The music of white Southern plain folk, called “country” as a marketing label to disguise its source, is a major presence in 20th century American culture. It is too big and too beautiful to too many people to be ignored. Southern literature, of which it forms a part, is the only living cultural creativity in superficial and ephemeral “American culture” When something Southern is too important to be ignored, it becomes “American.” This is an age-old phenomenon and doubtless forms the motive of this series---a Yankee imperial takeover with control of money and media.
Thus the Southern music creators of the 1960s get referred to as “The Sons and Daughters of America”---just like Ken Burns’s beloved radicals and rioters of the same period. And African Americans get a fourth of the screen time and billing as if they were the real originators of the music and the music is an aspect of the Civil Rights Revolution. Burns seems to think that the appearance in Nashville of Northern parasites like the faker “Bob Dylan” was a great boon to country music.
I always approach Ken Burns with skepticism. In his “Civil War” and other productions he is the Great Distorter who falsifies history to fit the sentiments of a current liberal. Unfortunately, Southerners have allowed themselves to become a loyal but despised element of the Yankee Empire. Nevertheless, this 8-part series is worth watching. It is good to have the history told (up to the 90s). The Southern people and the Southern music shown are intrinsically attractive. (As in Burns’s “The Civil War” the material is important despite the doctored interpretation and serious omissions.)
These country music people really are the soul of America and it can’t be disguised. Two things I most noticed. 1) The prevalence of poverty as the mainstream of Southern life through most of the 20th century, as has been so vividly documented in the Kennedy brothers book Punished by Poverty. 2) The authenticity and beauty of the accents that are now disappearing. “Country music” is today rapidly sinking into the lowest common denominator, which is the “American” way. It is good to have this record of the time when it was real.
There seems to be a lot of uproar lately about the threat of “white nationalists.” I am not sure that I know what that is. But it is exceedingly strange that the people most alarmed seem to be the same people who think of Abe Lincoln as the greatest American of all times. Lincoln was a White Nationalist to the core. He made his career as the champion of “free white men” and all his life wanted to get rid of black people. (Lincoln was really the champion of rich free white men but that is another story.)
“White nationalism” also describes Lincoln’s supporters and henchmen. Like General Sherman, a thoroughgoing white nationalist who advocated extermination of the Indians among other atrocious acts and opinions. But since he waged war against Southern women and children he is excused and still ranks as a great American and great general..
I have been wasting time and happiness observing politics for 60 years. I can remember 1960 when many people were concerned whether a Catholic should be President. And 1980 when many wondered whether a divorced man was worthy of the office.
How the times have changed. The country could not have changed more if it had been invaded by space aliens or by the Chinese. Look at the travelling menagerie of Democratic presidential wannabes. An unrepentant communist, a rampant sodomite, at least three billionaires who want to lead the party of the working man, a corrupt, doddering old politician who has never done anything for anybody except himself, a gallery of racial minorities running mostly on their skin colour and victimhood.
Change is always with us, but the Founding Fathers would react in rage and disappointment could they see what their land of liberty has become.
The most important thing about this, however, is that none of the candidates have ever done anything distinguished or worthwhile for the public. We used to elect Washingtons and Jacksons and Eisenhowers. None of these candidates have ever done anything showing real accomplishment or genuine patriotism. They are mostly empty suits. The absence of any credentials other than celebrity is now the standard criteria for being President. It was started by Kennedy and is well-established after Clinton, Bush 2, and Obama.
Come to think of it, the same could be said of almost all of the dozen Republican presidential wannabes that Trump eliminated in 2016.
Speaking of The Donald. He is far from alone in believing that a rising stock market is the measure of American health. He does not seem to have noticed that the position of the middle and working classes has been deteriorating since the 1970s. And he still thinks that we need more brilliant Hindus to replace incompetent American IT workers.
Considered soberly and without hysterical enthusiasm or deluded hope, it is fact that Trump has done nothing of what he promised as a candidate. Immigration is as high or higher than ever. The troops are still spread around the world. The Deep State still reigns in every aspect of the federal government and is still full to the brim of Trump haters and enemies of us powerless “deplorables.” Crimes of the left go unpunished. Trump has proven to be just one more Republican. Promising to get out of foreign entanglements, his only interest seems to be to be the best President Israel ever had.
Americans are indeed a strange contradictory people. Presidents don’t sometimes fail to keep their promises. Take it from an old codger who has been watching for a long time: Presidents always fail to keep their promises and they are always forgiven. A controlling fact is what is called “rational indifference.” Most people are too busy living to pay more than trivial attention to politics. The psychopaths who seek power have an almost free field, especially when the media and the education system are their loyal serfs.
What a country.
You are deplorable.
It is worse than that. If you are Southern or interested in the South you are the most deplorable of all the deplorables. There is no place for you among the enlightened and virtuous people of 21st Century America.
But perhaps there is a certain advantage to being an outsider. It can help you see what 21st century America really is rather than what it assumes itself to be.
We can’t understand Southern identity without a candid view of that other thing, call it the North or mainstream America or the Age of Radicalism, for which the South has been an economic colony and a cultural whipping boy since well before the War for Southern Independence.
