About a hundred years before the Civil War, two British surveyors, Jeremiah Mason and Charles Dixon, with a crew of ax-men, marked out 270 miles of wilderness. They set a stone at every mile, and another grander one embossed with the arms of the Penn and Calvert clans every five miles. The resulting map pacified a decades-long territorial quarrel between Maryland and Pennsylvania.
Today, no historian refers to that surveyor’s mark as a symbol of unity. Although Maryland remained in the Union during the war, the mythic Mason-Dixon Line would stand for disunity between North and South for decades to come.
A century after Appomattox, organized resistance to federal power seemed a rear-guard action at best. The South had squandered its shares in the moral argument. It was subdued. If Washington had been right about slavery and segregation, perhaps it knew best about everything. And maybe it would behoove reactionaries to keep their mouths shut when the courts discovered additional rights previously unsuspected in the Constitution or its penumbras.
After the 1950’s brought about the integration of the schools—and equal access to all public accommodations—“equality” was on its way to becoming a talismanic incantation rather than a limited juridical concept. Rational discourse, appeals to precedent, natural law, the authority of an archaic document—none of this counted against the mystery, the magic, the rune of equality. Rare was the Southerner who, like the agrarians of the 1930’s, took a stand against federal “usurpation” (another cashiered word) of states’ rights. The annulment of free association, the nationalization and multinationalization of the economy, federal intrusion into school curricula and restrooms, the abolition of borders, nationwide court-mandated rights to abortion and “marriage equality,” and so forth, were accepted like a hailstorm or a drought. Where could the baffled supplicant turn, save heaven? As Sheriff Ed Tom mused in No Country for Old Men, “there ain’t nothin short of the second comin of Christ that can slow this train.” And anyone who tried to apply the brake was a phobe, a “hater.” Dispensers of received opinion in the media made sure of that.
Aside from the odd “whacko bird” (John McCain’s term of endearment for Ted Cruz), or bearded backwoodsmen like the Duck Commander, conservatives didn’t know what they wanted to conserve. Few had the brontosaurian hide needed to survive a pelting from the fourth estate. According to WebMD, the condition of fragile or thin skin is more common than you might think. The medical experts didn’t say if the Republican leadership participated in their studies.
There are many reasons for the surrender of local autonomy to raw federal power, contra the Constitution; but the one I’ve alluded to is paramount. It had been the feds who’d driven the stake into the heart of that ugliest of blackbirds, the Jim Crow South. George Wallace’s “segregation nah, segregation fohevah,” in retrospect, was not a cri de guerre so much as a death rattle. By the time the Supreme Court unearthed in Obergefell a right of marriage equality, of Bob to marry Bill, sane traditionalists could only wring their hands. Maybe they sensed the futility of reasoning against a position that had abandoned reason in reaching its conclusion. Few ridiculed the decision for what it clearly was: a moral and linguistic absurdity. It appeared that the coked-out hitchhiker had grabbed the wheel from the licensed driver.
Southerners, like traditionalists in other states, learned the unhealthy art of swallowing their bile. Invocation of states’ rights, reserved powers, immemorial custom—to say nothing of the law of God—had become a bird of different plumage, an albatross.
Today, those on the losing side of the ideological Mason-Dixon line “accept reality.” They compose their faces and tidy up their vocabulary to suit the occasion. Even in the most provincial recesses of the land o’ cotton, ambitious politicians talk of “reasonable,” “compassionate,” “common-sense” conservatism—the kind that protects your investments and Second Amendment rights. These men of moderate minds and beige rhetoric would never tamper with hallowed precedent such as Roe v. Wade and Obergefell.
In Atlanta, in Jackson, in the Big Easy, and in “cultural centers” across the South, civic leaders—Mayor Landrieu of my native city comes unbidden to mind—are as forward-looking as their counterparts in Chicago or New York. They warble the same progressivist woodnotes, assured of benedictions from “people that matter.”
