Presented at the 2017 Abbeville Institute Summer School.
You are deplorable.
It is worse than that. If you are Southern or interested in the South you are the most deplorable of all the deplorables. There is no place for you among the enlightened and virtuous people of 21st Century America.
But perhaps there is a certain advantage to being an outsider. It can help you see what 21st century America really is rather than what it assumes itself to be.
We can’t understand Southern identity without a candid view of that other thing, call it the North or mainstream America or the Age of Radicalism, for which the South has been an economic colony and a cultural whipping boy since well before the War for Southern Independence.
I was struck a few years ago by the statement of a leading Ivy League intellectual. America was suffering, he said, from increasing violence because of the spread of “the Southern gun culture.” This was the time of Timothy McVeigh of New York, Michigan, and the U.S. Army; of the Unabomber from Harvard and Berkeley; of the Columbine shooters (the only ones who used guns). You see, all this violence is because something is seeping out of the evil Southern culture to contaminate the good parts of America.
More recently, another Ivy League savant characterised the present truly deplorable condition of once wealthy and productive Detroit as “an Alabama ghetto.” We have now had three generations born and raised in Detroit, but if there is something wrong, you see, it must be the fault of the South. To invoke Alabama explains it all. In fact, studies have shown that the first generation of African-Americans who migrated from the South to Detroit were well-behaved even though they faced a lot of hostility. They had jobs and founded churches and businesses. But what has happened since MUST BE the fault of Southerners. That is the eternal default position.
Even more recently, I read the comments of a gentleman who says that in his Northern parochial school, the nuns taught that Southerners used black people for fire logs.
These commentators are ignorant. They are also diseased in mind and character. They imagine something they call the South which does not exist. To identify this as the source of evil in an otherwise pure and shining American society is for them a sign of superior intelligence and virtue. This defect is present, I fear, in millions of Americans, including some Southerners. You have to wonder what would become of them if they did not have this imaginary South to blame everything on and had to face their own selves. It seems to me this attitude can only flourish because American mainstream society is devoid of religion and any real culture, as well as of self-knowledge. It has no self except in contrast that imaginary evil “other” that is standing in the way of perfection.
This is the hostile environment in which the Southern tradition must survive.
John C. Calhoun said that the South was the balance wheel of the Union. Without the South America would go wild and fly apart. In this time when the South has lost almost all power and influence, is not that exactly what has happened? Is that not why we are in the “Age of Radicalism”?
Southerners are always being called upon to stop being themselves and become more like other Americans. Curiously, however, to be a mainstream American one must be intellectually and morally nimble enough to hit a moving target. Mainstream America is always changing and about every second or third generation it goes into a frantic revolutionary mode as it did in the 1850-1870s , in the 1960s-70s, and as we are living though now. The South has changed a lot but it simply can’t keep up. And what civilized people would want keep up with the mainstream America that is sunk in materialism, intellectual trivia, moral depravity, and that anti-culture called diversity?
The South, of course, may be dealt with by tangible facts and figures, historical and present-day. But there is an intangible element that is perhaps the most important of all. Although intangible, this South is real, not a product of the ravings of celebrated intellectuals. It may be this promethean qualitativeness of “the South” that allows outsiders to deal with us in ways that defy all reality.
This is what Mel Bradford was getting at when he defined the South “As a vital and long-lasting bond, a corporate identity assumed by those who have contributed to it.” The bond is not quantifiable It is a shared identity of values and behaviour, perhaps even of personality, and it has lasted a long time and is much more venerable, humane, and constructive than that artificial and dubious creation known at the U.S. government. It is not even a matter of birth and raising. It is shared by all who contribute to it.
In 1981, with youthful presumptuousness that still astonishes me, I attempted to define the South. I wrote:
“In my opinion the South has always been primarily a matter of values, a peculiar repository of intangible qualities in a society particularly preoccupied with the quantifiable.”
Count Hermann Keyserling was an Austrian (not German) nobleman well-known in the 1920s for his insightful writings on his world travels. After a long visit to the United States, he praised the material success of the United States (this was written in 1929 just before the Great Depression). But he added this:
When the American nation finds itself culturally, the hegemony will inevitably pass over to the South. There alone can there be a question of enduring culture. The region below the Potomac possesses the type that was truly responsible for America’s greatness in the past. This is the type of the Southern gentleman, with the corresponding type of woman. For these are the only types of complete souls that the United States has yet produced.
The only “complete souls” to be found among culturally and spiritually shallow Americans are Southerners. Think about it. Bradford and Keyserling’s remarks relate to the “social bond individualism” described by Richard Weaver. Lee’s men spontaneously forced him out of the line of fire against orders because it was the right thing to do for the common enterprise they were carrying out for their society. We may observe also, I think, a complete soul in the Southern grandmother who in civilizing young people warned against bad behavior not because it would be punished or was a bar to success but because “we don’t do that sort of thing.” It may be that the Southern dominance of American literature and music is an example of how complete souls can find expression even in such a debased American society as we now endure.
