I was born in Dixie in the May of 1964, a two-light town in the red clay and tall pines of the hardscrabble country far from the rich bottomlands of the Delta. Precisely two months after that happy event, Lyndon B. Johnson seized a ceremonial pen in one vulpine claw and scrawled the Civil Rights Act into the statute books of the United States. The “down payment,” as the Rev. Dr. Martin L. King called it; in photographs of the world-historical event he does indeed loom like a bill collector behind the slack-jowled, jug-eared President, an eerie half-smile playing across his saintly features. If the Rev. Dr Martin L. King ever uttered a genuine word of prophecy, that was it.
So Civil Rights and I were born twins; what’s more I was, literally, “born of the struggle.” My parents, natives of the Deep South – both of Anglo-Celtic stock that came to Virginia in the 1660s and over generations migrated southward and westward – met the 1950s, that noontime of the American Century, at a university in New England. Then, as now, the Ivy League was a trade school for the Chosen, those who would wage war on behalf of the Exceptional Nation’s God-appointed endless crusade: the conveyance of “light and truth” – which is to say, the universal principles of progressive egalitarianism, scientific education and debt-financed consumption – to the hidebound and primitive. The repair of God’s creation, in other words, the old patriarch having made a made a huge mess with His original effort, all informed by opinion polls and shaped by the principles of advertising developed by Mr Bernays.
My father and mother were foot soldiers, then, on the Southern front. They marched, they taught, they wrote, they protested, they prayed, they sang “We Shall Overcome.” They are among those anonymous half- and quarter-faces one can see in photographs of the period, usually four or five ranks back from the Tabor light of whatever prophet was haranguing at the podium. My father met the Rev. Dr. Martin L. King in Birmingham; my mother met Pete Seeger at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. Myles Horton, Highlander’s founder, was my “Uncle Myles”; John L. Lewis was once a guest at our dinner table, ditto Fannie Lou Hamer and Clarence Jordan and scores of lesser but no less dedicated eyes-on-the-prizers. I have, needless to say, leveraged their experience into virtue points. Southerner? Yes. But one of the good ones. Because we – my parents, rather – repented of the “original sin.” And like many of my generation, I genuinely looked forward to the day when – if I may borrow a well-known phrase from Stanley Levinson – the sons of slaveholders and the children of slaves would sit together, et cetera. I’m sure you know the rest, and like me, you were assured that it was going to be wonderful.
But there were always higher loyalties, deeper traditions, eternal fealties. A compact with the dead, an obligation to the past, born of the blood in my veins and the stories that came from the old folks: a loyalty born of the land they loved and for which they poured out their blood to defend.
I am named for my great-great grandfather. He was a small farmer in a cotton state, one of the first seven to secede. In May 1861, 24 years old and married, he and his 18-year-old brother enlisted for the duration of the war in a regiment formed in the southern part of their state. That summer the regiment joined the Army of Northern Virginia under the command of General Robert E. Lee.
My great-great grandfather, then, was among those hard and wolvish Southern soldiers that unleashed the Rebel Yell and stormed the U.S. lines at Gaines Mill and Frazier’s Farm. He stood under heavy fire at Second Manassas, joined in the capture of Harper’s Ferry; the regiment fought with what the official record describes as “ferocious obstinance” at Sharpsburg. He was granted sick leave, his condition described as “phthisis,” in November 1862; his son, born in 1863, was conceived during time. He returned to the Army of Northern Virginia in time for Chancellorsville, where his regiment routed the U.S. troops at Salem Church and marched behind General Lee when he rode into that clearing at Chancellorsville Court House as the U.S. Army collapsed beneath the fury of Stonewall Jackson’s assault.
Half of the regiment fell at Gettysburg, with my great-great grandfather’s younger brother losing a leg on the second day in the assault on Cemetery Ridge. My great-great grandfather was captured, escaped, and rejoined General Lee in Virginia. The regiment was “hotly engaged” at the Wilderness and “suffered considerably” at Spotsylvania as Grant hurled Lincoln’s German and Irish mercenaries and the draftees of the Yankee states into the massed fire of Confederate rifles like a drunkard flinging peanut shells. “The regiment was under fire every day as the Federal army pressed to Richmond,” according to the official record, and suffered severe losses at Cold Harbor and Petersburg.
