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Perspective by Incongruity, #3

My paper presents BJU’s apologia on race before and after November 2008 as well as the Please-Reconcile’s plea for BJU’s racial reconciliation. BJU’s statements are strange. To be quite blunt, they make no sense to a Yankee. But I’ve discovered that within the Old South ethic of the Lost Cause, the so-called apology makes perfect sense.

The best resource for understanding the Lost Cause rhetoric is an old friend to rhetoricians and a particularly familiar annoyance to Burkeans—Richard Weaver. In his 1943 LSU dissertation renamed Southern Tradition at Bay, Weaver surveys and appreciates Lost Cause literature post-Appomattox and includes a long discussion of Southern apologia.

Bob Jones University’s statements on race parallel Weaver’s Lost Cause apologia. The drama that Weaver both records and continues is a romance caught at a potentially tragic crisis point. The old rules of chivalry drive the action or rather reaction. Weaver’s hero, the southern Cavalier, moves more than acts. He is a man of leisure and good birth who simply is, until a moment of deadly crisis. When he is challenged, as if in a duel, his duty is to “serve the eternal verities” of the established order. Destruction, ruin, bankruptcy, injury are all irrelevant to preserving truth and maintaining “good form.” Guiding him is an unspoken code duello.

Even nearly one hundred and fifty years after the Civil War, the rhetorical drama of the Old South still persists in tiny provincial cultural pockets like Bob Jones University. Within the enduring rhetorical romance of sectarian religion, the code duello informs and contains conflict.  Intersecting Richard Weaver’s Old South drama with my previous description of rhetorical romance is a productive critical project. Each analysis rounds out the other and might provide a more organic explanation for the persisting romance in a micro-culture like southern fundamentalism.

Such an intersection also broadens BJU’s connection with the “segregationist ethos” of its founding family. Agrarianism, provincialism, populism, commerce, societal hierarchy, religion, nativism, and racism all goaded the Confederacy in their Romance-turned-tragedy. In our critical sweep, we, too, must avoid containing our cultural sin of racism in the South, in fundamentalism, or in Bob Jones University. The arcane mask these romantics don to distract their Other’s gaze from their own ugliness tempts us to our own form of tragedy. The Please-Reconcile effort was a comic attempt at removing their mask and correcting that sin without killing off the humanity underneath.

Further study intersecting southern fundamentalism with the Lost Cause drama would expose the salience and endurance possible (or not) in newer Lost Cause movements like Doug Wilson’s Federal Vision, southern secessionism, and identity Christianity. At the root of the problem within Southern romantic apologia is a juggling of the usual mystical purpose with the pragmatic agency. That is, by relegating the divine to the means of propping up a societal hierarchy, participants in the rhetorical drama are distracted from the essentially preservationist motive in their micro-culture. Further contrasting southern with northern fundamentalism, tracing how Weaver’s agrarianism found resonance in mid-century northern conservatism, and mapping the dramatistic similarities between the Civil War and current culture wars would productively assist scholars in deconstructing tragedy and creating a comic corrective.

A revealing moment in this interaction was the P-R’s admittance that they were shocked at their alma mater’s pervasively racist reputation. They offer one explanation that BJU is really not as racist as it seems, giving their alma mater a face-saving “out.” Another possible explanation is that the legal confrontation of BJU’s interracial dating prohibition sent the “segregationist ethos” far underground. The presumed inequality of the races remained in behind-closed-doors meetings. The students from both the North and the South who attended and graduated after 1983 Supreme Court case—which includes every member of the Please-Reconcile team—were witless about the racist foundation. They had been raised in the prevailing notion of “color-blindness” which made them deaf to the coded racism. They were literal-minded, morally earnest, personally outspoken, and driven to “do right.” Perhaps, by shedding the Old South rhetoric that was so prominent in BJU’s pre-1964 days and by generalizing for a larger audience, BJU was forging the tools for its own first homegrown public confrontation.

This intersection of the North with the Old South, of integrationist with separatist, of post-1983 students with pre-1964 administrators, of a second-generation Pollack with an Old South morality play — by putting together these two disparate “terms” we have our last place of freedom, Burke would say. In the end, such perspective by incongruity is our best source of comic correction keeping us from being too hopelessly ourselves.

Perspective by Incongruity, #3

10 thoughts on “Perspective by Incongruity, #3

  • November 11, 2009 at 8:13 am
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    You said:

    “The students from both the North and the South who attended and graduated after 1983 Supreme Court case—which includes every member of the Please-Reconcile team—were witless about the racist foundation. They had been raised in the prevailing notion of “color-blindness” which made them deaf to the coded racism.”

