The Rebel Statue Debate Masks a Conversation on American Nationalism

So for a while now, the Rebel Statue Debate has centered on the merits and demerits of the Rebel leaders and generals, and whether there’s anything that would distinguish them from people like Washington, Jefferson, Columbus, or Genghis Khan. Conservatives link the Rebels to the American pantheon, while Liberals draw lines between the two. Radicals want to burn everything down, Rebel or not.

As you no doubt expect, I’m sympathetic to the conservative argument. It’s obviously anachronistic to vilify 1860s slaveholders by 2010s standards. But it’s also anachronistic to use, as Gordon-Reed does, “building America” as a yardstick by which to judge people. Aside from being a nebulous, politicized term, why is that relevant in a time when people were loyal to local communities and states as opposed to a centralized, unitary government?

But this post is not about whether or not the Rebels were evil, and ultimately, that’s not what the Rebel Statue Debate is about. Aside from Buchanan’s article above, I think a recent article from Dreher, also found in The American Conservative, arrives close to the mark. Dreher, quoting Booth, presents:

those of you who think that a Confederate flag honors Southern heritage, or who think that Confederate monuments honor valiant men and are an important part of our history — you don’t get to decide what those symbols mean to our culture.

Note that culture is singular. This is key.

Booth sees one unified American culture, as a battleground that we fight over, one where the winner takes all. If the Left wins (as it has), then the Rebel Statues are bastions of hate, and Dixie should accept its idols being defaced and torn down. If the Right wins, then the Rebel Statues are reflections of glories past, and Blacks and Lefties have no grounds to call them hateful.

It’s an Voice vs. Exit problem, and Booth sees Voice as the only valid path forward. Under that assumption, his argument is absolutely correct.

But when Dreher is the loudest voice (so to speak) on the Right in support of Exit, I find it very curious that he presents, without critique, Booth’s argument based on Voice. Because Dreher doesn’t accept the premises of Voice for a minute. Dreher openly acknowledges that Christians lost the Culture War, but should retreat into cultural, ideological fortresses, which he calls the Benedict Option.

And I slowly realized that that’s what this debate comes down to. Along with the Religious Right, Dixie lost the Culture War. At this point, Dixie has zero chance of winning a grand Kulturkampf against Upper East Side culture brokers, and it does not even appear to be attempting that battle. So the question is, should Dixie have a Benedict Option?

(Don’t be fooled by polls that show a majority that favors the Rebel Statues staying up. You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing, and right now, radicals are defacing and tearing down all kinds of statues-Rebel or otherwise-with utter impunity)

In the piece linked above, Buchanan writes:

We have condemned and renounced the scarlet sins of the men who made America and embraced diversity, inclusivity and equality….Our new America is to be a land where all races, tribes, creeds and cultures congregate, all are treated equally, and all move ever closer to an equality of results through the regular redistribution of opportunity, wealth and power…We are going to become “the first universal nation.”

In this video, Murray makes the point more forcefully (39:40):

So our politicians say, ‘What are British values’? Well, they’re about tolerance…and being nice…and being decent…and being diverse, of course. That’s necessarily wide, because you’re trying to encompass everyone you now have in your country, but it’s shallow….It answers none of the questions that we as people, as human beings, and as souls ask…The culture says nothing to you.

Five decades after the 1965 immigration act, we’ve got a panoply of incredibly disparate people from around the world. The only way to bring them together in a shared culture is to give that culture breadth, but not depth. Aside from Ed Sheeran songs and Cappucinos, the only way to generate that breadth is by using generic liberal politics as a substitute for a genuine, deep-seated culture.

Obviously, liberals find Dixie’s history and heritage particularly problematic, to use their parlance. And they find Exit in general problematic: they are even ambivalent on Leftist Exit. These two fact all but guarantee that the Left will assault Dixie’s heritage, seeking to defeat it and see the South subsumed into to the “first universal nation.”

The Rebel Statue Debate thus becomes a microcosm of a larger debate on nationalism vs. particularism, on Voice vs. Exit.

So why do I favor the Rebel Statues staying up? Because

  1. Liberal nationalism has a shaky foundation at best.
  2. Right now, we have no machinery for Exit built.

On Point 1: building a shared national story isn’t something you can do with a few years of progressive social media campaigns. It takes time and effort lasting decades. It requires shutting down cults of ethnicity rather than subsidizing them with tax dollars.

And it gets a lot harder, perhaps impossible, when you have large groups with innately different aggregate traits that you have to put together.

Not dissuaded yet? Now remember that not only are our groups saliently different from one another, but in the South, they’ve set themselves against each other for centuries.

I try to be optimistic, but I just see no way for the nationalist project to succeed in America, let alone the South.

On Point 2: to be honest, I’m not inherently bothered about Black communities tearing down statues and renaming streets of men they dislike. Indeed, a similar thing happened in Poland after the Great War.

The reason I oppose the Rebel Statue destruction now is that currently, Dixie has no options for Exit. It can’t build its own communities and be left in peace. Until that happens, it would be an unjust, indeed imperial, act to destroy Dixie’s statues.

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