A review of Remembering Who We Are: Observations of a Southern Conservative, by M.E. Bradford
In this collection of his essays written over the last fifteen years, Professor Bradford shows that he has forgotten something crucial: the promise our Southern fathers made when they laid down their arms at Appomattox begging that their lives be spared in return for unqualified loyalty to the Union. It now appears that a little while after this pledge had been given (and the lives of our ancestors spared) the fighting began again, now removed to new battlefields in the universities where literature and literary criticism are important, and social and political philosophy even more so. Mr. Bradford and his mentor, the late Richard Weaver of the University of Chicago, are the most contemporary actors in this last battle of the Civil War. Their "Remember who we are" is a more authoritative slogan, of course, than that gracing the Redneck automobile license, "Fergit, hell!" Unfortunately, however, it is merely a polite version of the same thing.
Professors Bradford and Weaver think of themselves as heirs of their beloved Agrarian writers who gathered at Vanderbilt University in the 1920s and '30s, and of William Faulkner as well. In talks given both in and out of the South, Bradford celebrates these writers for their appreciation of context, both social and literary, and for their making and remaking of myth, an activity to which Bradford devotes himself in the fifth and final part of Remembering. These commentaries are safely literary and cultural. Others, however, expose to Southern audiences a more directly political passion. In place of the Agrarian writers' vague comments decrying history's advancing depersonalization, Bradford substitutes his own political doctrine. He announces this doctrine in Part One of Remembering while he applies it in Part Four to especially important national legislation-legislation about subsidies to the arts and humanities and about immigration laws. His risk-taking is rewarded when he flushes out angry New York Times responses by establishment liberals: Bradford fences skillfully with such men, and readers can sit back arid enjoy every minute of it.
Bradford believes now, as Weaver did before him, that "ideas have consequences." He is an exemplar of sanity among those colorless legions for whom the academic world is a matter of drifting through nihilism. He has diligently applied his very considerable talents to acquiring familiarity with a vast literature, one which includes not only the Southern Agrarians but the American Founding and the Civil War as well. He has an engaging style, moreover, and a fine skill at myth-making and elegant argumentation. He calls this argumentation rhetoric, or, as he characterizes it more precisely, epideictic rhetoric, thereby emphasizing its likeness to myth-making.
Thus Bradford is an able and well-armed warrior in the Southern cause. Like Weaver before him, he attempts to capture his university world for "an aristoi, a new version of the old idea called 'gentlemen.'" He believes further that his new aristoi can attract a ready following outside the university. Or it can if the opportunity is seized and things are managed rightly, especially the rhetoric. Bradford believes that the new aristoi can lead an elite guard of the supporters of George Wallace, supplying a leaven necessary to a Republican Party which otherwise lies heavy in the hands of the oligarchs. These Wallaceites, he argues (and surely correctly), are frustrated and angry at a leadership which tries to get by with little more than economic reforms. Bradford's only mistake is to be inattentive to the fact that there are also non-Southerners who supported Wallace. But who can blame him overly much for that? At least he offers a serious apology for his regionalism, making it the central Part Three of his book. There he defends the Agrarians' Southern patrimony with great charm and wit.
It is unfortunate, however, that Bradford insists on confusing contemporary enemies with historic ones. An anger not unknown to most Southerners up to the present plays a major part in shaping Bradford's viewpoint. He is surely mad as hell. It is his anger, not his reason, which teaches him that the liberal ideologues of contemporary politics, those who crusade to impose an inhuman equality on our constitutional system, are identical in spirit with the ones that we had to endure when a "hasty and uncircumstanced emancipation" was forced on us. Thus it is quite possible that Bradford's famous attacks on Abraham Lincoln are attributable to his undifferentiated resentment over all injustice, both the injustice of Reconstruction and that of liberal tyrannizing. This confused sense of injustice is, again, not unknown among many Southerners who have been deeply affected by the Civil War.
But Professor Bradford's resentment is so deep and abiding as to numb intelligence and falsify memory. He forgets, first of all, that Lincoln was not an Abolitionist and that the Emancipation Proclamation was an act not of preferred policy but of military necessity. This mistake, however, is the outgrowth of another, of an intransigent unwillingness to admit that the racist theories of his ancestors were an innovative denial of the principles of the Union which they had defended with gallantry in the early days. The arguments that advanced slavery as a "positive good" instead of a necessary evil, developed assiduously from the Missouri Compromise to the Civil War, were, after all, the cause of the whole bloody business, including the military emergency which was forced on Lincoln. While such intransigence might be appropriate in the face of the contemporary bullies of "millennialism," it is a pure error to show it in the face of Lincoln's statesmanship, especially since the facts of this statesmanship have been so clearly pointed out in scholarly exchanges with Professor Harry Jaffa.*
In a remarkable section of Remembering, Part Two, Bradford extends his angry nonhistory back to the Founding. The Founders, he argues, were not at all poets or philosophers of the Revolution. (Bradford often confuses poets and philosophers.) They were, rather, his own kind of men-bearers of tradition, prescriptive men, men whose "primary purpose was to preserve the fruits of the American Revolution and the given world, the accepted 'way,' for the sake of which it had been fought." Further, "they appealed more successfully to images of known felicity-ineluctable realities tacitly acknowledged-than to bright prospects and the fruits of innovation." Bradford continues, in what resolves itself into a kind of lawyer's brief, to say that, even if they had been men of theory, they could not have been the kind of "state of nature" and "natural rights" ideologues who abound today. They were, rather, moderate men, and men of experience, men fully aware of "man's sinfulness."
