The Southern Project: Restoring the Old or Ushering in the New?
By Red Phillips
For those unaware of what the title is referring to, 1.5 to 2 years ago the League of the South underwent a change in direction. For reasons many and varied, some of us objected to this new direction. There is more to this situation than I can cover in a brief article, so I will include a link here to a discussion I have been having recently with two of the leaders of the new direction caucus, Michael Cushman and Hunter Wallace. Reading our back and forth will give you the gist of what part of the debate is all about.
It was this discussion that prompted me to write this article because I think a lot of the debate has taken place between a somewhat pointy headed set of antagonists, who know what they are debating, but it may not be readily apparent to the casual observer what is at issue. So I present this overview.
Historically speaking, folks who self-identify as specifically Southern conservatives or pro-South activists generally believe that the traditional Southern understanding of the nature of the Union is the correct understanding, that Lincoln's and the Unionists' understanding was incorrect, and that forcefully suppressing the secession of the Southern states was inconsistent with the nature of the Union as intended and unjustified. These identifiably Southern voices have not always called anew for independence for the South, but they overwhelmingly are people who believe the original polity of the US was subverted and altered by Lincoln and the War and those who followed and want to see the old order restored to a greater or lesser degree.
As an aside, there has been an element of this pro-South contingent that doesn't exactly fit this description. They believe that contrary to the traditional Southern understanding, the Constitution really was a radically centralizing document as its Unionist defenders claim, but this element believes the Constitution was essentially a trick, a bait and switch, so to speak, and that the South got snookered. This group tends to venerate the Articles of Confederation and are big fans of Patrick Henry. They, like Henry, "smell a rat" with regard to the Constitutional Convention which they maintain acted well beyond its authority to modify the Articles and instead accomplished what amounted to a coup. Important for this discussion, however, they look to the Articles, which were substantially more decentralized than the Southern understanding of the Constitution, as the political model they want to restore.
My own belief is an amalgam of these two. I believe we should have stuck with the Articles. Hindsight illustrates this abundantly. I believe the Constitutional Convention did act beyond its authority, but since we did go through the process of ratifying its product at State Ratifying Conventions, I think it is difficult and not particularly useful rhetorically to maintain that the Constitution is completely illegitimate. But I do not concede that it actually was the radically centralizing document as those in the above group maintain, and even if I was, I don't think it would be useful to admit it. Why make my opponent’s argument for him? The fact, however, remains that actually following the Constitution, even the most radically centrist vision of it propounded by people like Gouverneur Morris, would be much preferable to the lawless monstrosity we have today. Once we are actually following the Constitution, then we can start discussing the virtues of returning to the Articles.
This desire to restore a subverted and fallen polity, whether the traditional Southern understanding of the Constitution or the Articles, does not characterize the brain trusts of the new guard, however, although this fact is not made entirely clear by them in my opinion. The new guard proclaims that it is future oriented and while it honors our ancestors it does not look to the past but towards securing a future. The League website puts it like this:
The League of the South is not a “neo-Confederate” or “Southern heritage” organization, although we certainly do honor our ancestors and our largely Christian historic inheritance as Southerners. The League is a present- and future-oriented Southern Nationalist organization that seeks the survival, well-being, and independence of the Southern people.
There is more to this sentiment than meets the eye. The “Southern heritage” issue is largely a straw man. Southern heritage organizations place plaques, maintain monuments, put flowers on Confederate graves, participate in reenactments, etc. This has never been the primary purpose of the League as anyone who is at all familiar with it knows. What is being done here, I suspect sometimes deliberately and sometimes not, is conflating the historical argument I describe above, which is clearly politically oriented, with heritage preservation activities which generally aren’t. If the League is declaring itself to be an activist organization, which I believe it is, making historical arguments about the true nature of the Constitution and the Union is not at all inconsistent with this and does not transform it into a heritage organization. Some linguistic sleight of hand appears to be at work here.