My great-great grandfather died in a Richmond hospital in January 1865. The cause of death is listed as tuberculosis. I can only conclude, based on his sick leave, that he fought the war with this condition.
He is buried in one of the mass graves in Hollywood Cemetery.
At Appomattox, according to the official record, the soldiers of his regiment “indignantly denied the first rumors of the contemplated surrender, many wept like children at the announcement, and the survivors tore their battle-rent banner into shreds to retain as a memento.”
His wife died in the summer of 1865. His son, my great grandfather, was raised by the younger brother, who survived three amputations and Union imprisonment and the long road home from Virginia through a desolate and crow-picked Dixie.
I have lived to see the complete and utter failure of the cause for which my parents struggled.
And I have lived to see the complete and utter vindication of the cause for which my great-great grandfather and so many hundreds of thousands more of our people – my people, our people, the Southern people – suffered and died.
“The United States of America.”
Let us be charitable and grant the “patriots” this: “the United States of America” is, to be sure and no question about it, an “Exceptional Nation.” The first to be founded on explicitly rationalist principles, as English conservative Michael Oakeshott sagely observed. The Founders, he writes, were “disposed to believe that the proper organization of society and the conduct of its affairs were based upon abstract principles, and not upon a tradition which, as Hamilton said, ‘had to be rummaged for among old parchments and musty records.’”
For U.S. conservatives, that abstract principle is, of course, “equality.” In the words of their prophet, the Straussian Henry Jaffa, human equality is the “ancient faith” of the United States. Per Jaffa, Abraham Lincoln – putting aside for a moment whatever bit of business he was transacting for his railroad and banker clients, and in the loneliness of the Illinois night brooding on the nature and destiny of man, the organization of society and the promise of the New Land – discovered that human equality had been the intent of the Founders all along. It was merely hidden, a sort of secret knowledge, like the coded messages that Strauss and his various neocon disciples discover in Plato and Hobbes, accessible only to the adept. “All men are created equal” thus became the Rail-splitter’s lodestone, his compass, his banner; and thus anointed by the Daemon of History, he rode at its bidding to smite the Southern heretics and return them to the fold of the Last Best Hope of Mankind; from which triumphant battlefields the March of Progress commenced with the Stars and Stripes fluttering and Sousa marches tootling in the background.
Jaffa’s abstractions are, of course, a sort of gnostic Koran, a mighty fortress of unassailable, unquestionable truth for the conservatives, lending intellectual (of a sort) support in Introduction to Philosophy language for any and all manifestations of Exceptionalism and its various appurtenances. Thus, on the American Greatness web site, and duly tagged with a rubric called “Greatness Agenda,” Dan Gelernter, a “writer and entrepreneur living in Connecticut calling for war with Russia and China because. . . well, it’s hard to understand why, but apparently it has something to do with Hitler’s re-occupation of the Rhineland? And some thundering oration from Winston Churchill, delivered in his usual sham-Augustan prose? And because otherwise the American Empire will appear “weak” and the world will self-destruct in an apocalypse of Munichs? His views seem little different from those of David Gelernter, a computer scientist at Yale and lost the use of his right hand an eye to one of Ted Kaczynski’s bombs. Back in the neocon salad days of Gulf War II, Mr. Gelernter composed a strange little tract called Americanism: The Fourth Great World Religion. Americanism, Mr Gelernter proposed, is a secular form of Zionism a “militant creed,” a “fighting faith” dedicated to spread liberty and equality around the world.
Well, so was the French Revolution, for that matter, and one could describe “human equality” as its ancient faith, as well. Thus, the Jacobins saw the liberated slaves of Haiti as a revolutionary vanguard that would “carry revolt and independence into the New World,” in the words of their commissioner M. Sonthonax. Well, they certainly eliminated the pandemic of whiteness, in the words of The Root’s Damon Young, on the isle of Haiti. One can imagine the forces of Dessalines arming themselves with the “Prayer of a Weary Black Woman,” composed by Chanequa Walker-Barnes of the Mercer University’s School of Theology. “Dear God, Please help me to hate white people,” Chanequa implores. “I want to stop caring about their misguided, racist souls; to stop believing that they can be better, that they can stop being racist.
