From the Shelf: The Irrepressible Conflict

Sixty pages into I’ll Take My Stand and we come to what is perhaps the most objectionable piece so far, at least if we’re to judge according to our liberalized public school-style education on the topic of the Civil War and its causes.  Frank Lawrence Owsley’s piece, “The Irrepressible Conflict,” gets into exactly that, with all the subtlety and even-handedness of a vengeful rebel wielding a sledgehammer.  The man clearly had a few bones to pick with the liberal, industrialized North, and he wasn’t afraid to show it.

Like the pieces before it, this essay is chiefly devoted to the analysis of Southern agrarian culture, and in particular, the causes and nature of the widening divide between it and the Northern industrialism in the years leading up to the Civil War.  It’s a longer piece so in the interests of brevity, I’ll restrict this post to what is simply the most interesting part of his analysis: the problem of slavery.

“The eternal race question had reared itself.  Negroes had come into the Southern Colonies in such numbers that people feared for the integrity of the white race.  For the negroes were cannibals and barbarians, and therefore dangerous.  No white man who had any contact with slavery was willing to free the slaves and allow them to dwell among the whites.  Slaves were a peril, at least a risk, but free blacks were considered a menace too great to be hazarded.” (77)

He goes on to mention the brutal spectacles of bloodletting that came to be known as the slave revolts of Santo Domingo and Haiti, in which the whites on the island were driven to extermination and the entire infrastructure of civilization that had been started there was willfully demolished by the newly-freed slaves.  The legacies of these events still haunt much of the Caribbean today, in fact.

Now it probably goes without saying that passages like this would never be assigned reading in modern schools except as a means of vilifying Southern Agrarianism in its entirety, to say nothing of further highlighting the inherent villainy of the supposed “white race.”  It’s true enough that the freed blacks of the North weren’t, in general, the feral beasts whose wills were subservient to their passions, nor did they exist in such numbers or concentration as to be a civilizational threat.  It’s true also that, as Tocqueville noted in Democracy in America, the blacks of the North often faced harsher de facto racism—and likely reciprocated it—than the enslaved blacks of the South did prior to emancipation.  But it is also true that, generally speaking, the slaves of the South were not invited to partake in the civilization they were demanded to serve; as a result, the children and grandchildren of the peoples enslaved by neighboring tribesmen of Africa grew up with only the loosest sense of cultural identity, a lack of historical knowledge regarding both their own people and the people that they were in shackles to, and of course, they were often denied the basic education taken for granted today.  This made an already difficult problem nigh-unsolvable.

Which is what Owsley points out.  Efforts at deportation and recolonization in Africa—the Liberian experiment—were costly, inefficient, and too subject to failure, or at least Owsley claims.  In reality, they were costly and inefficient, but the Liberian political scene and domestic life remained remarkably stable all the way up into the mid-twentieth century, when communist and revolutionary ideas spread throughout the country and turned the place into yet another example of a failed African state.

He does mention, however, that the introduction of the cotton gin made it nearly impossible for the South to accept emancipation of the slaves, an idea that they may have been willing to entertain prior to that development but certainly not afterward.  This is a strikingly economic argument, which seems to contradict his earlier point that the slavery of the South did not underpin the existence of the South’s agrarian nature.  While ostensibly true, the absence of the institution would have meant that the South would likely never have been economically viable enough to offer any feasible political resistance to the Northern alternatives in the first place, much less fund a war.

It is because of this acceptance of the institution—both in the South and even in the North, implicitly—that Owsley claims this:

“They had considered emancipation honestly and fairly and had found it out of the question.  Their skirts were clear.  Let the blood of slavery rest upon the heads of those who had forced it upon the South.” (78)

What Owsley is saying here, as he mentions in the following paragraphs, is that the notion of the complete abolition of slavery across the South was a radical position that Northerners embraced, completely ignorant as to the nature of the situation in the region.  And while he paints slavery with perhaps too lenient a brush, his fundamental point is nonetheless worth considering.  The abrupt change in the way of life in the South that the abolitionists desired (and eventually got), themselves removed from the consequences of that action, indicate a gross negligence on their part.  The question of what to do with the slaves was never fully answered; it simply changed its shape a little bit.  Ironically, the same could be said for the Civil Rights period that occurred a century later.  The time that transpired between the two events is riddled with reactions to the former.

A good book that covers a lot of the build-up to the Civil War in detail is Christopher Ferrera’s Liberty: The God That Failed.  I don’t have the space to go into it in detail here, but many of the points Owsley raises in this piece are effectively demolished by Ferrera’s admittedly anti-Confederate analysis of the build-up to the war.

