Perspective | Conservatives say we’ve abandoned reason and civility. The Old South said that, too.


After the El Paso shooting, Ben Shapiro, a popular conservative podcaster, asked Americans to draw a line between the few conservatives who are white supremacists and those who, like him, aren’t. Almost all Americans are “on the same side,” he said, and “we should be mourning together.” In his telling, we aren’t, for “one simple reason: Too many on the political left [are] castigating the character of those who disagree,” lumping conservatives and political nonconformists together with racists and xenophobes.

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.”

Not all these figures identify as right-wing. They typically dislike President Trump but say they’re being pushed rightward — or driven to defend the rights of conservatives — 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.

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?

My childhood home is just a half-hour drive from the Manassas battlefield in Virginia, and I grew up intensely fascinated by the Civil War. I loved perusing soldiers’ diaries. During my senior year in college, I studied almost nothing but Abraham Lincoln’s speeches. As I wrote my thesis on a key Lincoln address, Civil War rhetoric was almost all I read: not just that of the 16th president but also that of his adversaries.

Thinking back on those debates, I finally figured it out. 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.

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.”

But such clear statements were not the norm. Proslavery rhetoricians talked little of slavery itself. Instead, they anointed themselves the defenders of “reason,” free speech and “civility.” The prevalent line of argument in the antebellum South rested on the supposition that Southerners were simultaneously the keepers of an ancient faith and renegades — made martyrs by their dedication to facts, reason and civil discourse.

It might sound strange that America’s proslavery faction styled itself the guardian of freedom and minority rights. And yet it did. In a deep study of antebellum Southern rhetoric, Patricia Roberts-Miller, a professor of rhetoric at the University of Texas at Austin, characterizes the story that proslavery writers “wanted to tell” between the 1830s and 1860s as not one of “demanding more power, but of David resisting Goliath.”

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.” Josiah Nott, a surgeon who laid out the purported science behind black inferiority, held that questions like slavery “should be left open to fair and honest investigation, and made to stand or fall according to the facts.” They claimed that they were the ones who truly had black people’s best interests at heart, thanks to their more realistic understanding of human biology. “No one would be willing to do more for the Negro race than I,” John Wilkes Booth wrote shortly before he assassinated Lincoln. He alleged that any pragmatist could see that freeing black people into a cold, cruel world would actually cause their “annihilation.” Slavery, another Southern thinker argued, was natural, because if whites could work the sweltering South Carolina rice fields, they would. The “constitutions” of black men, on the other hand, were “perfectly adapted.”

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.” All over, they saw slippery slopes: Objecting to the extension of slavery into new territories, Lincoln’s longtime position, would lead inexorably to miscegenation.

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. Rep. Alexander Sims (D-S.C.) claimed that America’s real problem was the way Southerners were made to suffer under “the sneers and fanatic ebullitions of ignorant and wicked pretenders to philanthropy.” Booth’s complaint, before he shot Lincoln, wasn’t that he could no longer practice slavery, something he’d never done anyway. Instead, he lamented that he no longer felt comfortable expressing “my thoughts or sentiments” on slavery freely in good company.

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. Just as the early Americans found a sense of pride and worth in England’s inability to endure their dissent, so antebellum Southerners located their virtue in the passions set against them.

Podcaster Ben Shapiro says conservatives are angry because they’ve been provoked by the left. (Jessica Pons/For The Washington Post)

All of this is there in the reasonable right: The claim that they are the little people struggling against prevailing winds. The argument that they’re the ones championing reason and common sense. The allegation that their interlocutors aren’t so much wrong as excessive; they’re just trying to think freely and are being tormented. The reliance on hyperbole and slippery slopes to warn about their adversaries’ intentions and power. The depiction of their opponents as an “orthodoxy,” an epithet the antebellum South loved.

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.”

In Bret Easton Ellis — who complains that the left is “always” unreasonably “angry” about things, serves him “constant reminder[s] of my failings,” and expects total “silence and submission” — I hear the proslavery U.S. Telegraph, which warned that abolitionists plotted a “disruption of that fraternity of feeling” in America.

Is there truth to these complaints, such as the one from Amy Wax that America’s cultural cohesion “gets no attention, no discussion,” as she recently complained to the New Yorker? Are the boundaries of public discourse in America really so “proscribed” that no opinion outside of left-wing orthodoxy can be spoken?

Of course not. Over the past 10 years, Fox News has outstripped CNN as America’s most-watched cable news network. On the day special counsel Robert S. Mueller III released his report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, Fox News’s online articles racked up more reactions and shares on Facebook than all the stories by CBS, ABC and NPR combined. Conservatives control the presidency, the Senate and the Supreme Court.

Is it true that it’s “career-ending” to be of the reasonable right? Shapiro’s recent “The Right Side of History” was a New York Times No. 1 bestseller. Rubin’s YouTube channel has more than 1 million subscribers, and last year, he was the subject of an admiring 4,000-word profile in Playboy. Peterson bragged that scalpers were charging more for a sold-out appearance of his than for tickets to a Toronto Maple Leafs playoff game.

A conservative I’m close to routinely emails me political commentaries of her own. She’s delighted when I post them on my Facebook page for discussion. But she insists that I conceal her name. When I ask why, she points to herself and says, “Marrano” — the word for the Jewish minority who were viciously persecuted under King Ferdinand II of Spain.

“But a Republican is the king!” I say, baffled.

