Look Behind the Southern Heritage Movement
Saturday night of October 7, I had the pleasure of attending this
year’s South Carolina Heritage
Coalition Red Shirt Banquet at a West Columbia facility. Maurice
Bessinger’s now infamous Bar-B-Q
Restaurant supplied the food, and all proceeds went to the Southern
Legal Resources Center which has tracked the 140 or so assaults
on Southern symbols throughout the South since July 1, the day the
Confederate flag came down from the South Carolina State House Dome.
We heard from a number of speakers, including State Senators and
electoral hopefuls. Awards were made; Maurice Bessinger won a Southern
Businessman of the Year Award for this year. There were drawings
(needless to say, yours truly did not win anything.) We also heard
from representatives of a new organization called the Southern
Small Business Association, a network of pro-Southern businesses
that are attempting to support each other in these politically correct
I began reflecting on the event in light of a question that often
gets asked: what is this Southern Heritage thing all about, anyway?
Is it more than defense of a battleflag? What’s so great about it?
Seems we ought to be able to answer this in a reasonable way that
will inform those who ask in good faith. Since my personal background
as a trained philosopher no doubt gives me a special take on these
issues not shared by everyone, I cannot guarantee that everyone
who considers himself pro-Southern will agree with me on every point.
I don’t speak here for any particular organization, political party
or other group. However, I would like to believe there is a broad
consensus on a number of points I heard reiterated in one form or
another several times by various speakers. What does it mean to
be pro-Southern, or to believe in the importance of preserving Southern
means more than merely protecting symbols, although this is of course
important. It also means protecting a set of moral convictions or
basic, fundamental values that are under assault today. These include
the fundamental goodness of family, understood as one man married
to one woman, with their children. The latter are to learn early
in life the importance of obedience to their parents—something no
longer to be found in the today’s American cultural mainstream.
They are to learn to respect the experience of their elders. On
the other hand, if a man and a woman are going to bring children
into this world, they must assume the responsibility that goes with
this and raise children who will become responsible adults. These
convictions then extend to an attachment to and loyalty to one’s
community. A community is built around trust and shared commitments.
This trust is often generated among those who have known one another
for a long time—maybe since childhood—worked with one another, and
sometimes fought alongside one another. I fear that one of the drawbacks
of a global economy is the erosion of the ties that make neighbors
more than strangers. I have felt dismay at being able to send email
to Sweden but not knowing the name of woman who lives next door
basic value frequently expressed among pro-South types is that of
limited government, where the limiting element is a written Constitution.
What is meant by this should be fairly obvious, but again, Constitutionally
limited government is almost a foreign concept today. First, Second
and Fourth Amendment rights have been under attack for years, and
sometimes the attacks are not even reported in the mainstream media.
Moreover, the Ninth and Tenth Amendments are all but forgotten—except
by the occasional Maurice Bessinger, whose raising of his flags
was intended to make a statement about the Constitutionally proper
relationship between States and the federal government. Our federal
government was originally created by the States—as an outcome of
the First Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. Its
nature and structure were set out by the Constitution of the United
States of America. The Constitution is not a perfect document, and
Constitutionalism not a perfect political philosophy. It does not
protect itself; it depends on a morally upright and vigilant citizenry.
Right from the beginning, critics of the Constitution, the so-called
Antifederalists, held that it contained too many loopholes which
those who wanted powerful central government would sooner or later
squirm through. The core of so-called Antifederalism (which actually
had better claim to the term federalism) was Virginia, a
proud Southern State and home to Thomas Jefferson, who would become
the leader of those opposed to Alexander Hamilton’s original efforts
to build a bigger central government.
of course, we often hear the argument that the Constitution is a
"living, evolving document," or some such. This kind of
thinking arose out of the Progressive movement rooted in the late
1800s, which in turn resulted from the statist philosophy that had
crept over to this side of the Atlantic from continental Europe,
especially Prussia (what is now part of Germany); the Framers of
1787 would have found it quiet alien. What it actually means is
that there is no fixed interpretation of the Constitution beyond
the decisions of a majority of Supreme Court Justices responding
to the vagaries of time and circumstance.
practice, the living-Constitution dogma has engendered a state of
affairs in which the Constitution means whatever those with the
power to enforce their demands or their ideology want it to mean.
