Fighting Among the Hedgerows

Thomas J. FlemingAs a young college student, I accepted implicitly all the goals of the Civil Rights revolution.  I believed firmly that schools should be integrated, even though the nearest thing to integration I had ever experienced was going to school with a part-Ojibwe in Superior, Wisconsin, a lily-white town in which black people were not allowed to reside.  Imagine the comeuppance I received when an intelligent and sincere black radical, with whom I was having lunch, informed me that he really did not need anything from white people and that he thought integration was, to some extent, a delusion.  What makes you think, he asked defiantly, that black children can’t learn, unless they are rubbing elbows with white children?

This black “nationalist” (for want of a better word) did not hate white people, and he was hardly a radical; indeed, he went on to a distinguished career in public life.  But the question he asked never left me.

This is not a question of absolutes.  Under many circumstances, an ethnically integrated school makes a good deal of sense, but there are also times and places where it does not—in Bosnia or Ireland, to cite just two examples, where young people cannot become full members of the tribe if the enemies of the tribe are present during the cultural indoctrination into the secret tribal history, whether of Muslims or Orangemen.  Of course, the liberals who rule the world would say that Bosnia and Northern Ireland are precisely the places where ethnic and religious integration must be imposed by the wise and benevolent international community, but that is not because they love peace.  It is because they hate nations.

Every nation and ethnicity has its own story to tell, its own take on the history of the world, and it cannot really tell that story in the presence of many outsiders, especially outsiders with rival versions.  In Ireland, before the days of government schooling, Protestants went to their schools, and Catholics either had to be educated among the hedgerows or, when the nice Englishmen graciously gave their permission, in Catholic schools.  This is unacceptable to liberal universalists, who insist that there can be no justice so long as one man can regard his own culture and religion as superior to another man’s culture and religion.

The teaching of literature and history is the vital center of education, because the stories of Arthur and Alfred, Good King Hal and Bad Queen Bess have made the English English, in the same way that Greeks became Greek by hearing the tales of Achilles and Odysseus.  Now, it is true that we Americans are still hearing those tales.  As Chesterton observed, so long as there are civilized men, they will be talking of Troy.  We talk of Troy in order to become civilized, however, while they talked of Troy as part of the history that made them who they were.

The pernicious effects of the universalist point of view are not restricted to political programs for ethnic and religious integration.  Modern nation-states constructed vast systems of public education as part of their program of eliminating the competing loyalties of Church and region.  New England’s public schools aimed, first, at imposing Unitarianism; next, at forcibly converting Catholic children; and then, when their ideology took over the national government, at subverting the loyalty of recently conquered Southerners and their naive Trinitarian faith.  The great American Calvinist Robert Lewis Dabney, who recognized the true goals of the project, opposed the establishment of public schooling in Virginia in the 1870’s.  The enemy then was provincialism in all its forms—Catholic, Calvinist, Southern, or even Western.  It still is.

Maurice Barrès, a younger French contemporary of Dabney, wrote a brilliant case study of liberal education’s campaign against provincialism—and its deadly consequences—in his novel Les déracinés.  Barrès, although born in Charmes and educated at the lycée in Nancy, had gone to Paris, where he became an individualist and aesthete in the circle of Leconte de Lisle, writing books (in the 1890’s) with such titles as Un homme libre and L’individualiste.  He ended his life as the great exponent of French nationalism, indeed as the founder of the modern French nationalism that is conservative and patriotic instead of Jacobin.  What happened?

What happened is that the imaginative and erudite author went back to his native Lorraine, where he sat among the melancholy ruins of an ancient chateau and reflected on the deeds of so many unknown men of earlier times.  The bones of these men, dead and gone, were not the bones of strangers: They were his own people of Lorraine.  The fruits of these reflections were a renewed sense of French patriotism and a deepened affection for the native soil of Lorraine.

In Les déracinés (1897), Barrès chronicled the adventures of a group of boys at his own lycée in Nancy.  Their philosophy teacher, brilliant and ruthless, instills in them vast, almost Napoleonic ambitions to put their talents into the service of the ongoing revolutionary liberal tradition.  What happens to the boys in Paris is the subject of the novel.  Some become dissolute; others are reduced to poverty; but all begin to collaborate on a journal of the progressive type.  In the end, two of them murder a woman for her money, and the principal hero achieves the success of which he had dreamed.  Returning to Nancy to be feted, his philosophy teacher pronounces the final verdict: “I used to admire your talent, . . . but what I especially admire is that you are at this point liberated from every intonation and, more generally, of every peculiarity of Lorraine.”

As the years went on, Barrès waxed mystical on the significance of his native land (and of others’).  His extraordinary book La colline inspirée tells the story of a hill in Lorraine that had been sacred to Celts and Germans and became a great monastic center in the duchy of Burgundy, and he lauds the great ladies of Lorraine: Mary Stuart (her mother was Mary of Guise, and the Guises were of Lorraine), Marie-Antoinette, and Jeanne Darc.  He thus claimed three great national martyrs for Lorraine, including the refounder of France.

Maurice Barrès became a French nationalist only by becoming a Lorraine provincialist.  What is ironic is that, while there is today a France, and a Germany, and even a Belgium and a Netherlands, there is no country of Lorraine.  With the benefit of hindsight, we can argue that France and Germany were destined to be, while Lorraine was doomed not to be—but then how would we explain Belgium and Switzerland?

Lorraine—or, as it was then called, Lotharingia—had been in the portion given the Emperor Lothair, grandson of Charlemagne, by the Treaty of Verdun in 843, stretching from the Netherlands down to Aachen and east to Cologne.  Lothair also received Provence and much of Switzerland and Northern Italy.  His son, King Lothair, was given the northern part, which took its name from him.  Lothair had no male heirs by his wife, and Pope Nicholas I had ruled against Lothair’s divorce and false marriage to his concubine, by whom he did have a son.  After his death, his possessions were divided between Frankish and German rulers, though Otto the Great subsequently controlled most of it.

