In Case You Were Wondering

I might as well address this issue once and for all, since I probably won’t have the space in my piece for TAC.

Questions have been raised about my involvement in an organization called the League of the South. Here is the story.When I was 21 years old I was invited to a meeting of scholars and journalists who were concerned that the federal government was out of control. After all, we had just lived through the disappointing Reagan years: here was a president committed to reducing the size of government, yet the federal government in 1989 was much larger than it had been in 1981. (The problem has only worsened since then, of course, with a supposedly conservative Republican president setting spending records all over the place.) I was told that these folks were looking to start an organization that would assert the legitimate rights of the states much more vigorously, since the very idea of local self-government, so central to Jefferson’s political philosophy, had essentially dropped out of our vocabulary. (Count the number of times that theme was raised in last year’s presidential debates if you don’t believe me.)

Intrigued, I went.

I met a great many figures of importance there. (One of them, Clyde Wilson, who sits to this day on the League’s board of directors, is the editor of the Papers of John C. Calhoun and has been called one of the top ten Southern historians in America by Eugene Genovese.) The meeting was very fluid, in that the precise nature of the organization that was to be founded was itself a matter of debate. At one point the discussion centered around whether the organization should focus on the South or whether its scope should be more broad and look to encourage decentralist ideas wherever in the country, at the state or local level, an interest in them could be found. I took the second position, which lost.

Yet although I was a lifelong Northerner, I still thought the establishment of a Southern organization, whose primary focus at first would be largely cultural and educational, was a good thing. At Harvard I had just taken American intellectual history with the great Donald Fleming, who had introduced me to the thought of the Southern agrarians. After reading I’ll Take My Stand, I became convinced that in spite of those aspects of Southern history that all reasonable people deplore, there was much of value in Southern civilization that deserved a fair hearing. Moreover, I knew that conservatives had traditionally had an appreciation for the South; that was certainly true of Russell Kirk, and I have yet to meet someone who did not profit immensely from reading The Southern Essays of Richard M. Weaver.

Also at Harvard I had the opportunity to be present at a special series of lectures delivered by Prof. Eugene Genovese. Prof. Genovese, who had repudiated his earlier Marxism, came to Harvard to speak about the value of the Southern tradition. He said, “Rarely these days, even on southern campuses, is it possible to acknowledge the achievements of the white people of the South…. To speak positively about any part of this southern tradition is to invite charges of being a racist and an apologist for slavery and segregation. We are witnessing a cultural and political atrocity –- an increasingly successful campaign by the media and an academic elite to strip young white southerners, and arguably black southerners as well, of their heritage, and, therefore, their identity. They are being taught to forget their forebears or to remember them with shame.” Prof. Genovese’s deeply learned lectures, later published as a book called The Southern Tradition, had a profound influence on my own thinking.

For these reasons, I had not the slightest hesitation in endorsing the Southern organization that was being formed in that room. I knew that the organization would be a controversial one, since it maintained that American states possessed the right to secede. But I assumed that educated and fair-minded people would understand that Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, Gouverneur Morris, John Taylor, William Lloyd Garrison, and a great many other early Americans thought the same thing.

Indeed Jefferson was at least as concerned that the states should have some kind of check against the federal government as he was that the three branches of the federal government should check each other. The right of secession, even if never employed, could nevertheless function as a salutary restraint on a federal government that would otherwise be subject to no practical limit. Given the present state of the federal government it seems to me that Americans ought to be able to have recourse to every safeguard that their own tradition affords them.

Yes, that’s an unusual position, but it’s one with a distinguished and noble lineage in American history, and it’s one that makes perfect sense: if the path we’ve been on hasn’t worked, it’s time to try something new. At the very least, reasonable people can agree that unless smaller units are allowed to object to federal usurpations in some serious way, the federal government can and will run roughshod over them. That much should be perfectly clear by now.

When I read today about people in California who are being harassed by the federal government over the medical-marijuana issue, I am sympathetic. Of course they should be able to use medical marijuana. Unfortunately, many of these people are the very same ones who have historically cheered federal supremacy. They’re now being forced to sleep in the very bed they themselves have made.

There used to be a tradition of decentralism on the Left. I saw some of it when I spoke at the E.F. Schumacher Society Decentralist Conference at Williams College in 1996. Most of the organizations represented there were on the left. And it couldn’t have been more cordial. These were folks who, being decentralists themselves, gave you the courtesy of not automatically assuming that the reason you favored decentralism was so you could oppress people.

At that conference and then at another event several years later I had an opportunity to meet Kirkpatrick Sale, who has been a serious intellectual on the Left for many years. Now I certainly can’t agree with everything Sale says by any means. But we got along very well. He agreed with the Jeffersonian idea of state nullification. He believed in local self-government to a degree reminiscent of Jefferson’s scheme for ward republics. He even opposed the Fourteenth Amendment, since he understood where it was bound to lead.

I’m currently reading Sale’s book Human Scale. Again, I have to reject much of it. But I find myself wondering what happened to this tradition on the Left. The Left spends a lot of time criticizing neoconservatives, but the fact is that both sides share the same prejudice against local self-government and in favor of central management of society. The typical left-liberal shares far more of the preconceptions of the typical neoconservative than he is willing to admit.

We have reached the point at which I am expected to engage in the ritual breast-beating and apology that we are accustomed to hearing from every weasel who finds himself in a situation like this. I won’t do it, since I don’t stab decent people in the back just because I’m taking a little abuse, and since, more simply, I have nothing to apologize for. All the positions I describe here were shared by a great many early Americans whom we all (should) admire. If someone wants to repudiate Jefferson, he should come right out and do it.

As for pulling up things I wrote while in graduate school, in my less libertarian days, this is merely obnoxious. In the days before the Internet, people whose views had evolved to one extent or another could go ahead with their lives in peace. I supported the Persian Gulf War in 1991, for example; I have been vocally antiwar since at least 2000. My scholarly career officially began in 2000, so people who care to criticize me as a scholar are invited to consider my work since then. That’s four books (with a fifth coming in May), two edited volumes, two monographs, several book chapters, a dozen encyclopedia entries, and about 120 articles. That should keep you busy enough.

There is something seriously wrong when people in our society routinely call for the nuclear annihilation of cities, even whole countries, and suffer next to no opprobrium for this. Two years ago, on MSNBC’s Hardball, Dick Armey clearly called for the expulsion of the Palestinians from the West Bank. Was he written out of polite society for that? (Need I even ask?) Yet a small Southern organization gets the condemnation of respectables on both Left and Right. That’s about all you need to know about the complete corruption of the mainstream political spectrum in this country.

For these and for no other reasons, and in this context, have I had an intermittent membership in the League over the years. I have played no day-to-day role in the organization and I am responsible neither for the comments of any other member nor for the politically incorrect statements I am told can be found on the League’s site. With the passage of time the League has begun to emphasize the importance of preserving Anglo-Celtic heritage, a position I am expected to repudiate. As an Armenian and not Anglo-Celtic at all, I nevertheless see no reason to: why should every group except Anglo-Celts be allowed to preserve their culture? (As for the group’s “racism,” a word that is thrown around at anyone who looks cockeyed at Jesse Jackson, I find it revealing that white supremacist organizations have repeatedly and vocally condemned the League.)

That should be more than enough to satisfy anyone’s curiosity.


1:40 pm on February 19, 2005