The South, Progressivism, and Historic Revisionism

Over at Humane Pursuits, Brian Brown, in an exceedingly verbose disquisition (Yes, please do insert your pot-and-kettle joke here.), makes the novel assertion that

The South is certainly highly conservative in temperament (disliking change), but it is actually oddly Progressive in the values it wishes to conserve. Whether its detractors realize it or not, The South represents a chapter in Progressivism’s past, and a chapter in its present. Progressives hate the sight of it. But like it or not, The South (as a movement) is actually a form of half-grown Progressivism that couldn’t quite get the hang of it.”

Novel, and absurd. To a degree, Brown is correct in noting that some of “the values [The South] wishes to conserve” coincide with certain Progressive values, just as he is when he posits that the founders of the Religious Right — Falwell, Robertson, and Dobson — acted Progressively insofar as they “made [social issues] into national crises demanding coercive, national legislative and judicial measures.” But in his continued obsession with Progressivism, Brown errs grossly on at least three points.

First, there is something peculiar — even incoherent — about his claiming that they wish conservatively to preserve Progressive values, only then to cite abortion and gay marriage as the issues that they wish to combat — very conservative values, it seems to me — through Progressive means. (Only later does he make the partially correct contention that The South has adopted the earlier Progressive value of militant nationalism.) Toward the end of the essay, he hedges his claim, noting,

The counter to all this, of course, is that Progressivism tends to be anti-tradition, anti-family, and anti-religious, while The South is the proud preserver of all of the above. But just as the initial description of The South was a pejorative generalization, so this is a pejorative generalization of Progressivism. Many of Progressivism’s early leading men were deeply religious (Wilson is an example); only comparatively recently have the atheistic sects of the movement gained control of its policies. And the significance of The South’s upholding of tradition and family, while real, has been diluted by its adoption of the Progressive moral tradition of nationalism and material tradition of massive strip malls, chain stores, and Wal Marts over many local institutions.

I am right with Brian in condemning the “adoption of … material tradition of … Wal Marts over many local institutions”, but, again, he proceeds a leap too far in accusing The South of seeking to conserve Progressive values, when they’ve actually been guilty of using Progressive tactics to conserve their values. Moreover, he borders on equivocation with the suggestion that because Wilson was deeply religious, he was also a “proud preserver” of tradition, family, and religion. Few things so impressively rout all of the above as does engaging in a war — with a draft no less! — on another continent — to say nothing of post-war policies — when the United States traditionally had observed the Monroe Doctrine (itself a disturbing innovation). Add to that the list of federal accomplishments under Wilson — the Federal Reserve Act, the Revenue Act of 1913 —, and we see, however unintentionally, an enemy certainly of family and tradition, both moral and American-political.

Second, simply to suggest that the leaders of the Religious Right, and, following them, The South, adopted “Progressive ideas [as] the best way to solve social problems” while remaining “highly conservative in temperament (disliking change)” fails to place matters in proper context: To wit, the Religious Right and The South have not simply chosen to play by Progressive rules, but have had Progressivism forced upon them. Certainly, they could (possibly!) have chosen something of a Benedict Option, or a more ardently localist front-porch approach, rather than having adopted tricks from the Progressive playbook, but given the ramifications, for example, of Roe (Brown, recall, specifically mentions abortion.), such tactics would have offered little opportunity for undoing the atrociously Progressive act of legalizing infanticide. (I have argued, and intend to do so here at NCM later, that culturally conservative localism and a repudiation of “social conservatism” is necessary if we ever seek to develop a meaningful, strong Culture of Life, so I’ll concede to Brown slightly, but this is decidedly not the same thing as overcoming entrenched Progressivism in the chambers of government; that is, our building a Culture of Life from the ground up does not mean that we necessarily can afford to stop fighting the game on the Progressives’ terms simultaneously, given that they still rule the roost.) Just as Herbert Croly, as Brian notes, determined that the conditions of his time “demand[ed] as a counterpoise a more effective body of national opinion, and a more powerful organization of the national interest”, the Religious Right and The South recognized that Croly’s desired “more effective body” had ascended to dominance, and they had to form their own counterpoise thereto.

