Monday, October 4, 2010

The United States: Its “British” Heritage and Its Politics

Consider the results of a world-wide study that developed an “Individualism Index” to assess attitudes in the various countries. A high value of this index is indicative of a preference for individual action rather than group action. The top six scoring countries are:

U.S.A.               91

Australia            90

Great Britain      89

Canada             80

Netherlands      80

New Zealand   79

Clearly there is a trend for the English speaking countries, or rather, the countries heavily influenced by immigration from Great Britain, to score high on this index. Note that the U.S.A. scores a bit higher than Great Britain. The difference is not great, but given that the British individualism should have been highly diluted by immigrants from other countries, it appears significant. It may be indicative of a difference in evolution between the various English-speaking countries, or it may mean that a segment of our population may be much more individualistic than even the British themselves. I intend to suggest that our most conservative citizens, our Republicans and their Tea Party avatar, are dominated by descendents of our British immigrants who have developed a unique individualistic culture.

The United States experienced four waves of immigration of settlers originating in Great Britain. The first consisted of the puritans, mostly from East Anglia, who settled in New England (1629-1640). The second wave consisted of people from the south of England who settled in the Chesapeake Bay area (1640-1675). The third was dominated by Quakers settling in the Delaware Valley (1675-1725). The fourth, and most important, were the mixture of the Scots, English and Irish, originally from the English borderlands, who settled in the Appalachian region (1717-1775). Many of these had their previous destination in Northern Ireland. They make up what Senator Jim Webb calls the Scots-Irish.

These Scots-Irish are important because the footprint of their migration throughout the country is the footprint of the Republican Party in the United States. One can make a direct connection between the attitudes these people brought with them when they entered the country, their experiences over the last 200 years, and the policies espoused by the most conservative members of the Republican Party.

Senator Webb has written a fascinating account of the history of the Scots-Irish titled Born Fighting. It should be read by anyone who feels a desire to understand the political situation in the United States. I have written a lengthy, opinion-laden revue of the book—available here. In this account we will try to keep to Senator Webb’s words. The point to be made is that these settlers from the British Isles do not share a common heritage with the British of today. They are unique. Senator Webb views them as a treasure. I view them as an often intolerable burden. You can make your own decision.

The story begins in the often bloody borderlands between England and Scotland.
“...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.”
The Scots who would travel through Ulster and then on to America left before Scotland was tamed and acquired the attributes of the civilization of the period.
“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.”
These people cannot be understood independently of their religious beliefs.
“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.”
These Scots were not treated well in Northern Ireland and gained little from their sojourn there.
“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.”
Soon they would be off 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.”

“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.”
They were not welcomed with open arms.
“....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.”
Their cultural isolation would only intensify in the New World.
“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.”
The Civil War was a tragedy of many dimensions. The descendents of these settlers fought and suffered mightily in defense of a political system that cared little for them and their welfare. The post-war years continued an era of deprivation and cultural isolation.
“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.”
Over the years many of the Scots-Irish descendents would move out of the South, but few from other areas would move in, continuing the isolation. It was not until the Second World War that military needs caused millions to pass through and become familiar with 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 points out what has become the critical point of contention between the Democratic Party and what the Republican Party has evolved into.
“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.

Meanwhile the Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Celtic descendents in other countries were experiencing two world wars and a terrible economic depression, and deciding that if they were to survive they would have to create a mechanism (called a government) to help each other when in need. They decided to limit their individualism when appropriate for the common good. That is a lesson many of our Scots-Irish descendents have yet to learn.

I hope our country can survive the learning process.

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