In addition, the leaders of the new guard are obviously influenced by the various European Identitarian movements. As with the Identitarians, there is a certain aesthetic sensibility at play here. The new guard does not want to be associated with or confused with the Confederate Battle Flag (CBF) flyin’, truck drivin,’ PBR drinkin’ redneck set. This is evidenced by their adoption of a “new” (i.e. made up) flag, the banning of the CBF and the institution of a dress code at certain League sponsored protests. (The League battle over the Battle Flag deserves its own article.) This aesthetic sensibility has been a frequent part of the internet and Facebook flame wars that have gone on between the sides. So much so, that at some points I have wanted to scream “What the heck do y’all have against PBR!” It strikes me that the main problem with PBR is that by drinking it you might be mistaken for a hipster. Heaven forbid anyone be mistaken for a redneck. How would anyone ever live down that shame?
There is an intellectual sensibility at play here as well that coincides with the aesthetic sensibility and is characteristic of the European New Right. In one of our many exchanges, I once goaded Michael Cushman about how many times he had watched Alex Kurtagic’s “Masters of the Universe” speech on YouTube. Kurtagic is a European New Right figure, and his speech was quite the sensation in certain corners of the alternative right when he delivered it in 2011. Kurtagic makes some important points including the necessity to appeal to emotions and not just intellect, but, a main thrust of his speech is that New Rightists should askew conservatism, which is inherently negative and pessimistic and not attractive to people, and offer people a positive and future oriented vision. I highly recommend that anyone interested in “getting” what the new guard is about should watch this video because much of it is in there.
All that said, the main reason the new guard is “future oriented” and does not want to look backwards is because they don’t, unlike the typical pro-South activist described above, support restoring our lost system of government. They don’t much care for our lost system of government. What system they actually do support is less clear, and I suspect varies some between them. This is the subject of the debate I linked to in the first paragraph. Suffice it to say that they are, at a minimum, anti-republican (small r).
They believe that the United States, as actually founded, was a thoroughly liberal Enlightenment project that needs to be rejected. Note that they are not just claiming that the Union between North and South was unwise. In hindsight I think that is true, but I also know that the people at the time did not have the benefit of hindsight, and that the South in general felt like it emerged from the Convention with a pretty good deal.
Like the left and many elements of the pseudo-right, they claim that the US is a proposition nation founded on an idea rather than a blood and soil European style nation. Note, they are not arguing that the US has become, for all intents and purposes, a proposition nation. They are arguing that it fundamentally is a proposition nation.
The future oriented language certainly tweaked my conservative sensibilities, but it was the “US is a proposition nation” nonsense that really launched me into open opposition to the new guard. Fairly early in my conservative activist journey I picked a side when I supported Pat Buchanan’s 1992 primary challenge of George H. W. Bush. Ever since then I have identified with the paleoconservative sphere and opposed the neoconservatives and mainstream conservatives. The proposition nation issue has from the beginning been one of the main differences that separates us paleo and paleoish conservatives from the neo and mainstream conservatives, and it has been the subject of many heated debates I have engaged in. To hear people who are ostensibly on my side make the same argument that my opponents have been making for years really grates. The new guard often seems like they are trying to out Jaffa the Jaffaites.
The problem for the new guard is that their argument is no more historically accurate when they make it than it is when Dinesh D'Souza makes it in a neocon propaganda film. (Great company you’re keeping there boys.) To paraphrase Samuel Francis, who I presume the new guard respects, the idea that the US is a proposition nation would have been news to the vast majority of Americans in 1950. The argument that the US is a proposition nation is a relatively novel idea and came to prominence in certain (phony) conservative circles because it was a convenient way to paper over very politically incorrect facts. Yes the US was imperfect at its founding they concede – limiting the franchise to male property owners, limiting citizenship to whites only, slavery, counting slaves as 3/5 of a person, etc. – but it “perfected” itself over time, especially with Lincoln’s little invasion, to become the pristine proposition nation that it is today without a trace of that nasty old blood and soil, or so the story goes. They also obsess over a couple of lines in the Declaration of Independence that don’t mean what they say they mean anyway, and make the Constitution an afterthought in service of the Declaration. Again, why the new guard wants to associate itself with such poppycock that is obviously contrived in the service of a greater ideology is baffling.
Whether the new guard actually believes their own proposition nation rhetoric is a question I waffle over. But what they are up to with this strategy is clear. They believe that the average Southerner, even or especially conservative Southerners, identifies too closely with the US and our form of government, and they want to shift that allegiance away from the US and toward the South. So their strategy is to tear away at that allegiance by essentially burning down the rhetorical house and demonizing the US.
