Can the South Survive?

the fugitives

(I’ll Take My Stand 75th anniversary conference, Franklin, Tennessee)

The Twelve Southerners have been justly praised for their powers of prophecy. In reading ITMS once more after several years, it struck me that their description of the unhappy tendency toward the massification of American life and mind—what they called industrialism—is even more precisely accurate in 2005 than it was in 1930.

Besides being prophetic, the rich quality of what the Twelve Southerners had to say has broad and enduring appeal, as has also been generally granted. They hoped for an audience beyond the South. They not only got that; they also reached succeeding generations. Almost every essay reminds Southerners of the existence of like-minded people elsewhere and of the necessity and duty to collaborate with them. Stark Young wrote: “We defend certain qualities not because they belong to the South, but because the South belongs to them.” There are, then, certain valuable qualities to which the South has a special relationship in the current condition of the world.

But Stark Young’s very next sentence says: “The intelligent course sees first our Southern culture in relation to other cultures, and then in the light of its own sum.” Say what you will about the universal appeal of ITMS. But remember, the title comes from the Southern national anthem, and the first two words of the subtitle are “The South.” The first paragraph of text begins with the statement “The authors contributing to this book are Southerners.” The last sentence of that first paragraph affirms that the writers “all tend to support a Southern way of life against what may be called the American or prevailing way.” We sometimes forget what a radical step it was and is to declare against “the American way of life.”

Among its many other qualities, ITMS is an important chapter in the cultural history of the Southern people, so I trust I will be excused for concentrating upon the very particular Southernness of this classic work and use this occasion to accept Stark Young’s assignment to see “our Southern culture in the light of its own sum.” In 1930 the existence of a Southern people was so obvious it was assumed without comment. In 1930 it was also true, as Ransom wrote, that the unregenerate traditional Southerner was politely, even fondly tolerated as a harmless quaintness. In 2005 neither the existence of the Southern people nor toleration for their difference from “the American or prevailing way” can be taken for granted.

As some here know, a quarter century ago I had the honour to put together a book of essays examining the condition and future of Dixie on the 50th anniversary of ITMS. The theme put forward is described by the title: Why the South Will Survive. Today I marvel at my youthful impudence and presumption in undertaking such a work, but I reasoned then that ITMS was so seminal and central that it belonged to all of us and we were all entitled to celebrate it. Some men, wiser than myself, kept me from going too badly astray and helped to bring in the most important contributors. Some of the essays in WTSWS are of lasting merit—particularly those by Tom Fleming, Tom Landess, George Garrett, Mel Bradford, and Cleanth Brooks on Southern religion, the subject of his essay many years before in the Agrarian sequel Who Owns America?

We must not let this day of celebration of the Agrarian legacy pass without appreciating the contribution of our late friend M.E. Bradford to that legacy. Mel’s life’s work immeasurably enriched and re-energized Agrarianism. He gave it historical and political depth and current relevance with learning and understanding that in several ways surpassed that of his mentors. In 1980, in his concluding essay to WTSWS, he defined what it is to be Southern as well as it has ever been done, and, after realistic examination of the times, expressed a guarded optimism about the future of Dixie.

I often ask myself if today I am as optimistic as I was a quarter century ago when I encouraged good men to rally round and affirm that the South was going to survive. The gravity of our situation as Southerners requires the utmost candor. From my affirmation of our survival I have grudgingly retreated to a question—Can the South survive? Stark Young noted several disturbing tendencies even in 1930. Southerners were exhibiting more susceptibility to the shallow, adolescent “national ethos.” And the tough Christianity of the South was showing signs of degenerating into the sentimental religiosity of Northern Protestantism. Those tendencies, without doubt, are far more advanced today.

Nevertheless, in what follows I make several positive assumptions. 1) However diminished and threatened, a Southern people still exists. 2) We Southerners have a right, indeed an obligation, to continue to perpetuate our kind. 3) Given the hopelessly debased condition of American political life and non-culture, high and low, every decent man and woman left in the land ought to be interested in preserving those qualities to which the South belongs, however attenuated. Yes, that special relationship of Southerners to important universal qualities still exists, though the relationship is not as robust as it used to be.

When the Twelve wrote in their statement of principles that no one now contemplates a separate political destiny for Dixie or any other American community, they merely observed the truth of the times. The United States had emerged from the Great War as a great power. Despite the Depression, the U.S.A. seemed to be a solid and eternal fact of the universe, an impression that was strengthened by World War II and its aftermath.

Today there is reason to believe that the American regime is not as indivisible as it used to seem. I for one admit to happiness that such is the case. The nation of 1930 is now a multicultural empire, the leaders of which are literally crazed with delusions of omnipotence. But the American Empire of 2005 is not stronger than the U.S.A. of 1930 or 1950. It is a great deal weaker in every thing that counts, whether measurable or unmeausurable. It is weaker in social cohesion, in purpose, in faith and morals, in real wealth, in real military prowess, in capacity to respond to serious challenges, in quality of life, and in the absence of any evidences of civilization except the material and technological. True, the central government is more intrusive and more dangerous than it has ever been since Reconstruction. It has become exactly what General Lee described in his letter to Lord Acton in 1866, a tyranny at home and a bully abroad. But its competence and moral authority are diminished and Southerners are not alone, or even in the forefront, in rejecting its legitimacy.

We Southerners do have one thing going for us today that we have never had before. For the first time in our long history, the invader does not have the excuse of the racial question. In that respect we are no worse than anybody else, maybe even a little better. Official data show that black American citizens are today most segregated in the most northern and liberal states and the least so in the South. (There is actually nothing new about this, but never mind.) The Southern states are the only part of the Empire with a net inflow of black people, and the only states in which, according to attitude polls, that a majority of black people report that they feel at home. However, we cannot expect the dominant parts of the Empire to admit this. The punitive legislation and pejorative propaganda will continue because their supposed righteousness compared to the Southern Other is a vital pillar of their self-love.