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3 Responses

  1. Nathan, thanks for your thoughts. Glad to see my intentionally provocative piece found a thoughtful reader–and yes, you’re right that I purposely used Progressive insults throughout. The piece sought to view “The South” as the monolith many Progressives insist on seeing, as a lens through which to consider the question of whether their disdain is merely based on moral differences or whether there is more to it. I happen to think there is.

    I just reread my verbose, absurd, obsessive, errant, equivocating, egregious, preoccupied, blinded, bizarre, incomprehensible, ranting piece of writing to see if it deserved such respectful treatment. Maybe I didn’t organize it coherently enough, though I thought I did. Let me clarify. I sought to make two distinct assertions: first, that in responding to Progressivism in domestic policy, Falwell and company adopted the tactics of their opponents (I explicitly noted that I was not divulging whether I approved of this development or not); and second, that in foreign policy, they pretty much moved in when the Progressives moved out on the nationalism front (and you’re right that there was precedent for this).

    You seemed to grant at least a fair amount of truth in both these assertions, but you spent most of your time lashing out at an odd conflation of the two that I did not intend to make.

    Fundamentally, I sought to produce a piece that reflected my own observations that your typical George Bush or Sarah Palin “conservative” shares at least two key ideas with the far left, and that that particular brand of conservatism does itself a disservice thereby. There are other ways I could have done it; comparing Bush and Wilson’s foreign policy, for example, or talking about the South’s historical attraction to ideology. Perhaps it would have been more effective to use the term “Palin conservatives” rather than the mix of “The South” and “the religious right.” But if I’d done that, I suspect you wouldn’t have disagreed with any of my ideas and you wouldn’t have gotten to use all those fun words.

    P.S. Wilson was a sincere (if often misguided) Christian. Beyond that, you can safely put him on my “worst Americans” list.

  2. Brian,

    Thanks for the reply. First, you’ll have to forgive the “verbose, absurd, et cetera“; my own bombastic tendencies are incredibly adjective-inclined.

    You’re quite right: If you had referred to “Palin conservatives”, we’d likely have had nothing, or at least little, about which to disagree, thus leaving me without the opportunity to pull out those words. I thank you.

    I most certainly agree that Falwell, et al. co-opted Progressive’s tactics. My complaint, as I hope I made clear, is that it seems to me that they had little choice. Whether it was good or not notwithstanding (I, like you, am disinclined to divulge too much regard whether I approve), I felt upon reading and re-reading your post that you didn’t seem to make clear that it wasn’t so much a choice as a last resort.

    Ultimately, I suspect that we’re more in agreement than my response to your original post would suggest, but my Southern sympathies, however inexplicable they be given the gap between the South of reality and the South of the Southern Agrarians that I envision in my mind, left me unable to keep my mouth shut. I’m certainly no friend of Progressivism, but, as we’ve seen in the past, I’m less inclined to give it as much credit for the muck-ups from which we now suffer as you are, preferring to find my enemies in Messrs. Hamilton and Lincoln, especially.

    I would be intrigued to hear you wax on “the South’s historical attraction to ideology.” Given the disparity between their opposition to centralization as manifest in secession and the selfsame centralization in Richmond under Davis, and given many of the issues — especially tendencies toward nationalism — that we’ve discussed, I think that it might worth the time, that you ought to pursue it.

    Cheers,
    NPO

  3. Hi, and welcome to the Catholic Blogger Directory. I’d like to invite you to participate in Sunday Snippets–A Catholic Carnival. We are a group of bloggers who gather weekly to share our best posts with each other. It’s a way to make new blogger buddies and to attract new readers to your site. Check out this week’s host post at http://rannthisthat.blogspot.com/2010/02/id-like-to-welcome-you-to-sunday.html

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