Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Born Fighting by Jim Webb

One sees members of Congress marching towards the capital to vote on health care reform. They appear to be marching arm-in-arm. They are surrounded by demonstrators shouting, heckling, racial taunts are heard, a black Congressman is spat upon. What is happening here? Images of the civil rights marches of 50s and 60s are summoned from distant memory. There are no snarling dogs this time, just plenty of snarling white people. A clue? Representatives speak of death threats, of their families being threatened, of rocks being thrown through office windows. On television, recordings of some of the abusive telephone calls are played. Through the cursing and swearing southern accents are clearly heard. Yes, a clue. One recalls the violence associated with the fight for civil rights in the South and asks, incredulously, “Are those people still out there? Has nothing changed in 50 years?” Two days after the vote a poll comes out stating that large numbers of Republicans think that President Obama is a socialist, Muslim, Nazi, non-citizen who may in fact be the anti-Christ. A week later Christian terrorists calling themselves a militia plan on murdering police officers in hopes of triggering an insurrection against the government. This is the twenty-first century. How can people like this still exist? How can a nation function with people like this in it? The Tea Party types—who are they? And why are they the way they are?

The answer may be found in a book by Jim Webb, the Senator from Virginia, who in Born Fighting describes the heritage and dispersion of what he refers to as the Scots-Irish from their roots in Scotland to their migration to northern Ireland and then onto the United States where they mainly settled in the Appalachian regions. We learned from Kevin Philips in his book American Theocracy that the Red States are ethnically dominated by the original settlers of the southern states or by southerners who exited the South after the Civil War. They brought with them their cultural heritage and evangelical religions. These are Webb’s ancestors. He writes of them with affection and claims that they played a great role in determining the attributes of our society. He means that as a compliment. We shall see.

Webb’s thesis is that the Scots-Irish cannot be understood unless one is familiar with their heritage. His description begins in Roman times when Celtic peoples were driven to what is now Scotland and made a stand in defense of their freedom. Their social development, or lack thereof, was determined by the centuries of warfare, by the inhospitable environment they found in Scotland, and by the version of Christianity they adopted.
“...while Scotland’s rough topography made it difficult to conquer, it made it equally difficult to rule.....Not unlike Appalachia, Scotland is a land of difficult water barriers, sharp mountains and deep hollows, soggy moors and rough pastures, and of thin, uncultivable soil that lies like a blanket over wide reaches of granite....the settlements of ancient Scotland grew haphazardly and emphasized a rugged form of survival that had links neither to commerce nor to the developing world. Again we find a cultural evolution and a fundamental lifestyle very much like those that would emerge later in the Appalachian Mountains.”
This is a theme that Webb returns to several times. These people did not pass through the stages of cultural and political development that have been common to most nations. The Scots of interest to us left before Scotland became a stable political entity with renowned universities. By the time they migrated to northern Ireland they had endured many generations of political turmoil at the national level. That and their isolated and harsh environment formed character traits and social responses that Webb argues persist to this day.
“Such turbulence at the center of national government not only empowered the local clan leaders, it also demanded that they be strong, both for their own survival and also for the well being of their extended families. And again a familiar pattern reinforced itself in what would become the Scots-Irish character: the mistrust of central authority, the reliance on strong tribal rather than national leaders, and the willingness to take the law into one’s own hands rather than waiting for a solution to come down from above.”
Of great significance in understanding these people is the development of their religious beliefs. The Scots were the beneficiaries of what Webb describes as the most corrupt version of the Catholic Church to be found anywhere. It seems only natural that they would respond by accepting the most harsh and demanding form of Protestantism based on the teachings of John Calvin.
“But Scotland ‘developed the Calvinistic doctrine that civil government, though regarded as a necessity, was to be recognized only when it was conducted according to the word of God.’ This meant not only that the Kirk would have the power to organize religious power at the local level, but also that Scots had reserved the right to judge their central government according to the standards they themselves would set from below.”
Note that at this point you have a people who have never accepted the notion of allegiance to a central government and have lived with the belief that loyalty is to be extended as far as their local clans and churches. You have a culture whose highest educational goal is to be able to read the Bible.

