I used to know people--a lot of them--who were very much into the southern agrarians in general and Allen Tate in particular, which I could never understand. As someone who has southern ancestry and has voluntarily chosen to live in the south, it is crucial to get this point right:

Tate’s argument is that “antebellum man” lived in a “traditional society” that was morally superior to our own, which is dominated by “finance-capitalist economics.” The traditional society of the antebellum South had this as its “distinguishing feature”: “In order to make a livelihood men do not have to put aside their moral natures.” In that society, as opposed to our own, “The whole economic basis of life is closely bound up with moral behavior, and it is possible to behave morally all the time.”

Not once does Tate mention that the entire economic basis of this admirable traditional society was chattel slavery, and that therefore he does not consider the ownership of other human beings as in any way impeding a person who would “behave morally all the time.” I believe, rather, that the system Tate praises so highly was abominably wicked and unworthy to be called a “traditional society” at all: it wore a mask of genteel tradition to hide its horribly disfigured face. And as the late, great Eugene Genovese demonstrated, this was understood by many Southern Christians even during the antebellum period — I am not here simply imposing contemporary standards on ancestors who could not have known better. People who wanted to know better knew better in 1850, and there’s no excuse for Tate’s late romanticizing of the corruption.

The Confederacy was vile, and antebellum south built on a morally abhorrent foundation. That others were also implicated in that foundation is no mitigation. That other reasons were involved in the Civil War is no excuse. Supporting that society is no different than supporting Mussolini for making the trains run on time, or Franco for preserving the Catholic Church: the best one can say is that the entire society was not a cesspool, that there was some tiny seed which could be redeemed in a version of that world which had finally extirpated its reason for being in the first place. One can love the south, and love it even in spite of its terrible history, but only after having accepted and understood the depths to which it had sunk. There is no easy way around that process, no getting to claim only the good elements of the tradition and ignore the bad ones, no using one's own ignorance to obfuscate the clarity of the situation.

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