Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Making America Confederate Again

Mississippi and Alabama officially observe Confederate Memorial Day. Recently, a candidate for Virginia governor was endorsed by a prominent neo-Confederate at the 'Old South Ball'. Accounting for the rise in hate crimes and racially-motivated incidents since Trump's election, we're looking back at a piece of scholarship with alarming relevance today. 

In 2008, Euan Hague, Edward H. Sebesta, and Heidi Beirich, published a groundbreaking book, Neo-Confederacy: A Critical Introduction, that described a fringe movement of political activists who promoted an ideology of Confederate nationalism. Advocating for the secession of fifteen states to form a new Confederation of Southern States, neo-Confederates advanced a politics that was at its core anti-democratic (and anti-Democratic). Of course, almost ten years later secession has not happened, but as many scholars have long suggested about political movements, what purports to be new can
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often be found by taking a deeper look at the recent past. Indeed, as President Abraham Lincoln is reported to have said, “Every effect must have its cause. The past is the cause of the present, and the present will be the cause of the future.” It is this understanding that makes Neo-Confederacy a prescient guide to what was to come. As Hague, Sebesta, and Beirich noted, neo-Confederate activists at the end of the twentieth century wanted nothing less than “to change the [U.S.] social order,” arguing for a need to transform “American cultural, educational, political and religious practices.”

As Neo-Confederacy: A Critical Introduction describes, this meant valorizing whiteness and “Anglo-Celtic” culture, praising violence and masculinity, while simultaneously rejecting “political correctness” and international governmental collaborations, vilifying ethnic and sexual minorities, vociferously opposing non-European immigrants, and questioning American democratic processes of both the electoral system and the franchise. Neo-Confederacy wrapped these positions up in an appeal to Constitutional orginialism, “orthodox” Christianity, and a demand for national self-determination for the US South. Revisiting the book almost a decade after its original publication, one cannot but think that the collection’s assessment of this political fringe describes a phenomenon that, albeit perhaps now ostensibly detached from its forthright advocacy of a new Confederate nation-state, has moved powerfully into the mainstream of American politics. As esteemed historian James Loewen noted in the foreword, in examining neo-Confederacy, “Hague, Sebesta, and Beirich have done the heavy lifting... they have created an essential tool for those who work to bring justice and healing across racial and sectional divides in America.” Given the current state of US politics, Neo-Confederacy is an urgent primer for our new reality.

Dr. Euan Hague is a Professor of Geography at DePaul University, and Edward H. Sebesta is an independent researcher. We asked them to comment on how this 2008 collection, Neo-Confederacy: A Critical Introduction, resonates with the rhetoric and policies advanced by the new Trump administration.

Dr. Michael Hill speaking at a Confederate Memorial Day Parade, Northport, Alabama, 26 April 1997. (Photograph by Gerald R. Webster)

