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What has gone on in Washington these past couple of weeks has frustrated most of us Americans (and has amazed those watching from other countries) as a colossal waste of time and money, and for what? "We fought the good fight," says John Boehner, but what does that mean? What was he fighting for? And why?

Part of the answer lies, I think, in the 18th century. It's an answer I've been looking for since 2006, when I first began to really see what is happening in American politics and culture... when I first began the reading that led to my newest book. What I have learned, and what I share in the book, is that American resentments have much greater histories than many of us are aware.

What happens when there are two major cultures in a country, and one feels that, though they represent the real spirit of the country, they are being pretty much ignored by its rulers?

Lots of things can, from protest to revolution. We've just seen a rather unusual one, though completely appropriate (in the eyes of the perpetrators), given the beliefs and situation of those who see themselves shoved to the outside of their own country.

The American right sees a United States dominated by people who, in their eyes, don't even represent the "real" Americans who built this country in the first place. They see a country dominated by immigrants and minorities, by people who don't understand the work that it took to make this country great--people who are simply taking advantage of its greatness.

They see (or imagine they see) others coddled and cut to the front of the line while they work and wait their turn. They think government, to aid these others, has gotten too much into their business and their finances, making them struggle while others relax. They look at laws that many (to their eyes) hide behind, or that favor the non-"Americans" over the true children of this country.

To them, central governments have always been villains. Since the time of the War of the Regulation in the 1760s, they have been struggling against those who want to impose their own law upon them. Though they supported the Revolution and loved General Washington, they hated the taxes that they saw as an unfair imposition on an already overburdened population. They rose up against the federal government in the Whiskey Rebellion of the 1790s--and it was only the presence of their beloved general, now President, that took the wind out of their sails.

Could resentments from so long ago be influencing attitudes to many generations later?

There's a line that can be traced from the Whiskey Rebellion right to Junior Johnson and the birth of NASCAR, not all that long ago.

More tellingly, feelings associated with the Civil War, only a couple of generations more recent than the Whiskey Rebellion, still crop up in association with the Tea Party, so why not those just a little older (and more than a little related)?

But who are they, these Americans so close to being at war with their government?

In The Cult of Individualism: A History of an Enduring American Myth, I identify them as the inheritors of the Borderers, the Scots-Irish immigrants of the 18th century who settled in the backwoods of the time and who were the leaders of the movement westward of the 19th century. The book is a start at telling their story, a start because theirs is a story seldom told today, in a country that celebrates immigrants of the 19th, 20th and even 17th centuries but elides the Borderers almost completely from almost all of its intellectual and media discussions (making it no wonder, by the way, that they hate the media... and most intellectuals).

Here's what my publisher's website says about the book:

American culture is divided—and it always has been.
American individualism: It is the reason for American success, but it also tears the nation apart.

Why do Americans have so much trouble seeing eye to eye today? Is this new? Was there ever an American consensus? The Cult of Individualism: A History of an Enduring American Myth explores the rarely discussed cultural differences leading to today's seemingly intractable political divides.

After an examination of the various meanings of individualism in America, author Aaron Barlow describes the progression and evolution of the concept from the 18th century on, illuminating the wide division in Caucasian American culture that developed between the culture based on the ideals of the English Enlightenment and that of the Scots-Irish "Borderers." The "Borderer" legacy, generally explored only by students of Appalachian culture, remains as pervasive and significant in contemporary American culture and politics as it is, unfortunately, overlooked. It is from the "Borderers" that the Tea Party sprang, along with many of the attitudes of the contemporary American right, making it imperative that this culture be thoroughly explored.


Documents how the concept and execution of "American individualism" is as diverse as America itself.  Explains how the American notion of individualism has roots that extend back to cultural myths that predate the founding of the nation.  Spotlights the role of the "Borderer" culture spearheaded by the Scots-Irish, whose legacy fuels much of America's contemporary cultural and political divides.  Provides eye-opening information for any reader who wishes to know why so many of our 21st-century political debates in America seem hopelessly irreconcilable. 

Sample Topics: 

American Backwoods, American Folkways, Appalachian Culture, Daniel Boone, Horatio Alger, Individualism in America, Movies and Small Towns, Red States vs. Blue States, Scots-Irish in America, Self-Made Myth.

Excerpts can be read here.
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Comment Preferences

  •  without going into your diary my answer to your (0+ / 0-)

    questions would be that I would consider any apology from the teaparty supporters as a non-apology and wouldn't even consider it worth listening to it.

  •  Anybody who expects the Tea Party to apologize.... (0+ / 0-)

    for anything they do has a fundamental misunderstanding of them and the situation.
    they want Obama to apologize to them

    Happy just to be alive

    by exlrrp on Fri Oct 18, 2013 at 03:02:46 PM PDT

  •  I have a question for you. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    AaronBa, BlueDragon, Chi

    I see one of my recent diaries on your list of favorites.  "A Conversation With a Staffer . . ."

    What makes tea partiers such glib and prolific liars? I feel like there has to be a cultural root somewhere to explain it.  The characters of the Duke and the Dauphin in "Huckleberry Finn" seem like an archetype that some people copy and that others willingly tolerate.  

    People don't apologize if they don't believe they did anything wrong.  These people are imposters through and through. Like the Duke and the Dauphin who adopted phony identities they used to disguise what they really were, common thieves, and to give themselves the respectability they lacked.  

    Similarly, tea party radicals, wear disguises like Conservative, Christian, Capitalist, Entrepreneur, Patriot, etc. for the same reasons.  Their deeds and actions would betray them except for a couple of things. To keep the grift going, they have to believe their own bullshit.  And they operate in a permissive environment that condones and covers for their activities.  

