Southern culture, intellectual tradition and freedom

In 2013 the John Locke Foundation in North Carolina published a book titled “First in Freedom: Transforming Ideas Into Consequences for North Carolina.” This organization has grown markedly during the past twenty-five years, and succeeded in influencing conservative politics in this State. JLF President and CEO Kory Swanson wrote:  “The past four years have brought dramatic changes to North Carolina public policy. Conservatives committed to the principles of free enterprise and limited government have risen to political power in the General Assembly, the executive branch, and more than half of the state’s 100 counties.”

John Hood, a founding member and chairman of the John Locke Foundation wrote the introduction chapter to the First in Freedom book titled, “An intellectual Tradition Brought Home.” Mr. Hood writes, with justifiable pride, that the Foundation “has become one of the nation’s best-known state policy think tanks precisely by emulating the Fusionist model of bringing conservatives and libertarians together to advance a 21st-century agenda for reform and renewal based on timeless principles.” The Foundation, writes Hood, focuses on policies where the “interests of traditionalists and libertarians overlap.”

Mr. Hood explains that the JLF doesn’t “spend much time on social-policy issues” because other organizations cover these issues well and “JLF folks” do not always share opinions on them—Foundation people have chosen to “devote our attention to fiscal and economic issues.”

Yet, Hood acknowledges the damaging disconnect between culture and government. “The affordability of government (and, I’ll add, the degree of its intrusiveness on our freedoms) and the health of the economy are directly related to the preservation and vitality of the two-parent family as most likely to rear the next generation of healthy, educated, diligent, sober, and self-sufficient adults.” As government programs take the place of traditional families and institutions, Hood continues, “there will be lower economic growth, fewer economic opportunities, and greater demand for costly government services.”

It seems to me that to “advance a 21st-century agenda” we must know what brings us to it—where we came from; what principles and traditions do we possess to build on. What is our history? In that context, it’s appropriate that Mr. Hood begins his discussion of “intellectual tradition brought home” by citing some of North Carolina’s prominent conservative thinkers—Richard Weaver being the first one mentioned.

Richard M. Weaver (1910-1963) focused on issues of “culture and morality,” writes Hood. His “foundational” text was “Ideas Have Consequences.” Weaver believed that the idea of relativism, as opposed to absolute truth, would lead to political and economic chaos, but also loss of individual liberty and social order.

A trilogy of Weaver’s works appears in “The Southern Essays of Richard M. Weaver” edited by George M. Curtis, III and James J. Thompson, Jr. published in 1987. In the preface, editors’ note that Weaver was unknown to many. “Few reputations endure in the realm of ideas,” they wrote. They were distressed because, in their opinion, “few American thinkers of the past half-century can match Weaver’s keen perception”—especially important to help preserve Southern culture, and to those of us who admire and respect the people who created it.

Weaver was born in North Carolina, but earned degrees at the University of Kentucky, Vanderbilt University, and Louisiana State, where he received a doctorate in English. Briefly, he taught at North Carolina State University and finally located at the University of Chicago. But he never lost touch with his roots in North Carolina.

While at Vanderbilt, Weaver embraced the intellectual movement called Agrarianism that reasserted Southern tradition and opposed urban industrial society: “progress” and economic development. As the Southern Essays editors put it, this idea “provided him with a bedrock upon which to ground his subsequent thinking.”

A major criticism of many of our politicians about which I and JLF thinkers have written for years is based on that last quote. Elected representatives often lack sound principles and traditions on which they firmly stand. Instead they walk on shifting sands of accommodation, inconsistency and obfuscation; frequently legislating for select interest groups and taxing the main population of citizens to fund their never-ending social projects.

For example, local, self-described “conservative” State legislators from southeastern North Carolina— where film industry companies chose to locate—face selfish threats that the film business may move out of the State if government doesn’t subsidize them. Our legislators propose to bribe them with $66 million in public money grants presumably to save “jobs.” Aside from the fact that government has no legitimate role in creating jobs, it’s immoral to favor any industry over others and shift the tax burden to many other citizens. Further, these politicians have deceived the voting public by their claims of being conservative.

These Southerners have lost their intellectual tradition. They have embraced what Weaver calls the “Northern mind”—the idea of progress, a “Faustian concept.” They are constantly outreaching, denying limits, and willing to “dissolve all into endless instrumental activity” with an “incessant urge to be doing” and “transforming, to effect some external change between yesterday and today.”

In contrast, the (true) Southerner writes Weaver “has tended to live in the finite, balanced and proportional world which Classical man conceived”:

The idea of stasis is not abhorrent to him, because it affords a ground for the identity of things. Life is not simply a linear progression, but a drama, with rise and fall. Happiness may exist as much in contemplation as in activity. Experience alone is not good; it has to be accompanied by the human commentary. From this, I believe, has come the South’s great fertility in myth and anecdote. It is not so much a sleeping South as a dreaming one, and out of dreams come creations that affect the imagination.

  Thus, according to Weaver, “In this way two civilizations of quite different impulse grew up in the United States.” A difference reflected in culture, intellectual tradition and quest for freedom from the oppressive state.


About R. E. Smith Jr.

Mr. Smith writes essays and commentary on politics, American history, environment, higher education and culture. He's been published in print media and at blog sites for about 25 years. Smith's formal education includes B.S. and M.S. degrees from the State University of New York and Syracuse University. He has earned a 21-credit hour Certificate in Professional Writing from the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. Training/work experience: NYS Ranger School; U. S. Army, Corp of Engineers; soil scientist and forester with USDA; Assoc. Professor at SUNY; real estate agent; small business owner.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s