I was struck a few years ago by the statement of a leading Ivy League intellectual. America was suffering, he said, from increasing violence because of the spread of “the Southern gun culture.” This was the time of Timothy McVeigh of New York, Michigan, and the U.S. Army; of the Unabomber from Harvard and Berkeley; of the Columbine shooters (the only ones who used guns). You see, all this violence is because something is seeping out of the evil Southern culture to contaminate the good parts of America.
More recently, another Ivy League savant characterised the present truly deplorable condition of once wealthy and productive Detroit as “an Alabama ghetto.” We have now had three generations born and raised in Detroit, but if there is something wrong, you see, it must be the fault of the South. To invoke Alabama explains it all. In fact, studies have shown that the first generation of African-Americans who migrated from the South to Detroit were well-behaved even though they faced a lot of hostility. They had jobs and founded churches and businesses. But what has happened since MUST BE the fault of Southerners. That is the eternal default position.
Even more recently, I read the comments of a gentleman who says that in his Northern parochial school, the nuns taught that Southerners used black people for fire logs.
These commentators are ignorant. They are also diseased in mind and character. They imagine something they call the South which does not exist. To identify this as the source of evil in an otherwise pure and shining American society is for them a sign of superior intelligence and virtue. This defect is present, I fear, in millions of Americans, including some Southerners. You have to wonder what would become of them if they did not have this imaginary South to blame everything on and had to face their own selves. It seems to me this attitude can only flourish because American mainstream society is devoid of religion and any real culture, as well as of self-knowledge. It has no self except in contrast that imaginary evil “other” that is standing in the way of perfection.
This is the hostile environment in which the Southern tradition must survive.
John C. Calhoun said that the South was the balance wheel of the Union. Without the South America would go wild and fly apart. In this time when the South has lost almost all power and influence, is not that exactly what has happened? Is that not why we are in the “Age of Radicalism”?
Southerners are always being called upon to stop being themselves and become more like other Americans. Curiously, however, to be a mainstream American one must be intellectually and morally nimble enough to hit a moving target. Mainstream America is always changing and about every second or third generation it goes into a frantic revolutionary mode as it did in the 1850-1870s , in the 1960s-70s, and as we are living though now. The South has changed a lot but it simply can’t keep up. And what civilized people would want keep up with the mainstream America that is sunk in materialism, intellectual trivia, moral depravity, and that anti-culture called diversity?
The South, of course, may be dealt with by tangible facts and figures, historical and present-day. But there is an intangible element that is perhaps the most important of all. Although intangible, this South is real, not a product of the ravings of celebrated intellectuals. It may be this promethean qualitativeness of “the South” that allows outsiders to deal with us in ways that defy all reality.
This is what Mel Bradford was getting at when he defined the South “As a vital and long-lasting bond, a corporate identity assumed by those who have contributed to it.” The bond is not quantifiable It is a shared identity of values and behaviour, perhaps even of personality, and it has lasted a long time and is much more venerable, humane, and constructive than that artificial and dubious creation known at the U.S. government. It is not even a matter of birth and raising. It is shared by all who contribute to it.
In 1981, with youthful presumptuousness that still astonishes me, I attempted to define the South. I wrote:
“In my opinion the South has always been primarily a matter of values, a peculiar repository of intangible qualities in a society particularly preoccupied with the quantifiable.”
Count Hermann Keyserling was an Austrian (not German) nobleman well-known in the 1920s for his insightful writings on his world travels. After a long visit to the United States, he praised the material success of the United States (this was written in 1929 just before the Great Depression). But he added this:
“When the American nation finds itself culturally, the hegemony will inevitably pass over to the South. There alone can there be a question of enduring culture. The region below the Potomac possesses the type that was truly responsible for America’s greatness in the past. This is the type of the Southern gentleman, with the corresponding type of woman. For these are the only types of complete souls that the United States has yet produced.”
The only “complete souls” to be found among culturally and spiritually shallow Americans are Southerners. Think about it. Bradford and Keyserling’s remarks relate to the “social bond individualism” described by Richard Weaver. Lee’s men spontaneously forced him out of the line of fire against orders because it was the right thing to do for the common enterprise they were carrying out for their society. We may observe also, I think, a complete soul in the Southern grandmother who in civilizing young people warned against bad behavior not because it would be punished or was a bar to success but because “we don’t do that sort of thing.” It may be that the Southern dominance of American literature and music is an example of how complete souls can find expression even in such a debased American society as we now endure.
This form of individualism can often include a good deal of cussedness. Like Faulkner’s farmer who could not fathom that the government wanted to pay him NOT to grow cotton. Or the Confederate soldier described by Shelby Foote, who survived Pickett’s Charge and backed very slowly and defiantly down the hill taunting the Yankees.
In the late 19th century Americans reached a workable compromise in the understanding of the great revolutionary bloodshed of the War for Southern Independence. Southerners were glad that the Union had been preserved and wanted to fully participate in the flourishing America that followed. Northerners agreed that there was good and bad on both sides and that Southern motives were honourable and Southern heroes were American heroes.