I’ll end it here tonight because this is already longer than I had intended, but Owsley’s piece goes on to mention other interesting aspects about the dynamic between federal and state power, particularly in how it relates to business and regulation.  We’ll look at that tomorrow.


From the Shelf: A Mirror for Artists

I’ve written before on the degradation of the art world, and specifically Modernity’s impact upon both the interpretation of art and its creation.  In short, the commodification of art, the development of the art market, and the disintegration of art patronage by an aristocratic class has had a twofold impact upon the development and presentation of the arts: on the one hand, art has become inaccessibly obtuse and designed for the consumption of a philistine elite, and its market increasingly a platform for money laundering; on the other hand, art has been reduced to the most base common denominator of a banal and equally philistine public, in which consumption and marketability are the deciding barometers of its success.

Well, as it turns out, it doesn’t take the wretched state of the market in 2018 to have figured all of these things out.  Continuing on with our brief excursion into I’ll Take My Stand, Donald Davidson approaches the topic of the arts in the wake of an industrialized society in his essay, which follows up John Crowe Ransom’s piece that I touched on last night.  Davidson’s work, “A Mirror for Artists,” directly attributes the over-commodification of the arts to industrialization’s tendency to reduce all objects and peoples into economic units which can be measured according to terms like scarcity and surplus.

Davidson outlines rather clearly how the revolution in thought that both precipitated and got energized by the industrialization of the last three hundred years left its tracks all over the gradual shifts in artistic output beginning with the Romantics of the nineteenth century.  The Romantics, he argues, emerged as artists who pitted themselves against the societies in which they functioned as artists; art became removed from its proper place and in turn became a vessel for critique or for fantasy.  It’s not hard to follow his logic when one considers how suddenly artistic output shifted from not only the aesthetically pleasing, but also the glorification of the religious and the veneration of the past, into an outright glorification of ancient paganisms and eventually the myopic interest of the mundane, as exemplified by the impressionists and realists.

As that perfidious herald of Modernity crept into the brush strokes of artists and the pens of poets, they ceased to deliver content made explicitly to serve an audience—and not simply to please but to elevate that audience spiritually—and instead produced works of increasing rational opaqueness, limiting its reach until works were made with only the artist himself in mind.  “In short,” he says, “the condition of the arts themselves, whatever the field, gives little ground for thinking that they are actually cherished by an industrial civilization” (47).

He continues by separating, I think unsuccessfully, the democratic politics which have endangered the art world so catastrophically from the industrialization that allowed that democracy to crystalize into its current form:

“Democracy did not, after all, disturb society unduly.  It was a slow growth, it had some continuity with the past, and in an agrarian country like pre-Civil War America it permitted and favored a balanced life.  Industrialism came suddenly and marched swiftly.  It left a tremendous gap.  Only as democracy becomes allied with industrialism can it be considered really dangerous, as when, in the United States, it becomes politically and socially impotent; or, as in the extreme democracy of the Soviets, where, converted into equalitarianism within class limits, it threatens the existence of man’s humanity.” (49)

I mention that this separation is unsuccessful because the democratizing principle at work in the arts, which turned the reverent artistic content of the past into the naval-gazing output of the nepotists today, was already at work prior to the rampant growth of the industrial age.  It was the ideological schism with the past—the philosophical revolution of the Enlightenment in particular—which brought this change on.  When Donaldson is referring to industrialization, he’s only referring to the tangible, economic results of the sudden philosophical changes that had run roughshod over the eighteenth century elite.  America, as you can note in a reading of Alexis de Tocqueville, was birthed as a direct result of this schism.

Donaldson wraps up his essay by drawing the contrast with the Southern way of life and its relationship to the arts, and here he is fairly undeniable.  The South’s style of architecture had remained, at the time of his writing, quintessentially Southern; its great writers had already begun to peak, and they wrote not against the Southern tradition but directly within and in line with the arteries of its culture.  The Southern artistic traditions did not lapse into the broadly self-obsessed and indulgent culture of narcissism that awaited their industrialized counterparts in Europe and New England, at least for the most part.

What we see with Donaldson’s piece is an optimistic glimpse of what was perhaps the last worthwhile American artistic movement before the academies, universities, and institutes were so fully compromised as to make the arts—be it visual, literary, poetic, or musical—unaffordable, useless, stupid, and irrelevant endeavors.  In retrospect, it reads in some senses as a timeless commentary on the dangers of industrial modernity and how damaging it is to artists.  On the other hand, it is also a product of its time, as Donaldson here failed to fully grasp the utter wasteland of the arts that awaited not just the South, and not even just America, but the West as a whole in just a few scant decades.