    They function as a social irritant where there's enough bitterness and resentment in the environment and the population has no constructive or effective means to address it.  The more mayhem they cause, the more satisfaction is felt by the general population.  Grudges lead to revenge.  To people who believe they were wronged, this is like justice.

    What's the source of tea party resentment?  Race, class, status.  When one House member reacted to Obama by saying "We're not going to be disrespected" a supporter in his district complained about being demoted to the lowest rung of society. Less than. There are counties in eastern Kentucky where poverty has been entrenched for 80 years or more.  I read years back about people there who went out of their way to hide any evidence of government assistance they were getting because of the stigma of shame.  There's self-loathing which is probably the worst kind of hate.  There's also tribalism that categorizes all people as us or them.  Grievances can be imagined too.


    There is no existence without doubt.

    by Mark Lippman on Fri Oct 18, 2013 at 03:38:02 PM PDT

    •  That, My Friend... (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      cfk, Mark Lippman, BlueDragon the subject of the book.

      I trace it back to the reception of the Scots-Irish, the largest "white" immigrant group of the 18th century, in the American colonies. To say the least, they were not welcomed. They were coming (many of them) from Ulster Plantation in Northern Ireland--where they had also not been welcome--and, before that, from the border between England and Scotland--where they had been over-run by other people's wars once a generation for a thousand years. They were proud, poor, and cherished the idea of their independence.

      The Tea Party attitudes, I find, are nothing new.

      Oh... by the way, many of my ancestors were Scots-Irish who came through Ulster from the borderland... and both of my parents were from Appalachia, the area of the country still closest to my heart. Not all of us are like the Tea Partiers. My uncle, in Western North Carolina, emailed me today to say how appalled he is by the shutdown, etc., and how much he sees race as a part of it. He and I are as Scots-Irish as anyone.... Heritage isn't everything.

      •  I don't lump people together. Two people can (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        AaronBa, murasaki

        grow up in the same house and turn out totally different.

        There is no existence without doubt.

        by Mark Lippman on Fri Oct 18, 2013 at 05:45:56 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

      •  i would be interested in (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        AaronBa, Chi

        your response to Vol 1 of "The Invention of the White Race" by Theodore Allen.  It concentrates on Ireland in the racialization of the Irish.  

        If you have looked at it or do so in the future, please kosmail me how you think it fits.

        I cannot separate all this from race as people are noting above.

        Scots-Irish were doubly not-English, so there might be a connection there.

        Sorry, I don't have time to read your book or even the excerpts right now.

        •  I Have No Argument... (0+ / 0-)

          ...with Allen. In fact, what I am presenting perhaps benefits from his work, though I do not rely on it directly. I stay away from discussion of "race" for, for one thing, I don't know what it means, outside of a social construct (Allen would likely agree that it has no inherent meaning as we generally use the word). Instead, I group people through cultural (and not even genetic) affinities.

          "Race," as we use it in the US today, is a means of defining the "other," the outsider, the threat. In that sense, it has a great deal to do with the topic of my book.

      •  I researched the Scotch-Irish myself (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        for work I did about my spouse's ancestors, many of whom were lowland Scots who moved to the Ulster province before boarding ships to America --actually to Pennsylvania, which is where many Scotch-Irish started their American lives.

        Here's some of what I wrote:

        Between 1710 and 1775, five waves of Ulster-Scots migration took place.  . . From 1710 to 1775, nearly 200,000 people emigrated from Ulster to the American colonies. The largest numbers went to Pennsylvania. Ultimately many of the later Scotch-Irish immigrants moved south, into Virginia and the Carolina Piedmont. . .

        Many Germans had already settled parts of Pennsylvania. Considering themselves as orderly, frugal and industrious, they tended to look askance on the Scotch-Irish, typifying them as reckless, impetuous, and quick- tempered. Thus, the two groups tended to keep their settlements separate, and they did not interact a great deal. . . .

        (his family had a Germanic branch and a Scotch-Irish branch, both settling first in Pennsylvania)
        The Scotch-Irish brought other qualities to their new homeland that have had a continuing influence on the American national identity. They were deeply self-reliant, believing that “God helps those who help themselves.” And they were strongly patriotic. They had endured oppression in Ulster under the English parliament, and were thus staunch supporters of the American Revolution, many serving in state militias.

        As Presbyterians, they upheld tenets of the Scottish preacher John Knox, who taught that every parish should have a school for the education of all. This adherence to the ideal of public education was carried to the frontier as many of these Scotch-Irish moved west, and it can be seen in the stories of some of our ancestors.

        Perhaps my spouse's ancestors diverged from those who took the Great Wagon Road to the South. His ancestors went west through Ohio to Indiana, Illinois, etc.

        "Although it is not true that all conservatives are stupid people, it is true that most stupid people are conservatives." --John Stuart Mill

        by murasaki on Fri Oct 18, 2013 at 10:10:28 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  That is exactly... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      AaronBa many non-slaveholders were lured into supporting the slave system.  As bad off as some of them were at least they comforted themselves that they weren't on the lowest rung.

  •  It will never be a fair fight... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    AaronBa, Chi long as one side doesn't like government to begin with.  Michele Bachmann was being brutally honest when she said on the day the government shut down that it was the happiest she had seen some of her colleagues.  They LIKE the government being shut down, until they start feeling the heat about popular stuff like park sites, at which point it's suddenly the Democrats' fault.

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