There was another side to this peace treaty, however: everything good about the South became American. In the mainstream understanding of American history, the great Southerners who created and nourished the United States were “Americans,” that is, they were honorary Yankees. Only bad people like Calhoun, slavery defenders and traitors, were considered “Southern.” So Washington and Jefferson were put on Mount Rushmore along with Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt to suggest some sort of American, that is Yankee, tradition. In fact Washington and Jefferson would have despised Lincoln and Roosevelt as betrayers of the Founding. Now that we are expunging heroes, let’s blast Washington and Jefferson off of Mount Rushmore and replace them with Chester Arthur and Warren Harding.
It seems now that the lie is not working so well. It has come home that Washington and Jefferson and Andrew Jackson were Southern slaveholders, so there is a rising demand that they be expunged along with Confederates. Since Southern plantation owners were Presidents for 50 out of the first 72 years of the United States, as were most other significant leaders, American history must go. New Orleans can no longer celebrate its greatest hero, a slaveholder. If we are to put under the ban all slaveholders then we have wiped away all of the earliest and best part of American history. That, of course, is exactly what is intended.
But it has also wiped away the lies that have passed for mainstream American history. Washington and Jefferson and Andy Jackson are once more Southern and no longer honorary Yankees. And we can claim entirely for ourselves Lee and Forrest, who are not just Southern icons but world renowned military leaders, among the greatest ever produced by America. Today is General’s Forrest’s birthday, by the way.
I find jihadist campaign against America liberating. As Southerners we no longer have to be good sports and play by the rules that “those people” as General Lee politely called them, have thrown out. We can once more embrace our own Southern history, which is the real American history.
As Dr. Livingston and Dr. McClanahan have shown, from the beginning the South was America and America was the South. With good will, the South gave all to build the United States. Southerners all along thought of the Union as an agreement in good faith for mutual benefit of all the States. They served it in a spirit of patriotism and honour. From the very first day the ruling elements of the North considered the Union as a way to make themselves some easy money. They still do. And secondarily as a tool to force their way of thinking on everybody else. Our loyalty to the United States has never been reciprocated and our desire to be good Americans has been treated with contempt. That is the reality of enlightened and virtuous 21st century America that we can see from the perspective of the Southern tradition.
The Revolutionary War was won in the South by Southerners, although New England historians lied so industriously that most people see the winning of independence through a New England lens. In both the colonial and antebellum eras, the South was the productive part of the American economy, its products in great demand internationally. And it was the most prosperous as well. The North could not produce anything that Europe could not make for itself, thus the tariff that forced all American consumers to guarantee profits to Northern industrialists and a national debt that did the same for bankers.
Remember, in 1860 Lincoln was rejected by 60% of the American people. But he and his party got control of the federal machinery and waged a brutal war of conquest against the Southern people that no one previously could have imagined possible.
This war destroyed 60 per cent of the property and one fourth of the men of the South. War was very deliberately made on civilians, including African Americans. Historians have looked recently into the matter are discovering that the Southern civilian death toll, white and black, was much greater than has previously been estimated.
In carrying out this war of conquest nothing was ever done by the Union with a primary motive of benefit to the African Americans. In war and Reconstruction they were simply tools of the winning side. The war was not to preserve the Union. It was to replace the Union with a centralized machine. Lincoln did not save Government of by and for the people. He established a permanent regime of state capitalism.
This means that the real power is in the hands of big business and big banks who use the government to protect and increase their own private profit and wealth. It had nothing to do with slavery or the welfare of African Americans.
This is the reality of 21st century America that we live under. If you don’t think so, remember the bailout a few years back in the derivatives crisis. The banks had gambled and lost. But they were Too Big to Fail. Neither party could think of any solution except for the taxpayers to bail the criminals out to the tune of billions of dollars. And this was regarded as an exercise of great statesmanship. If there had been any Southern Jeffersonian Democracy left the crisis would never have happened nor would the atrocity of the bailout.
There has been a campaign to whitewash Reconstruction. But verbal gymnastics and cherry-picked facts cannot forever disguise the fact that that Reconstruction was actually a regime of oppression by military dictatorship and of looting of an already impoverished region that postponed its recovery. In the end it left nothing but poverty for Southerners white and black.
The period following Reconstruction has been euphemistically described as “the New South.” I recommend two recent books --- Philip Leigh’s SOUTHERN RECONSTRUCTION and PUNISHED BY POVERTY by Ronald and Donald Kennedy. They show that Reconstruction has never ended. We remain a colony of the ruling class of mainstream America to be impoverished for their benefit and hectored for our sins. You will be surprised to learn to what extent federal policy after Reconstruction was designed to keep Southerners, black and white, as impoverished colonials. Some 20 million Southerners, black and white, left for the North and West in the first half of the 20th century to escape their poverty---a wolrd-class diaspora. But being good sports and constructive and desiring to be good Americans, Southerners have almost ceased to notice their second-class citizenship. And the South is still the only part of American that remembers the Jeffersonian philosophy of government, as Dr. Walters has pointed out.
