us, but what we’re doing to ourselves. And until we address that issue, it’s going to be very hard to realistically counter this disinformation that we’re seeing.

Questions for Higgins

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