They may find "rights" in the Constitution that the Framers
would have found horrifying (e.g., the "right" of women
to kill their unborn babies). And they will read in the First Amendment
a justification for curtailing sincerely felt public religious expression
(e.g., prayers by students before football games), as opposed to
an injunction against the federal government’s creation of a state
church. But the living-Constitutionalists will see it as protecting
rap songs advocating vicious attacks on police or the celebrating
the sexual degradation of black women, or "art" consisting
of crucifixes submerged in urine.
of religion, here we find another core element of Southern heritage:
strong belief in and love for God. Again, it is popular in a lot
of circles today to question whether God even exists. It is easy
to respond that many of our worst problems, particularly in the
schools, seem to have begun when God was gradually removed from
them. Coincidence? Some will point out that conjunction of two events
does not equal causality, and it is true enough that there were
problems in public schools before prayer was taken out of them.
Problems are probably endemic to public schools because government-run
education was a bad idea to begin with. But clearly the problems
in government schools are today worse, beginning with the absence
libertarians do not believe in God. I must confess my own past flirtations
with agnosticism, if not atheism. I suspect this is common among
youthful intellectual types. However, many, many thoughtful people
have eventually had a kind of epiphany: an experience which brings
them into immediate realization of one or more deep truths of human
existence. In this case, two such truths are worth noting. First,
unlike animals such as cats or dogs, human beings cannot simply
exist; in order to flourish, they must believe there is some larger
purpose for their doing so. And second, human beings typically derive
this purpose by identifying with something larger than themselves.
Otherwise, there is a void in their lives. This void will be filled,
one way or another. Sometimes the void is filled in ways that are
harmless, and even interesting. Science became the god of the Enlightenment,
and the periods that built on its foundation. Science has been the
source of many fascinating ideas and discoveries. Reason became
the god of many libertarians, who also inherited it from the Enlightenment;
it certainly became the idol worshipped by Ayn Rand and her followers.
In no way is this to detract from the achievements of science and
reason, or the defense of liberty Rand supplied. We are all better
off for them. But Science and Reason are not gods. They can offer
a great deal of practical instruction and useful results, but not
moral completion. And in the absence of such they are prone to abuse.
Science and technology have given us weapons of mass destruction
as well as the computer and cures for diseases, after all.
surrogate god rejected by Southern heritage is Mammon. This one
is not quite as easy to handle, because in a free society one has
the right to earn as much money as one can through voluntary transactions
with others, and not have it taken forcibly by the State for any
purpose. However, neither money nor the things it buys can give
a person a code of values; the latter only reflect the values one
already possesses. The pursuit of money as an end in itself, totally,
can be destructive in ways libertarians do not always appreciate—but
perhaps the Bessinger situation will help them appreciate it. When
accumulate of wealth becomes your only value, you end up with a
Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart has been accused,
with some justification of having turned thriving communities
into ghost towns, selling
products made overseas with de facto slave labor, and now, with
caving in to political correctness by refusing to sell the products
of an entrepreneur who flies the South Carolina and Confederate
flags over his businesses. Of course, Wal-Mart can offer for sale
whatever its owners want, and refuse to sell the products of those
of whom it does not approve. But when its corporate board apparently
approves the continued sale of rap CDs full of obscenity-laced lyrics
that offend Christians, one has to snicker at Wal-Mart’s "principles"
when their spokespersons talk about not selling products that "offend."
These are the fruits of a corporation that has embraced Mammon as
its god. With no moral center, you are swept in whichever direction
the winds of popularity and fashion blow.
most dangerous surrogate god, though, is quite obviously the State.
Modern State-worship began when the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel
conceived of his "organic theory of the State" and his
famous dialectical pseudo-logic which also began our slide into
historical and cultural relativism. Karl Marx, of course, married
Hegelian philosophy with materialism in order to get classical Marxism.