The sufferings of Southerners in the war and Reconstruction do not even register on the national consciousness. How easy it is to endure other peoples’ troubles. Several people have recently attacked General Lee for being bitter after the war. How can one be bitter about his land and people being destroyed now that he has been shown the superior virtue of the other side. This is the same mentality that encourages Americans to wreak destructive havoc on other countries. Why don’t they love us when we send drones half way around the world to blow up their wedding parties? After all, we mean well and only want to bring them good things.
Faulkner, the greatest American writer of the 20th century, wrote from the Southern tradition. There is the young farmer so poor he had to listen to the radio outside a neighbour’s window. But the day after Pearl Harbour he hitchhiked to Memphis to enlist. He did not need any abstractions about saving the world for democracy. To defend your people was the right thing to do. That is social bond individualism. Thoreau would have said don’t bother him. Emerson would have demanded that he be the one to decide for everybody else what the war was about.
Or the old lady and two boys in Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust who go to extreme lengths to save a black man falsely accused of murder. Not because they are dedicated to some abstraction about equality but because it is the right thing to do as members of society. And Faulkner’s The Reivers, as Bradford pointed out, begins with the words “Grandfather said…” followed by an uproarious account of what happens with Grandfather’s instructions on the conduct of a gentleman are disregarded. Imagine Hemingway’s or Fitzgeralds’s solipsist characters listening to what Grandfather said.
In Go Down, Moses, the character Ike McCaslin has been taken to be a hero because he repudiates his family heritage tainted with slavery. But Ike is no hero, he is a barren man, driven by an overly fastidious and abstract idea of the good. He is a Southern Thoreau. The real hero is the wordly Cass Edmonds, who accepts his tarnished heritage and does his best to carry out his responsibilities to his people, black and white. When in The Unvanquished Bayard Sartoris faces down his father’s killer unarmed in order to stop a cycle of violence, he is a conspicuous example of social bond individualism.
Cleanth Brooks, the greatest student of Faulkner, as pointed out that the central character of all of Faulkner’s work is not an individual but the community—the town of Jefferson and Yoknapatawpha County. This is true of all the great Southern writers and sets them off from what elsewhere passes for American literature. The world portrayed in Southern literature has historical scope and social context, compared to what passes for American literature.
Faulkner at the time of his death was preparing a book to be called ”The American Dream—What Happened to It?.” He had written some parts of it and it is a pure expression of the Southern and Jeffersonian tradition, more so than he probably realized. In a speech a year after the Nobel speech, Faulkner said that the noble American principle of a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness had become nothing more than an excuse for materialistic ease. The early Americans did not mean just the chance to chase happiness. By happiness they meant “not just pleasure, idleness, but peace, dignity, independence and self respect,” things that had to be worked for and earned. “We knew it once, had it once … only something happened to us.” We no longer “believed in liberty and freedom and independence as the old fathers in the old strong, dangerous times had meant it.”
Nobody these days even knows what you are talking about when, like Keyserling, you mention “souls.” That is evidence that the United States has never found itself culturally. I would say that it never will, because American culture is now irredeemable. The Southern soul is still here but we have to admit that it is embattled and weakened and I rejoice to see that it survives in some young people.
Our topic this summer is “Being Southern in an Age of Radicalism.” I can think of no better way to conclude these reflections than this passage from Abbeville Scholar, Dr. Robert Peters:
The South is a garden. It has been worn out by the War, Reconstruction, the Period of Desolation, the Depression and the worst ravages of all---Modernity; yet, a worn-out garden, its contours perceived by keen eyes, the fruitfulness of its past stored in memory, can be over time, a time which will last no longer than those of us who initially set our minds to the task, restored, to once again produce, for the time appointed unto it, the fruits which nurture the human spirit and which foreshadow the Garden of which there will be no end.
This is the text of a speech originally presented at the Abbeville Institute Summer conference in 2017.
Before the appearance of Jack Kennedy as a television celebrity about 1960, Americans did not feel any personal relationship with Presidents. In the early days they were men of accomplishment who received respect as their due. After that occasionally they were military heroes, but until about 1960 they were mostly hack politicians, like nearly all the Republican nominees for President. FDR, of course, was loved by many people for his cheerful uplift in hard times. But the public did not really know him and expect to invite him for supper.
Since, 1960, when television damaged Nixon with his “three o’clock shadow,” personal identification with the candidate or the lack thereof has been an important but little recognised factor in Presidential elections. A large number of Americans want to feel like they know the President as a friend, someone they would like and who would like them if they were personally acquainted. A lot of Republicans even referred to the unlovable Nixon as “my President”--- shortly before they deserted him. Such people stupidly like to believe or at least to pretend that we Americans are really just all one big happy family.
The champion in this respect was Reagan. He was the ideal avuncular and benevolent fellow, always unruffled and ready with a joke. You would be happy to see him at the Thanksgiving table and he would never forget your birthday. The next best in the likable friend category was Obama. Here was a guy who was only half black and cool. You could have him as a neighbour and feel virtuous without running any risk of a mugging.