This form of individualism can often include a good deal of cussedness. Like Faulkner’s farmer who could not fathom that the government wanted to pay him NOT to grow cotton. Or the Confederate soldier described by Shelby Foote, who survived Pickett’s Charge and backed very slowly and defiantly down the hill taunting the Yankees.
In the late 19th century Americans reached a workable compromise in the understanding of the great revolutionary bloodshed of the War for Southern Independence. Southerners were glad that the Union had been preserved and wanted to fully participate in the flourishing America that followed. Northerners agreed that there was good and bad on both sides and that Southern motives were honourable and Southern heroes were American heroes.
There was another side to this peace treaty, however: everything good about the South became American. In the mainstream understanding of American history, the great Southerners who created and nourished the United States were “Americans,” that is, they were honorary Yankees. Only bad people like Calhoun, slavery defenders and traitors, were considered “Southern.” So Washington and Jefferson were put on Mount Rushmore along with Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt to suggest some sort of American, that is Yankee, tradition. In fact Washington and Jefferson would have despised Lincoln and Roosevelt as betrayers of the Founding. Now that we are expunging heroes, let’s blast Washington and Jefferson off of Mount Rushmore and replace them with Chester Arthur and Warren Harding.
It seems now that the lie is not working so well. It has come home that Washington and Jefferson and Andrew Jackson were Southern slaveholders, so there is a rising demand that they be expunged along with Confederates. Since Southern plantation owners were Presidents for 50 out of the first 72 years of the United States, as were most other significant leaders, American history must go. New Orleans can no longer celebrate its greatest hero, a slaveholder. If we are to put under the ban all slaveholders then we have wiped away all of the earliest and best part of American history. That, of course, is exactly what is intended.
But it has also wiped away the lies that have passed for mainstream American history. Washington and Jefferson and Andy Jackson are once more Southern and no longer honorary Yankees. And we can claim entirely for ourselves Lee and Forrest, who are not just Southern icons but world renowned military leaders, among the greatest ever produced by America. Today is General’s Forrest’s birthday, by the way.
I find jihadist campaign against America liberating. As Southerners we no longer have to be good sports and play by the rules that “those people” as General Lee politely called them, have thrown out. We can once more embrace our own Southern history, which is the real American history.
As Dr. Livingston and Dr. McClanahan have shown, from the beginning the South was America and America was the South. With good will, the South gave all to build the United States. Southerners all along thought of the Union as an agreement in good faith for mutual benefit of all the States. They served it in a spirit of patriotism and honour. From the very first day the ruling elements of the North considered the Union as a way to make themselves some easy money. They still do. And secondarily as a tool to force their way of thinking on everybody else. Our loyalty to the United States has never been reciprocated and our desire to be good Americans has been treated with contempt. That is the reality of enlightened and virtuous 21st century America that we can see from the perspective of the Southern tradition.
The Revolutionary War was won in the South by Southerners, although New England historians lied so industriously that most people see the winning of independence through a New England lens. In both the colonial and antebellum eras, the South was the productive part of the American economy, its products in great demand internationally. And it was the most prosperous as well. The North could not produce anything that Europe could not make for itself, thus the tariff that forced all American consumers to guarantee profits to Northern industrialists and a national debt that did the same for bankers.
Remember, in 1860 Lincoln was rejected by 60% of the American people. But he and his party got control of the federal machinery and waged a brutal war of conquest against the Southern people that no one previously could have imagined possible.
This war destroyed 60 per cent of the property and one fourth of the men of the South. War was very deliberately made on civilians, including African Americans. Historians have looked recently into the matter are discovering that the Southern civilian death toll, white and black, was much greater than has previously been estimated.
In carrying out this war of conquest nothing was ever done by the Union with a primary motive of benefit to the African Americans. In war and Reconstruction they were simply tools of the winning side. The war was not to preserve the Union. It was to replace the Union with a centralized machine. Lincoln did not save Government of by and for the people. He established a permanent regime of state capitalism. This means that the real power is in the hands of big business and big banks who use the government to protect and increase their own private profit and wealth. It had nothing to do with slavery or the welfare of African Americans.
This is the reality of 21st century America that live under. If you don’t think so, remember the bailout a few years back in the derivatives crisis. The banks had gambled and lost. But they were Too Big to Fail. Neither party could think of any solution except for the taxpayers to bail the criminals out to the tune of billions of dollars. And this was regarded as an exercise of great statesmanship. If there had been any Southern Jeffersonian Democracy left the crisis would never have happened nor would the atrocity of the bailout.
