Blogs > Liberty and Power > The Dangerous Fallacies of Confederate Multiculturalism

Jun 28, 2004 10:05 am

The Dangerous Fallacies of Confederate Multiculturalism

A comment by Glen Whitman on the"Liberty and Diversity" conference we both recently attended prompted me to think about the implications of a conversation I had a couple of years ago over coffee. It was with a white professor who belonged to the Coalition for Diversity and Inclusiveness. The Coalition is a group of faculty and staff at the University of Alabama that advocates such"multicultural" crusades as mandatory diversity training. When she discussed the extent of cultural awareness on campus, she was despondent. She was particularly upset that local blacks on campus and in the community showed little to no interest in celebrating Kwanzaa.

I tried to keep a straight face but it wasn’t easy. I noted that local blacks, like whites, were Christians of a traditional sort and thus Kwanzaa was foreign to their outlook. I also said something to the effect that blacks in Alabama had too much good sense to take any stock in a holiday which was founded during the 1960s by an American college professor of dubious character. She did not deny this but it did not dampen her desire to promote Kwanzaa.

At the time, this incident struck me as a textbook illustration of the artificiality and meaninglessness of “multiculturalism.” Here was a person who was so enamored with promoting differences between blacks and whites that that she was willing to take action to create a cultural trait through top down methods if necessary.

Most recently, I have come away with similar feelings after several conversations with local whites who advocate the advancement of"Southern Heritage." Their version of southern heritage often includes promotion of Confederate symbols and an occasional fascination with the"Scots-Irish" roots of many Southerners.

If I changed a few words here and there in their arguments, the professor from the Coalition for Diversity and Inclusiveness could have easily used the same justifications for her worldview. Like her, the Confederate multiculturalists desperately wanted not only to emphasize cultural distinctions (and if necessary create them out of thin air) but to deploy these distinctions to serve a broader political cause. They, like her, seemed more interested in viewing the world (or at least controversies on campus) through the lens of group rights rather than individual rights.

The Confederate multiculturalists almost always gave the same answers to my questions and objections. When I point to the association between the CSA and slavery, they proclaimed that the"war wasn't about slavery." When I raised some objections against this view and stressed the statism of the CSA (including nationalization of industries and conscription), they answered that"the Yankees" had dirty hands too (as if that excused any Southern sin). Instead, they traced the causes of the war to “states rights" and the tariff. Most of these Confederate multiculturalists impressed me as sincere and often had sensible views on other issues. I do not think they were racists.

Having said this, I found their analysis of the details of the history slavery, secession, and the Civil War to be overly simplistic or just plain wrong. The primary documents from the period clearly show that the protection of slavery was a central motivation of the founders of the CSA. They resented the effort of the federal government to block expansion of their cherished institution into the territories and its alleged failure to enforce Fugitive Slave law. The declarations of"immediate causes" of secession of South Carolina and Mississippi, for example, said nary a word about the tariff or, for that matter, states rights and quite a bit about the need to protect slavery. Of course, it would have been laughable if they had emphasized states rights since during the 1850s many of these same Southern politicians had fought to overrule the Northern states when they enacted personal liberty laws to protect the rights of runaways.

Instead, the early declarations of seceding states stressed a compact theory. Under the compact view, the federal government had failed to live up to its end of the Constitutional bargain by refusing to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act or to allow slavery to expand into the territories. As any cursory reading of the Mississippi and South Carolina documents will show, slavery was nearly always front and center.

I am not an apologist for Lincoln or the Union or the"Yankees." Much like historian Jeff Hummel, I do not believe that Lincoln should have violently prevented secession. I apply the same view to such illiberal places as Uzbekistan or Kosovo. As Hummel points out, had the Confederacy been limited to the states that left before Fort Sumner, it would have probably collapsed eventually in isolation, slave revolts, and runaways to the North. At the same time, as an individual, I not only would have"allowed" but applauded the efforts of John Brown to promote slave rebellions in the South.