I’m not sure why this should surprise anyone. While “all men are born equal” may mean “equality under the law,” in the abstract world of Henry Jaffa and Republicans who cheer on the likes of Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX) at Lincoln-Reagan Dinners, in this sad, bloodsoaked world, burdened as it is with sin, corruption and stupidity, “equality” always advances to and resolves as a brutal levelling, accompanied by mass slaughter, in the name of “equity.” The poisonous seed planted by Lincoln has borne fruit in greater and greater harvest since Appomattox, and like kudzu, is suffocating the entire Western world. His brutal war – rather, the railroad- and bank-backed Republican Party’s war – on the Southern people, their grubby economic conquest tarted up with the abstractions of Unitarian, progressive virtue, and the absolute lie that it was a noble and righteous crusade done for the sole purpose of liberating the oppressed, has permitted the imperial ideology of the United States to metastasize without let or hindrance into an absolutist empire which seeks to rule and bind every single aspect of human existence, and destroy everything that opposes it.
“I saw in State Rights the only availing check upon the absolutism of the sovereign will, and secession filled me with hope, not as the destruction but as the redemption of Democracy,” Lord Acton wrote to General Lee. “I deemed that you were fighting the battles of our liberty, our progress, and our civilization; and I mourn for the stake which was lost at Richmond more deeply than I rejoice over that which was saved at Waterloo.”
General Lee wrote back: “The consolidation of the states into one vast republic, sure to be aggressive abroad and despotic at home, will be the certain precursor of that ruin which has overwhelmed all those that have preceded it.”
General Lee was, truly, prophetic – and far more so than the Rev. Dr. Martin L. King at any point in his via dolorosa, based as it was upon a profound understanding of man and history as they are, and not how they should be.
Mr. Lincoln’s Empire: aggressive abroad, despotic at home. A profoundly sinister form of Gnosticism and while less brutal than the Bolshevik monstrosity, far more vile and degenerate by several orders of magnitude. The rulers of Mr. Lincoln’s empire, from the corrupt drunkard Grant to the interventionist Wilson to the Stalin-admiring FDR to Bush I/II, Obama and the pathetic Biden with their gangs of neocon advisors, seek to create a Kingdom of God on earth in the form of a perfectly egalitarian society. They seek, like the Grand Inquisitor of Dostoevsky’s fable, to “correct God’s work.” And have thus like the Inquisitor declared their allegiance to the wise and evil spirit who in the desert tempted Christ with earthly bread and the promise of earthly power.
Dostoevsky, the great Russian Orthodox prophet, saw the structure of their Kingdom, too. In The Possessed, his novel about the revolutionists of 19th century Russia, the gloomy, sullen long-eared theoretician Shigalov proposes a solution to the problem of an unjust society. One-tenth of the population will enjoy unbridled power over the remaining nine-tenths. For the nine-tenths, the surrender of all individuality; they will become an ignorant herd, slaving to support the elite, gradually devolving to a state of primary innocence. Soulless drones, in other words, without memory or tradition, without history or a spiritual life, drifting in a sort of screenlit twilight, their choices driven by Google Ads and Instagram influencers, every action tracked by mobile devices, existing only to consume and bolster the balance sheets of the elite.
This is the “telos” of the United States, the “justice” toward which it is bending the arc of history. It’s not a bug, it’s a feature; this is and has always been the final state of “equality.” Conservatives are partially correct in blaming the alien Marxists of the Frankfurt School, but the soil tilled by the egalitarian twaddle of Abraham Lincoln was eager to receive them.
This “United States” is the beast that my great-great grandfather faced on the firing line; this “United States” is that beast that he fought for four years with a tubercular condition; this “United States” raped and plundered his home. My great-great grandfather and all of them – his comrades, his commanders, the officers and men of the Confederate Armies, General Lee and General Jackson and General Forrest and General Cleburne all of them – are even more heroic and noble than we ever dared imagine. They fought to defend us, and our children, and our history and our land, from the “United States” and egalitarian nightmare. To preserve the South and Southerners, as Boyd Cathey once put it, from becoming American.
The South Vindicated, Part II may be read here.