I’m often asked where I got the name “Southern Avenger.” For starters, it was a rip-off of a popular 90’s conservative talk radio host named Ken Hamblin, who called himself the “Black Avenger.” In a Jim Beam-induced haze, a friend convinced me it was catchy and it just sort of stuck. But that’s only half the story.
In my early 20’s, I was a full-blown, right-wing radical. As a member of the Southern secessionist group the League of the South, I argued seriously for the states of the old Confederacy to break away from the rest of the union. I differed little in temperament from most left-wing college radicals, but instead of wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt, I would sport Southern revolutionaries like Thomas Jefferson.
After I left college (dropped out, actually), I began working in radio and writing on a weekly basis. By the time I graduated from rock radio to talk radio and began writing for the Charleston City Paper, I thought it might be better to tone down the radicalism and at least try to appear more respectable. But when I came across an old column of mine last week I realized that I never really changed. I’m still just as radical or crazy, depending on your perspective. In fact, I might be getting worse.
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Almost a decade before I became a regular columnist there, my first contribution to the Charleston City Paper was in 1999 as a spokesman for the League of the South. In a cover story symposium entitled “Heritage or Hate?” I defended the Confederate flag as a symbol of states’ rights: “What is significant about the Confederacy is not the racial attitudes it shared with the rest of the Western world, but its resistance to the centralization of power… What does this symbol of a bygone era mean for us today? The last I checked the government is bigger than ever and shows no signs of reduction. The only difference between the Republicans and Democrats is in what way they are going to use the most powerful government in the history of the world for their own political and economic gain.”
Though my personal feelings on what the Confederate flag stands for have not changed, as I’ve become older I do realize that the South’s most famous symbol has different meanings to different people, by no means all of them positive. I also realize that the political point I was trying to make in 1999 is even more true today – that the Republican Party of George W. Bush and Democratic Party of Barack Obama both represent the massive expansion of centralized power at the expense of constitutional government and individual freedom. Bush oversaw drastic deficits, dramatically increased our domestic and foreign policy budgets and damaged constitutional liberties with the PATRIOT Act and other police state measures. Obama has kept virtually all of Bush’s outrageously expensive and heavy-handed policies intact and is now intent on laying down an even heavier bureaucratic hand. The angry reaction by significant segments of the American people to Obama’s statist agenda has become so widespread, that something as innocent as the president giving a Nancy Reagan-style speech to kids about staying in school and off drugs is cause for great controversy.
But what does this say about the very concept of an “American people?” Is there still a national identity that truly binds us despite our many deep and glaring differences? Much of the current, bitter political divide is just partisan politics, but there is also principle at stake. There exist many, perhaps even a majority of Americans, who simply do not share the Obama administration’s national vision. There is not merely a difference of opinion, but a stark, night-and-day clash. We’re used to old disagreements over issues like abortion, gay marriage and religion in the public square, but that long-standing social divide has now been widely broadened over the very role of the state, as evidenced by the intense debate over national healthcare.
In 1999, I already thought Americans were too different: “America is becoming more diverse and multicultural which means the multiplicity of ideas and values will increase. Only states’ rights, the heart of the Confederate cause, can meet this challenge.”
If divorce is considered preferable to an unsalvageable marriage, might not divorce also be preferable to an unsalvageable political union? Jeffersonian, decentralist philosophy, an all-American radicalism I embraced fully in my youth, makes even more sense today than in 1999. Whether revisiting states’ rights or going the route of full-blown secession, it would be far more logical to allow the many, very different parts of this country to pursue their own, many different American visions, than to keep pretending we are all looking through the same lens. And looking back on my own past, I am reminded that any future South worth avenging would do well to revisit its own radical heritage – so that the principles of limited government might rise again.