A Nationalist Call to Arms

Euan Hague and Edward H. Sebesta

Like many American magazines in January 2017, Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture had on its cover a photograph of Donald Trump: “Time to Begin” read the caption. This was not the first time that we had encountered Chronicles or its publisher, the Illinois-based Rockford Institute. In the 1990s, Chronicles had led an ideological charge that rejected much of US domestic policy as unconstitutional, lamented US foreign policy and transnational organizations, decried ‘activist judges,’ and railed against multiculturalism. Its editor, and lead contributor at the time, was Thomas Fleming. Fleming had also been a cofounder of Southern Partisan magazine in 1979, an imprint of the Foundation for American Education, which regularly published interviews with leading figures of the Republican right such as Trent Lott. At the Rockford Institute, Fleming invited colleagues from his Southern Partisan days to write for Chronicles and, in June 1994 alongside twenty-six others, he helped establish a new political party: the Southern League (which was renamed as the League of the South in 1997). Influenced by growing right-wing ethnic nationalism and nationalist leaders in Europe, such as those contributing to the collapse of Yugoslavia and Umberto Bossi in Italy, a year later Fleming and Southern League President James Michael Hill issued their nationalist call to arms in The Washington Post. On 29 October 1995, “The New Dixie Manifesto” set forth a Confederate nationalist agenda that argued for devolution of federal power to the states, local control over schools and education policy, and for the right of peoples to pursue and preserve their “authentic cultural traditions.” The Manifesto questioned the very concept of “America” as a united country of states and lamented that “national uniformity is being imposed by the political class that runs Washington, the economic class that owns Wall Street and the cultural class in charge of Hollywood and the Ivy League.” What was needed to challenge this US “multicultural, continental empire, ruled from Washington by federal agencies and under the thumb of the federal judiciary,” was an emboldened populace that would reject both the Democratic Party and craven establishment Republicans, and instead elect bold representatives that would reject federal regulations and interventions in state and local affairs. Those leading this charge would “insist upon a strict construction of the Constitution” and be “real people” from “the provinces, the sticks, the boondocks,” in particular the former states of the Confederacy. The manifesto envisioned a nationalist party, the Southern League, to advance these aims. This nascent right wing ideology gained supporters as Southern League members contributed essays and political analyses to websites, newsletters, and conservative talk radio stations. Advocates outlined their ideas in numerous books, often published in their tens of thousands by small, specialized presses that could maximize sales online to a dedicated audience of enthusiastic supporters. Some contributors were faculty members at prominent institutions in Georgia and Alabama; others, as Neo-Confederacy:A Critical Introduction documented, were white nationalists, such as Jared Taylor of American Renaissance and members of the Council of Conservative Citizens. Neo-Confederacy aligned with ideological positions, such as those proposed by Samuel Huntington, that understood the United States (and the Western world more generally) to be engaged in a ‘clash of civilizations’ with Islam and the Islamic world. Within such a conceptualization of global geopolitics, neo-Confederate organizations like the League of the South demanded that a person’s ethno-religious identity is their primary basis for belief, and echoed this perspective in the United States by valorizing a “white, Anglo-Celtic” ethnic group and its “orthodox Christianity.”

In the opening chapters of Neo-Confederacy: A Critical Introduction, we outlined the conservative ancestry of neo-Confederacy in debates among Republican party members in the 1950s–1970s. Activists who identified themselves as “paleo-conservatives” or ‘Old Right’ opposed “neo-conservative” ‘New Right’ positions coming to pre-eminence in the Republican mainstream. These self-styled paleo-conservaties scorned the Republican Party for drifting away from what they understood to be authentic conservative values and policies. Rather than advance free market economics and deregulation, paleo-conservaties believed that social policy was fundamental and that tradition, heritage, and Christianity could turn the United States away from a path that, since the 1960s, was leading towards moral and spiritual corruption. As we describe in Neo-Confederacy: A Critical Introduction, “self-identified paleo-conservatives further argued that the US administration should be inward-looking, detaching itself from global trade and political agreements, institutions like the United Nations, North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the International Monetary Fund.” Such geopolitical ties were evidence of a misplaced and misguided US imperialism. Instead, paleo-conservative neo-Confederates maintained, American states should be self-sufficient, with minimal (if any) federal action impacting at either the local or international level, enabling them to take positions and advance polices that best suited their own local needs and populations.

Paleo-conservative opinions were largely marginalized from the central aspects of Republican Party policy towards the end of the twenthieth century, yet they formed the intellectual basis of neo-Confederacy. “Neo-Confederacy rose,” we maintained, “from origins in an attempt by a group of conservative scholars and intellectuals to influence right wing political thought and action in the United States.” Feminism, gay rights, civil rights, the desegregation of and ending prayer in public schools, and other post-1960s social changes were understood by neo-Confederates to be federal efforts to engineer society and to destroy a natural, hierarchical social order that had shaped the United States since its establishment. These perspectives found an audience among members of organizations like the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) which, as Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center outlines in her contribution to Neo-Confederacy: A Critical Introduction, saw internal dissent and vicious in-fighting in the early-2000s as more radically political elements seized control of the group.

South Carolina state and Confederate battle flags flying outside Maurice Bessinger’s barbecue restaurant, Lexington, South Carolina, October 2001. (Photograph by Jonathan Leib)

Think Locally, Act Locally

Much of the political basis for neo-Confederacy, as we outline in the collection of essays, can be found in nineteenth and early-twentieth century writings. Since the 1980s, neo-Confederate authors have re-examined these works, taking inspiration from them, and publishers have revived long out-of-print titles. The internet enabled obscure treatises to find a new audience at the click of a mouse, and, within what would now be termed a neo-Confederate ‘echo-chamber,’ these archaic works were reprinted and sold on-demand. New texts by advocates of neo-Confederacy would find a likeminded audience and would claim that educational and political elites had, for over fifty years, suppressed truthful books in the name of political correctness and perfidious liberalism. Neo-Confederate activists, as Hague outlines in a chapter examining education, offered alternative curricula with titles from the 1880s–1930s, which supposedly delivered the truth about the Confederacy, Civil War, and race relations, that modern historians now rejected. Other contributors to Neo-Confederacy: A Critical Introduction examine neo-Confederate reverence for the Confederate flag, and fiction by neo-Confederate novelists that merges history and science-fiction with ideology into romances of white men fighting for their localities, Christianity, and Confederate heritage, against pernicious forces of federal authorities, multiculturalism, civil rights activists, liberal media organizations, and globalization.