Bradford's treatment of history is suspect to say the least. The suspicion lurks that this gifted man, had he wanted to argue the other side, could have found passages from John C. Calhoun praising Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence. After all, his making the Founders sound more like Anti-Federalists than Federalists is no mean trick in itself. The sense of frustration lingers until the reader realizes that Bradford's histories are not histories at all but argument and myth-making. They are licensed only by the hypothetical, "put the case that. . . ." Moreover, their value lies only in their utility for a grand strategy which must stand or fall on its own merits. It is important therefore to examine this grand strategy in its own terms.
The big secret, hidden behind Bradford's smoke screen of complaints about Lincoln's supposed treason, is that Bradford himself has a cause to advance. Like epideictic rhetoric, its subject is gods and heroes, and its medium is often myth. To repeat, then: What really goads Bradford is not Lincoln or Jefferson, but the contemporary godless religion of equality, and the effect of this religion in alienating man from his surroundings. However he may trace their lineage, the targets of Bradford's ire are, for practical purposes, the new "millennialists" who are now secularized and who march under the banners of one ideology or another. These are men whose pride challenges God's work and impels them to attempt a perfection which, as the Agrarians pointed out, eventuates in institutionalizing the Seven Deadly Sins in the cause of material progress and in denying at the same time "the finiteness of finitude, of 'contingency.'"
The South is not just any region. The South has special characteristics which equip it to be a source of resistance to this ideology. It lasted a long time guiltless of supermarkets and fast-food chains, and survived, in a word, without industrialism and applied science. It continued as well to revere the old ways. "American Southerners of all colors," Bradford writes, have, to their great advantage, enjoyed "a relative immunity to millennialism." A recent history of this kind accounts for the common awareness among Southerners of the present danger to all Americans. It is because of this awareness that Bradford believes that Southern voters especially will respond to a campaign for "privacy or independence with respect to the integrity of a man's personal affairs." His regionalism turns out to be a new nationalism. Bradford is not just another states' righter or Anti-Federalist.
Bradford's strategy for Southern leadership is not merely defensive, however, and it is therefore not so meritorious. His weakness shows itself in his political philosophy, or, as he would prefer to say, in his doctrine. It is here that his glorious cause shows itself, like many typically Southern exercises in noble illusion, to be fundamentally flawed. Bradford's deeper concerns are expressed in such passages as those which deplore the "depersonalization" of "atomistic man." That depersonalization results from enforced uniformity, necessarily a uniformity of the lowest common human denominators, a uniformity which overrides the particulars of individual experience. This depersonalized modern man whom Bradford visualizes exploits his family, gratifies himself without consequence, and is at home in no place. His "depersonalization" is like Marx's "alienation," except that it is not caused by the substitution of cash relations for medieval patriarchal and idyllic ones. For Bradford, the substitution is reversed, and the sacrifice of interconnecting particulars causes "defining the species in terms of goods and services." It also causes "life adjustment" to be the goal of schools, "angelism" the goal of art, and "ideological imperialism" the goal among nations.
To rectify the situation, Bradford recommends a renewed and proper pride in a truly democratic community life where deference is given to those who exhibit the virtues of character which all members of the community appreciate because they contribute so visibly to the community's common life. Bradford's examples of such communities are usually military, but they are sometimes jarringly pacific, and sometimes even commercial (the Venetian Republic and the United Netherlands).
Unfortunately, Bradford sees these common projects as identified in a context bequeathed by one's ancestors. And one's ancestors are identified by blood and by land. Bradford puts it succinctly himself in a candid address delivered to his intimates, the conservatives of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He is reviewing favorably the works of Frank L. Owsley, and he says,
What the law calls "real property" makes a man stand tall in a way that money cannot. The Revolution itself and the early wars of the Republic were reinforcements to this common pride. So was the frontier experience. Add to these the cushioning effect of large, inclusive families and of interconnection between these vast clans through marriage-clans whose members might occupy several different points on the social scale-and we have an explanation of the old-fashioned Southerner's freedom from the besetting virus of modern political life, arrogant and self-righteous envy.
