Southern Comfort

by Rebecca Bynum (May 2010)
“Things reveal themselves passing away,” someone remarked to William Butler Yeats, and it is an historical fact that every established order writes its great apologia only after it has been fatally stricken. – Richard M. Weaver

In the passage above, Weaver was writing about the passing of the American South, its rooted feudalism, its chivalry, its attachment to the land and its deeply religious nature. In pre-Civil War America, the South was a civilization apart; more closely akin to that of Europe than to the Puritan North. And it is true, that if there is a place in the world which understands how long established tradition can be quickly obliterated, never to return, it is the South. Nor is there any place in the world more universally reviled, except of course Israel, than the American South.

One source of acrimony lies in the fact that the Southern section has refused to bend its knee to the new nihilistic scientism - sociobiology, evolutionary psychology and all the rest. It has stubbornly resisted the inevitable and de-humanizing rise of industrial materialism and held tightly to the family farm, to small towns and to church. [The South has clung to “guns and God” out of fear of progress, according to President Obama.] But that is not the whole story.

The South has become my adopted home and my attempt to understand her is of course lacking in many ways, but having lived in Los Angeles and worked in Watts, I can personally attest that the relations between the races here in the South are much less strained than in liberal, progressive California. There is a gentleness and sympathy between the races here, born of shared history and long association entirely lacking in the large metropolis.

The other day, I came across a man slowly combing the hills of a park with a metal detector. He explained he collected Civil War memorabilia. The hills and valleys are still strewn with coins, belt buckles, bullets and buttons dropped by the clamoring soldiers one hundred and forty six years ago. The man continued to tell me how his great, great grandfather had been a slave to Al Gore’s great, great grandfather and how he had accompanied Colonel Gore on campaign, making and breaking camp for him along with other duties of a valet. There was no bitterness or resentment in his description: things were as they were.

The attachment between families and between families and the land is deep here and, it seems to me, little understood outside the section. Modern Americans move easily from place to place, but the land remains and the suffering of the South during and after the War is still felt deeply here. Poverty abides in the rural areas, even as our national focus is on poverty overseas.

The codes of chivalry, so strong in the South, were originally formed in the Medieval Era. They were an attempt to place limits on the barbarity of war and began as a reaction to the breakdown of civilization and the excessive brutality of the Dark Ages. For many centuries wars were fought between kings by their opposing armies arrayed in uniform on battlefields with little or no civilian involvement aside from the tax burden armies required and the occasional siege of a city. Napoleon Bonaparte knocked one of the struts out from under the ancient rules of warfare by having his army feed off the land, that is to say, they were required to steel food and provisions from the civilian population. In that way, he could maneuver his men quickly because they were no longer dependant on cumbersome, slow moving supply lines. It also put enemy civilians under severe stress thereby increasing the pressure on them to force surrender.

The American Southerner held to chivalrous standards, both in private (codes of honor for gentlemen) and in war as a united political entity, the Confederacy. The South was utterly unprepared for the total war waged on her by Generals Grant and Sherman. The orders from General Lee were “no plunder at any cost.” Even while Confederate soldiers starved, they refused to take anything from the civilian populace. By contrast, Sherman plundered, burned and systematically reduced the South to penury. General Lee, on the other hand, is said to have apologized to a Pennsylvania farmwife for his men having trampled her flower beds. He had a nobler conception of war. This is not to imply that no atrocities were committed by Southerners, but in general, the further from the heart of Dixie, the more likely those things were to occur as they did in Kansas.

Today, warfare has completely reverted to the concept of total war. “Unconditional surrender,” so appalling to the sensibility of Winston Churchill, is now imposed on our enemies as a matter of course. In truth this denotes a marked failure of civilization, a failure to constrain war. Total, annihilationist wars loom large in our future.

In the end, the South was not so appalled by the fact that the North won the war, but by how it won. The word Yankee when used in the South is synonymous with barbarian to this day. It is ironic, then, that the South is regarded as backward, ignorant and uncivilized by what we think of as the intelligentsia of the world. Witness
this exchange with Maureen Freely, translator of Orhan Pamuk’s books.

Interviewer: I was speaking to Richard Dawkins and I asked him about the difference between Christianity and Islam and he said that “Islam hasn’t tamed its ways in the same way as Christianity has.” 

Ms. Freely: What does he know? Where did he get his information? 

Interviewer: He’s the big atheist but his contention was that Christianity and Islam were both similar in medieval times but Christianity has had its ways attenuated - its wilder ways - whereas Islam is still sort of medieval… 

Ms. Freely: First of all, he hasn’t been to El Paso, Texas and met the Baptists… 


Interviewer: Do you think there is a significant threat to the American homeland from large-scale terrorism? 

Ms. Freely: I couldn’t care less! 

It is difficult to describe the universal contempt in which the American South is held. It seems to be tied to a rising hatred of Christianity. It is not enough for some unbelievers to deny the reality of religious experience, they must deride those of faith as ignorant or delusional and portray them as a danger to progress. Yet, historically speaking, Christianity has provided the moral framework in which almost all social progress has been achieved. It would be hard to imagine the abolition of slavery, for example, without Christian impetus.