From the Shelf: Reconstructed but Unregenerate

I recently obtained a used copy of I’ll Take My Stand, a “manifesto” of Southern Agrarianism written and published back in 1930 by Harper Press.  It’s a collection of essays by the Twelve Southerners, a collection of men who represented a minor, but important aspect of American Conservatism prior to the Buckley-Goldwater movement of the fifties and sixties, which forever altered Conservatism in the United States (some would argue for the worse).

I’ll limit today’s post to just the first essay, written by poet, essayist, and critic John Crowe Ransom, entitled “Reconstructed by Unregenerate.”  It’s really good.

The piece serves as both an overview and a preview of the themes that rest of this manifesto gets into: the impact of industrialism on social cohesion, the decline of man’s dignity as a worker and his reduction to a unit of labor, industrialism’s direct attack upon the environment and countryside, and the generally unlivable conditions afforded by large-scale industrialization in comparison to widespread populously-dispersed agrarianism.  This comes with a direct attack on the modern notion of progress, a vaguery which “never defines its ultimate objective, but thrusts its victims at once into an infinite series” (8).  Specifically, Ransom places progress within the context of Man’s willingness and intent to abolish the environment, which extrapolated a little further, comes to reflect Man’s incessant desire to control all things.  Nature, being innately uncontrollable, remains forever unyielding to the advances of Man’s interests in absolute control; industrialization’s answer to this is to simply try to destroy what cannot be controlled.

Naturally, Ransom characterizes this as something intrinsic to the North/South divide, even in 1930.  The war, obviously, had ended more than two generations before; some veterans still lived to tell the tales but, by and large, the memory of the antebellum South was not a living one.  It remained alive as a cultural artifact, but not as a tangible myth to be recounted by old-timers on back porches.

This makes his dichotomy both a bit easier to digest and harder to pin down.  The North/South divide, for the purposes of Ransom’s point, is an industrial/agrarian divide.  It’s a divide not altogether uninformed by the passage of history, but it should be remembered still that most if not all of the Founding Fathers believed fundamentally in the agrarian life of the United States—Jefferson being the most famous proponent.  Even Tocqueville, during his travels around America a full century before this piece was written, recognized the decentralized, small-community method in which the American experience unfolded.  The North, back then, showed signs of industrial equipment, but it maintained the fundamental cohesiveness of classical communities.

What’s fascinating about his essay here isn’t really its cultural divide that recognizes industrialism as a fundamentally Northern infringement upon Southern identity; it’s bigger and deeper than that.  As he alludes to at the end with his brief critique of the Democratic party’s embrace of progress—the party that was once a conservative bastion of Southern Agrarianism a mere quarter-century before—industrialism and it’s attack on what is fundamentally human remains one of the key problems that has yet to get a coherent and convincing answer even today.

From the Shelf: A Catholic Introduction to the Bible – The Old Testament – Chaps 1 & 2

I bought this tome a few months ago and have spent much my time around it flipping around to random chapters, so today I thought I’d crack it open from the beginning and share some general thoughts.

This strikes me as one of the single best resources a Catholic could have when it comes to education on the context of the Old Testament.  As both tradition and the physical composition of the Bible teaches us, the Old Testament is to be read in light of the revelations of the New.  Unlike some commentators who insist only on the importance of the New Testament, the Old is not simply a collection of antiquated myths that served to somehow contextualize the New Testament back when it was complied, and as a result have little to say to contemporary audiences.  It isn’t just a bunch of Hebrew or Jewish gibberish thrown in to pad out the story, and the God of the Old Testament is every bit the same God of the New.

So with this in mind, authors John Bergsma and Brant Pitre take a crack at examining the nature of the biblical canon both in substance and in history.  A sort of canon used by the Hebrews around the time of Christ had already been more or less agreed-upon, and it resembled what is today called the Tanakh.  Organized into three parts, the Tanakh derived its name from the Torah (the Books of Law or Books of Moses), the Nevi’im (the Prophets), and the Ketuvim (the Collected Works).  This resulted in a Hebrew Bible that numbered about 24 in total; compare this to what was eventually to become the 46 books of the Old Testament as agreed upon by the early Church fathers of the first half of the first millennium.