It is conventional and true to observe that whatever the enduring merit of their manifesto, the Agrarians had no practical success. Against the American Juggernaut they made little headway in creating a breathing space for traditional living or a political third way between capitalism and socialism. The leaders, the men and women of action, who could have given flesh to the spirit of Agrarianism did not appear. Are they even less likely to come to our rescue today? I do not know. But it may be worthwhile to look at what the Twelve Southerners recommended as courses of action.

Stark Young said that “a more conscious attitude is necessary,” that it was time to heat things up. Dixie could not rely on inertia to survive but required a reinvigorated self-consciousness. This seconded the motion that Ransom had made in the first essay, that something could be done if we could “arouse Southern feeling against foreign invasion.” He admitted that tactic might get a bit nasty, but it could be effective. Most certainly, Southerners have plenty of economic and cultural grievances to resent, if they could be made to see the reality that they, Southerners as such, really are the second-class citizens of the empire. No large group of Americans has been more exploited, disdained and dispossessed by the regime. The grievances must be made explicit and pertinent. That has not yet been done. Can it be done? We have before us in recent times examples of success in renewing national identity and arousing resentment against the invader. Both Quebec and Scotland have won breathing space by following that path, not to mention the glorious emancipation of peoples held captive by the Soviet Union. However, the regimes from which Quebec and Scotland won concessions were not as power-mad as the American Empire, which has already once before made ruthless warfare against the Southern people and against others who have questioned its self-righteousness and supremacy.

Ransom also suggested that Southerners “re-enter politics with zeal and seek coalition” with other nay-saying elements. He observed that the South was the largest conservative bloc in the United States but had done next to nothing in exercising its position in that respect. When he wrote, at least the old line Southern Democrats in Congress were exercising a conservative influence, an influence that provided a far more principled and effective check on evil tendencies than the Republican party has ever represented at any time in its history. Alas, in that respect too we have lost ground. If only Southern leaders, when they were kicked out of the Democratic party, had formed a Southern party. Instead they were completely absorbed and co-opted by the Republicans, even though, as Professor Ludwell Johnson has written, the term “Southern Republican” is an oxymoron. As a result there are no longer any Southerners in public office, only Republicans and Democrats.

While being a Republican is far more profitable and respectable than being a Southerner, it is much less faithful and honourable. States that not too long ago were represented by Senator Ervin and Senator Russell are now represented by those good country club Republicans, Senator Snopes and Senator Snopes. Meanwhile, Senator Snopes’s cousin leads the Chamber of Commerce in your town and promotes “progress” and “development” that profits the local bankers and developers and outside corporations and their top people and leaves the home folks worse off than before.

The Agrarians taught certainly that the ends of human life do not lie in politics. But they also understood that the South could not preserve a breathing space for itself and survive the American Juggernaut except by political power. Politics does not make the living worthwhile, but a balance of power is necessary to make the living possible.The Twelve Southerners were a link in a long-standing Southern, indeed American, political tradition in an even fuller sense than they realized. The tradition informed Jefferson and John Taylor. It was expressed by Donald Davidson in the title of his book, ATTACK ON LEVIATHAN. It is what Mel Bradford meant when he stressed that the true American tradition of government was “nomocratic,” but that it had been subverted from Lincoln onwards by an imported “teleocratic” regime.

The tradition is best encapsulated in the opening pages of Calhoun’s DISQUISITION ON GOVERNMENT. (John C. Calhoun, by the way, was a hands-on agrarian on every day that he was free of Washington.) Man is a social animal and everywhere we find him in society, which has been designed by his Creator for man’s nurture and improvement. Society is natural and God-given. The State, the machinery of government, on the other hand, while also a natural necessity, is everywhere made by man and not by God. It’s purpose is the protection of society. But since its power is wielded by flawed men, there is always danger that the state will become the predator rather than the protector of society.

In the earliest days of the United States, Hamilton, the prophet of today’s American Empire, affirmed that man’s fallen nature required that he be held in check and directed by the wise and the good. To which the Southern tradition, speaking through Jefferson, replied: “Where do these angels come from?” Man’s fallen nature requires not that we give power to the self-appointed wise and good, but that we chain down and hem in state power as tightly as we can. That is the Southern tradition. It is sorely lacking any input into the American regime today, in which government recognizes no limits to its reach and indeed regards itself as Divine. The Southern tradition lies buried deep in the American soul. It has never been more needed. If in some way it could be revived, it would have broad appeal.

But there is an even higher priority task, which ITMS’s greatest contribution is to lay out clearly before us. Before we protect Dixie, and those qualities to which it belongs, from Leviathan, we must ensure that Dixie remains a living reality to be protected. That will require the utmost cultural and economic as well as political skill. I close with a passage from the last paragraph of ITMS, which we should perhaps make our watchword: “for no thing can there be any completeness that is outside its own nature, and no thing for which there is any advance save in its own kind.” In Dixie land I’ll take my stand, to live and die in Dixie.”

About Clyde Wilson

Clyde Wilson is a distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at the University of South Carolina where he was the editor of the multivolume The Papers of John C. Calhoun. He is the M.E. Bradford Distinguished Chair at the Abbeville Institute. He is the author or editor of over thirty books and published over 600 articles, essays and reviews and is co-publisher of www.shotwellpublishing.com, a source  for unreconstructed Southern books. More from Clyde Wilson

You might also enjoy these articles...