I actually agree that the average Southerner identifies too closely with the US, and this does not serve him well, especially when he is sending his sons off to fight in some stupid and unnecessary war Uncle Sam has gotten us into. This emotional allegiance also allows him to fool himself into believing that the current regime is not actually implacably hostile to his interests, because campaign commercials and FOX NEWS tell him otherwise. This applies to Southerners and the whole Red coalition in the rest of Flyover Country as well. But the way to deal with this problem is not to tell historical lies that actually prop up the opposition’s narrative.
Since the new guard is not about restoring our lost political heritage, I believe it is fundamentally dishonest for them to identify themselves as Southern Nationalists because Southern in the minds of most implies a certain political orientation. (Southern Nationalist is the name they chose for themselves, but I have never liked it. Southern Devolutionalist or the Southern Independence Movement, for example, would better reflect the nature of the movement as most people imagine it.) They are basically gravy training off the good feelings many Southerners have for The Lost Cause for the purpose of ushering in a new political order that most Southerners would likely find highly objectionable. They should instead, in the interest of full disclosure, call themselves the Southeastern United States Independence Monarchist Movement or whatever.
Rational adults can have a reasonable conversation about whether republicanism in general or Southern style republicanism in particular is the best or most stable form of government. But if something other than the political form that is historically identified with the South is what they seek, and it is, they should be honest and up front about that, and it would really be best for them to reach a consensus on what form it is they hope to establish rather than just saying they will cross that bridge when they get there. Most people kinda want to know what they are signing up for.
So, to answer the question I asked in the title, I simply reject entirely the idea that the Southern Independence project is a future oriented one. Our project is an entirely conservative/reactionary one, but one we obviously believe will bring about a much better future. Now some people want to play word games and say conservatives want to conserve the status quo, and we should have no interest in maintaining the status quo, but this is semantic game playing. People who identify with Southern independence or even Constitutionalism are not moderate RINO Republicans seeking to preserve the status quo, and they know it. But if conservative is confusing, I’ll call the impulse restorationist.
A useful analogy I have used before is the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement in Christianity. Whatever one may think of that movement on theological grounds, it would be silly not to recognize it as a fundamentally past oriented attempt to restore the Church, that they felt had been compromised, to the order portrayed in the New Testament as they understand it. Of course, this would in their minds have highly desirable future results, but it’s not a future oriented project. This distinction is important because it is an essential part of how we conceive of ourselves and our thing. Marxism, for example, was always future oriented because it was about something that had not yet been and they were attempting to bring about. On the contrary, pining away to restore the Austro-Hungarian Empire is past oriented. Likewise, our project is past oriented.
I have on a couple of occasions accused new direction ringleader Michael Cushman of trying to pound his square peg of anti-republicanism into the round hole that is the American and Southern political milieu. Outside his core group that he has convinced to get on board, I sense that he is increasingly frustrated with the resistance he is meeting. He can’t say I didn’t warn him.
In closing, I would like to make clear that I have always liked League President Dr. Michael Hill. He has always been kind to me. One of my first internet publications was an essay on Lincoln that I wrote for EtherZone.com. He sent me an unsolicited email complimenting me on the article. I thought I had hit the big time. But his role in this new direction has been genuinely puzzling to me and others. Dr. Hill has generally been viewed as on board with the new direction. He supported the use of the new Black Cross flag, for example, although there has been a recent move to reintegrate the CBF. One can’t help but wonder if this is in response to negative fallout from its removal. He also repeats the “future-oriented” line. In fact, the words from the website I excerpted are his.
I can only speculate what is going on here. Perhaps years of talk with few results made the influx of a mostly young activist contingent hard to resist. I do not, however, believe that Dr. Hill believes that the US as intended was a proposition nation, because I have heard him say otherwise. I also believe he subscribes to one of the two Southern theories I describe in paragraphs 2 and 3 above, perhaps trending toward the latter in recent years based on some things I have heard and read. I do not believe that he accepts that the US is a fundamentally Enlightenment liberal project, because I have heard him argue otherwise. Nor do I believe that he has OD’ed on Alex Kurtagic videos. Reasonable men can disagree, and no offense toward Dr. Hill or Michael Cushman or Hunter Wallace for that matter is intended with this essay. These are important issues that need to be discussed openly and calmly and not met with cries of “Get on board or get out of the way.” Hopefully this article can be part of that dialogue.