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.