The Counter-Enlightenment and the Confederate Flag

Today I drove through northern Florida and southern Georgia and the national discussion about the confederate battle flag was never too far from my mind.  I was listening to Steven Pinker’s book about the historic decline of violence, and was struck by the relevance of this passage to our current national discussion.

The counter-Enlightenment was the wellspring of a family of movements that gained strength during 19th century… [some of which] became political ideologies that led to horrendous reversals in the trend of declining violence.  One of them was a militant form of nationalism that came to be known as “blood and soil”–the notion that an ethnic group and the land from which it originated form an organic whole with unique moral qualities, and that its grandeur and glory are more precious than the lives and happiness of its individual members (p. 188).


Confederate flag supporters rally in Montgomery, AL (June 27, 2015) . Source:

He continues:

Another was romantic militarism, the idea that (as Mueller has summarized it) “war is noble, uplifting, virtuous, glorious, heroic, exciting, beautiful, holy, thrilling (p. 188).

A third strand viewed history as “a glorious struggle between races, culminating in the subjugation of inferior races…” (p. 188).  Pinker also quote Isiah Berlin (PDF):

Aggressive nationalism, self-identification with the interest of class, the culture or race, or the forces of progress… [defined] a doctrine of self-realization based on defiant rejection of the central theses of the Enlightenment.

I was reminded of the photo above and video below of a group of southern white folks protesting the Alabama Governor’s recent decision to remove the flags from the Capitol grounds by singing “Dixie” (to listen, click image below or here).  Though I am in the south, I do not “wish I were in Dixie.”

Confederate Flag Supporters Sing "Dixie"

While naked ideologies of “racial superiority” are effectively banished to the fringe, the “blood & soil” and “romantic militarism” counter-Enlightenment ideologies are alive and well, and not only in the south (e.g., many discussions about conflict with “militant Islam” and”Support our Troops“).  Thus, while the white, southern folks who long for “Dixie” are genuine “dead-enders,” those of us who are children of the Enlightenment should labor under no illusion that the political conflict with the counter-Enlightenment is over and that we have won.



About Will H. Moore

I am a political science professor who also contributes to Political Violence @ a Glance and sometimes to Mobilizing Ideas . Twitter: @WilHMoo
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