This Wednesday, June 28, 2017, shows the statue of Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Va. As cities across the United States are removing Confederate statues and other symbols, dispensing with what some see as offensive artifacts of a shameful past marked by racism and slavery, Richmond is taking a go-slow approach. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
The opinion pages of the nation’s major newspapers never cease to disappoint. Just a couple of weeks ago, the New York Times announced that it has suddenly discovered that everything to do with everything in American history was a direct result of slavery. Now some twit writing at the Washington Post reveals that the whole call for civility by people on the right triggers her because it is exactly like the rhetoric of defenders of slavery in the antebellum South. (For the record, I’ve never before heard of this “Eve Fairbanks” creature and the more I learn of her the less impressed I am.)
So, kiddies, buckle up and get ready for a trip as wild as any involving ‘shrooms or LSD that that ever left you tasting the color yellow and smelling loud sounds. Periodically, I’m going to insert trenchat tweets from Grant Addison, deputy editor at the Washington Examiner, whose tweets alerted me to the masterpiece.
I grew up in a conservative family. The people I talk to most frequently, the people I call when I need help, are conservative. I’m not inclined to paint conservatives as thoughtless bigots. But a few years ago, listening to the voices and arguments of commentators like Shapiro, I began to feel a very specific deja vu I couldn’t initially identify. It felt as if the arguments I was reading were eerily familiar. I found myself Googling lines from articles, especially when I read the rhetoric of a group of people we could call the “reasonable right.”
These are figures who typically dislike President Trump but often say they’re being pushed rightward — sometimes away from what they claim is their natural leftward bent — by intolerance and extremism on the left. The reasonable right includes people like Shapiro and the radio commentator Dave Rubin; legal scholar Amy Wax and Jordan Peterson, the Canadian academic who warns about identity politics; the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt; the New York Times columnist Bari Weiss and the American Enterprise Institute scholar Christina Hoff Sommers, self-described feminists who decry excesses in the feminist movement; the novelist Bret Easton Ellis and the podcaster Sam Harris, who believe that important subjects have needlessly been excluded from political discussions. They present their concerns as, principally, freedom of speech and diversity of thought. Weiss has called them “renegade” ideological explorers who venture into “dangerous” territory despite the “outrage and derision” directed their way by haughty social gatekeepers.
— Grant Addison (@jgrantaddison) August 29, 2019
So it felt frustrating: When I read Weiss, when I listened to Shapiro, when I watched Peterson or read the supposedly heterodox online magazine Quillette, what was I reminded of?
You guessed it.
The reasonable right’s rhetoric is exactly the same as the antebellum rhetoric I’d read so much of. The same exact words. The same exact arguments. Rhetoric, to be precise, in support of the slave-owning South.
I’m no authority of pre-Civil War rhetoric–and I doubt very much that Fairbanks is either–but from the reading I’ve done I don’t see much in speeches or newspapers of the time, particularly those in the South, asking for civility. Quite to the contrary. But, arguendo, she’s not just blowing smoke, the very fact that she equates a call for civility in a discussion of basic Constitutional rights and our historic philosophy of governance with the defense of slavery shows why only chumps are aiming for civility. There is no need to be civil when you’re confront an irredeemable evil.
If that sounds absurd — Shapiro and his compatriots aren’t defending slavery, after all — it may be because many Americans are unfamiliar with the South’s actual rhetoric. When I was a kid in public school, I learned the arguments of Sen. John C. Calhoun (D-S.C.), who called slavery a “positive good,” and Alexander Stephens, the Confederacy’s vice president, who declared that the South’s ideological “cornerstone” rested “upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man.”
if your comparison sounds absurd, it may be because it is pic.twitter.com/s5h4y5ifhB
— Grant Addison (@jgrantaddison) August 29, 2019
I’m going to call bullsh** on this. I went to school in Virginia for 11 of my 12 years. While I’ll be the first to acknowledge that the Holy Trinity was Lee, Jackson, and Stuart, if you can find a dozen Virginia public school students who can name the vice president of the Confederacy and quote him, I’ll kiss your bare butt at high noon at the place of your choosing and I’ll give you an hour to draw a crowd.
