In his PC screed against novelist Jane Smiley, diarist AaronBa accused her of unfairly stereotyping the Scots-Irish. In my last diary, I argued she was doing nothing more than talking about group characteristics, and doing so in an historical context that has the exact opposite thrust of stereotyping. By showing such characteristics to be a product of historical and sociological forces, Smiley’s approach—based on the book Albion’s Seed, by David Hackett Fischer—undermines the stereotypical belief that such characteristics represent an immutable essential nature.
Here, I’ll take a look at a 2004 Wall Street Journal op-ed by Senator James Webb, himself a proud Scots-Irish who’s written a whole book on the subject, and compare his views with Smiley’s. Webb’s and Smiley’s views coincide to some extent, but differ in major ways. Yet, we could not even begin to compare them, and learn from doing so, if we bought into AaronBa’s vitriolic PC attack on Smiley.
Disclaimer Before going any further, I need to state out front that I haven’t read Webb's book Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America, so I don’t know how well the views expressed in the constrained form of this op-ed jibe with his views expressed at length in his book. I welcome those who have read his book to weigh in and add to this conversation. But a WSJ op-ed has sufficient prominence to be worth analyzing on its own, and serves to illustrate important points which still stand, even if Webb’s larger views are somewhat at odds with his presentation in this op-ed.
Webb and Smiley/Fischer--Significant Points of Agreement
In his op-ed, "Secret GOP Weapon: The Scots-Irish Vote", published on October 19, 2004, Webb first described Bush’s campaign presentation in neutralist terms as it might appear to most elite commentators:
To an outsider George W. Bush's political demeanor seems little more than stumbling tautology. He utters his campaign message in clipped phrases, filled with bravado and repeated references to God, and to resoluteness of purpose. But to a trained eye and ear these performances have the deliberate balance of a country singer at the Grand Ole Opry.
Webb went on to explain:
Speaking in a quasi-rural dialect that his critics dismiss as affected, W is telling his core voting groups that he is one of them. No matter that he is the product of many generations of wealth; that his grandfather was a New England senator; that his father moved the family's wealth south just like the hated Carpetbaggers after the Civil War; that he himself went North to Andover and Yale and Harvard when it came time for serious grooming. And as with the persona, so also with the key issues. The Bush campaign proceeds outward from a familiar mantra: strong leadership, success in war, neighbor helping neighbor, family values, and belief in God. Contrary to many analyses, these issues reach much farther than the oft-discussed Christian Right. The president will not win re-election without carrying the votes of the Scots-Irish, along with those others who make up the "Jacksonian" political culture that has migrated toward the values of this ethnic group.
Several things come through in this passage. First, that cultural identification matters. Second, that the Scots-Irish matter. Third, that for the Scots-Irish, war matters. Fourth, that blood, and even heritage do not matter exclusively, the way they once did: A man with numerous hated Yankee trappings can, over time, transform himself into one of them. Fifth, that many others, not Scots-Irish, have "migrated toward the values of this ethnic group." All these points are ones that David Hackett Fischer and Jane Smiley have made. Indeed, Smiley made exactly the same point about Bush that Webb just made: he has turned himself into a Borderer.
This isn’t to say that Webb and Smiley don’t have their differences. They do, they’re profound, and we’ll get to them next. But Webb and Smiley share a historical and cultural framework that at least enables some degree of dialogue, discussion and debate. In contrast, AaronBa’s vitriolic PC attack on Smiley would completely shut down any possibility of exploring our differences, and working towards finding some sort of consensus.
An Intro To Differences
Differences between Smiley and Webb derive from four types of differences between them: differences of fact, differences of value, differences of perspective (inside vs. outside the culture) and differences of method—descriptive vs. comparative. For example, Webb—assuming an insider’s descriptive method—mentions five issues that resonate with the Scots Irish: "strong leadership, success in war, neighbor helping neighbor, family values, and belief in God." In contrast, Smiley’s outsider comparative approach highlights how the four groups differ in what they mean by family values and belief in God. (There are implicit differences in value here, one might argue, but we’ll wait for more clear-cut examples for that discussion.)
Smiley does not focus on leadership per se, but she does say something that’s surely relevant about how strength is perceived: Cavaliers (#2) and Borderers (#4) are status-conscious honor-based cultures, in which insults must be dealt with because they threaten loss of status, which is inherently dangerous. In contrast, Puritans (#1) and Quakers (#3) are self-respect-based egalitarian cultures. in which individual conscience is a stronger guide to behavior and insults are seen as reflecting more on character of the insulter than the one insulted. As a result, "Cultures 2 and 4 view this equanimity in the face of insult as a weakness and failure of masculinity, and so they perennially underestimate the strength of liberals and their convictions."
