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June 28, 2005

Dissing the Scotch-Irish

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I enjoyed reading Charles Oliver's Reason magazine review of a new book by James Webb. (I can't find the review online. Reason's site is here.) The book is "Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America." According to Oliver, Webb has written an interesting but mostly-cheerleading book, and Oliver uses his own review to step back and assess the impact of the Scotch-Irish (as I'm used to calling them) on America.

Oliver, citing Webb, points out the positive: energy, feistiness, orneriness. The best unit in the army fighting for American independence was Scotch-Irish; later, Andrew Carnegie was one of the tribe. These days, NASCAR events are, as Steve Sailer has argued, where the Scotch-Irish go to celebrate their values. What a legacy: Moonshine ... Country music ... Gotta love those Scotch-Irish! But there are also dark sides to the Scotch-Irish -- primarily, in Oliver's view, a kneejerk, unthinking populism.

I'm a quarter Scotch-Irish myself. Years ago, I read this good discussion of the Scotch-Irish and found it helpful. So that's why my cousins behave the way they do. So them's the reasons that I have days when I want to drink too much, cry to a country song, and -- shotgun in hand -- tell a revenooer to Git.

Still, there's another reason I found Oliver's review interesting. It raised a series of questions I often find fascinating: questions about sensitivities, faux pas, and the informal arrangements we make to get through the day. Oliver doesn't deliberately raise these more general questions, by the way. I'm doing my own independent musing here.

In his Reason piece, Oliver is direct and straightforward about what he sees as the shortcomings of the Scotch-Irish. My musings/questions: Which other ethnic-national groups in American society today can we discuss so frankly? Which groups do we have to tread more gently around? And: Is this just? Is it fair? Is it amusing?

If the Scotch-Irish can be discussed as 1) a group with certain characteristics, and 2) as a group with both positive and negative characteristics, then clearly Americans of English descent and of German descent can too. The Scotch-Irish, the English, and the German account for more than 90% of my own genes, and most of the time it wouldn't occur to me to bitch if and when people were to complain about us. I confess that I do sometimes think that My Various People go a little underappreciated these "multicultural" (ha!) days. But my general feeling is that we're always fair game, and that that's fine. Such is life: No one's ever gonna love everything about you.

But why shouldn't other groups be just as fair game? The line grows fuzzy pretty quickly, doesn't it? For instance: If we were to conduct a public discussion about Americans of Irish descent that acknowledged not just the positive but also the negative, how would our discussion be received? Or those of Italian descent? Of Hungarian or Polish descent? And what if our discussion were presented in the form of an essay in a respectable magazine?

If you're like me, the part of you that's tuned into what's socially acceptable knows damn well you're walking on thin ice by this point. Best to let such discussions occur only in private and then deny that they ever do occur -- or, at the very least, let such talks be initiated and conducted by people who themselves belong to these groups. But write essays for respectable magazines about the downsides as well as the upsides of the Polish-Americans, or the Arab-Americans? Heavens no. Feelings are likely to get even more fiery when the topics of Hispanics, African-Americans, and Jews come up. And what about Asian-Americans? They seem like a stoic, get-on-with-it group by comparison to some others, don't they? Oops: There I go, making generalizations again ...

Am I wrong in my evaluations? My social radar may of course be off -- always a possibility. And how do we all feel/think about these informal arrangements that most of us accept and play by? If one group's virtues and liabilities can be frankly discusssed in public, shouldn't that be the case for all groups? Fair's fair, let's all be grownups and take our knocks, etc. Or do we agree that some groups need and deserve more tender treatment than other groups?

On the third hand: does Being Sensitive have to mean shutting up entirely?



UPDATE: Thanks to Dave Lull and Lexington Green, both of whom turned up the Oliver review online. It's here.

posted by Michael at June 28, 2005


You forget, Michael, us white guys are the oppressors. Never mind that doesn't really fit that well in a discussion about the Sots-Irish, many of whom were rankly exploited in Appalachia.

