Sunday, November 3, 2019

November 3, 2019

MY CORNER by Boyd Cathey

What the Historic South has to Teach America: Readings from Conservative Scholar Russell Kirk
But Can the South Survive?


Many present-day Southerners—indeed, many of those Americans who call themselves “conservatives”—find it difficult to envisage a time when Southern and Confederate traditions (not to mention heroic and noble Confederate veterans like “Stonewall” Jackson and Robert E. Lee) were accounted and acknowledged with honor and great respect. Today it would seem so-called “conservative media” (in particular Fox and the radio talksters) and Republican politicians would rather praise “Father” Abraham Lincoln or the radical black Abolitionist, Frederick Douglass (whose liaison with German-born socialist and feminist Ottilie Assing certainly influenced him and should raise eyebrows among contemporary conservatives, but seldom does). These and other revolutionary zealots have been incorporated into the pantheon of “great conservative minds,” dislodging such figures as Jefferson Davis, John C. Calhoun and John Randolph of Roanoke, all of whom possessed towering intellects and an acute understanding of the history and nature of the American union which Lincoln, Douglass, and those like them lacked.

It is far too common in 2019 to witness the woeful historical ignorance of a Dinesh D’Souza or the meandering narration of a Brian Kilmeade in the godawful Fox News series, “Legends & Lies: The Civil War,” in which he accuses the “South of attempting to rewrite history by denying slavery was the root cause of the Civil War,” and parrots the far Left template on racism.

And what of distinguished Southern writers who defend the South like historians Drs. Clyde Wilson or Brian McClanahan? Or literary luminaries such as James E. Kibler? Or Emory University scholar Don Livingston? When was the last time you saw their byline in the current, Neoconservative-edited National Review, once the “conservative magazine of record” in the land? They are, to use a Stalinist metaphor, “non-persons” among establishment conservatives and the contemporary “conservative movement.” One must not, under any circumstance, mention their names among Neocon intelligentsia circles, lest suspicions of “racism” or “Neo-Confederate tendencies” be exposed.

Perhaps the worst event symbolizing this exile was the unceremonious expulsion—the political defenestration—of perhaps the South’s greatest essayist and author of the last quarter of the Twentieth Century, the late Mel Bradford. Tapped originally to be President Ronald’s chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Bradford was a staunch defender of the original American Constitution, an acerbic and powerful critic of Lincoln and his legacy—and a defender of the South. According to chronicler David Gordon: "Bradford rejected Lincoln because he saw him as a revolutionary, intent on replacing the American Republic established by the Constitution with a centralized and leveling despotism."

Although supported by such figures as Russell Kirk, Jeffrey Hart, Peter Stanlis, and Jesse Helms, Bradford was forced to experience an ugly, defamatory and underhanded campaign by the Neocons George Will, the Kristols pere et fils, and others to halt his nomination, in favor of Democrat Neocon, William Bennett. And, tasting blood, the new rulers of the conservative movement were successful.

Yet, it was not always so. A half-century ago Southern writers of distinction, defenders of our traditions and heritage, including our revered historical figures and champions of the Confederacy, were welcomed in national conservative publications like National Review. And in Russell Kirk’s scholarly quarterly Modern Age, that acknowledged “father of the conservative revival” of the earlier 1950s, dedicated an entire issue (Fall 1958) to the South and a defense of its traditions, including its Confederate history.

In the prefatory essay, “Norms, Conventions and the South,” to that issue Kirk authored, as only he could, a stirring and profound defense of the traditional South, its virtues, and its critical significance in the survival of the American confederation. In it he declares: “Without the South to act as its Permanence, the American Republic would be perilously out of joint. And the South need feel no shame for its defense of beliefs that were not concocted yesterday.” But he also—sixty-one years ago—had a warning and an admonition for Southerners:

How much longer the South will fulfill this function, I do not venture to predict here. I am aware of all those powerful influences, material and intellectual, which are changing the South today. It may be that the South, in the end, will be made homogeneous with all the rest of the nation, and that its peculiar role as conservator of norm and convention will be terminated. But if this comes to pass, the South will have ceased to exist: it will have lost its genius.