The lot of the Scots who moved to Ireland to populate the Ulster plantation or colony was not a happy one. To make room for them the English dispossessed the local Irish natives of their land. That and the sectarian hatred between Catholics and Protestants set up a situation that required three centuries to resolve itself into a truce. The English had no respect for either the Scots or the Irish and treated both shabbily. Little was changed in the culture of the Scots during this period.
“In Ireland, the Anglicans of the Church of Ireland and the Catholics who were benefiting from a Jesuit emphasis on education would press the importance of academic learning on their parishioners. The Kirks of the Calvinist Ulster Scots would continue to lecture more about discipline and self reliance than on book-fed philosophy.”
By the beginning of the eighteenth century the Scots were tired of being dominated by the Anglican English and began heading to America.
“Small groups had begun to migrate across the treacherous Atlantic Ocean from the time James II ascended the throne in 1685, scattering themselves from New Hampshire to South Carolina. But after 1715 the migrations assumed a powerful dynamic, growing in intensity and concentrating almost exclusively on the mountainous areas from central Pennsylvania to the Georgia border....From their inception after 1715 until the American revolution, at least 200,000 and as many as 400,000 would leave Ulster for America.”
What is critical to understand about this migration is that the Scots-Irish would continue in a state of isolation from the major cultural, intellectual and economic developments occurring in Europe and the United States.
“Unfortunately, even as they began their second great migration within the span of a century, as a culture the Ulster Scots were missing out, both on the dawning era of educational enlightenment and on the benefits of the Industrial revolution.”
“In America, the settlers of New England and to a lesser extent those Cavalier societies along the southern coast had already created many great universities that survive even to this day. But the Ulster Scots would head into the mountains with few texts other than the Bible in their canvas sacks, beginning a century of educational regression even as others saw the New World as a land of enlightenment.”
Webb attributes the choice of where the Scots-Irish settled to continued discrimination by the English-dominated settlers who had preceded them.
“....I can sense them looking coolly at the pretenses and attempted restrictions placed upon them by yet another branch of an Anglican establishment that they imagined they had left behind in Ulster, a pervasive aristocracy that in America controlled most of the ‘flatlands’ along the colonial coast. They were told they could practice their religion in the mountains even if it was not ‘lawful’ as long as they did not seek to infect the more ordered societies along the coast. And they were expected to reciprocate by both staying in the mountains and keeping the Indians at bay. These memories burned like fire among people who knew, even nearly three centuries ago, that the Eastern Establishment looked down on them, openly demeaning their religion and their cultural ways, and at bottom sought to use them toward its own ends.”
The Scots-Irish therefore ended up in areas where making a living would always be difficult. The wilderness in which they settled was the zone of conflict between the settlers and the native Indians. Life was not only hard, it was dangerous. Webb talks much of the tradition of gun ownership that persists today and attributes it to both the need for guns for hunting and self-defense, and to what he describes as a cultural/genetic readiness to fight.

One can see in this story the seeds of the “Southern” attitudes and culture that we recognize from our experience or our study of history. Senator Webb has provided a narrative in which one can understand how these attitudes developed. To complete the picture one must dwell more on the religious history of these people.
“Organized religion led by strong ministers was the backbone of the communities, for without it (as later decades proved), many would simply regress into the decadence and spiritual emptiness of the wilderness. Just as important, the churches became vital centers of religious, social, and even political activity. From these pulpits, decade after decade, strong men preached about the power of the individual, decried the evil of a government that sought to interpose itself between man and God, and reminded parishioners of the two centuries of discrimination by the Anglican-English aristocracy against their people, a discrimination that in many ways still existed in America.”
The Civil War was, of course, a defining moment for the South and its people. It is in this time period that the history becomes more familiar and more relevant to the present. It is at this point that Webb’s narrative and his people demand more scrutiny than they perhaps can stand. While his story continues to provide insight into and understanding of the Scots-Irish descendents, the individual reader may decide that insight and understanding are not sufficient to foster sympathy or forgiveness.

