Can We Talk About the Virtues of the South Without Being Racist?

The scholars affiliated with the Abbeville Institute think that we can.

I had never heard of the Abbeville Institute until I read this essay about it in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Named after the birthplace of John C. Calhoun, the Institute attracts scholars “devoted to a critical study of what is true and valuable in the Southern tradition.”

Here is a brief description:

“…its work is more philosophic in nature, namely to explore the metaphysical image of things human and divine to which the Southern tradition bears witness. This includes seeking to understand the value of those features of community that promote an enduring and humane order: the importance of private property, place, piety, humility, manners, classical liberal studies, rhetoric, and the importance of a human scale to political order. We are interested both in what those values intimate for our own time, and in how they came to be features of the Southern tradition.

“Community,” “place,” “piety,” “humility,” and the “importance of human scale to the political order.” I am in favor of discussing all of these things. I believe in all of these things. And if the southern agrarian tradition extols these things then I think there are definitely some qualities worth considering in the southern agrarian tradition.

But can we affirm these kinds of ideals as they were championed in the context of southern history without also embracing the slavery and racism that came with them? For example, I often find myself strangely attracted to the pro-slavery arguments of people like George Fitzhugh because they provide such a scathing critique of the evils of northern capitalism. In this sense, I find the work of Eugene Genovese on the white antebellum southerners very appealing. At the same time, however, Fitzhugh’s actual defense of slavery disgusts me. It is, after all, a defense of slavery.

I wonder: Does a criticism of Abraham Lincoln, like the one I recently made, make one a “Lincoln loather?” Does the fact that I am even open to the idea that the southern tradition can teach us something make me a racist? I hope not. But this seems to be the general tone of the Chronicle piece. I would like to think that I could learn something from anyone–even a slaveholder. (This, after all, is what I preach to my students. The study of history requires empathy and understanding before moral condemnation).

Is Genovese right when he said in his Massey Lectures at Harvard: “Rarely these days, even on southern campuses, is it possible to acknowledge the achievements of the white people of the South…”? (A quote, I might add, featured on the Abbeville Institute webpage). Or is Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center correct when she described the Abbeville Institute as a group of scholars who are trying to “revise the history of the South in favor of whites”?

These are not easy questions to answer. But let me direct you to the political Left’s embrace of southern agrarian, Wendell Berry. As far as I know, Berry is not a racist, but his fiction and non-fiction certainly reflect a “southern agrarian” understanding of place and community. Yet Berry is praised by the Left for his critique of corporate and consumer capitalism and his commitment to the environment and the land. I have yet to hear him criticized for being too connected to the southern agrarians.

I wonder if Berry might be a model for embracing what is best of the southern tradition while at the same time rejecting its immoral dark side.

4 thoughts on “Can We Talk About the Virtues of the South Without Being Racist?

  1. A qualified yes. You can get away with talking about the virtues of the South if you're Eugene Genovese. But if you're a graduate of an infamous southern religious college…not so much.

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  2. I sometimes think the world would be better off had the South won the war. A lot of men died for nothing and I think that's very sad John.

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