    Yeah, that was definitely me. Of course, being taught growing up that BJU could do no wrong had something to do with my deafness to the coded racism as well.

    How much of our deafness was a result of cultural “color-blindness” and how much was a result of religious “brainwashing” that fundamentalist strongholds (like BJU) are always right?

  • November 11, 2009 at 12:30 pm
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    Thank you for saying that. The hardest thing about being a BJU grad is dealing with this very issue. I abhor racism in all its forms. I strive daily to ensure that I don’t have thoughts of racism or actions that are racist. Most of that comes naturally. I grew up with a diverse mix of friends and my parents taught me well to be accepting. That is why it surprised me when BJU hadn’t formally apologized, and it is why I signed the Please Reconcile petition.

  • November 11, 2009 at 12:31 pm
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    “The students from both the North and the South who attended and graduated after 1983 Supreme Court case—which includes every member of the Please-Reconcile team—were witless about the racist foundation. They had been raised in the prevailing notion of “color-blindness” which made them deaf to the coded racism. They were literal-minded, morally earnest, personally outspoken, and driven to “do right.””

    FYI this is what I was trying to quote before. Thank you for saying this. When I went to BJU racism was furthest from my mind.

  • November 11, 2009 at 3:02 pm
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    Yes, thank you. Sometimes you can’t put it into words yourself or even put it all together…but over time you realize how much this affected you. And neither my husband or I ever thought we were racist…just chose an institution that promoted it. And then again, it took us a long time to figure out it really WAS promoted there. sigh.

  • November 11, 2009 at 5:14 pm
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    Please write more about this Lost Cause critique as it relates to Doug Wilson’s version of Federal Vision… that fascinates me. Plus your perspective (trained in rhetoric) is entirely new to me. Great stuff….

  • November 11, 2009 at 8:17 pm
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    Noticed today that the University of Mississippi has banned playing “To Dixie with Love” at the end of football games because the students insisted on shouting “the South will rise again” at the end. The Cause may be lost, but to quote Ted Kennedy, it appears “the dream will never die.”

  • November 12, 2009 at 9:12 am
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    Bob Jones University was certainly guilty of institutional racism. But I do question the link to Lost Cause ideology. Bob Jones College, though founded in the Florida panhandle, was essentially a Midwestern school. The overwhelming majority of students came from Michigan, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Ohio. Even after the move to South Carolina in 1947, most of the students still came from outside of the Old South. Only recently has South Carolina become the largest enrollment state (perhaps because of faculty/staff and Greenvillian kids). The same pattern is true of faculty and staff themselves; most are from the Midwest or the Rustbelt.

    Now it is true that the Midwest was no less racist than the Old South. Even today, I’ve heard that Indiana has the largest KKK contingent in the nation. So it’s not surprising that a Midwestern-influenced BJU would be racist. But simply being racist does not make someone an adherent of Lost Cause ideology.

    To employ a geographical analogy, BJU seems to have more in common with Greenville than with Columbia or Charleston. Greenville has become a community of immigrants, part of the Sunbelt migrations that saw a population transfer from the Northeast and Midwest to the South and Southwest. Columbia and Charleston on the other hand is the source of the good ol’ boy, Lost Cause-steeped, Old South culture. This distinction makes some of Bob Jones University’s idiosyncrasies less dissonant. For example, it helps make sense of Bob Jones III’s opposition to having the Confederate flag flying over the statehouse.

    But this distinction between Midwestern and Southern origins of racism makes me question the connection that you draw between BJU and Old South ideology and rhetoric.

  • November 12, 2009 at 12:02 pm
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    Yes, Paul, that is exactly the myth that BJU works so very hard to preserve. That is actually a Lost Cause trope — to convince the Northern business man that the Southern manufacturer is more desirable. And the facts and the history as well as the rhetoric don’t match that more “Northern” ethic whatsoever. You, like the rest of us, prove the thoroughness of the myth.

    Further explanation will come at a later date. I’m headed to Wheaton as I type to get more primary source evidence.

  • November 12, 2009 at 12:59 pm
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    The migration of industry from the Rustbelt to the Sunbelt is a Lost Cause trope?

    I rather suspect that Northern businesses relocated to the South and Southwest because of economic incentives and disincentives, not Lost Cause rhetoric. Then again, trying to escape stifling taxes, union intimidation, and government-protected monopolies has a rhetorical appeal all its own. 😉

  • November 12, 2009 at 1:07 pm
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    🙂 You’re thinking late-20th-century. Go back further. To the origins of the Lost Cause and the discourse among the Southern Agrarians. Go read _Southern Tradition at Bay_ and John Crowe Ransom and others. Go back to Reconstruction.

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