Sing-Song of the North


In a piece entitled "Wrong Song of the South," recently appearing in Reason online, Professors David T. Beito and Charles W. Nuckolls, both of the University of Alabama, undertake to expose the "dangerous fallacies of Confederate multiculturalism" (italics in original).

Confederate multiculturalism — a phenomenon which seems largely to exist in the authors' minds — is said to characterize the League of the South and other (unnamed) "u2018southern heritage' groups." For some reason, "southern heritage" is put in scare-quotes. Perhaps there is no Southern heritage worth mentioning; or perhaps there is, but it is all bad.

Better we should form Burned-Over District Heritage Societies.

In aid of trivializing the ideas of Southern multiculturalists, so-called, the authors adduce a (white) female professor caught in the act of defending Kwanzaa. The less said of this "comparison," the better. Just in terms of sheer time-depth, Southern culture is a few centuries older than Kwanzaa and might, therefore, have more standing. Southern culture, like it or not, is "older than the Union," so to speak, and thus has had time to develop a good many cultural features with no small claim to authenticity, even as the word is understood by social scientists.

The whole American experience itself is not very old in historical terms, and it is not immediately self-evident that the repackaging of that experience by New England scribes, self-appointed to define the truly "American," settles such questions for all time. There is a Virginia-centric reading of Southern — and American – history, and there has been for a long, long time.1 It is not entirely idle for people who find themselves in possession of a particular inheritance at the end of several centuries, to wish to preserve some of it, especially when they find that inheritance under constant attack.

Beito and Nuckolls adduce the League's call for "reparations for the South" as further evidence of Southern multiculturalism. Here, I fear they are — for all their formal training in the sciences of human action — a bit tone-deaf. I don't think anyone calling for "reparations for the South" really expects to get them. What we have here is a talking point, an attempt at reminding people that Mr. Lincoln's Union-saving armies did burn Atlanta, did burn Columbia, did shell Charleston for a year and a half, and so on.

At a time when everyone is supposed to go around apologizing for the sins of his ancestors, it is understandable (if unwelcome to some), that someone might wish to broaden the discussion in this direction. Since Union conduct of that war underlies present-day US inability to wage anything but total war, a perspective on that conduct might provide interesting insights into deeply rooted "American" traditions in foreign policy and war making. The contemporary Neo-Con doctrine of presidential infallibility, as presented by John C. Yoo and other phony "originalists,"2 stems directly from Lincoln's notions of inherent presidential powers, and thus a straight line runs from Lincoln's "precedents" to the much-mooted torture memos of recent memory.


As further evidence of Confederate multiculturalism, we are informed that "members of the League have demanded that universities hire Southern-born professors." Again, whether or not anyone actually believes that such a "demand" would, or even could, be fulfilled, this, too, is a useful talking point. It arises from a definite context.

Grady McWhiney wrote in 1984, that "anti-southernism also is widespread throughout southern academia; indeed, Northerners teaching in the South may look forward to a time when, as those at one major southern university proudly boasted, u2018there is not a single Southerner in our history department!'…. An American who is discriminated against while teaching in Canada can take the advice of the Canadian nationalists and u2018go home,' but a Southerner, who is discriminated against in northern or in southern institutions because his ways and beliefs are too southern, may well find that he has no home to go to in academia…. When I returned to the South after years of teaching in Canada and in the North, I discovered that some of the most powerful people at the University of Alabama were strongly anti-southern as well as willing and able to intimidate those who were not."3

Perhaps Professors Beito and Nuckolls do not recognize this situation. Perhaps things have changed since McWhiney wrote those words. Perhaps McWhiney was misleading us. (I doubt it.) Perhaps things are as McWhiney writes, but that is how it should be. (I doubt that, too.)


In any event, the Professors' insistence on framing the issue as one of dreaded multiculturalism seems very wide of the mark. Let us crack open that can of worms a wee bit. Just what is so wrong about multiculturalism?

Clearly, the much-mooted "culture wars," multiculturalism, etc., need some kind of context. According to the Professors, the "jargon of group rights and identity politics, normally the domain of the politically correct, permeates… pronouncements" of Southern heritage groups. Even worse, the League "stresses the Celtic background of many Southerners as a defining feature of this u2018cultural identity.'"

Well, on the mere facts, Southerners are, broadly speaking, Celtic and do, in fact, have an identity. So, contrary to Beito and Nuckolls, they do not in the manner of the Kwanzaa-defending female academic "desperately want to create and u2018celebrate' cultural distinctions and then deploy them for political purposes."

There just isn't much to create, since there already is an identity, however much fun it might be to get bogged down in laying out how multifarious, fissiparous, situational, historically conditioned, etc., that identity might be. It doesn't seem to occur to Beito and Nuckolls that people might, in the course of exercising their individual rights, make an effort to preserve something to which they see themselves as belonging, and that they might do this, with or without a theory of group rights. The Professors seem quite unimpressed that people already having a culture and not needing to "create" one, might want to preserve it, to some degree or another.

Perhaps some cultures have no merits whatsoever and should be eradicated forthwith by a coalition of the willful. But Beito and Nuckolls will have to make an argument for this position, if they hold it. We can't just take it on faith.

As far as the issue in hand goes, individual vs. group rights seems as much a red herring as the whole business of multiculturalism. Of course there are social groups and competing cultures. A key question is whether some ideal hierarchy of these groups should exist everywhere, imposed if necessary by federal coercion, or whether the distribution of differing groups geographically – so that here and there such groups are a local majority – is an acceptable outcome. A choice seems to arise between coerced, universal, internal "diversity" (the project of the Left) and actually-existing geographical diversity.