To a degree that is probably not sufficiently recognized, Bill Clinton was favoured by the likable friend factor also. He seemed easy-going and reasonable, not likely to do anything too crazy that would cause you trouble personally. Most Americans don’t have the experience of politics or insight to detect a plausible psychopath beneath the friendly demeanour. Unlike Carter, whose Southern accent was too pronounced and was too earnest, demanding that you really do some unpleasant thinking about things.
Unlovable Nixon lucked out. While nobody could really like him, at least as he appeared in the media, he had as opponents Humphrey and McGovern, the pretentious hectoring know-it-all college professor that you did not like. At least Nixon seemed experienced and relatively sane.
Americans do not like spoiled smart-aleck rich boys. Adlai Stevenson never had the faintest chance against Eisenhower. However, Bush minor lucked out even more than Nixon. Nobody really liked the brat very much, but he was up against Gore, who was not only a spoiled brat but a pompous flake. And nobody could really warm up to Kerry (or the other Massachusetts Yankees, Dukakis earlier and Romney later).
For some, Trump is the hard-driving ambitious fellow in your high school class who was fun to watch. Half of the class admired him and half hated him. Most of the public continue to like Hillary because they take her as a woman of accomplishment. That she has never done anything admirable and is vicious off-camera is something the public is not sharp or cynical enough to notice. If they really knew her personally they would recognise her as the nasty women she is.
The election of 2016 was a classic contest between the jocks and the nerds. Of course, we have to allow that Trump is the first nominee of either party who has had anything to say about any real issues in a long time. The nerds are increasingly outnumbering the jocks, which is a sign that people are feeling a false sense of security.
If my little analysis is right, then the person to watch for 2020 is Warren. Despite all her swerving, she comes across as the ideal Yankee well-meaning schoolmarm, an image that I wager still has a lot of power.
Those of us whose experience goes back a way into the last century, can remember when “democracy” was the main theme of American discourse. A million tongues proudly and repeatedly declared that America was the Democracy, exemplar and defender of that sacred idea to all the world. Hardly anyone dared to question that sentiment. It saw us through two world wars and the Cold War.
Of course, praise of “democracy” was not always sincere, and the term never had a very strict and clear definition. But most Americans thought of it in Lincoln’s sonorous phrase: government of, by, and for the people. In practical terms that seemed to mean majority rule. In that case Lincoln was not sincere because he headed the party of a large minority that seized control of the federal government and made brutal war against another large minority of the people.
Of course, a lot of questions were bypassed in the celebration of “democracy.” Who are “the people”? Who gets to participate in majority rule? Our Founding Fathers, like the ancients, were wary of a too pure democracy. They would have been astounded by the notion that a few million uninvited immigrants could wade ashore and immediately become deciding members of “the people.”
The Founders preferred to consider themselves “republicans,” not “democrats.” For republicans “the people” were not the mass but citizens with substantial stakes in society. Some, the Hamiltonians, thought that pure majority rule simply meant that the poor majority would vote themselves the wealth of the rich minority, that the people are “a great beast.” Therefore, the majority had to be hedged about by Supreme Courts, infrequent elections, a strong executive with armed force, government bondholders, and a national bank. Hamiltonianism now universally prevails, except that the constitutional gadgets that they relied on have never quite worked as they are supposed to. They would undoubtedly be shocked at some of the purposes of social revolution to which radicalized elites have devoted their institutional power.
The Jeffersonians had a bit more trust in the people and the ability of the majority to decide justly. After all, most folks were busy making a living and did not bother the government as long as it did not bother them. It was elitists who hung around the halls of power looking for privilege and profit. However, it cannot be over-stressed that the government in which the majority was to rule was one of very limited power. It was the agent of certain collective tasks but had no power to seriously interfere with the natural society of those who deserved to be called free men. For Jeffersonians majority rule was very limited in its jurisdiction, and the farther away it was the more limited it should be.
The thoughtful have always understood that there is a tension between democracy and liberty. They do not naturally go together, in fact are logically in conflict. Democracy strictly considered has nothing to say about liberty. However, Anglo-Saxon historical experience had for some time provided what seemed to be a practical working relationship, so it was somewhat natural to think of “democracy” being the two things happily married.
Looking a step further ahead, we find in our path another powerful idea: equality.
Majority rule suggested that citizens were more or less equal in their political rights and freedoms. But both ancients and the Founders were pretty clearly convinced that liberty and equality were natural enemies and very unnatural companions.
We no longer talk much about “democracy,” but Equality is all the rage. Minorities are to be made “equal” by government force: majority will and constitutional limitations be damned. Aspiring politicians no longer promise just rule and following the will of “the people” but announce what government power they will use to enforce Equality. Democracy, majority rule, the will of the people are obsolete ideas that stand in the way of sacred Equality.
Thus Obama can disdain the people for their “guns and Bibles” and Hillary Clinton, like Alexander Hamilton, can describe the people as “deplorables.” In a genuine government of the people both of these characters would be sent down in shame for insulting “the people.” Instead, they gather the votes of a majority of the electorate. How can this happen? I offer a possible explanation. The American educational system has turned out millions of pseudo-intellectuals, people with no particular intelligence or learning and who have no real power but who think that because they share the egalitarian scripture that they are therefore members of the elite and superior to those deplorables.