Central to many neo-Confederate analyses are evaluations of race and ethnicity. These understand the world in a manner we suggest is redolent of nineteenth century social Darwinism. Within this reasoning, people have different ethnic and national identities which means that they inherit different behaviors and aptitudes. The neo-Confederates praised the “white Anglo-Celtic” people of the US South, English-speakers from the “Celtic” world of northern Europe; and in contrast, “descendants of immigrants from third world cultures” and African-Americans were invariably, if at times indirectly, described as not having the skills, temperament, or intellect necessary for political and cultural leadership. Thus, neo-Confederates reframed white supremacist notions into a language of modern ethnic and cultural nationalism and maintained that federal efforts to advance civil rights and democracy were fundamentally wrong-headed. To this, neo-Confederates added a theological perspective. There is, demanded neo-Confederate writers, a “natural social order” and a “natural hierarchy,” in which inequality is preordained by God. People’s “natural” abilities would sort them into “dominant” and “non-dominant” (i.e. subordinate) groups, and efforts by federal policy to restructure society to ensure equal rights are simply misguided, artificial, and an effort to change the God-given order of things.

Neo-Confederacy, we concluded, is “underpinned by ideas of irreconcilable racial and ethnic difference, white dominance, patriarchy, social Darwinism, and so-called orthodox Christian theocracy.” Advocates opposed federal authority and supported patriarchal familial relations, conservative “orthodox” Christianity, and the right to bear arms. This collection of ideas and ideological perspectives was, in 2008, on the fringes of the Republican Party. Arguably, such perspectives are today being articulated by more mainstream conservative bodies and actors.

An Active Legacy

In 1972, Dr. M.E. Bradford, a University of Dallas professor of English, paleo-conservative herald of neo-Confederacy and, at the time, a local chairman of “Democrats for Wallace,” wrote an essay in the conservative magazine Triumph. In it he outlined his belief in an imminent populist “counter-revolution,” one that could carry not only the US South, but Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Pennsylvania, as people reacted against a belief that “Someone ‘out there’ – federal bureaucrat, corporation executive, clergyman, television pundit, Congressman, or judge—was determined to manage their lives and thus deprive them of the distinctions which make for self.” The result would be a “revolt of the backlands” that could upend both the Republican and Democratic Parties and echo Confederate sentiments from the nineteenth century. “It is an omen,” Bradford concluded, “when crowds of men whose fathers and grandfathers came after 1865 to these shores rise in Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, and Pontiac to shout out a chorus of ‘Dixie’: an omen which we should ponder.” Prolific until his death in 1993, and, as we outline in Neo-Confederacy: A Critical Introduction, a regular contributor to neo-Confederate venues including Southern Partisan and Chronicles, Bradford’s work, and that of his colleagues, “constructed a worldview centered upon a historical reinterpretation of the Confederate States, the U.S. Civil War, Reconstruction and their legacies. This comprehensive vision was used to articulate and legitimate a reactionary history of the United States and the world. More than merely Lost Cause enthusiasm,” we argue, “neo-Confederacy underpins a historical narrative on which an anti-modernist, anti-egalitarian belief system is built.”

Neo-Confederacy is not a historical footnote. Its advocates have brought this backward-looking conservative ideology into ever more mainstream venues. Neo-Confederate authors are best-selling contributors to the Regnery Publishing series of “Politically Incorrect Guides” that offer interpretations of a host of topics from the US Constitution to climate change, the 1960s, Jihad, and the Civil War. Advocates of neo-Confederacy operate South Carolina’s Abbeville Institute which is republishing Southern Partisan essays of the 1980s, and Chronicles continues to offer a bimonthly platform for neo-Confederate perspectives. The lineaments of Trumpism can be found in neo-Confederacy.

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