What would Kirk, “the Sage of Mecosta,” that superb word-smith and Olympian man-of-letters say today he if were to return to our Southland? What verdict would he venture to cast on those guardians of our heritage and our inheritance…and the actions we and our fathers have taken, or not taken, during the past six decades? How would Kirk—who saw before he passed away in 1994 the dangerous infection of the Neoconservatives—evaluate the willingness of far too many Southern “conservatives” to forego serious investigation into and defense of their history and accept the “mess of stale porridge” offered up by a Brian Kilmeade, or a Dinesh D’Souza, or a Senator Lindsey Graham?


I pass on to you a small portion, the last few paragraphs of Kirk’s essay (the entire essay is readable, but still under some copyright restrictions):

“…conventions are the means by which obedience to norms is inculcated in a society.

“Conventions are compacts by which we agree to respect one another’s dignity and rights. A high degree of respect for convention is quite consonant with a high degree of personality, even of eccentricity. Many of the great “characters,” indeed, are the great champions of convention: the names of Samuel Johnson and Disraeli, John Adams and Theodore Roosevelt may suffice to illustrate my meaning. There is no necessary opposition between strong outward indifference to foible and strong inward loyalty to norms. Nowhere has this union of ardent personality with attachment to convention been stronger than in the American South. And to make myself clear, I digress here briefly upon that arch-Southerner John Randolph of Roanoke.

“No important political leader ever was more eccentric than Randolph, whose genius was tinged with madness. John Randolph is the most interesting man in American political history, his wisdom and eloquence curiously intertwined with vituperation, duels, brandy, agriculture, solitude, and tragedy. Through Calhoun, [Langdon] Cheves, and many others, Randolph’s opinions were stamped indelibly upon the South; and his life was the romancer’s notion of a Southern aristocrat’s career. In almost all outward things, Randolph declined to conform to the great tendencies of his time, which he thought an age profoundly decadent. But in all important inward things, John Randolph conformed to those norms and defended those conventions which go back to Sinai and the banks of the Ilyssus. A fervent Christian, a champion of tradition, the principal American expounder of Burke’s conservative politics, Randolph of Roanoke abided by enduring standards in defiance of power, popularity, and the intellectual climate of opinion of his era.

“There are certain great principles, Randolph said, which we ignore only at our extreme peril; and if those principles are flouted long enough, private character and the social order sink beyond restoration. In this, as in much else, Randolph was the exemplar of the Southern society. For the South has long been the Permanence of the American nation. Strongly attached to Christian belief, bound up with the land and the agricultural interest, skeptical of the visions of Progress and human perfectibility, imbued with the tragic sense of life, the South has not been ashamed to defend convention and continuity in this great, swelling, confusing Republic: to abide by ancient norms of private and public life. The problem of the races informed Southerners that society’s tribulations are not susceptible of simple abstract remedy; the rural life kept the South aware of the vanity of human wishes, the existence of Providential purpose, and the immortal contract of eternal society; the political and literary traditions of the Southern states endured little altered by the nineteenth- and twentieth-century passion for innovation. Military valor, courtesy toward women, and the pieties of community, home, and family persisted in the South despite defeat and poverty and the intellectual ascendancy of the North. When Demos seemed to be king everywhere else in the United States, the old allegiance to eternal verities lived on in the Southern region.

“So it is that in our time of troubles the South has something to teach the modern world. So it is, as [Southern Regionalist author and poet] Mr. Donald Davidson says, that the modern South has a great literature: for literature is created out of belief and tradition-even when the writer dissents from belief and tradition, still he must have norms from which to dissent, if his work is to endure-and in an era of literary nihilism, Southern writers still recognize those enduring elements of human nature, including the splendor and tragedy of human existence, that are the stuff of which great poetry and prose are made. Belief in normality, and defense of convention, have not lain like lead upon Southern thought and life; on the contrary, these have been the foundations of Southern achievement.