Webb makes it clear that he believes the southern secession and subsequent Civil War were not driven solely by the desire to protect the institution of slavery. Clearly that is the case. However, our interest here is in moral decisions and how people rationalize their choices. If one views slavery as inherently evil, then judging people who are willing to tolerate slavery for political, economic, social or religious reasons leaves one to conclude they are either dishonest, greedy, bigoted, or perhaps, merely ignorant and uncivilized.

The author depicts his Scots-Irish as being mostly non-slaveholders whose economic situation was little better than that of the slaves. They are described as being dominated politically by politicians and an aristocracy that cared little for them or their welfare. In fact, the institution of slavery was a mechanism for insuring their continued poverty. Yet, when war came, the Scots-Irish formed the core of the Confederate Army. He is quite proud every time his people fight in a war—any war—because they are so willing to fight.
“It might seem odd in these modern times, but the Confederate soldier fought because, on the one hand, in his view he was provoked, intimidated, and ultimately invaded, and, on the other, his leaders had convinced him that this was a war of independence in the same sense as the Revolutionary War. For those who can remove themselves from the slavery issue and examine the traits that characterize the Scots-Irish culture, the unbending ferocity of the Confederate soldier is little more than a continuum. This was not so much a learned response to historical events as it was a cultural approach that had been refined by centuries of similar experiences. The tendency to resist outside aggression was bred deeply into every heart—and still is today.”
Let us consider that statement. Here you have a people who are willing to die to defend a system that has discriminated against them for almost 200 years. They are apparently not interested in the moral issues such as slavery, or historical perspectives. If someone—anyone—tells them an outsider is coming to tell them they have to do something, they are ready to kill or be killed. Webb tries to convince the reader that this is an honorable trait. One can grant Webb that his people are brave and fierce. However, being brave while acting against one’s own self-interest is more appropriately characterized as stupid or ignorant rather than honorable. Willingness to kill irrespective of the justice of the cause is dishonorable at best, not honorable. Being culturally or genetically wired for violent response raises a question as to whether these people are fit to live in a modern society.

