Growing up in mostly-rural North Carolina, most of my friends and especially their parents could go on a bit about their family backgrounds, about their familial histories. Most of my friends—like me—had great-grandfathers or great-great-grandfathers who had served in Confederate ranks back in 1861-1865. Pride in family and in our ancestors was taken for granted, a devout appreciation we all shared.
Especially during the centennial commemorations of the early 1960s, most of us youngsters took an intense interest in all the various events, the re-enactments on a large scale and the ceremonies attending the anniversary. Our imaginations were filled with stories of heroism, sacrifice, honor, tragic defeat and attendant suffering, unrealized dreams, and legends and traditions passed down to us. Public schools back then actually encouraged this fascination and interest in history and the characters and personalities in it who seemed, almost like magic, to come alive once again.
Indeed, it had been scarcely a decade since the last Confederate veteran had passed away in 1959! Many of us could recall that. And our parents? They had grown up surrounded by the ever-decreasing ranks of those valiant veterans, listening to first-hand accounts of the great and heartbreaking epic that was the War for Southern Independence.
My grandfather on my mother’s side was Henry Johnson Perry. Granddad Perry was born in Raleigh in 1877 and lived until 1962. As a young boy I remember well him recounting to me standing hatless on old Fayetteville Street in North Carolina’s capital on May 30, 1893, a sixteen year old apprentice, dressed all in black, with thousands of other citizens reverently paying tribute to President Jefferson Davis, whose remains were carried by horse-drawn caisson from the railroad station to lie in state under the rotunda of the historic North Carolina State Capitol, en route to his final resting place in Richmond.
Granddad’s father, Josiah Hunter Perry, an official with the old Raleigh & Gaston Railroad, had been forced in April 1865 by General Sherman to conduct him and his staff by rail over to Bennitt Station (now Durham) to receive the surrender of General Joseph Johnston. Waiting for the surrender to occur, he sat under a cherry tree and carved a “peace pipe,” a relic I still have and which continues to remind me of my history and my ancestor.
Granddad’s grand-father, Robert, had served many years in the North Carolina legislature in the 1820s and had married the grand-daughter of Isaac Hunter, the founder of Raleigh. All that family—all that history—danced through my imagination sixty years ago; I could visualize it, I could see it in my mind’s eye. It was real, it was present…and despite the many years that have elapsed, it still is.
Pride in one’s ancestry…pride in what the late Southern writer and historian Mel Bradford termed “remembering who we are”…was integral to defining what we valued and held dear in life. We were intimately related to our ancestors, they were part of us. Their blood coursed through our veins. Their memory was not that far removed. Their examples stood before us as models to emulate, a challenge for us to uphold their honor and their noble efforts to defend home, family, and the rights vouchsafed to them by their fathers and ancestors…who had cobbled together the older American confederation.
In any nation, in any people or civilization worthy of the name, such an appreciation is natural, part of the national and cultural psyche. It is indeed quite normal for a people to recall its past, to celebrate its successes and heroes, to lament its defeats and hardships. These are part and parcel of what define and make us, as Bradford states, “who we are.” Deprive a people of its history, of its traditions, of its inherited culture, and you deprive it of essential ingredients of its very existence. It becomes a mass of rootless individuals, of automatons, subject to the latest whim or the most persistent and enticing siren voice of some powerful ideology or, in modern times, of George Orwell’s Big Brother and its extensive tentacles in and incestuous partnership with the communications industry, education, and the media.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky has one of the three brothers in his novel The Brothers Karamazov declare, “If God does not exist, everything is permitted.” Stripping people of their faith, and then denuding them of the essential characteristics which define them is and has always been the work of Revolutions, whether of the Cromwellian attempt in the 17th century, the fanaticism of a Robespierre in France in the late 18th, or the genocide of the Marxists in Russia and China in the 20th. As now, in our day the lunatics who run our schools and colleges, dominate our entertainment, spout our daily news, and control our politics, whether it be the Democrats or the Republicans, do the same with unalloyed frenzy. They make the spectre of “Big Brother” look like a Sunday school teacher.
My dissertation topic years back at the University of Navarra in Spain, Juan Vazquez de Mella, stated it this way:
“Who has ever seen ‘the individual,’ if not defined by his family, his region, his profession, his language, his inheritance, his faith? Removed from these defining characteristics the individual is an abstraction, and a political system based on an abstraction must either end in despotism or revolution.”
Since the 1980s and ‘90s, we have seen the almost unrestrained and rapacious growth of an eventually fatal cancer within our body politic. Denominated variously as “progressivism,” “neo-“ or “post-Marxism,” and more recently as “anti-racism” or “the movement for equity,” it draws its force intellectually from the concept of the Idea of Progress, that is, that history unfolds irresistibly in one direction—the “progressive” direction—which encompasses the ineluctable advance and triumph of essentially secular and globalist ideas. At base it is egalitarian, and even though it may profess respect for or even belief in God, its cumulative effects are to pervert, weaken and, finally, destroy the natural linkage between man and his Creator. For the progressivist, religion, particularly the Christian religion, becomes just one more obstacle to be tamed, neutralized, and lastly, employed in the advance to a universal secular utopia.
