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Southern Civilization and Slavery’s Taint

What is loved would not exist apart from what is abhorred.
Family of slaves in Georgia 1850

I appreciate and largely agree with the sentiments Ross Douthat advances in this blog post, and that Rod Dreher concurs in here, but I can’t resist asking a few pointed, perhaps uncomfortable questions.

The argument for Southern civilization tends to see the North the way Alexander Hamilton saw it, as New York City writ large. I’m a proud New Yorker myself, but even here you can find passionate champions of the case against progress – champions who, I venture to suggest, have not been as much heeded in Dixieland as they have been up north. It’s worth remembering that Henry “American System” Clay wasn’t a Yankee; he was born in Virginia and represented Kentucky in the Senate. And when you think of the enormous impact the Army Corps of Engineers, the interstate highway system, the big box store, and so forth have had on the Southern landscape, I wonder whether it isn’t better to see the anti-progressive Southern tradition as oppositional rather than representative even within its own region.

But granting, for the sake of argument, that the distinctive American strain of thought that stands in opposition to progress as the ultimate good speaks most eloquently in a Southern accent. Why should that be? Why isn’t Vermont, or Iowa, just as good a place to find the virtues of the small, the local, the independent, the stubbornly unchanged? Why aren’t the accents of Marilynne Robinson and Robert Frost just as eloquent as those of Wendell Berry and Allen Tate?

I think the answer has something to do with the tragic sensibility of so much of the best in Southern culture. That sensibility is often linked to the status of being a conquered people, and hence to the “lost cause.” But I think it goes back earlier, to the slave system that cause aimed to defend – and expand.

The ideological defenders of slavery made two central arguments, the one suspiciously convenient to their interests, the other distinctly inconvenient for any American. The first was that Africans were an inferior species of people whose best destiny was bondage to a superior race. But the second was that all civilization depends on the capture and intelligent direction of labor power, and that genuine universal equality is therefore incompatible with civilization itself, the only open question being according to what social system that labor power is to be controlled, expropriated and directed. John C. Calhoun was called “the Marx of the master class” because many of his arguments found an echo in Marx’s own critique of capitalist relations, but without Marx’s utopian optimism about the promised land of egalitarian communism that lay on the other side of capitalist exploitation. And Calhoun could call on good classical authority for his contention that freedom depended on slavery because no man who had to live on his own labor could possibly be free. That’s certainly how Aristotle saw the matter.

That second proposition – that freedom can only be purchased through slavery, and that civilization itself is necessarily based on the expropriation of labor – lends a distinctly tragic view to society if it’s not tainted by the foolish presumption that any group, class, or individual actually deserves the title of master. And that latter presumption is what was, at least among the sensitive minority of southerners overrepresented in its literary ranks, shattered by 1865. Such a sensibility is a particularly powerful corrective to the more general American optimism about our national experiment; indeed, it makes that view look more cruel than uplifting. It’s what the likes of Eugene Genovese have tried to rescue from the Southern conservative tradition, and represents much of what both the Yankee Douthat and the southerner Dreher value about southernness from an intellectual and spiritual perspective.

It’s worth valuing, and rescuing. But it’s worth recognizing as well that what’s being rescued isn’t something that was tainted by slavery, but – like the music, and the food, and all of Louisiana, pretty much everything on Douthat’s list – the product of slavery’s taint.



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