Bradford's villain is envy, not vice. It is particularly envy between social classes. When he praises the virtues of character, moreover, Bradford praises them not in themselves, but rather for the sake of his summum bonum, a peaceable sociability. (John C. Calhoun shared his summum bonum, his organic socialism which he dubbed the "concurrent majority system." Calhoun shared Bradford's villain, too, calling it "avarice, ambition, and rivalry.") The gain from Bradford's common projects is a sense of community life. But this sense of community does not stem from its members' appreciation of the virtues demanded by dedication to the principles of our Declaration of Independence. This sense of community would not be derived from distinctively human spiritual striving. Bradford's proposal for overcoming the depersonalization of modern life is quite different. It is by mutual appreciation of tribal attachments that Bradford envisions overcoming modern depersonalization-by tribal attachments arising from immediate impressions of bodies, their sexual generation and their sustenance. Such a suggestion resounds with the Nazi propagandists' scientific cure for what they identified as "nihilism." Bradford opens himself to the charge that his Southerners, sentimental and mannered, do not differ markedly from Hitler's scientifically brutalized mobs.
The reader can see from his complaints about Leo Strauss, moreover, that Bradford is determined to rely on irrational sources of community. He turns a deaf ear to Strauss's nonepideictic rhetoric and to Strauss's insistence that modern thought must be appreciated in the light of classical political philosophy. Bradford is similarly immune to Strauss's view that classical political philosophy encouraged prudential statesmanship. Thus Bradford does not even pause to refute the strongest claim advanced in modern times for the predominance of reason in political life. Instead he rejects out of hand the very possibility of reason's predominance. He assumes that there is no real difference between a Strauss and a Marx or, more to the point, between a Strauss and a Hobbes. "Natural rights theory," he insists in pained outcry, "depending as it does on postulates concerning an anterior 'state of nature,' is the worst enemy of human freedom yet to be devised by the mind of man."
Against these theoretical "abstractions" Bradford would protect simple concreteness, concreteness in and for itself. Thus, despite his unfavorable allusions to Hobbes, Bradford ultimately fails to escape the world Hobbes constructed, for it was Hobbes who taught that man was the being who could change the world instead of merely interpreting it. It was Hobbes who thereby paved the way for subsequent thinkers to divide into two camps, some preferring mathematico-logical "necessities" for remaking man and society, and others, like Bradford, opting for its opposite, for the realm of nihilistic freedom, for "our experience" and the "ineluctable realities tacitly acknowledged."
Although he really wants Southern hegemony, Professor Bradford emerges as an apologist for the Anti-Federalists and their indiscriminate claim that all localism is morally superior. Mysteriously and unaccountably, he fails to take note of the fact that his contemporary enemies, those ideologues who would bureaucratize the world at the expense of everything human, make common cause with him. To both camps, it might be well to remember Alexander Hamilton's assessment of the objects of local politics: "The regulation of the mere domestic police of a State appears to me to hold out slender allurements to ambition." Hamilton refers here to high ambition, the kind of ambition which is directed to grand moral/political objects and is disdainful of merely domestic projects. His comment bears witness to the Founders' opinion, based on years of experience with the injustices of state legislatures, that local or regional politics is incompetent to employ principle in controlling a petty politics of legislative logrolling. And there was no way, they reasoned, to elevate state politics except by the supervision of a national government dedicated to principle-to the principle so beautifully encapsulated in the words of the Declaration of Independence.
Fortunately for the Founding, the claim that local politics was morally superior was decisively rejected by the adoption of the Constitution. It remained alive, however, and was given classic formulation by Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s and further elaborated as part of John C. Calhoun's concurrent majority. Still, unwilling to confront the alternative offered by the Founders and defended by Lincoln, and in our time by Strauss and Jaffa, Bradford finds himself awkwardly enlisting in the cause of the unworldly Anti-Federalists against "Mr. Madison's imperfect instrument." He finds himself defending all regionalism when he really wants only a South which can lead the nation to health. The truth is, however, that even Bradford's South never existed. It is, sadly, merely a hazy dream of communitarian antidotes to today's liberal barbarisms.
The tragedy, and it is a tragedy for all of us, is that Bradford's campaign for political health may be frustrated by his own insistence on prescriptive inequality. (Thus the Civil War continues to take its terrible toll.) Community cannot grow among men whose chance advantages of wealth and position are legitimated only by prescriptive tradition. Men can be truly friends only when chance is recognized for itself and set aside so that privilege may be legitimated by merit alone, for only in such a community can friendship be based on the truly human qualities of the soul.
Professor Bradford is one of the few truly political men of our time. (A perverse measure of his excellence is the terrible injustice recently perpetrated against him by his outraged liberal enemies who rejected him for appointment in the Reagan Administration.) Bradford recognizes clearly that what is right must also be ours and that it must be defended with piety and spirit. Further cool-headed reflection on Appomattox, and on the thinking of those who defended the Union, might prompt those who follow his lead to appreciate the significance for his purposes of constitutionalism and in particular the American Constitution, for the Founders, properly understood, could lead them to see that the Constitution's representation principle, as also its federalism and separation of powers, are the best design ever advanced for realizing that community of merit toward which a proper spiritedness should move all contemporary Americans.
*See "Equality, Justice, and the American Revolution: In Reply to Bradford's ‘The Heresy of Equality'" in Jaffa, How to Think About the American Revolution, (Durham: Carolina Academic Press, 1978), pp. 141-61.