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.

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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.

How the Hell do I Organize this Crap

I do not have too many books.  I don’t.  In fact, by my estimation, I’m probably a few hundred short.  For now.

That said, however, I haven’t figured out how to organize them.  Last year, I thought I’d found the answer: alphabetical order by the author’s last name.  Seems reasonable enough for an amateur’s library, right?

Wrong.

The problem is that most of my books are nonfiction.  A great many of them are works by famous writers—the Greeks, the classics, etc.—but a great many more are of more contemporary writers whose names can sometimes be hard to remember.  A couple of years ago, I didn’t have enough of these things to matter.  Now, apparently I do.  In fact, it’s gotten chronic enough that at some point, while I was reshuffling the stacks to the right when I had to add into the shelves a newly arrived order of books, I somehow took a whole stack of the “H” section and dropped it a full shelf down without even realizing it.  I had to check something from Hegel and found it, along with five other Hs, in the middle of the Ks.

My wife suggested using the Dewey Decimal System, or maybe the system used by the Library of Congress.  She worked as a librarian’s assistant when she was in high school, so I should probably listen to her.  I don’t think I have quite enough volume for that yet, but it’s a good goal.  She also suggested just separating them up by genre—philosophy, history, theology, whatever—which was how I’d had it before.  I forget why I changed it up.  It probably had to do with some works blurring genres and my retarded self not willing to pick a category.

If any of you have any advice, please send it my way.

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?

The Nightly QNUW

This site serves as a sort of expansion to my main blog, QNUW.  That site has morphed into essentially an essay dump, where I can post longer-form pieces on a variety of philosophical, moral, and political subjects.  Sometimes that includes current affairs, sometimes it includes book reviews or highlights, but the common thread has been my interest in exploring these subjects at somewhat moderate length.

Unfortunately, given my own schedule, this means I’m usually only capable of pumping out a single piece per week.  My interest in writing more, as well as tackling my reading list, has prompted the creation of The Nightly QNUW: a daily or near-daily post of shorter length where I cover a wider range of topics.  Sometimes it’ll be a brief thought on a lecture or a reflection of something I’d written before, and sometimes it’ll be a brief synopsis or exegesis of whatever happens to be on the top of the book stack that night.

As Mount Everest’s height inches upward at about four millimeters a year, so too does my stack of unread books increase by probably fifty times that amount.  I’m sure many of you can relate.  Part of this experiment is to see if I can blitz through more of that stack while sharing the best parts of it with all of you.  Look forward to it!