She doesn’t want to hear it. She’ll just point to herself again and repeat, “Marrano.” It’s an identity that’s important to her.

President Abraham Lincoln was wary of the dangers of antebellum reasoning. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

Lincoln didn’t train his political fire on the most vicious proslavery advocates. Instead, he focused it on people like Sen. Stephen Douglas (D-Ill.), who insisted that he didn’t support slavery per se. Instead, Douglas claimed he was duty-bound to defend the South’s rights on the basis of certain fundamental American principles, including the right to freely choose how you live.

Lincoln understood that antebellum reasoning was more dangerous than straightforward defenses of chattel slavery. He feared that by claiming to stand for freedom, reason and civility, and by framing themselves as beleaguered victims, pro-Southern thinkers could draft new warriors who thought they were fighting for something fundamentally American, even if they were wary of slavery itself.

And that’s what happened. One reason slavery was not abolished in America through the political process, as it was in Britain, is that abolitionists were rhetorically straitjacketed by the proposition that they were the hard-liners who sought to curtail freedom. When the Charleston Mercury wrote that it was the “duty” of Northerners to “prove” that they were willing to defend Southerners against “fanatics,” Northern newspapers reprinted the editorial. Northerners, not Southerners, had to watch what they said and strain to compromise so they didn’t confirm the dictatorial notion Southern rhetoricians had implanted in the public mind.

In their 1858 debates, Lincoln pressed Douglas to clarify what kind of America he really wanted: one that had slaves or one that didn’t? Douglas claimed only to stand against mob rule. But why, Lincoln asked, was he choosing to die on the South’s hill? Why would applying his principle — the mandate to protect the South from “interference” by extremist hordes — end up curtailing freedom for millions of black Americans? Was it possible, Lincoln suggested, that Douglas secretly preferred a slave society to a free one?

These are the kinds of questions we should be asking of the reasonable right. I know what they say they worry about, but I don’t know what they want. A recent Vanity Fair profile of Weiss begins with everything she’s been accused of being: “Alt-righter.” “Fascist.” The “provocateur the left loves to hate.” There’s no evidence that Weiss is widely hated, except by a subsection of Twitter. She’s a New York Times opinion writer; she appears regularly on Bill Maher’s HBO talk show. But if she’s not defined by being hated, then what is she?

Many reasonable-right figures find themselves defending the liberties of people to the right of them. Not because they agree with these people, they say, but on principle. Sam Harris, a popular podcast host, has released three lengthy shows about Charles Murray, a political scientist who is often booed at campus speeches and whose 2017 talk at Middlebury College ended when students injured his host. Murray argues that white people test higher than black people on “every known test of cognitive ability” and that these “differences in capacity” predict white people’s predominance. Harris repeatedly insists he has no vested interest in Murray’s ideas. His only interest in Murray, he claims, rests in his dedication to discussing science and airing controversial views.

But Harris’s claim is implausible. Hundreds of scientists produce controversial work in the fields of race, demographics and inequality. Only one, though, is the social scientist nationally notorious for suggesting that white people are innately smarter than people of color. That Harris chooses to invite this one on his show suggests that he is not merely motivated by freedom of speech. It suggests that he is interested in what Murray has to say.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that some contemporary commentators use antebellum reasoning cynically. Hard-right American commentators like David Horowitz have noted the tactical advantages of sounding “outraged” and “morally certain,” and of stressing their status as renegade thinkers to argue for right-wing policies such as much more restrictive immigration laws or institutionalized prejudice against Muslims. And he may indeed have learned this from elements of the left: a toxic “cancel” culture has existed there for a long time. But that doesn’t justify so disingenuously magnifying the threat. Others, I suspect, seek the reassurance of antebellum reasoning to help reconcile their ambivalent feelings about cultural and demographic changes. Still others may simply be disillusioned with contemporary politics, intuit that important conversations are somehow not being had, and long for a discourse anchored on simple, easily shared principles. They may have no racist sympathies nor even be particularly conservative. But that’s why the South came up with this form of argument in the first place. It conscripted allies who had no taste for distasteful things into what was cast as a much wider fight.

Sunrise at the Manassas National Battlefield Park in Virginia. The antebellum South presented itself as the true defender of American ideals. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

I sympathize with that yearning. I myself was deeply moved by antebellum reasoning as a child. I preferred reading letters written by Confederate soldiers. They talked about bedrock American faiths, which was alluring in a complex world where policy is boring and compromise-laden. Southerners understood that — and used it well. Their depiction of our ideals is still the one, subconsciously, for which Americans reach when we feel blown off course.

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.

If you hear somebody lament, as Bret Stephens does, that political “opinions that were considered reasonable and normal” not too long ago now must be “delivered in whispers,” it might be antebellum reasoning. If somebody says — as Harris has — that our politics are at risk of ignoring common sense, logic or the realities of human biology, it might be antebellum reasoning. If somebody such as Nicholas Kristof says they don’t like noxious thinkers but urges us to give them platforms for the sake of “protecting dissonant and unwelcome voices,” it might be antebellum reasoning. The truth is that we have more avenues now for free expression in America than we’ve ever had.

If somebody says liberals have become illiberal, you should consider whether it’s true. But you should also know that this assertion has a long history and that George Wallace and Barry Goldwater used it in their eras to powerful effect. People who make this claim aren’t “renegades.” They’re heirs to an extremely specific tradition in American political rhetoric, one that has become a dangerous inheritance.


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