The ideal of equality under the law most certainly derives from the Judeo-Christian concept that all souls have equal standing before God. The fast encroaching evolutionary psychology movement would destroy that ideal completely. For if men are nothing more than their DNA-produced bodies, then certainly, men may be sorted and justice differentiated accordingly. The attempt by evolutionary theorists to distance themselves from the implications of their ideas reveals the true nature of those ideas. And despite claims made by various humanists, it is religionists who form the bulwark against the brave new world held in store for us by these men who claim to be portraying the cold, hard truth, but who, at the same time, take great pains to obscure the totalitarian nightmare they present (see Signorelli, “
Triumph of Maya: The Rhetoric of DarwinismNew English Review May 2010). The underlying argument is very simple: denying the reality of the non-material also denies the reality of free will. And despite protests by the Darwinians, there is simply no way around this.

Trust in God is often portrayed as ridiculous, the province of ignorant rednecks, and yet, it is that very faith which has allowed man some measure of freedom from his twin enslavers: animal fear and the appetites of the body. Faith has traditionally been the fount of man’s noblest sentiments. Without recourse to faith (trust in a higher reality), emotional refinement, so essential to civilizational attainment, would be rendered nearly impossible. That modern man craves ever more extreme and brutal bodily and emotional experience should come as no surprise to those who whisper, “You are animal, nothing more” in the ears of our young.

For the Southern believer, the reality of God is so overwhelmingly apparent that perhaps he is less than convincing when attempting to counter the logical sophistries presented in objection. The numerous complex arguments unbelievers marshal today against the existence of God often overwhelm and sometimes succeed in confusing believers who feel no real need to defend what to them is a self-evident proposition.

While faith is perfectly reasonable from the standpoint of the believer, there is indeed a gulf that exists between the proposition of belief and non-belief in God which is not bridgeable except through an act of will - the leap of faith. The fact that this gulf is not traversable by way of reason does not make faith itself unreasonable. Faith is not an act of reason, but an act of free will.

The scientist’s emphasis and reliance on reason alone, neglects the fact that the reasoning mind is only one aspect of the human being – it is not the whole man. For example, each human being is unique in personality and personality seems quite indestructible. It remains intact in spite of illness, injury or psychological trauma. Character may develop, one may grow through experience, but the personality remains unchanged. Personality is that part of the human being which gives and receives love; that which loves and is loved. It is the essence of individuality, the basis of humanity and the core of any hope for life beyond the grave. Yet this reality is overlooked or discounted by those who seek mechanistic theories to explain the puzzle of life and who scoff at those having the temerity to suggest man is more than a biological machine.

The Southerner has always insisted that some portion of life remain inscrutable and religion remains his avenue to meet it. In The Southern Tradition at Bay, Richard Weaver writes:

Reverence for the “word of God” is a highly important aspect of Southern religious orthodoxy. Modern discussions of fundamentalism usually overlook the fact that belief in a revealed knowledge is the essence of religion in its older sense. The necessity of having some form of knowledge that will stand above the welter of earthly change and bear witness that God is superior to accident led Thomas Aquinas to establish his famous dichotomy, which teaches that whereas some things may be learned through investigation and the exercise of the reasoning powers, others must be given or “revealed” by God. Man cannot live under a settled dispensation if the postulates of his existence must be continually revised in accordance with knowledge furnished by a nature filled with contingencies. Nature is a vast unknown; in the science of nature there are constantly appearing emergencies which, if allowed to affect spiritual and moral verities, would destroy them by rendering them dubious, tentative and conflicting. It is therefore imperative in the eyes of the older religionists that man have for guidance in this life a body of knowledge to which the facts of natural discovery are either subordinate or irrelevant. This body is the “rock of ages,” firm in the vast sea of human passion and fallibility. Moral truth is not something which can be altered every time science widens its field of induction. If moral philosophy must wait upon natural philosophy, all moral judgments become temporary, relative, and lacking in those sanctions which alone make them effective, as the more perspicacious of Southern theologians pointed out. And though no people were more ignorant of the Summa Theologica than the little-read and inarticulate Southern rural population, the dualism of Aquinas supports their instinctive opposition to scientific monism, one of the last of the South’s medieval heritages. Both are responses to the same need. Ill-equipped intellectually, the South established a habit of being right in the wrong way, or correct with a poor set of reasons. Then, as now, this heritage explains its dogged adherence to what is taught “in the Book,” and its indifference to empirical disproofs.

There is something very comforting in the knowledge that there remains a people, united not by race or nationality, but by faith; who believe in the truth revealed by the prophets of old and who know through experience what it is to love God and one’s neighbor; who walk humbly with the revealed verities of existence and who know that some things lay beyond argument. The South is a region of soft breezes and hard clay. Though she may be hated and reviled by those who know not what they do, I will continue to draw comfort from the both the hard and the soft of Southern sensibility.

[1] Weaver, Richard M. The Southern Tradition at Bay: A History of Postbellum Thought (Regnery Gateway, Washington D.C., 1989) pgs. 89-90

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