This issue came up during the Winter Olympics a few years ago, when it was discovered that Utah was not the same as Manhattan.

More and more, the whole discussion of culture wars, multiculturalism, and the rest seems itself to be a vast Neo-Con diversion. Pay no attention to the war in X, the war in Y, and the war in Z; pay no attention to the zillion dollar deficit just created by the fiscally tight-fisted Republicans. No, indeed, look at that minor leftist atrocity at Penn State! It is no endorsement of left-wing multicultural theory to say that it may not be the only pressing problem of our times.


Despite their reference to an allegedly conclusive essay by Charles Oliver, Professors Beito and Nuckolls are not addressing, in the first instance, the causes, merits, and results of the Late Unpleasantness of 1861–1865. They are interested in what present-day Southerners should think and say about the past. And before they reply, that they are not advocating state censorship, I concede the point. With Southerners of traditional views or habits marginalized in Southern universities, with nearly every "local" newspaper staffed by the usual suspects and a few local clones, there is little need for formal censorship.

This situation is of course not the fault of Beito and Nuckolls, but one wishes they would notice it. Nonetheless, the long-standing New England project of eradicating the opposition seems to have entered its final stages, even if New Englanders are not now running it. By my count, we are now well into the Third Reconstruction of the South — the Second having been accomplished by the mid-1970s.

Nowhere do the two Professors give me any reason to believe that the alleged "fallacies" put forth by Southern defenders are particularly "dangerous." They make no suggestion as to how having the "wrong" view about the causes of the war of 1861–1865, directly leads to political crime today. More could be said, of course, but I shouldn't wish to seem unduly touchy. I merely add that, very often, attacks on the South are ancillary to projects whose efficient pursuit the South somehow impedes (railroads, Cold War, total post-human reconstruction of man, etc.).

The South has been derided, insulted, and patronized by the best — the original, genuine holier-than-thou scribes of New England. I will not even say that the critics have been wrong on every point. This does not, however, make their overall posture welcome. Given this history, derivative commentary from the Upper Midwest pales into relative insignificance. Having dealt with Story, Motley, Emerson, and Walt "I-am-the-Universe-and-the-Universe-is-me" Whitman, lectures from within colonized Southern universities hold few terrors for us.


I have not argued the details of the late war. Let those who cling to it, as the glorious Second Founding, do so. My only question — and it is a purely hypothetical one for purposes of discussion — is this: Now that the South has been so profoundly reformed and improved by armed exophilanthropists, what objection can there possibly be, especially from self-named classical liberals, to substantial local autonomy for the South, or indeed, full political independence?

As Richard M. Weaver wrote in 1957, "with the United States insisting on independence for this and that country halfway around the world — independence for Czechoslovakia, independence for Indo-China, independence for Korea, independence for Israel — it has certainly been handsome of the South not to raise the question of its own independence again."4

Certainly, there might be interesting or amusing objections to Southern autonomy or independence on grounds of prudence, practicality, and the like, but where is a good objection to be found — one grounded in classical liberal principles? No one is now making any Corner Stone speeches, so what's the problem? Conceding, for the sake of the argument, that we once were lost but now are found, were blind but now we see, what in principle should prevent us from taking our vastly improved selves out of the Union, which so kindly oversaw our rehabilitation?

Do the Yankee reforming classes doubt, down deep, the long-run efficacy of their past achievements? I'm only asking an academic question. I doubt this will come up as a real question for a good while.

At bottom, the piece by Beito and Nuckolls makes a dubious case of guilt-by-association with left-wing multiculturalists. It succeeds by not addressing any actual cultures or political questions. It seems another exercise in Northern arrogance.

I am quite happy to suspend indefinitely all debate on slavery, tariffs, states rights, Dred Scott, Lincoln, Davis, and the lot in the interest of pursuing the question of whether anyone, anywhere, today, may usefully discuss, however abstractly, the merits of withdrawing from a large nation-state. I suspect that in such a discussion, Messrs. Beito's and Nuckoll's "strong, but highly nuanced and conditional, case" against Lincoln's rejection of secession, will turn out to be so "highly nuanced and conditional" as to rule out much real discussion at all.

Perhaps I am wrong on this last point.

For two centuries, many Northerners have seen the South as a set of bad practices deviating from the "national," i.e., Northern, "norm." With the passing of those practices, the South was supposed to "rejoin the Union" — i.e., cease to be. Imagine the universal disappointment when, quite unaccountably, the South continued to exist.

Only complete re-education can finish the job of erasing the South. The two Professors wish to ridicule Southerners into giving up their wicked ways, their allegedly faulty historical interpretations, and their compact "theory" of the Union. Their allies in this fight — including many of the very multiculturalists they deride — will be less fastidious.


  1. See Clyde Wilson, From Union to Empire: Essays in the Jeffersonian Tradition (Columbia, SC: Foundation for American Education, 2003).
  2. The "originalism" consists mostly of quoting Alexander Hamilton.
  3. Grady McWhiney, "Historians as Southerners," Continuity, 9 (Fall 1984), pp. 11–12.
  4. Richard M. Weaver, "The South and the American Union" (1957), in The Southern Essays of Richard M. Weaver, George M. Curtis III and James J. Thompson, Jr., eds. (Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1987), p. 254

July 24, 2004