It was the words of Jesus to St. Peter, however, which formed the guiding principle around which the Catholic Old Testament would be organized.  The authors point out that Jesus said:

“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.  I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:18-19)

What the authors explain is that the “binding” and “loosing” include the binding of books—i.e. the canonization of sacred scripture for the obvious purpose of evangelization.  Pointing out an historical case of de facto Papal authority, the bishop of Rome had by custom been the authority for deciding disputes as to the binding of what constituted sacred canon.  And this in no way contradicts the fact that councils and synods were the ultimate validator, of course.

The authors close the second chapter by tackling various methods of criticism and analysis with which the Old Testament is approached.  They outline a variety of methods of critique, some more obviously valid than others, and emphasize the importance interpreting the scriptures as we have them, even though outside information such as the context of their writing and the context of the period in which they are written can still important.

While this hasn’t gotten into the meat of the book yet, the first couple chapters display an interest and rigor of historical study that many laymen with even a passing interest in Catholic thought should invest some time into reading.  This book is a 1000-some page monster, so stay tuned for more.

From the Shelf: Barren Metal chaps 18-20

Tonight, we’re pick up our adventures into economics and usury with a few chapters from Dr. E. Michael Jones’ opus, Barren Metal—specifically, chapters eighteen through twenty.  The massive tome heretofore covered the economic history of Florentine Italy during the Renaissance.  For those of you who played the Assassin’s Creed games, the region, setting, and key players should ring some bells, though the historical absurdity on display with Ubisoft’s illiterate team of storytellers remains wonderfully absent.

The Dominican Friar Savonarola, a key player in much of the events leading up to this point in the book, has found his earthly luck run out.  Pope Alexander VI—perhaps better known to popular history as Rodrigo de Borja—has had enough of Savonarola’s reactionary preaching, penchant for prophecies, and altruistic extremism.  It was under Savonarola’s guidance that the Florentine state and people managed to give Lorenzo de Medici the boot and institute an elitist republic; the debaucheries of Lorenzo’s circuses, such as Carnival, the Bonfire of the Vanities, and the accompanying rampant spread of sodomy and pederasty among the merchant and elite classes of Florence were stopped dead in their tracks.

When his luck ran out, however, it ran out quickly.  He was imprisoned, tortured, and forced into confessing to have invented the prophecies which had stirred up so much trouble in Florence.  He, along with several of his confidants, were hanged, burned, and had their ashes scattered into the Arno in order to prevent the collection of artifacts for reverence.  Nonetheless, Savonarola, despite some popular depictions of him in contemporary media, remains a powerful figure for good who preached against institutional corruption, sexual misbehavior, and usury.

His establishment of a Florentine monte di pieta, in fact, proved to be one of his most lasting achievements.  Dr. Jones spends the greater part of a previous chapter explaining the purpose and function of monte di pieta; essentially, they were charity-run pawn shops which extended loans in exchange for property at zero or near-zero interest.  This is in contrast to the standard interest rates for loans at the time which were frequently around or well above forty or fifty percent.  The existence of monte de pieta, which were run by the Florentine government itself, helped maintain the working and subsistence classes who often had only barely enough wages to survive the years.  Meanwhile, as he explains, it also served as an addendum to the Florentine treasury, so long as it wasn’t pilfered or misused.

From this epilogue to his history of the finances of Florence and the grand drama involving Catholic extremists, the Medici, the Borgia, and common human vice, Dr. Jones turns his attention to north-central Europe: the Holy Roman Empire and, specifically, the Fugger family.  We will return to the Fuggers in a while, but in the meantime, Dr. Jones addresses the economical differences of  Florentine Italy with Germanic Austria, and in particular, the degree to which guilds influenced, regulated, and decided the economy.

There’s a longer post buried in this information, but the important parts can be found in Barren Metal.  Essentially, the guilds existed to protect the dignity and importance of labor, which remains the foundation upon which wealth can even be conceived, much less created.  Dr. Jones explains how the Hellenic conception of labor was skewed in antiquity due to the presence of slavery, which contorted labor into an unpleasant endeavor from which no man could derive satisfaction or fulfillment; any self-respecting man of Rome could only pour the labor of his person into intellectual affairs, since labor of the ground and the hands remained the work of slaves.

This should get you thinking, particularly about the position of labor in the contemporary culture.  Who do the elites push as those we should hold the most reverence for?  What are we told, from childhood, that we need to get in order to succeed in life?  What sort of work is discouraged, or ignored, or caricatured as ignorant, futile, and idiotic?