They stressed the importance of logic, “facts,” “truth,” “science” and “nature” much more than Northern rhetoricians did. They chided their adversaries for being romantic idealists, ignoring the “experience of centuries.”
They loved hyperbole. Events were “the most extraordinary spectacles” that had “ever challenged the notice of the civilized world,” “too alarming” and threatened “to destroy all that is valuable and beautiful in the institutions of our country.” …
The most important thing to know about them, they held, was that they were not the oppressors. They were the oppressed. They were driven to feelings of isolation and shame purely on the basis of freely held ideas, the right of every thinking man…
Let’s call this particular logic “antebellum reasoning.” Its appeal was that it identified pro-South rhetoricians as the upholders of America’s true heritage: They were, in their own reckoning, dedicated to truth — and persecuted by tyrants…
In Dave Rubin, who says that “if you have any spark of individualism in you, if you have anything about you that’s interesting or different, they” — the left — “will come to destroy that,” I hear the pro-Southern newspaper editor Duff Green: Abolitionists’ intent is “to drive the white man from the South.”
In Bari Weiss — who asserts that “the boundaries of public discourse have become so proscribed as to make impossible frank discussions of anything remotely controversial” and that “perfectly reasonable intellectuals [are] being regularly mislabeled … with every career-ending epithet” — I hear Josiah Nott: “Scientific men who have been bold enough to speak truth … have been persecuted.”
In Ben Shapiro — who ascribes right-wing anger to unwise left-wing provocation (“How do you think people are going to react?”) — I hear a letter printed in the Charleston Mercury, which warned that “if the mad career of the hot headed abolitionists should lead to acts of violence on the part of those whom they so vindictively assail, who shall be accountable? … Not the South.”
The American South in the 19th century came up with the idea of sounding civil and reasonable and speaking in a way that is rhetorically to their benefit in order to persuade.
How fun it is to read history in the Washington Post pic.twitter.com/qU88Y3Frbv
— Grant Addison (@jgrantaddison) August 29, 2019
And to the bottom line
But today I see what Lincoln feared. Nearly daily, I read some new figure appealing to antebellum reasoning. Joining the reasonable right seems to render these figures desirable contributors to center-left media outlets. That’s because, psychologically, the claim to victimhood can function as a veiled threat. It tricks the listener into entering a world where the speaker is the needy one, fragile, requiring the listener to constantly adjust his behavior to cater to the imperiled person.
With this threat, the reasonable right has recruited the left into serving its purpose. Media outlets and college campuses now go to extraordinary lengths to prove their “balance” and tolerance, bending over backward to give platforms to right-wing writers and speakers who already have huge exposure.
In the human body, viruses use the shells of immune cells to trick other cells into letting them in. Principles like freedom and equality have functioned, through time, as the American immune system, warding off sickness. But they can also be co-opted. As they were more than 150 years ago, ideas like freedom of speech, diversity and respect are now being used to turn opponents of conservatism into helpless hosts, transmitting its ideas.
Conservatives use oxygen. You know who else used oxygen? That's right: Hitler. https://t.co/cDNCmrzQ73
— Physics Geek (@physicsgeek) August 29, 2019
Actually, there is an insight there that we should consider. If you accept that there is literally no difference between, say, arguing that men and women are different and arguing blacks are inferior to whites, of course you will try to ruin careers and shout down the opposition and to have them deplatformed. Where the reasonable conservatives think they are in a debate and debates can only take place in the context of civility and mutual respect, many of us on the right have recognized for several years that this is not the situation and striving for civility is a chump’s game pursued by chumps. Many of us, in fact, completely agree with Kurt Schlichter:
Liberals hate you and want you dead or enslaved. https://t.co/Ik6Kr8kwul
— Kurt Schlichter (@KurtSchlichter) May 25, 2019
They really do want to be in control of your child’s eduction. They really do want to put off limits a wide variety of viewpoints and make people holding positions with which they disagree social pariahs. You won’t be left in peaces because, as Erick Erickson used to say, You will be made to care. These people really do want you dead. And it makes as much sense to deal with people like that by trying to reason with them as it would with rabid curs. If you want to find common ground with these people, please move over to The Bulwark or National Review so you can wait with an untroubled mind for the cattle cars to come to fetch you. I have other plans.