As someone who came to the Southern Conservative tradition late this moment feels very strange. I have inculcated affection for the South my whole life without living there very often, or even knowing it was the South that I was pledging allegiance to. But it keeps turning out that everything I value, everything I believe, is deeply Southern. Yet my affection comes at a distance. I call myself a Southern Conservative because I don’t think Conservativism can be dislocated, there is no general form of Conservatism. It always needs description. And yet for someone who describes himself as Southern I have not been located very often within the South.
As the monuments come down I see the obvious folly but do not feel much in the way of sadness or anger. It is easy to be angry at cowards like Rich Lowry who have made a career out of compromise with the American left and consistently betrayed Conservatism. It only takes reading a little bit of the incomparable Paul Gottfried to understand just how distorted “movement Conservatism” has always been. The NeoCons and “Capitalists” really took over in the mid twentieth century and National Review rarely looked back. Russel Kirk was spilling ink over their Straussian heads the whole time.
Ben Shapiro is probably the best contemporary exemplification of this problem. He’s no coward, but he makes every issue into a war of ideas. The solution for someone like him is always better policy, better statesmanship, and worst of all better ideas over and against bad ideas. And make no mistake the ideas he’s fighting against are bad ideas, his ideas are better. But these culture warriors seek to turn everything into a war of ideologies, and that’s a battle that literally only ideology can win.
Conservatism is inherently anti ideology. It seeks the practical over the theoretical, the good over the perfect, and most importantly love over hate. That last one sounds corny but it couldn’t be more true. The late Sir Roger Scruton said that Conservatism began with love. The Conservative has found something to love. A place, a thing, a person, an institution, a way of life, a tradition, or hopefully a community, the little platoons of Edmund Burke. The Conservative speaks and thinks in the first person plural. The Conservative is focused on something real that he longs to conserve and belong to.
The Conservative does not seek to preserve at all costs. That is the ideology of nostalgia and reaction. To preserve is to force something to stay as it is, or worse yet attempt to return to an older time that no longer exists. That is what museums are for. The Conservative is not a curator, he or she is a mender, a builder, and a cultivator.
This is why I see myself as a Southern Conserative. I see the story of the South and I long to be part of it. Not because of romanticism. Not because I believe slavery wasn’t evil or because I think secession can solve all our problems. I call myself a Southern Conservative because the South is real. When I travel there I can feel it. There are echoes in the ground. Echoes put there by slaves and masters, by Aristocrats and hillbillies, by Stonewall Jackson and Booker T. Wasington. I love it all. The sins and the virtues. Because they are all real. They are anti ideology. The story of the south is written in blood and dirt. It’s a story of failure and renewal. It’s a story of food and music.
C Vann Woodward argued that the failure of the War for Southern Independence gave the South a special gift: humility. Something the rest of America lacked until our interference in the Civil War of Vietnam, which unsurprisingly is one of the NeoCons favorite things to talk about. They all know that if we had really committed we could have beat the Communists. It’s just more ideological thinking, it’s just more commitment to the idea that plans and tactics are what win or lose every conflict. Battles and wars are fought by men not ideas, ideas never spilled any blood, and bad ideas are seemingly never defeated by failure hence the newfound popularity of socialism.
I don’t know if Woodward was right, I’m not a historian, but I do know that stories characterized by humility are better than stories that aren’t. And the story of the South is deeply characterized by humiliation and humility. Continued attempts at humiliation by the rest of America, especially in popular culture, are now culminating in the destruction of the statues of our heroes. This too was always going to be part of the story, and this too shall pass. The legacies of our heroes and the story of the South can only be enhanced by this pathetic attempt at a French Revolution. It’s just one more step in the journey, one more thing to rebuild, and one more insult to bear.
Maybe all the humiliation is worth it, maybe the pain is worth bearing if it means producing a Flannery O’Connor, Mark Twain, or Johnny Cash. After all a good man (or woman) is hard to find, yet somehow the South seems to consistently produce them. Maybe the humility of having only rancid meat and cabbage was worth it if it produced barbecue and coleslaw. Maybe if we keep the joy set before us we too can endure the cross and scorn its shame. In light of the struggles of the past, and especially in the healing light of the crucifixion our current predicate seems extremely mild. That doesn’t make these Jacobins any less disgusting in their sinful fever, but it should give us great comfort. Our Southern ancestors persevered through much worse. If anything, maybe we should be worried that our present struggles are not fierce enough, God in his providence knows that we couldn’t handle the struggles of our forefathers.
One of the best Southerners to ever live encapsulated all this well when he wrote the following to close his autobiography:
“It’s all right in a way for those of us who lived through it to feel a certain nostalgia for the struggle, for old friends and for distant places, even though the times were hard; but I worry about the younger people, who neve entered doors marked “colored,” never were forbidden to use public libraries, never went to Jim Crow schools or ate in Jim Crow restaurants or slept in Jim Crow motels.
They take the past too much for granted. Do they understand what the older members of their families suffered under such a system, what constant faith they maintained? Will they try to understand? Whatever their burdens, young blacks enjoy the benefits of the great sacrifices made by those who came before them. Humble, usually uneducated, these earlier blacks lived for the most part without the smallest luxuries, maintained a spare dignity in their often brief lives, and went to graves in segregated cemeteries, their deaths unreported by the local newspapers. Had it not been for the character and courage of these simple people, we would not have raised up a generation of leaders and nothing would have changed. We would still be looking from afar at the high walls of an impregnable city. So these are the first great heroes and heroines of our struggle. Yet today they are remembered only in the Book of Life and in the hearts of a few old soldiers, the ones of us who still remain.
Soon we too will be gone, the last of us who shouted down the walls of Jericho. Of course, I grieve for those who were killed in the struggle…yet in the growing twilight my heart also aches for those anonymous generations who never saw the Promised Land, even from the mountaintop.” -Ralph David Abernathy
How blessed we are to stand on the shoulders of giants like these. Our problems are nothing when compared to those of the past, and yet I feel sorry for anyone who doesn’t wish that this past, the Southern past, was also their past. I have adopted it as my history, warts and all, and to any tiny tyrant who would try to take that from me I say molon labe. If a century and a half of reconstruction hasn’t been able to work the Rebel out of the South what chance does Antifa have? The words spoken at the First Bull Run are just as true today “There stands Jackson like a stone wall! Rally behind the Virginians!”