In present day America vast amounts of the national wealth are owned by a tiny fraction of people; imperial military bases straddle the globe; and five Supreme Court justices can make social revolutions in defiance of law, tradition, religion, and common sense. A private banking cartel controls the credit and currency of the country; the flow of information is effectively controlled by a few unknown oligarchs; there is an unpayable government debt that can never be paid, is partly owned by foreign powers, and will economically enslave our descendants; there is no civilized democratic political debate but only advertising campaigns competing for market share.
This cannot possibly be a government of the people, a democracy. It is even an enemy of genuine equality of citizenship. We should stop pretending we are a democracy, but that would be an intolerable blow to American self-esteem which has long been based on denial of reality.
In this list I emphasise films that are particularly vivid in portraying historical situations.
The Hill (British, 1965). Stark drama of WW II British soldiers in a brutal brig in North Africa. Sean Connery and Michael Redgrave.
El Alamein (The Line of Fire, Italian, 2002). Brave and loyal Italian soldiers trying to hold the line while left behind and isolated.
The Missing (2003). Tommy Lee Jones and Cate Blanchett in a powerful story of the hardships and dangers of the Southwestern frontier.
Danger UXB (British,1979). Actually a 7 episode television series about a team charged with dealing with unexploded bombs on the British home front.
Murphy’s War (British, 1971). A Brit (Peter O’Toole) and a Frenchman (Philippe Noiret), stranded in South America, devise the destruction of a Nazi U-boat.
Life and Nothing But (La vie et rien d’autre, French, 1989). A quiet portrayal of French survivors dealing with the trauma of the holocaust of WW I.
The Passion of Joan of Arc (French, 1928, silent). This portrayal of the last days of Joan of Arc is justly called one of the foremost masterpieces of silent cinema.
The Trojan Women (1971). Euripides’ classic Greek play about the women survivors of a destroyed world is made vivid, with Katherine Hepburn, Vanessa Redgrave, Irene Papas, and Genevieve Bujold.
The Last of the Mohicans (1992). The classic James Fenimore Cooper story of the colonial frontier has been filmed many times, but never with the vividly realistic impact of this version, with Daniel Day-Lewis as a convincing “Deerslayer.”
In the Bedroom (2001). The title of this gem makes no sense and tells nothing about the film. The killer of a man’s son is let go from punishment on a technicality. The man devises and carries about a beautiful revenge that satisfies himself, his wife, and most of us viewers.
Mrs. Miniver (1942). Stiff upper lip on the British home front during Dunkirk evacuation. One of the most effective patriotic films ever made in my opinion.
Don Segundo Sombra (Argentine, 1969). Quiet, classic depiction of growing up among the gauchos, based on a popular novel.
I will add two more titles, which will bring my recommendations to 50 from 50 years of viewing.
The Flame Trees of Thicka (1981). Actually a 7-episode television series about a British family pioneering in Kenya.
Elizabeth (British, 1998). A portrayal of the early years of Elizabeth I, marvelous in every aspect. Followed by Elizabeth: The Golden Years (2007).
I recently read a report of a professor who declared that he had come sadly to the conclusion that the Founding Fathers had been all wrong in the government they created. I don’t remember the name or place of this professor. Whether he had ever contributed anything to scholarly knowledge was not stated, but is doubtful. He probably suffers from Trump Derangement Syndrome. His credentials for this judgment on our American forebears are that he has “taught American government for 40 years.” We are so accustomed now to the media promoting the supposed “expert” opinions of supposed “experts,” especially in regard to history, that we pass over these things without noticing how ridiculous they are. The Founders had experience of large agricultural and mercantile enterprises, of state and continental government, of war, and in some cases of diplomacy, not to mention genuine learning that is seldom found today, especially among professors. Who is this person that anyone should notice his opinion much less consider it newsworthy?
When it comes to rewriting history to suit one’s personal preferences, this fellow is farm team compared to a a professor named Guelzo. Southerners are used to irrational hatred directed against us in the guise of fake history. It happens most of the time, but Guelzo is a gold medalist in this endeavour. He has recently produced a notorious video claiming to be about “Reconstruction.” The video is apparently sponsored by the Battlefield Trust organisation. Odd. How did such a thing happen? Surely the Trust has more important things to do than to promote nonsense which has nothing to do with the great battlefields of the War between the States and that many or most of its supporters repudiate.
To summarise Guelzo’s version of history: The North won the war but the white South won Reconstruction. The North should have continued Reconstruction until Southerners were forced to accept racial equality. The land of Southern whites should have been given to the freed slaves, who together with Northerners made the South prosperous during Reconstruction. But the Northerners left so the South reverted to racism and impoverished backwardness from the lack of Northern benevolence and enterprise. If Reconstruction had only lasted longer, the South would have been forced to become egalitarian and prosperous.
I note that Guelzo has a Master of Divinity degree. Perhaps that helps explain why he thinks his sermons impart historical knowledge. In fact, his “Reconstruction” never touches the plain earth of history at any point---it is all opinion, not understanding. And a malicious set of opinions based on false assumptions.