Eventually, Lorraine was split between Upper (i.e., Southern) and Lower (Northern) Lorraine.  Lower Lorraine disappears from history, but upper Lorraine was not entirely extinguished until the late 18th century.  In the 14th and 15th centuries, the dukes of Burgundy reassembled many parts of the old kingdom—the Low Countries and Franche-Comté, but also part of Germany all the way to Cologne—into a powerful state that defied the kings of France.  The stumbling block was Lorraine itself, a vital corridor connecting the Low Countries with Burgundy proper.  Duke Charles the Bold died trying to hold Lorraine, which passed (along with Burgundy eventually) into the control of France, while the Low Countries passed to his grandson (by his daughter Mary) Emperor Charles V, the most powerful ruler of the 16th century.

The failure of both Lothair and Charles the Bold to produce male heirs may be a sufficient explanation for the collapse of Lotharingia and, later, of Burgundy.  However, it is also true that both countries were multiethnic and polyglot, and neither succeeded in generating the sense of national identity that was beginning to unite the French and the Germans.  Neither produced a national poet or a national myth, and, after the Reformation, there was little to connect the Protestants of Holland and Germany with the Catholics of Burgundy.  An imaginative genius like Barrès could find the threads connecting Joan of Arc to Charles V.  Ordinary people could not.

Today, we are fighting the same battle that Dabney and Barrès fought, only on a more limited field, because the enemy has occupied all our fortresses and redoubts, leaving us only the hedgerows to dispute.  That field is multiculturalism, whose purpose is the destruction of all cultures.

Most people of conservative inclination seem to know what multiculturalism is and why it is evil, but what is the alternative?  If the barbaric term multiculturalism refers to programs aimed at educating children away from the dominant culture of their society by indoctrinating them into the glories of alternative cultures, then uniculturalism (dreadful word!) would be the teaching of one culture, presumably the dominant one.  This is, in fact, what we used to call humane letters or “the humanities,” the literature, history, and philosophy of the peoples (Greek, Roman, European) who laid the foundations of our civilization.

The multicultural struggle is not the abstract argument over “values” engaged in by semiliterate neoconservatives.  The struggle is over the national identity of the American people, and a conservative side, if conservative voices are to be heard at all, must declare against all abstract definitions of America, whether Marxist or democratic capitalist.  There is not much that can be made out of American or English folk culture, when the folk cuisine is taco pie and Pepsi (good Americans drink Coke) and the folk music is either rap or the androgynous drug-moans of “alternative” music (anything, even punk or heavy metal, is preferable), but we still have some dim memories of Shakespeare and Homer that can be revived, and there is a growing “back to the classics” movement among both Calvinist and Catholic families.

The restoration of a humanities curriculum based on the ancient classics, English literature, and European and American history would not create an American nation in the sense that Ireland, 50 years ago, was a nation, but it might—along with the dominant Christian religion—serve as a cement to hold together something of our identity as a people.

Like America, medieval Burgundy was never a nation even in the most rudimentary sense, only a federation of principalities.  The same could be said of 16th-century France, but the Bourbon rulers of France succeeded in constructing a unified state out of such disparate elements as Brittany, Provence, and Lorraine.  The only serious threat to this process was not posed by the “Frondeurs” who, in the minority of Louis XIV, attempted to reassert local and provincial authority, but by the religious division between Catholics and Protestants.  Much has been written about the wisdom of Henry IV’s Edict of Nantes, granting religious privileges to the Protestants, and it was probably a necessary move at the time.  In the long run, however, France had to be one or the other, Catholic or Protestant.  For proof, only look at the trouble caused by the Calvinizing Jansenists who remained within the Church.

For good and ill, France became not only a nation but “la grande nation” in a way that the United States can never be.  At best, we could have hoped to be something like the Holy Roman Empire in the 18th century.  Although it was divided by religion (Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist), the imperial core was German but with significant populations of Slavs, Magyars, and Italians.  Despite the variety of dialects and faiths, Catholic Germanic Vienna defined the culture of the empire.  Even when Hungarians were finally admitted to partnership in the “dual monarchy,” they were (at least in the cultural sense) a distinctly junior partner.  Vienna, from the time of Haydn to the time of Krauss and Strauss, was a cultural capital enriched by the contributions of Czechs and Hungarians, Jews and Croats, but bound together by the Church and the emperor.

It is too late to revive, much less save, the old republic founded by the men of Virginia, New York, New England, and the Carolinas.  They have gone, and the land has forgotten them.  Their monuments and their memories are being desecrated by the vandals who have supplanted them.  We do well to honor them and to denounce all those who defame them, but they and their world have vanished forever.  If I could legislate the future development of America, it would be in the direction of a Habsburgian federation in which an Anglo-American Christian core defined a culture that made room for the contributions of the Central and Southern Europeans, Mexicans and Africans who have come—and continue to come—to live here.  But this is probably as vain a dream as the dream of saving the Old Republic.  So long as there is some remote possibility, if not of winning, then at least of saving something in our defeat, we should fight on for our cultural legacy.

This article first appeared in the September 2004 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.

[Subscribe online to Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.


To post a comment, you must register and be logged in.

This site does not allow anonymous commenting. We require all registered users to include their real names in their profiles. Personal attacks on writers or fellow commenters, and impolite language in general, will not be tolerated. Please stay on topic and refrain from posting hyperlinks. As this site is not monitored 24/7, violators will be banned, when we get around to it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.