The post-War behavior of the Southern whites is something even Webb has a hard time stomaching, although he does manage to put most of the blame on the Yankees.
“Instead of hope, inside the region the South’s leadership was now itself running on resentment and galvanizing the white yeomanry by uniting them against the Yankee on the outside and the black family down the road.... ....The near mandatory hatred of those from the outside, either geographically or ethnically, would result in the stifling of all internal dissent as the postwar leadership unified the body politic to fight the Yankee in the only way the region could—through absolute political unity.”
“This last phenomenon—revenge on the powerless—had no historical precedent among the Scots-Irish, no real basis in the now ancient teachings of the Kirk, and the decades of retaliation against those of African descent would prove to be a monstrous mousetrap that cracked their own necks as well.”
This last quote demands a more thorough look at the religion of the South and the role it played. Webb refers often to the Calvinist origins of the religious beliefs of his people. He refers to it as a harsh form of Protestantism. Calvin created a version of Protestantism that was based on predestination and a literal interpretation of the Bible. His teachings are a perfect example of being able to find anything you want in the Bible if you look hard enough. He chose to base this concept of predestination on a few phrases written by an itinerant preacher who had no direct intersection with Christ, while at the same time ignoring most of the teaching attributed to Christ in the Gospels. According to Calvin everyone’s fate—whether they will go to heaven or hell—was decided by God before the world was formed. What he created was a religion whose members could be smug and arrogant in their confidence that they were God’s select while others—nonbelievers—were doomed and there was nothing they could do about it. Calvin was not above burning alive people he considered heretics. One might assume that if they are going to burn in hell for all eternity anyways, why not start them off a little early. Such a religion could be viewed as inherently intolerant and discriminatory. The preachers of the time certainly had no problem using the Bible to justify the enslavement of Africans. For the author to even hint that this was ever a benign religion that would avoid harming the defenseless is a bit ridiculous given the 300 years of slaughter between the Scots-Irish Calvinists and the Catholics in Ireland. Calvin’s ideas have been moderated over time to make the religion more marketable. Calvin seemed to believe that only he and a rather small fraction of the people would be saved. Who would want to join a religion that says you are probably going to hell no matter what you do? One is reminded of Will Durant’s summation of John Calvin.
“But we shall always find it hard to love the man who darkened the human soul with the most absurd and blasphemous conception of God in all the long and honored history of nonsense.”
The post-war years left the region even more isolated from social and political developments in the rest of the country.
“The level of education fell tragically in these decades. Actual illiteracy increased among the millions. But what was worse was that the state universities ceased in effect to exist for loyal whites in the Thorough period and went for long years thereafter with empty halls and skeleton facilities....If the leadership of the Old South in its palmiest days had been only half-educated even by American standards, the leadership of the land in 1890 would be scarcely better instructed and scarcely less simple in outlook than that of the first generation to emerge from the frontier.”
What Webb has constructed is a history of a people who have lived over a thousand years in relative isolation from the main course of social and economic evolution experienced by the United States and Europe. The South experienced outward migrations over the past two centuries, but it was not until the Second World War that significant numbers of people began to migrate into the region.
“During world War II millions of non-Southerners of all ethnic backgrounds, most of them citizen-soldiers who had been conscripted,....were personally exposed to the twin realities of the South. On the one hand, they were often confronted by an honor-bound but frequently backward white culture that was willing to defend its way of life against all outsiders. On the other, the glaring racial humiliations of segregation were visible for all to see. In many eyes, white poverty was attributed to cultural inferiority rather than the generations of Yankee colonialism that had produced it, while the racial inequities they observed would leave a lasting impression, fueling nationwide support for the desegregation and civil rights efforts that began shortly after the end of World War II.”
Webb decries the racial attitudes developed in his Southern whites, but perhaps is too lenient in trying to blame them on Yankees and carpetbaggers The author seems to be saying that his people are rugged individualists who would never join a worker’s union, but they would band together for the purposes of revenge and discrimination. Webb also comes down hard on civil rights activists. He seems to think everything would have been easier if only the “Yankees” had been astute enough to realize that the vicious, ignorant people they were trying to deal with had a reason for being vicious and ignorant. As if a little sympathy might have helped.
“By working so hard to convert an issue of social injustice designed to eradicate demeaning laws of exclusion into a full blown war against the entire value system of a region, these radical activists terribly misread that region’s basic culture and turned many of the very people who might have worked for racial justice into their most virulent enemies. To provoke and blame disadvantaged whites for the plight of disadvantaged blacks was either naive or politically manipulative. And to expect that the disadvantaged whites would happily assist in revamping the entire social and economic order without attention being paid to their own situation was absurd.”
That statement suggests topics worthy of many books of analysis. However, the purpose of this note is to discuss how a significant section of our population who has lived or been incorporated into the culture that emerges from Webb’s Scots-Irish history might behave in our society. Could the passions and beliefs of the Tea Baggers seem reasonable to those immersed in this culture?