The biggest false assumption is that the North and the U.S. government invaded and conquered the South and subjected it to military occupation in order to achieve racial equality for black Americans. Thus that Northern actions were always wise and benevolent and Southern actions were always evil and incompetent. This is a common self-righteous assumption that supports the myth of America’s unique goodness, but it is wholly false. The number of Northerners who would have risked their lives to achieve racial equality could have assembled in a small room.
No Northerner before 1860 ever proposed any serious plan to achieve emancipation (much less equality), although many were free in their condemnation of Southern sins. Lincoln said that he did not know what to do about slavery even if he had the power, which he did not, and that Northerners would be exactly like Southerners if they had been in the same situation. He declared himself willing to protect slavery where it already existed in perpetuity, but declared that he must have his tariff revenue.
Surely there must have been something other than self-sacrificing goodness that kept together the varied interests that sustained the Northern war effort ? General Sherman’s brother, Senator Sherman, declared that establishing the national banking system was a more important goal than freeing the slaves. In Guelzo’s formulation, Northern politics is never about interests, like every other politics in human history, but only about noble mission.
Most Northern States, including Lincoln’s Illinois, had laws forbidding the residence of free black people and severely restricting the lives of the small number who were there. During the war the Black Republican abolitionist governors of Massachusetts and Illinois refused to accept as residents even a handful of freed black refugees. The governor of Illinois said that his people would not accept them and the governor Massachusetts said they would be happier in the South.
These are the people who conducted a war for equality for black Americans? In fact, the Northern people and soldiers were as “racist” as Southerners. Arguably more so, because Southerners were accustomed to living peacefully among black people. There was no significant number of black Americans outside of the South until World War I when many migrated into Northern discrimination. As serious historians are now noticing, Southern black people died in huge numbers from the destruction of resources and abuse by Northern soldiers.
Our “ leading authority” says that Southern land should have been confiscated and given to the black folk. Indeed, a lot of Southern land did change hands during Reconstruction, not to the freed people but to Northerners, in whose hands it remains today. Had there been any Reconstruction generosity to black Americans there were millions of acres of vacant land in the West---free to any white immigrant and to Northern railroad and mining corporations, but not an acre for freedmen. One of the chief motivations of the war and Reconstruction was to keep black people in the South and out of the North and West.
In sum, Reconstruction did nothing for black Americans except to make them voters, mobilise them to terrorise whites, and create hostility between the races that had not existed before. Like Southern white people they were left in poverty that lasted for generations.
The most preposterous of all the imaginary factors of Guelzo’s Reconstruction scenario is that Reconstruction, through Northern enterprise, made the South prosperous. I do not think there is or ever has been any historian of any political stripe who believes this. The primary Northern activity in Reconstruction was looting what was left of the South’s great antebellum wealth that had already been devastated by the war of conquest. The story of Reconstruction is not racial equality, it is corruption---corruption for personal enrichment that was a main activity of Republican politicians and fat cats and reached right into Grant’s White House.
In fact, Northerners ended Reconstruction when they became disgusted with near universal corruption and with the failure of the black people to turn themselves into industrious New Englanders. Guelzo is not interested in politics, but how could Reconstruction have been continued when even its proponents were turning against it. In the 1868 presidential election Grant had a hard time defeating Horatio Seymour, antiwar and anti-Reconstruction Democratic candidate. He probably would have lost without the disenfranchisement of Southern white men, the corralled votes of Southern blacks, and military control of the polling.
Other things that do not interest Guelzo but that stood in the way of continuing Reconstruction: democracy (majority rule) and the limits of revolutionary deconstruction provided by Constitutional government.
If we look at Guelzo’s website, (which interestingly is a .com rather than a .edu or a .org), we find a declaration by a person you have never heard of that Guelzo has for two decades “been at the forefront of Civil War era scholarship.” Further, he is “the leading authority on the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Lincoln,” and also a major authority on the Founding Fathers. The leading authority.
After a lifetime of study, I am a little bit of an authority on the 19th century United States. I am interested in and have studied a lot of other history, but I am by no means an “authority” on any of it. What a prodigy Professor Guelzo must be!
In fact, he dispenses not history but his own unanchored opinions on matters of great importance. His opinions are fashionable among the many who have a preference for an interpretation that damns Southerners and postulates an imaginary Northern crusade for racial equality. These opinions are not based on historical learning but are a product of crusading zeal. Guelzo is not a major historical authority but a media celebrity---someone who is well known for being well-known.
1. Guns at Batasi (1964). Richard Attenborough as a British Sergeant Major dealing with the tensions of the handover of an African colony to the natives.
2. Untamed (1955). Tyrone Power as a leader of the Boer trekkers in South Africa. A movie that follows history somewhat closely and could not be made today. Amazing it has not been suppressed. (Careful: there are other inferior films of the same title.)
3. Ivan’s Childhood, aka My Name is Ivan (1962). Grim tale of a Russian boy spying behind the Nazi lines in World War II.
4. The Passion of the Christ (2004). Brilliantly conceived and carried out. Anti-Christian Hollywood condemned this, which is a recommendation in itself.
5. The Blue Light (German, silent, 1932). Beautiful and moving story with Leni Riefenstahl as a mountain girl who loves a brilliant mountain light.
