Monday, April 30, 2012

Confederate "Heritage" Month 2012, April 30: Once more with John Calhoun and "Calhounery"

We'll end up the Confederate "Heritage" Month series for this year on a somewhat lighter note.

I've posted more than once this month about John Calhoun, his life, his political theory, his reactionary political heritage. As it happens while deciding what to use as the final post, I came across an article by the humorist Roy Blunt Jr. with the title, "Where's the Big Idea?" and the eye-catching subtitle, "Communism didn't originate in South Carolina for a very good reason" The Oxford American Winter 2005.

Blount relates how an interviewer "took me severely to task for having written ... that Southern culture had not produced much in the way of abstract thinking." The interviewer offered John Calhoun as a prime example of the contrary.

Blount was suprised, because he mainly knew Calhoun from his theory of nullification. "That seemed to me a strategem, rather than an idea in the large, ethereal egghead sense," he says. But he started doing come research on the old traitor.

He came across some of the same things that came up here this month, including Calhoun's class theories that led Richard Hofstadter to label him "the Karl Marx of the master class."

But I read up on Calhoun, and learned that he was regarded widely - not just in the South - as the most brilliant political philosopher of his day. Personally, he struck people as a thinking machine. Varina Howell Davis, wife of Jefferson Davis, called him "a mental and moral abstraction." He was haggard and unhealthy-looking, too, so who am I to question his bona fides? A century later, some political historians argued that Calhoun's critique of Northem capitalism anticipated the thinking of Karl Marx. Maybe that's why Southem intellectualism ground to a halt: the twentieth century would have made even less sense if communism had been from South Carolina, for the wealthy, and called Calhounery.
He definitely has a point. In fact, instead of using the phrase "the theology of the Great God Free Market", I may shorten it to just "Calhounery". That's a word that should be an active part of the American political vocabulary.

Blount still wasn't convinced about abstract thinking in the South, though:

Eurocentric philosophy has come to realize only fairly recently, and with great aha's and alarums, that objective rationality is not the default position of the human mind, much less the bedrock of human affairs. In the South, nobody ever thought it was. The South doesn't produce ideas, it produces rhetoricians, yarn-spinners, visionaries, musicians, demagogues ... all sorts of people Plato would have expelled from his Republic.
Blount comes up with an angle on one of the few things I liked about Robert E. Lee:

Consider Robert E. Lee's most famous remark, as he watched his troops win overwhelmingly at Fredericksburg, slaughtering bluecoats by the thousands: "It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it."

A great utterance. But when you think about it, what does it mean? Was General Lee saying that if war were less terrible it would be worse, because we'd get too attached to it? A more logical, proactive utterance would have been, "Boys, war doesn't get any better than this, and it's still too terrible. Let's quit." But of course that wouldn't have done. (How often, in real-life situations, has sweet reason done?) The only thing I can figure is that Lee was warning us against big-time college football.
Again, he has a point!

But in the end, he decided John Calhoun was what blogger Charlie Pierce might call a colossal dick (though Pierce reserves that label for Rick Santorum):

In Virginia a while ago, I came upon a many-volumed encyclopedia of Southern
history printed in 1909. It said that John C. Calhoun "was upholding the rights of the Southern people against the assaults of the abolitionists. The charges made by the latter against the system of slavery he denounced as false. On the other hand, he never grew weary in the work of telling how the Southern people were generously lifting upward the entire body of negro slaves to a higher and nobler plane of life."

On the other hand? What's "on the other hand" about that? Sounds like two sides of the same hand to me. But then "the one hand, the other hand" doesn't make any sense unless the hands are connected by a particular body, and particular bodies tend to be partial to themselves. The body in this case was that of "the Southern people," slaves not being considered, even after forty-four years of retrospect, to be part of that category. We know better than that, now; and heaven help us for what we don't know better than, yet.
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