It was not that traditional society was opposed to advances in science or economics; it was not. But such innovations were seen as a natural part of the flourishing of God’s Creation, not opposed to it or superseding it.
The great stratagem of Marx and Lenin and their votaries was to expropriate “progress” and weaponize it: the proletariat, united, under the leadership of the self-anointed heads of the Revolution would lead the “oppressed” to victory, to that utopia where there was no want, no poverty, no sadness, where everyone was equal and happy.
Throughout history different revolutions have shared these characteristics, have made these promises, and each time the result has been a terrible dystopian nightmare.
The full attack in recent years on Southern traditions, identity, and iconography is but a symptom, an element of an all-out assault on Western Christian civilization, its culture, and belief. Prominent members of the official opposition “conservative movement”—a Rich Lowry at National Review, a Brian Kilmeade at Fox News, or a Ben Shapiro, and any number of others—attempt to compartmentalize the ongoing “culture war” by accepting, even applauding the eradication of any visible sign of Confederate and Southern history. But like temporizers in any revolution they fail to understand the futility of their positions, which only abet the appetite of the radicals.
Whether a Kerensky and the Social Revolutionaries who helped usher in Lenin’s rise to power in Russia, or the Girondins who believed they could somehow harness the revolutionary fury in late 18th century France, moderation and attempts to placate the madness and hysteria of revolutionary zealots are doomed to disaster. Half-measures never work.
There is a whimsical episode in the superb historical film, “Waterloo” (1970), which illustrates exactly the position of Establishment Conservatives and their “opposition” to the fanatical tsunami of violent revolution: an illiterate private in the Welsh Guards who has engaged in plunder and stolen a young pig, cautions the pig not to squeal, not to alert those around him of his plunder (a capital offense under military rules). “Be quiet,” he tells the pig, “and I’ll only eat half of you!” Confronted by shrill and seemingly overwhelming demands by a noisy nucleus of woke leftists, authorized conservatives and Republicans respond to the revolutionaries in the same manner: “Only kill us half-way, but please, oh please, don’t call us racists!”
The recent attacks on Southern monuments and symbols, which are essentially an assault on Southern identity, cannot be dissociated from a broader offensive by our modern “progressivists” on Western civilization. To think otherwise is worse than wrongheaded, it is fatal.
In the contemporary South the great success of the revolutionaries has been to atomize much of society, deprive large portions of it, especially the young, of those inherited traditions, those customs, those beliefs—those memories—which have given it substance and continuity, which have served as its shield and buckler. Instead of what Southern writer Richard Weaver called a communitarian “social bond individualism,” life centered around family and church, and indelibly defined by region and custom, progressivism breaks and severs those bonds, isolates individuals, and renders them subject to the social decay and dislocation which an omnipotent managerial state, in league with woke capitalism, utilizes to advance its vision of a future society.
In the past I have urged the termination of the public school system—privatizing education and putting it back in the hands of the parents where it belongs. I have authored several pieces on the possibilities for secession, or, rather, the separation of various American states and counties (perhaps the best and most peaceful means to resolve the irreducible differences within the American citizenry, if it were possible). But more importantly, I have advocated a return, a rededication to those principles and that belief which once motivated and annealed our ancestors. That spirit, that wisdom, that inspiration is there, it is still there for those who seek it. Scraping away the ugly dross of political correctness and “wokeness” we can recover those memories, rekindle them, and draw from them strength.
In his work, Requiem for A Nun (1951), Southern novelist William Faulkner says of his fellow Southerners that for them, “The past is never dead. It's not even past."
One of the most remarkable poems of the 20th century is by the incomparable Southern Agrarian Donald Davidson. Titled “Lee in the Mountains,” it summons us once more to the battle lines and to eventual victory, if we have faith and an unshakeable commitment to our cause. For, in the end, God will not forsake us. We must be like Gideon’s small army and General Forrest’s “critter company.”
Sense the confidence that springs from our Christian faith and which Davidson reminds us of:
Young men, the God of your fathers is a just
And merciful God Who in this blood once shed
On your green altars measures out all days,
And measures out the grace
Whereby alone we live;
And in His might He waits,
Brooding within the certitude of time,
To bring this lost forsaken valor
And the fierce faith undying
And the love quenchless
To flower among the hills to which we cleave,
To fruit upon the mountains whither we flee,
Never forsaking, never denying
His children and His children’s children forever
Unto all generations of the faithful heart.
This piece was previously published on MyCorner on August 13, 2021.
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Boyd D. Cathey holds a doctorate in European history from the Catholic University of Navarra, Pamplona, Spain, where he was a Richard Weaver Fellow, and an MA in intellectual history from the University of Virginia (as a Jefferson Fellow). He was assistant to conservative author and philosopher the late Russell Kirk. In more recent years he served as State Registrar of the North Carolina Division of Archives and History. He has published in French, Spanish, and English, on historical subjects as well as classical music and opera. He is active in the Sons of Confederate Veterans and various historical, archival, and genealogical organizations.