Unfortunately, that isn't all in the past, and it isn't all that far away. We have our own little "minority religion" here in Moscow, and we've managed to make the national news more than once. All of you from the Moscow area, and likely some of you from the greater blogging community, might remember the controversy in 2004 around a South Carolina school's use of Doug Wilson's apologia for slavery, Southern Slavery: As It Was, in history classes. A couple of prominent liberal bloggers blogged on the subject, but the tenor of the articles was generally of the form, "oh, crazy rednecks."
The perspective was a little different here in North Idaho. Earlier that same year, in February of 2004, Doug Wilson held an annual history conference, drawing on the historical expertise of luminaries like Southern Slavery co-author Steve Wilkins and theonomist George Grant. The spin put to the history conference was that it was about slavery. This was incorrect. Whatever other failings he may have, and I'll get to those in a minute, Doug Wilson isn't stupid, and he knows how to run a media campaign. The word "slavery" was verboten at the Revolution and Modernity conference, though, as Steve Wilkins' son Remy pointed out, it had been a significant point of contention at previous conferences.
Despite what the media said, we were wrong and Wilson was right with regard to the "topic" of the conference. I have the tapes (okay, .mp3s), and, other than a few defensive asides, slavery wasn't mentioned once. But because the conference occurred at the same time as Moscow's progressives finding out about the slavery book, the two were smudged together in a lot of our minds, and it provided a convenient date to stage a protest.
So, why all this commentary about something that happened two years ago?
There's a problem with Wilson's political theology that can't be distilled down to something you can chant at a rally. When the conference was over, the lights were turned off and everyone went home, Revolution and Modernity was pretty dull stuff. We'd chanted a lot of things, but they were only taking on what Doug was actually saying obliquely. At the end of the day, the majority conference was pedestrian: a criticism of Marx, a latter-day defense of Burke, a take-down of Robespierre.
What interested me, though, weren't the simple subjects, but the obscure ones: Groen van Prinsterer and R.L. Dabney. Prinsterer was an obscure Dutch thinker who, as a restorationist, was one of the last full-throated defenders of monarchism and the divine right of kings against liberal, secular democracy. R.L. Dabney was an anti-revolutionary defender of the South, a virulent racist, and the former pastor to Stonewall Jackson. I'll also point out that he was a conservative Presbyterian (in 1800s terms), and Doug himself is a conservative Presbyterian (in 1700s terms).
When first reading Southern Slavery, I thought that racism had to be its primary impulse; that it had to come from deep-seated and overt hatred. And Wilson does have his defenders among that sort. They call themselves Kinists, and they hang out on blogs like Badlands and Little Geneva, and you can look them up if you're interested. But it's not racism that drove Wilson and Dabney together, or Wilson and Prinsterer. It's a shared belief that there is no moral weight to power differences, that a man's accountability should only be to God and a woman's should be to her husband, and that liberal democracy is a heresy. Dabney believed, as did Prinsterer, that inequality was the foundation of Western society*. As Dabney wrote in The Negro and the Common School, "
In many ways, Wilson is a pre-racist: overt racism is a way to cover up your own guilt at oppressing another human being. The majority of people have a consistent but unarticulated belief that slavery does not simply invite abuse, it constitutes abuse. It's an intuition so deep in our culture that it's a surprise to hear it articulated -- and, when the local newspapers were hosting debates about whether slavery was "all bad", it's something that no one mentioned.
Slavery is a microcosm of the defect in Wilson's ethics. The ideal of every relationship he describes is one between owner and chattel. The owner has no accountability; the chattel has no recourse, no right of appeal to a higher authority. The rules he applies are caste-based, not race-based: whites may be enslaved as easily as blacks. Fathers may marry their children to whomever they please. Victims of rape must marry their rapists. Wives must submit absolutely to their husbands. And everyone must submit to the elders, who submit only to God. As one of Wilson's parishoners writes:
"If you ask me (sorry, I know nobody asked me), it sounds like someone has trouble distinguishing between presbyterianism (where the congregation chooses their elders and then submits to them) and modern American baptistic congregationalism (where the leaders have to keep on answering to the electorate)."
In that context, slavery isn't a "peculiar institution" or gross moral aberration, or even a problem. It's simply an outgrowth of the way the rest of the world ought to work. And that's something even more terrifying than racism.
Next, I'll tell you why -- if you live in the area, or even if you don't -- you ought to be worried.
* To a certain extent, especially when Dabney wrote that line, it was. But that was the problem, and not the solution.