Winning the culture war in the American South
American conservatives have tried a new technique to tame the statue-toppling social justice warriors dominating universities
This article is taken from the April 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
Richmond, Virginia, is almost an English town. A settlement older than the United States itself, it is perhaps the perfectly preserved symbol of the deep roots and common ties of its country with the greater Anglosphere; to use the former Senator and Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III’s phrase, a reminder of the “Anglo-American heritage”.
Walking through Sulgrave Road — after you drive through a couple of cross-sections named Dover, Canterbury, Cambridge and Exeter roads — one can find a Tudor-era manor house with wooden beams transported and shipped from Lancashire. A British and an American flag flutter side by side at the entrance.
Next door is a sixteenth-century priory house that is currently a museum, a chapter of the Virginia historical society and a wedding venue, once again shipped brick by brick from Warwick; its walls and arcades adorned by wisterias and limoniums. An ornate moss-covered stone birdbath is on the roadside, not unlike one that can be seen in Stamford Hall or Newstead Abbey.
Monument Avenue in Richmond was once a tourist destination
Virginia’s history is layered with complexity. It was the first colony to ratify the Articles of Confederation. Richmond hosts the historic St John’s Church, where Patrick Henry cried “give me liberty or give me death”. It is where the capital was temporarily relocated in 1780 and where one of the last major British raids took place in 1781, led by Benedict Arnold who somewhat notoriously defected to the Loyalist side and eventually settled back in England.
Richmond was also the capital of the Confederacy, the militarily indefensible terrain which passed hands between the two sides, both claiming to be on the side of the rule of law, and briefly the centre of attention as London debated an intervention on the side of the southern Confederacy. Richmond, Virginia and the USA are now engaged in an academic war over history, the ramifications of which might once again have implications for the greater Anglosphere.
Monument Avenue in Richmond was once a tourist destination. A long stretch of thoroughfare, with beautiful Edwardian houses on both sides, it was laced with grand statues every couple of blocks, hence the name. None of those statues survived the cultural revolution and violence that erupted in 2021.
Every pedestal broken and chipped away, every statue, from Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis to Robert E Lee removed, every stone block profaned in the name of racial justice, a culmination of a movement fuelled by a section of the academy that has been brewing for a while, sparks of which were also evident in toppled and vandalised statues from Bristol, London, Oxford, Paris, Rouen and Brussels.
Of course, confederate idols were not the only statues that were toppled and vandalised. Revolutionaries usually never care for historical accuracy anyway; if any statue looked grand and classical in aesthetics, it was considered a sign of “white supremacy”.
Other high-profile targets included Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, Christopher Columbus, Don Juan de Oñate, George Washington, Junipero Serra and for some reason, Cervantes. A few of the toppled statues were beheaded. Some were thrown in rivers. Almost all had graffiti with either profanity or political slogans, often supporting violence against the police, promoting Black Lives Matter and other half-literate and often misspelled revolutionary mantra.
Almost all of the incidents led to heavily PR-dictated political speeches about “anguish” and “pain” given by mayors and local politicians. There were little major visible efforts to save any, other than some local grassroots movements, either by enforcing law and order or prosecuting vandals. Often, at the first sign of disorder, liberal city or university leaders went out of their way to acquiesce to the demands of the mob, raising the unnerving suspicion of their tacit approval of the violent methods.
Teachers, too. Nothing is as understudied an aspect of the current revolutionary moment as the presence of a section of academia, more often than not focused on “deconstruction” and “reinterpretation”. In Oxford (Mississippi), Zachary Borenstein, a vocally left-wing public school teacher was charged with vandalising a statue, claiming that it caused “spiritual genocide”. His bail fund was organised by Arielle Hudson, a senior student of English and Education, and incidentally the first African American woman from the school to become Rhodes Scholar.
In Providence, three teachers, two of them women, were charged for desecrating a Christopher Columbus statue. During the violence in Washington DC in front of the Lincoln Memorial in the summer of 2020, one University of Alabama at Birmingham archaeologist named Sarah Parcak notoriously tweeted instructions on how to topple obelisks, adding that obelisks “might be masquerading as a racist monument”; a far cry from another archaeologist, Khaled al-Asaad, who gave his life refusing to give the locations of hidden statues and artefacts in Palmyra while being tortured, which he had hidden to save them from the Islamic State.
Historian and Egyptologist Kara Cooney argued that one shouldn’t romanticise ancient Egypt as the rulers were racist and “violent authoritarians” using slave labour. Latin-American classics scholar Dan-el Padilla Peralta argued in a New York Times essay that the study of classics should “knock ancient Greece and Rome off their pedestal — even if that means destroying their discipline”, to save the field from “Whiteness”.
What is fuelling this? Some scholars and researchers, such as Christopher Rufo, Jarrett Stepman, Mike Gonzalves, Joy Pullmann, and a section of conservative higher-ed policy analysts argue that academia is corrupted beyond repair. The problem is ideological, they say, with a bunch of racialist Gramscians controlling the levers of power. For them, the only way out is defunding and rebuilding new institutions.
One of the strongest attempts at historical revisionism in America was, of course, Nikole Hannah-Jones’s Pulitzer-winning 1619 Project (promoted as a “reimagination” of narrative by the New York Times) that originally claimed that the American founding was predicated on the founders’ refusal to abolish slavery and that every historical literature was infused with subtle white supremacy.
The bloat in academia has resulted in bureaucratic and mediocre elite overproduction
In short, no scholarship from those days is beyond reproach, shame or guilt. The claim was ahistorical and was heavily criticised by actual historians, notably by Hillsdale College’s 1776 curriculum from the right, and by David North and Thomas Mackaman on the left. President Donald Trump initiated a 1776 commission to promote the original factual history of the founding and a patriotic education, that was abolished by President Joe Biden as one of the first acts after inauguration. Nevertheless, materials from the 1619 project are now used in taught history in over 3,000 schools across America. As Helen Andrews recently pointed out, “its fundamental assertion — that white racism is the biggest threat facing the country — is accepted by every power center from Silicon Valley to the Pentagon.”