Southern politicians with any ambition beyond the neighborhood have no problem removing the Decalogue from the courthouse. But they still cling to two commandments: flatter the voter, and believe in the future. Thus, they showily trash their heritage—a dark age in shameful distinction to the radiant now of headless monuments and accelerating murder rates. They find their forebears an embarrassment for both their crimes and their virtues. David Duke, Robert E. Lee, the Knights of the White Camelia, the Sons of Confederate Veterans—all are kneaded into a shapeless dough known as The Past, which you will find in the progressivist thesaurus next to racism. Ancestors foolish enough to have lived in that era must be summarily exiled from pedestals and public consciousness. Mitch, the son of Moon—a satellite of a satellite—has won national recognition for showing himself equal to the task. His “stand against the statues” garnered national praise, a “Profiles in Courage” award, an audience at the court of Obama, and honorable mention as one of 2020’s presidentiables.
It might be a mistake, however, to assume that the mayor of New Orleans, or of Detroit for that matter, is the voice of the people; or that those who “serve” at the public trough have allayed the inchoate dread of the electorate. Gender is no longer binary, but voting, when it comes down to the wire, still is. And maybe we read too much into elections as the will of the sovereign people. For one thing, more of them, in the Trump economy, are busy earning a living. The falling sky that CNN’s Cassandras cluck over like so many obsessive hens may be less imminent to a working stiff than it is to Don and Anderson.
In the mid-1990’s, my wife and I were staying with a farm family in Normandy. After dinner the host offered me a calvados and asked if I’d mind if he turned on the evening news. Jacques Chirac was bombing on about the gleaming future of a Euro-World that welcomed all cultures, all tribes, all religions, to the shores of France. Needed enrichment of the native soil, and all that. Our host, even fortified by his favorite beverage, couldn’t take it. He turned off the set.
What was wrong? After all, the French had recently reelected Chirac. Didn’t Monsieur le President speak for the republic? “La République, maybe—but not for la France profonde!” This son of the soil saw only division between the false, TV-acceptable face of the state, and the true sentiment of deep France. This was a curious, and useful, distinction.
To transpose this estrangement into our American idiom, we might say that an invisible emotive and philosophic Mason-Dixon line separated Chirac’s postmodernist construct—progressivist, deracinated, ever-evolving—from ancient France rooted in deep emotion and immemorial loyalties: la France profonde. The villages and the campagne on one side, and on the other, what Baudelaire called la ville fourmillante, the swarming ant-hill city of the capital. The author of Les Fleurs du Mal scorned the little Voltaires he saw everywhere in Paris. Despite his love for and fascination with the city that nourished his muse, he was revolted by the anxious heirs of the Enlightenment, forever agitated by the fear of being insufficiently au courant. They were, and are, fashionably alienated—alienation being a Parisian birthright; but not in the same way, or from the same things, as the Norman farmer.
Allowing that the rift is more meandering than this rural versus cosmopolitan schema, one senses that the ideological divide in America may be even more profound. The contemptuous vocabulary of the left certainly makes it seem so. The closest our coastal elites come to believing in a literal hell is expressed in terms like “flyover country,” “deplorables,” “Walmart masses” (Peter Strzok smelled them in southern Virginia), “talk-radio rabble,” “clingers to guns and religion,” the “loud people”—never mind that they seem sedate compared with the pussy-hatted harridans and protesters of Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy. It is a leftist trope that conservatives fear and loathe the Other; but these epithets suggest that such fear and loathing find a congenial abode in the liberal heart.
To be evenhanded, let’s admit that the citizens of our Deep America return the compliment. The deplorables are irremissibly alienated from, and distrustful of, the bureaucratic state and the dominant media that despise them. They are not as visible in the streets as Antifa, Black Lives Matter, and the pro-“immigrant” mobs, marching and wailing at the border. They don’t smash windows, intimidate speakers, scramble up the Statue of Liberty to insult a generous host. They don’t make news—that is, unless some TV analyst is diagnosing the phobias that pushed them into the ape-like arms of Trump.