There has been a campaign to whitewash Reconstruction. But verbal gymnastics and cherry-picked facts cannot forever disguise the fact that that Reconstruction was actually a regime of oppression by military dictatorship and of looting of an already impoverished region that postponed its recovery. In the end it left nothing but poverty for Southerners white and black.
The period following Reconstruction has been euphemistically described as “the New South.” I recommend two recent books — Philip Leigh’s Southern Reconstruction and Punished by Poverty by Ronald and Donald Kennedy. They show that Reconstruction has never ended. We remain a colony of the ruling class of mainstream America to be impoverished for their benefit and hectored for our sins. You will be surprised to learn to what extent federal policy after Reconstruction was designed to keep Southerners, black and white, as impoverished colonials. Some 20 million Southerners, black and white, left for the North and West in the first half of the 20th century to escape their poverty—a wolrd-class diaspora. But being good sports and constructive and desiring to be good Americans, Southerners have almost ceased to notice their second-class citizenship. And the South is still the only part of American that remembers the Jeffersonian philosophy of government, as Dr. Walters has pointed out.
The sufferings of Southerners in the war and Reconstruction do not even register on the national consciousness. How easy it is to endure other peoples’ troubles. Several people have recently attacked General Lee for being bitter after the war. How can one be bitter about his land and people being destroyed now that he has been shown the superior virtue of the other side. This is the same mentality that encourages Americans to wreak destructive havoc on other countries. Why don’t they love us when we send drones half way around the world to blow up their wedding parties? After all, we mean well and only want to bring them good things.
Faulkner, the greatest American writer of the 20th century, wrote from the Southern tradition. There is the young farmer so poor he had to listen to the radio outside a neighbour’s window. But the day after Pearl Harbour he hitchhiked to Memphis to enlist. He did not need any abstractions about saving the world for democracy. To defend your people was the right thing to do. That is social bond individualism. Thoreau would have said don’t bother him. Emerson would have demanded that he be the one to decide for everybody else what the war was about.
Or the old lady and two boys in Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust who go to extreme lengths to save a black man falsely accused of murder. Not because they are dedicated to some abstraction about equality but because it is the right thing to do as members of society. And Faulkner’s The Reivers, as Bradford pointed out, begins with the words “Grandfather said…” followed by an uproarious account of what happens with Grandfather’s instructions on the conduct of a gentleman are disregarded. Imagine Hemingway’s or Fitzgeralds’s solipsist characters listening to what Grandfather said.
In Go Down, Moses, the character Ike McCaslin has been taken to be a hero because he repudiates his family heritage tainted with slavery. But Ike is no hero, he is a barren man, driven by an overly fastidious and abstract idea of the good. He is a Southern Thoreau. The real hero is the wordly Cass Edmonds, who accepts his tarnished heritage and does his best to carry out his responsibilities to his people, black and white. When in The Unvanquished Bayard Sartoris faces down his father’s killer unarmed in order to stop a cycle of violence, he is a conspicuous example of social bond individualism bond individualism.
Cleanth Brooks, the greatest student of Faulkner, as pointed out that the central character of all of Faulkner’s work is not an individual but the community—the town of Jefferson and Yoknapatawpha County. This is true of all the great Southern writers and sets them off from what elsewhere passes for American literature. The world portrayed in Southern literature has historical scope and social context, compared to what passes for American literature.
Faulkner at the time of his death was preparing a book to be called “The American Dream—What Happened to It?.” He had written some parts of it and it is a pure expression of the Southern and Jeffersonian tradition, more so than he probably realized. In a speech a year after the Nobel speech, Faulkner said that the noble American principle of a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness had become nothing more than an excuse for materialistic ease. The early Americans did not mean just the chance to chase happiness. By happiness they meant “not just pleasure, idleness, but peace, dignity, independence and self respect,” things that had to be worked for and earned. “We knew it once, had it once … only something happened to us.” We no longer “believed in liberty and freedom and independence as the old fathers in the old strong, dangerous times had meant it.”
Nobody these days even knows what you are talking about when, like Keyserling, you mention “souls.” That is evidence that the United States has never found itself culturally. I would say that it never will, because American culture is now irredeemable. The Southern soul is still here but we have to admit that it is embattled and weakened and I rejoice to see that it survives in some young people.
Our topic this summer is “Being Southern in an Age of Radicalism.” I can think of no better way to conclude these reflections than this passage from Abbeville Scholar, Dr. Robert Peters:
The South is a garden. It has been worn out by the War, Reconstruction, the Period of Desolation, the Depression and the worst ravages of all—Modernity; yet, a worn-out garden, its contours perceived by keen eyes, the fruitfulness of its past stored in memory, can be over time, a time which will last no longer than those of us who initially set our minds to the task, restored, to once again produce, for the time appointed unto it, the fruits which nurture the human spirit and which foreshadow the Garden of which there will be no end.