“Once a progressive gentleman in Nashville informed me that the Southern respect for tradition was contemptible; in his city, he said, this so-called tradition went back only three generations. Well, I replied, this is precisely one hundred years superior to no tradition. But of course Southern norms and conventions have their real roots in classical and Christian antiquity. An interesting book, I believe, could be written about the influence of Cicero upon Southerners: upon their oratory, their politics, their whole view of the civil social order. And aside from Christian teaching, Cicero has been the greatest preceptor of norms in the Western world-greater even than Plato or Virgil in his influence. In its taste for imaginative literature, similarly, the South has chosen for its favorite authors the champions of norm and convention. Mark Twain believed that Southerners derived from Sir Walter Scott an affection for sham, pretense, and romantic nonsense. Scott was, indeed, a prime favorite in the South; but I happen to believe that Southerners recognized in Walter Scott a spirit of courage, of chivalry, of loyalty, an expression of ancient truths, that was congenial to their instincts. 

“Anyone who reads John Randolph’s comments upon the Waverly novels will perceive that this Southern affinity for the Wizard of the North was more than snobbery and foolery.

“The South, then, has been the Permanence of America: the defender—sometimes consciously, sometimes blindly—of principles immensely ancient, of conventions that yet have meaning. How much longer the South will fulfill this function, I do not venture to predict here. I am aware of all those powerful influences, material and intellectual, which are changing the South today. It may be that the South, in the end, will be made homogeneous with all the rest of the nation, and that its peculiar role as conservator of norm and convention will be terminated. But if this comes to pass, the South will have ceased to exist: it will have lost its genius.

“To the mind of the doctrinaire liberal, the zealot for Progress and Uniformity, in the North and in Europe, our Southern states seem the incarnation of all things reactionary, obscurantist, and hateful. The Broadway plays reflect this detestation, and the Communist caricatures of America. A well-known European professor, when a member of the faculty of a well-known Middlewestern university, set two fees for public lectures: three hundred dollars for a lecture anywhere in the United States except the South, and six hundred dollars for any lecture south of Mason’s and Dixon’s Line. He was a utopian liberal; and though he never had been in the South, he was convinced he knew all its sins. (No Southern university or college, however, happened to invite him to speak.) This hostility usually fastens upon certain institutions or customs for its excuse: the poll-tax, share-cropping, segregated schools, and all that. But behind these asserted reasons for denouncing the south lies a deeper prejudice. The twentieth-century ideologue--who, as Hawthorne said of the Abolitionist, brandishes his one idea like an iron flail--has his own form of bigotry.

“He detests and dreads the South because he senses that the South still stands resolute in defense of norms and conventions. To the ritualistic liberal, the South is what Santayana called “the voice of a forlorn and dispossessed orthodoxy,’’ rudely breaking in upon the equalitarian dreams and terrestrial-paradise schemes of the neoterist. As Santayana added, this voice is the more disquieting because nowadays it is scarcely understood. To the Gnostic visionary, to the secularist worshipper of Progress and Uniformity, respect for norms and conventions is the mark of the beast. The convictions and customs of the South perpetually irritate the radical reformer, who is impatient to sweep away every obstacle to the coming of his standardized, regulated, mechanized, unified world, purged of faith, variety, and ancient longings. Permanence he cannot abide; and the South is Permanence. He hungers after a state like a tapioca-pudding, composed of so many identical globules of other-directed men. Now the troubles of our times have worried this zealot for heaven upon earth; he has secret misgivings nowadays; and the more he experiences inner doubts of the perfectibility of man and society, the more does he flail against the champions of norm and convention, endeavoring in the heat of his assault to forget the disquieting voice of a forlorn and dispossessed orthodoxy that prophesies disaster for men who would be as gods.

“My argument is this. Without an apprehension of norms, there is no living in society or out of it. Without sound conventions, the civil social order dissolves. Without the South to act as its Permanence, the American Republic would be perilously out of joint. And the South need feel no shame for its defense of beliefs that were not concocted yesterday.” 

[Russell Kirk (editor), “Norms, Conventions and the South,” MODERN AGE, Fall 1958, pp. 343-344]

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