Why does this man look so cranky?

Published:December 14, 2009 by Brendan Wolfe

Donald W. Livingson (Billy Howard for the Chronicle of Higher Education)

Perhaps because the good old days of “sir” and “ma’am” (and states’ rights and slavery?) are gone.

The Chronicle of Higher Education profiles something called the Abbeville Institute, founded by an Emory University philosophy professor, Donald W. Livingston (pictured above), and named for the birthplace of über states’-rights and slavery advocate John C. Calhoun.

The secretive group, which will be hosting its first publicly advertised conference in February, is interested in examining secession from the perspective of “Southern culture.”

Abbeville’s scholars contend, for example, that the Civil War—or as they often refer to it, the War of Northern Aggression or the War to Prevent Southern Independence—was not about slavery (the system was on its way out anyway, they argue) and that the antebellum Southern states had every right to secede. They say they are not able to make these points to their campus colleagues, however, without being painted into a corner as racists. So instead of discussing them with professors down the hall, they turn to Abbeville.

I put “Southern culture” in quotation marks not out of any disrespect, but out of skepticism that such a monolithic thing exists or has ever existed in quite the form these scholars seem to suggest. (For instance, can blacks and whites, men and women, rich and poor all find themselves in the Abbeville version of “Southern culture”?) According to Livingston, he and his colleagues hearken back to the Southern Agrarians and their 1930 manifesto.

Like that group, Mr. Livingston says, Abbeville recalls a simpler time, when people knew their neighbors, and children said “sir” and “ma’am.”

Weird thing is, I know my neighbors; I hear “sir” and “ma’am” plenty. Say them myself sometimes. But these bits of protocol do not a simpler time make. Put another way, what was so simple about a time that provoked these arguments over states’ rights and slavery? So simple that a hundred and fifty years later we need an institute to study them?

I’ll admit to quoting my own rant on the perils of reenacting here, but I’m sometimes frustrated by this mind-blowing romanticization of “Southern culture,” right down to Hello. “It’s an era lost that we’re trying to recapture,” a woman reenactor washing clothes in a tub told Tony Horwitz for his book Confederates in the Attic. “Men were men and women were women. It was less complicated.” When a guy ambles past and says, “Evening, ma’am,” the woman practically faints at how Gone with the Wind it all is. “See what I mean? No one’s that polite in real life any more.”

Actually, yes, they are. And today, we get the added bonus of NOT killing each other by the hundreds of thousands on backyard battlefields. This is where reenacting starts to make me cranky.

As for the Abbeville Institute, I do tend to agree with Professor Livingston: “The university should be the place where the unthinkable can be thought and the unspeakable said as long as it is backed by civil conduct and argument.”

PS: According to its website, the Abbeville Institute has sixty-some scholars, including William Wilson, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia.

PPS: Read our entry on The Fathers, a (not so simple) story set during the Civil War and the only novel by one of the Southern Agrarians’ founders, Allen Tate.

IMAGE: Donald W. Livingston by Billy Howard for the Chronicle of Higher Education