This is an appropriate point to leave a chronological treatment and examine the characteristics that Webb says define the Scots-Irish culture: individualism versus communality, a distrust of authority and educated people, a willingness to fight and wage war, and an intense version of Christianity that informs their political and social views. Consider this statement by the author.
“The great cities of the United States were increasingly filled with Catholics, members of the Orthodox churches and Jews—all professing in one way or another communitarian social values very much at odds with the individualism of the traditional Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Celtic culture.”
One could define communitarian values as those driven by a sense of group solidarity. Webb seems to be saying—proudly—that his people don’t want any of that solidarity stuff here in their country. Those of us who derive from “foreign” cultures are implied to be the outsiders trying to cause trouble. Here, perhaps, lies the main source of political discord in our country. Roughly half the citizenry seems to believe that a modern nation has to be driven by mutually agreed upon efforts to act in unison for the benefit of all. About twenty-five percent believe that any—or at least any new intrusion of community values on their individual rights is tyranny. The remainder vacillates between the two points of view depending upon circumstances.

If one considers the health care debate, the people pushing for reform were driven by the moral imperative to provide health care to all, while those opposed (read Tea Party types) seem unconcerned about others and focused on what the effects might be on their own situation (“Keep your hands off my health care.”). This latter viewpoint would be consistent with Webb’s description of his people. For avowed Christians they seem to hold rather harsh views on social justice that might be somewhat surprising to those raised on stories of a kind and gentle Jesus who always seemed to healing people and telling everyone to be good to their neighbors. But, in fact, in the realm of health care legislation it is the secular types who are pushing for health care reform while those who profess their Christianity the loudest are generally against it. Recall that the first nation to implement a national health plan was Germany. Bismarck, no sentimental softy, described his development of social services, including universal health care in Germany as “a program of applied Christianity.” So what has happened to Christianity in our country? Consider Kevin Philips’ description of Southern evangelical beliefs in the context of race. While Philips’ comments refer explicitly to issues of race they could easily be applied to other social issues with the same result.
“The SBC’s [Southern Baptist Convention] cultural conservatism is not of the sort that inhibits nonwhite conversion and enlistment. What it does propound, though, is a conservatism of evangelical theology preoccupied with saving souls and dismissive of other designs—whether liberal sociology or government-run-social-welfare programs—to ameliorate the ills of society. The answers, say SBC preachers, lie in the Bible and in coming to Jesus; government social-welfare planning and programs, in this view, only get in the way of individuals’ assumption of personal responsibility and salvation....a compelling case that evangelical beliefs support the status quo when they lead white southerners to insist that persons of both races are masters of their own fates and salvation. White evangelists lopsidedly believe that if blacks do not get ahead, it is because of black culture or lack of initiative, explanations which pivot on individual responsibility. Under evangelical theology, social structures are not the real problem, and government action and involvement are rarely the solution—or so white true believers usually conclude.”
What emerges from this book and others we have read is a picture of a subculture with a unique history, a unique character, and a unique religion. Together they produce an approach to life and governance that is almost completely at odds with trends in all modern nations. If one overlays the attitudes of the Tea Party supporters with those indicated by this generalized picture of the Scots-Irish, there is quite a bit of overlap. It would not be fair to say that this totally explains where the Tea party enthusiasm is coming from, or to say that all Scots-Irish agree with Tea Party goals. What one can say is that it is possible to expect that a significant number of people who have lived in the Scots-Irish culture will emerge with the set of attitudes that most of us find bewildering and occasionally frightening. Governing a nation with these people in it is certainly going to be a challenge.

The subject of the Scots-Irish has come up before in Deer Hunting with Jesus, where we were provided a current snapshot of a community of Scots-Irish descent in Virginia, in American Theocracy where the religious beliefs and their effects on our politics were detailed, and in Outliers where a tendency towards violent response to any kind of slight was attributed to this Scots-Irish heritage. Senator Webb’s book provides a coherent framework in which the Scots-Irish can be viewed and evaluated. This is a highly personal rendering by Webb. He uses his own family and ancestors as examples of the character and history of his people. He is justifiably proud of his family, although it is not clear that they are truly representative of the Scots-Irish as a whole. The book is well-written and easy to follow. Like any good book, it leaves one wanting to pursue further the topics that arose in the reading.

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