But there’s another materialist side of it. The bloat in academia has resulted in bureaucratic and mediocre elite overproduction. Incapable of producing anything original, and facing diminishing returns in career, to paraphrase Nirad C Chaudhuri, an entire class of bureaucrats is now channelling its radicalised energies towards the destruction of the patrimony.
Malcom Kyeyune pointed this out in his provocative essay at the height of the racial justice unrest in 2020. “For some time now, the West has been using a massive expansion of higher education to create a new class of functionaries — ‘knowledge-workers’ and would-be managers — in numbers far in excess of what the labour market can or could absorb,” Kyeyune wrote. In the end, the racial and social unrest is purely material in nature:
In an era of elite overproduction, the only realistic means of sustaining the unsustainable elite’s social status and standard of living is by increasing the exploitation of the rest of the population; demands, taxes, and tithes levied against the two-thirds of America that does not attend college by the one-third that does.
That has resulted in absurdities, such as “affluent white liberal women loudly denouncing black police officers” (often defending statues) as “uneducated, primitive stooges”. That is also the key issue in academia turning revolutionary.
Demographic causal generalisation notwithstanding, one of the prime but under-discussed causes that led to this elite overproduction is, of course, a lack of gatekeeping in the fields of history, which resulted in academically unrigorous social sciences creeping in, where scholarship was discarded in favour of analysis from a specific social lens or position.
The latest election in Virginia provides some very American answers
The historian Dominic Sandbrook wrote, “statues are toppled, museums ‘decolonised’, heroes ‘re-contextualised’, entire generations of writers and readers dismissed as reactionaries. When Britain’s past appears in the national conversation, it’s almost always in the context of controversy, apology and blame.” To Sandbrook the blame for this distortive lens lay with the “unconscious Americanisation of our public discourse, in which the black civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 1960s looms as the most important — indeed, the only important — historical event”.
Well, if Americanisation resulted in this radicalism sweeping through the Anglosphere, the latest election in Virginia provides some very American answers. The biggest cleavage about tackling the cultural wars over history within American conservatism was between those who wanted to centralise everything and then head to a top-down legislated reaction, and those who preferred giving power back to the states for a grassroots reaction.
The first one is somewhat more European in outlook. But America is not like a European country. It is vast (almost as big as the EU) and very different in parts. The problems of compromise present during its foundation are still present now. One simply cannot centralise something as big, and the risk, as one can see from Blairite holdovers, is that once it is in fact too-centralised, it might shape up to be a radical edifice.
A segment of American conservatives appears to have stumbled upon the answer. If the hypothesis goes that aver- age people are mostly reactionary about their faith, flag and family, then the way to stem the culture war tides isn’t more top-down measures, but an amalgamation of grassroots led right-wing localist movements to capture the institutions back. Given that it is unlikely there will ever be a strong centre in the US other than in matters of war, and since the chief question is not of ideologies but one of expediency, localist counter-revolution turns out to be a remarkable option.
Consider the anti-critical race theory (CRT) fights on school boards. Recently, schools and universities in Virginia saw multi-racial parent rights groups opposed to critical race theory-infused pedagogy and practice (a confusion that is often cynically exploited against the parents by education activists). Every school parental organisation demanded curriculum transparency, and defunding for bureaucracy in higher education. Higher ed was, for the first time in a long time, one of the main issues in the gubernatorial elections, as a central plank for both conservatives and moderates.
Ongoing legislation in 39 states, all powered by parental movements
The result was jaw-dropping. A major election victory for a Republican governor Glenn Youngkin, who immediately after winning released a report about “divisive concepts” in Virginia schools, the first step to defunding and eventually legislating and rooting out critical race theory and racialised historical scholarship. Governor Youngkin announced:
All Virginia students should have the opportunity to receive an excellent education that teaches all history including the good and the bad, prioritizes academic excellence, and fosters equal opportunities for all students. Our Virginia students should not be taught to discriminate on the basis of sex, skin colour, or religion and policies should certainly not recommend such concepts.
Criticism from higher ed activists and teachers’ unions ensued. But, there is currently ongoing legislation in 39 states that opposes historical revisionism and activist scholarship and pedagogy, all powered by parental movements.
Conservatives, after three decades of market dogma, have resorted to a tried and tested method, returning local power to the parents. And this populist hyper-democracy is surprisingly efficient. Humans, as Dostoyevsky once implied, are reactionary by nature. Once History itself is a political battleground in a fundamentally conservative society, then the conservatives simply need to channel the legitimate grievances of the parents towards political aims. That is a structural advantage in this culture war.
On the day Governor Youngkin took office, there was a sense of change in the air. Out of sheer luck, I picked up an interesting old book from a charity shop. It was written by Robert Beverley, son of one Major Beverley of the British merchant navy, an American-born scion of Virginia royalty (pardon me) who went on to become a historian and politician.
In his 1705 book, The History and Present State of Virginia, Beverley, who was a social misfit in both the two worlds he inhabited (he wrote he feels more Indian), provided arguably the first thorough historical overview of the English settlements in Virginia. He painstakingly elaborated the living and practices of the native American culture, including their religious practices, scripts, festival dances, burial illustrations, fishing methods, laws, customs and rituals. The annotated edition, without any activism or sign of moral and social preening, just plain descriptive and narrative history, was published in London and patronised by high society.
It remains a fittingly haunting rebuke to the current crop of activist and racialist historians (and Nikole Hannah-Jones) from beyond time.
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