The result was a century-long bloody effort, as Marx once wrote,
"to dethrone God and destroy capitalism." We witnessed
the rise of the bloodiest dictatorships in history. However, it
is very easy to get caught up in radical political movements, or
the near-worship of some supposedly great man, once one has adopted
a theory of reality that is completely materialistic and so necessarily
denies that there is a God.
the Southern Heritage movement, God is the foundation of truth and
morality, and as such, belongs not just in the schools but in one’s
daily living. Accepting that we all answer to a Being not just larger
than ourselves but larger than all of physical reality is humbling,
and inspires a sense of obedience to that which transcends the contingencies
of history and fashion. Accepting that we are all the creations
of such a Being inspires, furthermore, a sense of dignity, and of
respect for human life.
respect for life has been largely snuffed out in mainstream America,
the latest symptoms of which being the U.S. Supreme Court’s endorsement
of the barbaric procedure known somewhat euphemistically as "partial
birth abortion" and the adoption, without much fanfare, of
RU 486, the so-called abortion pill. Abortion, however, is not the
cause of the cheapening of human life. This has been a continuous
and very gradual process going back many years ever since our culture
began to adopt materialism as its guiding philosophy. The effects
include not just abortions but the millions of people, many of them
teenagers, who resort to using recreational drugs, abuse alcohol,
abuse each other for thrills—or sometimes decide that life just
isn’t worth in and commit suicide: one of the highest causes of
death among young people today.
can live without God? I don’t think so.
in any event, are the thoughts that come to mind when meditating
on the Southern Heritage movement, and why Southern heritage is
worth preserving. There are alternatives here to political correctness,
statism, and mindless materialism. There are also reminders here
that there is more to living in a free society than being an atomistic
individualist, and more to business than grabbing as many goodies
as one can for oneself and saying, in effect, screw the other guy.
Part and parcel with the Southern mindset is honor, honesty, loyalty
and trust, as well as liberty, all adding up to community.
thing Southern heritage is manifestly not about is hatred
of those unlike oneself, combined with an urge to keep them "in
their place," though obviously no one in the movement I am
aware of believes in "affirmative action." No one has
an automatic right to jobs or promotions they haven’t earned. A
constant irritant is the liberal who delivers the blanket accusation
that all of us involved in freedom and regional movements of one
sort or another are nothing but racists in denial. Of course, slavery
was a part of original Southern heritage. No heritage is perfect;
all have their dark sides. It is pointless to dwell on such things,
since the liberal can take whatever any of us says and twist it
to suit his ends. At the Banquet I heard no denunciations of blacks
(though black "leaders" of the Al Sharpton variety do
not come off looking particularly well). What I heard was promotion
of these kinds of values, the South being one of the few remaining
regions where one can find a large number of people committed to
them. The issue is not race but freedom—and opposition to the avalanche
of centralization and political correctness that are threats to
all people everywhere, not just Southerners.
course, I would emphasize again that others committed to keeping
Southern Heritage alive would not express their beliefs as I have.
Few of these people are philosophers (although some are well educated,
with Ph.D.’s in their fields and books to their credit). Most, however,
are just ordinary folks, and the values that are now almost distinctively
Southern are not add-ons but a part of their way of life. This way
of life is now under attack, whether through the refusals of corporations
such as Wal-Mart (and many grocery chains such as Bi-Lo, Food Lion,
Kroger and others) to carry the products of a Maurice Bessinger,
or the far less visible and more insidious means such as the stealth
assaults on the Constitution coming out of Washington, D.C.
with this, we come to the truly dangerous idea—and the real reason
why Southern heritage is under attack, and likely to be assaulted
even more fiercely in the future. If the federal government is a
creation of States, then States can—in principle—remove themselves
from it, or even dissolve it if enough of their members believe
it has betrayed its founding principles and become an instrument
of tyranny. Many Southerners believe in the validity of the idea
of secession because it follows from their conception of the nature
of government. It happened once; the South lost the ensuing war,
and the American Empire of today was built. It could happen again,
if the number of people who fear that our central government has
become tyrannical and can no longer be controlled or changed from
within. There are already quite a few such people right here in
South Carolina, where the first secession movement started. Their
numbers are growing every day.
Yates has a Ph.D in Philosophy and is the author of Civil
Wrongs: What Went Wrong With Affirmative Action
(San Francisco: ICS Press, 1994). A frequent contributor to LewRockwell.com
and The Edgefield Journal,
he lives and freelance writes in Columbia, South Carolina. He is
at work on a new book manuscript, tentatively entitled The
Paradox of Liberty.