6. The Road to Glory (1941). A French regiment in World War I. Screenplay by Faulkner.
7. Cross of Iron (1977). Veteran and disillusioned German soldiers facing the collapse of their Eastern front in World War II.
8. Les Grandes Gueules, aka Jailbirds’ Vacation. (French, 1965). Humane and humourous story of French convicts given opportunity to work in a country lumber mill. The French are tops at portraying real life.
9. Himalaya (French/Nepalese, 1999). Realistic and vivid story of the life of people in a remote village of Nepal who must make a dangerous annual caravan to survive, which is threatened by a rivalry over leadership.
10. The Ballad of Narayama (Japanese, 1958). A very old woman struggles to make her son understand that it is time for her to go to the mountain where old folks go to quietly expire. Almost an opera, but dealing with the hardest realities of human life.
11. Is Paris Burning? (1966). Told in almost documentary style, an account of the few days of the history of the liberation of Paris and the thwarting of Hitler’s intent to destroy the city. (Please do not confuse this film with a sodomite thing called Paris is Burning.)
12. 13 Hours (2016). A vivid and well done portrayal of the Benghazi terrorist battle against Americans. Among other things it shows the courage of fighting men and the incompetence of bureaucrats.
Movie recommendations by Yours Truly and other Reckonin writers have attracted some popularity. There are more to come. The interest has prompted me to add a second dozen to what I wrote earlier
1. A Year of the Quiet Sun (Polish, 1984). A masterpiece. A heartbreakingly poignant story of the suffering and sacrifice of Polish people in the wake of World War II.
2. The Last Lieutenant (Norwegian, 1993). I am a sucker for films that portray outnumbered people fighting bravely against cruel invaders, invaders usually being Yankees or Nazis. A Norwegian old soldier determines not to let the German invasion go unopposed, even knowing that resistance is hopeless.
3. I’ll Be Seeing You (U.S., 1944). A woman on a brief Christmas relief from prison and a soldier about to be shipped overseas have a meeting of souls. With two of the best stars of their time: Ginger Rogers and Joseph Cotten (both of whom were Southern-born). A similar theme of brief and touching WW II meeting is also well done in The Clock (1945) with Judy Garland and Robert Walker.
4. Ride with the Devil (U.S., 1999). A vivid and truthful rendering of Southerners caught in Missouri/Kansas conflict of the War Between the States. The Chinese director Ang Lee does not suffer from Yankee self-righteousness and gives us something that is astonishingly true for a work produced in our times. Northerners Tobey Maguire, Jewell, and Jeffrey Wright and Brit Jonathan Rhys-Myers apparently have no objection to portraying Confederates.
5. The Virginian (U.S., 2000 version). Owen Wister’s iconic 1902 novel about a cowboy Southern knight in frontier Wyoming has been made into a movie numerous times, beginning in the silent era. Most of these films are third-rate routine Hollywood Westerns with no resemblance to the book except a plot summary. Not so, this newer version, which has beautiful Wyoming scenery and poetic attention to the characters.
6. The Bostonians (U.S., 1984). Henry James, who published his novel The Bostonians in 1886, is regarded on both sides of the Atlantic as one of the greatest fiction writers in English of all times, although for us plain folk he is something of an acquired taste, like opera. In The Bostonians a young ex-Confederate from Mississippi comes to New York in hopes of making a living. He pays a visit of duty to a lady cousin in Boston where he meets “the girl of his dreams.” There follows a contest between Boston reformers who want to use the young lady, who has a mesmerizing stage presence, as an orator for feminism, and the Southerner, who wants her for his wife. This time, the Southerner wins. Though of a defeated people, he is alive and vital, a great contrast to artificial and sick Boston society.
7. The Star (Russian, 2002). A moving story of a small Russian recon unit behind German lines in World War II.
8. Soldier of Orange (Dutch, 1977). The French and the Norwegians had forests and mountains to base their resistance to Nazi occupation. Not so the Dutch, who had to resort to other means. Rutger Hauer before he went to Hollywood.
9. The Admiral: Roaring Currents (Korean, 2014). Vivid and human account of outnumbered Koreans defeating an attacking Japanese armada in 1597.
10. Saigon--Year of the Cat (British, 1983). The last crashing down weeks of the American Vietnam crusade vividly portrayed. Obiter dicta: The most celebrated Vietnam movies---Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and Full Metal Jacket tell more about the psyches of movie makers caught up in the 60s revolution than they do about Vietnam itself. The Deer Hunter is somewhat better, portraying something resembling actual Americans. For honest portrayal of the war see The Siege of Firebase Gloria and We Were Soldiers.
11. Madron (U.S., 1970). Richard Boone, a hardened gunslinger, sacrifices himself to save a nun (Leslie Caron) from the Apaches. The “critics” don’t seem to like this one, which is a recommendation. It is hard to find.
12. Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility (British, both in 1995). There are many very good films of Jane Austen’s work. These are the best, in my opinion.
Clyde Wilson is a distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at the University of South Carolina He is the author or editor of over thirty books and published over 600 articles, essays and reviews