It doesn’t take much to see why Bush would be perceived as a "strong leader" within Cultures 2 and 4, but not within 1 and 3. He responded to 9/11 as an insult, and has continued to act as if the "war on terror" is the gravest threat America has ever faced—graver than either the Civil War, which nearly destroyed the Union, or the Cold War, which threatened nuclear annihilation. From this point of view, his "axis of evil" speech makes perfect sense: We were insulted by being attacked, so we should restore our honor by counter-attacking the strongest enemies we have, regardless of whether they had anything to do with the attacks. Liberals, on the other hand, have this strange reality-based idea that we ought to respond by capturing or killing those who actually killed our people, and that failure to do so after more than 5 years—longer than US involvement in World War II—is a sign of leadership weakness as well as incompetence.
The fact that Webb accepts Bush as a strong leader indicates both a strength and a weakness on his part. The strength is that he understands Bush on his own terms, and is willing to confront him—something which the Democratic Party as a whole still seems incapable of grasping, even after the success of doing so in the 2006 midterms. The weakness is that he doesn’t see the culture-bound nature of such "strength," and the weakness it reveals from a different perspective—an inner weakness hiding behind bravado that’s incapable of admitting, learning from, and correcting its mistakes.
Here, the differences in value clearly make their appearance, and do so directly as a result of differences in perspective (insider vs. outsider) and method (descriptive vs. comparative). It’s the outsider/comparative perspective that calls into question the value of "strong leadership" as Webb construes it from an insider/descriptive perspective.
Somewhat similarly, the claim that "neighbor helping neighbor" is a Scots-Irish/Borderer value reflects an insider’s view that is more questionable from Smiley’s perspective, based on Fischer’s work. There is, of course, the tradition of feuding and fighting not widely seen in other traditions that puts a crimp in neighbors helping one another. Furthermore, Smiley notes that part of the Puritan concept of liberty was that "the individual should be free from want (which meant that members of the community were obliged to help their unfortunate neighbors)." The point is not to argue that Webb is mistaken—only that there’s more to the story. Once again, the outsider/comparative perspective that calls into question the value of "neighbor-helping-neighbor" from an insider/descriptive perspective—though not as sharply, perhaps, as in the previous example of "strong leadership."
These divergences contrast sharply with the agreement regarding "success in war" as a Borderer value, which passes muster from both perspectives. Not only would Fischer/Smiley agree descriptively, but comparatively as well—they would surely regard it as a distinctively Borderer value. Not that other groups are keen on losing wars. Rather, they are significantly less likely to want to go starting them in the first place.
The differences discussed so far are potentially resolvable without too much strain. This does not mean that Webb would have to agree with Smiley, or visa versa, but only that they would see each other’s point, and acknowledge good reasons supporting that point. Complete agreement is not necessarily out of the question, either, but is not really the point. Mutual understanding and respect are.
Deeper Differences--Matters of Value
I now want to shift perspective, focusing on differences of fact—factual claims Webb makes that Smiley and/or Fischer would almost certainly dispute. Implicit in these differences are differences in value, method and perspective as well. Here, resolution is much more difficult. It is not enough to see each other’s point—though that would certainly help along the way. One or another fact claim—or both—must be abandoned in order for differences to be resolved.
But first, let’s consider a transitional case—one where differences in values come to the fore. Webb writes of the Scots-Irish:
They are deeply patriotic, having consistently supported every war America has fought, and intensely opposed to gun control -- an issue that probably cost Mr. Gore both his home state of Tennessee and traditionally Democratic West Virginia in 2000.
In contrast, writing about all four groups comparatively, Smiley says:
They also use their cultural allegiances to define "America" and the right and proper form that patriotism must take. For New Englanders, let's say, patriotism is about the history of the Constitution, the slow progress of law and reason as differences that define the US in contrast to other nations with a more haphazard history. For Virginians, patriotism was about having the right to construct one's own way of life without outside interference. For the Quakers and their descendants, patriotism is about toleration, welcome, diversity, rewards rather than punishments. For Borderers and their descendants, patriotism is about passionate loyalty to the group, alert self-defense, and domination in every sphere.
Smiley’s view of Borderer patriotism is roughly compatible with Webb’s definition of patriotism per se—though he would no doubt bristle at negative connotations of "domination in every sphere." But, of course, patriotism does not just mean what any one group takes it to mean, with no accounting for the rest. Webb’s claim to have defined patriotism for all is at least a value claim, if not a factual one, made additionally questionable by equating it to intense opposition to gun control. This may be how Borderers see gun control, but it is a view devoid of historical support, however consonant it may be with their culture.
In contrast, Smiley goes on to say:
To me, this shows, at least in part, why George W. Bush has retained his loyal following for so long, and why his White House staff don't ever seem to cross him or make him angry. As participants in this newly ascendant culture, their loyalty is always to their group rather than to abstract principles or ideas, even ideas that other groups take very seriously, such as the Constitution.
Bush’s profound hostility to the rule of law—not just the Constitution, but even the Magna Charta—is surely not compatible with patriotism as Puritans, Quakers or Cavaliers would understand it.
Deeper Differences--Matters of Fact
We now turn to two more clear-cut examples of factual disagreement, though the first shows a close affinity to our transitional case, precisely because it is difficult to separate fact and value claims when value-laden words like "patriotism" or "democracy" are at issue.
True American-style democracy had its origins in this culture. Its values emanated from the Scottish Kirk, which had thrown out the top-down hierarchy of the Catholic Church and replaced it with governing councils made up of ordinary citizens.