Today, our figurative Mason-Dixon line, more unerasable than any surveyor’s mark, divides the disunited states. It doesn’t bifurcate North from South as in the 19th century. Would that the division were as clean as it was in 1860.
The combatants in the Civil War, despite the carnage, had much in common. They were, for the most part, professed Christians. Despite slavery, secession, and other bitterly divisive issues, they were existentially united. They shared a view of the world as God-ordained; they held themselves obligated to do His will, inasmuch as they could discern it; they weren’t made sick, like Walt Whitman, discussing their duty to God; they talked about such things without irony or self-consciousness. Many of them carried Bibles into the conflict. Robert E. Lee enjoined his chaplains to convert his soldiery to a deeper faith. Stonewall Jackson, like Union Gen. Oliver Otis Howard, avoided battle on the Christian Sabbath for fear of losing the Almighty’s blessing. These belligerents spoke the same language and used the same masculine idiom in supplicating the Creator.
If a futurist had told any of them, even the less-than-pious Grant, that in little more than a century after the conflict, abortion and same-sex marriage would be enshrined as constitutional rights, and that children would wait to choose their “gender-identity” from 27 varieties, he would have been locked up as a raving madman. Had they believed this dystopia a looming reality, the two armies would have joined as one to trample it into dust. In comparison with this apocalyptic fantasy, the vices of their own bloody epoch would have seemed, if not tolerable, at least human. Grant, Lee, Howard, and the common soldiery would have been as uncomprehending of the 21st century as Mayor Landrieu is of the 19th. (This lack of sympathetic imagination is one of the reasons American history is no longer taught. Teachers—and hence their students—neither understand nor admire the ethos of the Christian warrior, or the masculine stoicism of Grant.) We inhabit different worlds and speak a different language; and only the shallowest among us believes it is altogether to our credit.
Today, the line of alienation meanders through cities and small towns, North and South, and—in Biblical fulfillment—divides offspring from parents, sisters from brothers, and friends from friends. I suspect I’m not unique in having a decades-old friendship dashed owing to suspicion that I had voted incorrectly. (Even the Catholic Church, historically criticized for her “blind” acceptance of dogma, is now another front in the Culture Wars. Oneness is a “mark” of the Faith, but it would take an act of faith indeed to detect unity between those who applaud the “mess” that Francis encourages and those who are appalled by it—and him.) No cathartic war will heal these divisions. Christianity forbids wishing ill to anyone, and commands us to pray for those who hate us; it also tells us to watch, to be wide awake. And wakefulness precludes candy-land dreams of infinite progress and perfect equality managed by an omnipotent state
This mutual distrust and, on the part of the left, hatred, will not abate. I use the term “hatred” reluctantly but advisedly. Many, if not most, democrats and leftists, despite lip-service to “conversation” and “tolerance,” are choked with hate. Liberals regard debate, even curiosity, about their parti pris as a violation of decency. They assume that unless you are morally and intellectually stunted, unless your college education failed to root—as it terminally did with them—you share their assumptions and reach their conclusions. The attempt to discuss issues with the emotively evolved leftist is usually a foray into futility, like trying to negotiate a truce across a no-man’s land over the sound of exploding shells.
Short of something unforeseen—dare one speak of chastisement?—this inner Mason-Dixon line will not miraculously close; it will gape ever wider. So how does a traditionalist—Christian, Jew, stoic—obliged to defend sanity if not sanctity, engage in such a society? The Timon of Athens temptation to sour misanthropy is not really an option for those who can’t uproot their families and head for the hills. Rod Dreher, who is not a misanthrope, proposes a milder “Benedict option.” Good luck to those who can manage it. Most of us, however, will continue to live in mixed and hostile territory.
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