To me, the most heroic figure was not Lincoln or Davis but Lysander Spooner. Before the war, Spooner's antislavery interpretation of the Constitution inspired Frederick Douglass and he supported the Brown rebellion. During the war, he criticized the Union's war on the seceding states. All the while, Spooner (like Garrison before 1861) remained consistent in his defense of the inalienable rights of all individuals.

If the Confederate multiculturalists really believe in individual freedom, as many of them assert, they will put away their Confederate flags, abandon the cause of a nation state that went to war to protect the most unforgivable violation of inalienable rights in American history, and embrace the rich American heritage of individualism.

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Jason Pappas - 6/28/2004

I second that! Some very interesting thoughts.

Charles Johnson - 6/27/2004

Maybe I'm weird, but it seems a little strained to me to try to describe the popular recognition of a day on a particular position within a man-made annual calendar as "non-artificial." Surely what makes a holiday is the fact that people celebrate it, and that makes one as artificial as the next.

Maybe the contrast that is meant here is something more like: holidays that have been made by a bottom-up process vs. those that have been handed down by a professed authority, or holidays that have a longstanding traditional practice vs. those that are mostly unrecognized novelties, or both, or something else again...

An excellent post, by the way.

Robert L. Campbell - 6/27/2004


You've got a point about Christmas being concocted. That was done--what? nearly 17 centuries ago?--and all kinds of further assimilation and cultural evolution have taken place. For some Americans, Christmas is scarcely religious any more.

By contrast, lots of us remember the concoction of Kwanzaa, and the ideological contrivances are still groaning and creaking inside it. Maybe it will survive and mutate into something different...maybe it will just die out.

Robert Campbell

Oscar Chamberlain - 6/27/2004

I have no particular stake in Kwanzaa, but I am curious. What makes it artifical as opposed to something natural.

Is it that it positions itself alongside Christmas for no particular reason other than Christmas's popularity? If so, the same can be said for Christianinty when it hijacked the winter solstice ceremonies to make it a birthday party.

Is it that intellectuals did it? If so, how does that make it differ from nationalistic intellectuals in many cultures who created new traditions out of scraps of history?

You get the idea:
If you don't like Kwanzaa that's fine, but don't dress up your distaste in a false dichotomy between the artificial and the natural.

Robert L. Campbell - 6/27/2004


Thank you for bringing up Juneteenth Day. It originated in Texas, and I've seen no media mentions of Juneteenth Day events while I've lived in South Carolina. As an occasion for celebration, it's immensely superior to an artificial construct like Kwanzaa.

Robert Campbell

Kenneth R Gregg - 6/26/2004

There is a much better holiday, which is not recognized officially in most states, but is celebrated by every black community that I have been around: Juneteenth (see ). I don't know about Alabama, but it's usually a time for outdoor barbeques and parties elsewhere, and a celebration of the end of slavery, which is a far better reason for a holiday (and a good individualist reason as well) than the collectivism implied in Kwanzaa.
On the abolitionists, I quite agree with you about the importance of Spooner. The breadth of his thought and sound libertarian theory far surpasses any other intellectual activist of the period. The only person in the running during his period of time would perhaps be Thomas Hodgskin in England. It's rather interesting that both appear to have been influenced by Reid).
As an aside, however, Stanley Harrold's books, The Rise of Aggressive Abolitionism (2004: U. of Kentucky Press), The Abolitionists of the South, 1831-1861 (1995: U. of Kentucky Press), detail the evolution within abolitionist thinking from moral-force to the more radical stance of southern abolitionist demands for immediate black liberation and rebellion (including their support for John Brown).
It seems to me that these southerners brought the battle for freedom to the South and took far greater risks than the Northern abolitionists.
Just a thought
Ken Gregg

Ralph E. Luker - 6/26/2004

Very interesting post, David. There is enough here that you ought to develop it at greater length for publication.