The notion that any one culture has a lock on the origins of "true American-style democracy" is inherently suspect from the sort of perspective that Fischer embodies. It is simply false to claim the Scots-Irish had any superior claim. They were certainly less inclined toward fixed hierarchies than their Puritan or Cavalier counterparts, but more hierarchical than the Quakers. Smiley describes different conceptions of liberty for all three other cultures, but not for the Borderers. Freedom from outsiders control can be assumed from what she does say, but religious tolerance would seem limited at best—a far cry from the Quakers:
the Quaker idea of liberty of conscience was based, not on rules, but on thought and choice, recognizing that different people could make different choices, and that those choices could still be conscientious. Certainly, this idea grew out of the Quakers' understanding of the facts of life--other religions and ideas were everywhere around them, and, as they had never been dominant, it was likely, if not certain, that they never would be.
In contrast, she notes about the Borderers:
Their religious beliefs were diverse on the surface, but shared an underlying intensity and tribal character--they were believers, simultaneously, in grace and sectarian conflict.
This is not a formula for promoting religious tolerance, which in turn forms the foundation stone for liberty of conscience more generally.
Thus, in terms of liberty, at least, it seems insupportable to claim that "True American-style democracy had its origins in this culture." Indeed, it seems insupportable to claim that true American-style democracy has strong support in Borderer culture today. They are all for their own liberty, of course, but have very little tolerance for the liberty of others, at least compared to the other traditions—especially the Quakers, the "liberal elite" onto which they readily project their own intolerance.
The second factually false claim involves Webb’s version of a favorite GOP meme: "I didn’t leave the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party left me." It’s instructive to recall that Ronald Reagan, who first popularized this meme, was extremely disingenuous about just when this happened, and why. In Webb’s version:
The Democrats lost their affinity with the Scots-Irish during the Civil Rights era, when -- because it was the dominant culture in the South -- its "redneck" idiosyncrasies provided an easy target during their shift toward minorities as the foundation of their national electoral strategy.
This passage stands reality on its head. During the Civil Rights era, it was not the Democrats, but the Republicans who "targeted" the Scots Irish as the foundation of their national electoral strategy. The GOP even had a name for it—"the Southern Strategy." [Note wignut attempts to rewrite history in the linked-to Wikipedia article.] The Democrats never took pot-shots at "redneck" idiosyncrasies as Webb would have it. But the GOP took constant cannon shots at blacks and Yankees in wooing over Scots-Irish and other Southern whites. In contrast, "courting minorities" did not require demonizing anyone. It required simple justice, nothing more. Furthermore, it was hardly "the foundation of the Democrats’ national electoral strategy." The numbers just weren’t there for it. But painting the Democrats as beholden to minority "special interests" was a key part of the GOP’s Southern Strategy.
In short, Webb is regurgitating the GOP’s race-baiting false history it used to take over the Solid South. It was certainly very important for the South to feel victimized, in order to avoid confronting its own long and bloody history of victimizing blacks—first as slaves, then as terrorized second-class citizens. But just because it was psychologically important doesn’t make it true. We may not want to rub this in anyone’s face—that’s not the best way to move forward. But neither should we help them deny it. Denial does not move people forward, either.
Conclusion: What We Need
What we need—something akin to South Africa’s "Truth and Reconciliation" process—requires creation of a shared moral context powerful enough to enable transformation, so that what has been owned as part of a cherished identity can be disowned for sake of a new identity. This is bound to be a painful process. It cannot be easy, or it would have been done long ago. But it must be done, for the sake of the Scots Irish, and their Borderer bretheren as much as anyone else. This will, however, require leadership from within their own ranks—just as Afrikaaners needed their own leadership (not all of it, by a long shot, but at least one leading figure) to recognize, and act on the need for change.
Based on his WSJ op-ed, Webb is clearly not that sort of leader, at least not now, not yet. He is still fiercely clinging to strands of myth that keep Borderer culture tightly bound to the past, and blind, if not outright hostile to other possibilities around it.
Yet, commentator matt n nyc writes ("Unfair to Fisher"):
I'm reading Webb's Born Fighting right now, and I'm finding it both a good support of the Fisher/Smiley thesis and a glimmer of hope. It seems to suggest that Scots-Irish culture can be both the problem and the solution. So enough of the defensiveness; be proud of your heritage and try to put it to work to defeat the wingnuts on their own turf.
And I concur. (I’ve certainly got a Borderer fighting streak in me, as do a large chunk of folks in the liberal blogosphere.)
For Borderer culture to truly progress, it must first have some leadership that can see the contradictions here, and face up to them. This need not mean accepting them as they are seen by outsiders. But it does mean seeing the need for a more sophisticated explanation of what makes the culture coherent, on the one hand, and what its real cleavages are, understood on its own terms. It is surely possible that Webb could become such a figure, over time. But neither he, nor anyone else like him, will make the necessary, painful transition unless they are both challenged and listened to. In short, we need dialogue.
We should all be prepared to be both challenged and listened to.