I've had these discussions with my Jewish wife, and similar ones about the stereotyping of white men by some more extreme feminists, and though she's a good sport about it, it's slow and treacherous going. Now that there's something resembling decent equality of opportunity in America, I think us crackers are just going to have to take a pummeling for a while before the down-trodden minorities can get it out of their system.

Posted by: Todd Fletcher on June 28, 2005 4:42 PM

What's the point of this? Even if it were socially acceptable to group people like this, I have to wonder whether it's useful. My melange of ethnicity overlaps a great deal with yours. Does that mean we're basically the same person? If not, why? The answer to the latter question probably tells us much more about humans than their ethnicity ever would. Let's study that instead.

Posted by: Outer Life on June 28, 2005 5:05 PM

The review is here:

Posted by: Dave Lull on June 28, 2005 5:21 PM

One of my favorite topics.

"'re walking on thin ice by this point." Your radar is working just fine, and the ice is thin indeed. But, the fact is, culture is real and it is not just cuisine and folk dancing and other nice, safe, cute aspects. There are good and bad aspects of these cultures. Some groups have exceptionally high literacy, like our Scandinavian-derived neighbors, others like to fight or drink more than others, like my Irish ancestors. These cultures evolve over time, like what happened to the Irish between their arrival as rowdy, refugee peasants 150 years ago, their formation of tight, puritanical communities in the big cities, then their virtual disappearance as a distinct group into the suburban mass post-1945. But the path of change can be clearly mapped, and some characteristics can be shown to persist. Jews are diproportionally represented in the learned professions, Italians tend to earn middle class incomes by operating businesses rather than by getting higher education, etc., etc. We can be very "PC" and not talk about these differences, but they are as real as cement. People whose incomes depend on an awareness of these variations have no problem facing them: market researchers and political consultants, for example. So, speak up, fear not, and let air and light in onto these important topics. What's a blog for, after all?

The guy to go to for this topic generally, and the "Scotch-Irish" in particular, is David Hackett Fischer, whose book Albion's Seed lays out the history of the people who settled the "back country". Not all of them were actually Scotch-Irish, many of them coming from the Scotch-Northern English border. Fischer shows the persistence of cultural norms over centuries, for this group and three others originating in Britain pre-1776.

The other guy to look at on this topic is Walter Russell Mead, whose book Albion's Seed contains the chapter on Jacksonian America, a meme which has permeated the Right/Libertarian spiral arm of the blogospheric galaxy. Fischer shows how widely spread the "borderer" culture became, and Mead makes the important point that many aspects of this culture have come to permeate the larger American middle-class suburban culture -- "Crabgrass Jacksonianism". Mead's assessment is extremely convincing. Mead correctly points out that a large measure of America's global military power can be attributed to this group. We are an economically developed country with a large subcommunity which still possesses pre-modern warrior values.

America's borderers or Scotch-Irish have disproportionately filled the ranks of our armies over the centuries, as well as providing our most storied law-men and law-breakers, rounders, scrappers and bank robbers. But they have made another, massive contribution to American life -- They are the great troubadours of the American story. Their Celtic-derived music and the music of our Black Americans has become so commingled over the centuries that they constitute two inextricable parts of a single American music. Bob Wills, whose fiddle playing had in it hundreds of years of Celtic lineage, merged his sound with New Orleans Jazz to create a unique hybrid.(this Bob Wills biography is excellent.) Merle Haggard's body of music is in reality a multi-part epic of the Jacksonian American experience. These two guys are both products of this cultural stream.

Posted by: Lexington Green on June 28, 2005 5:23 PM

You're right it's less and less useful, as ethnic traits melt away due to intermarriage, but the study of cultural templates left by our ancestors, many of which are still in place, will always be fascinating.

Posted by: Bill on June 28, 2005 5:25 PM

I can't stop myself.

Two more books which deal to one degree or another with this theme: Kevin Phillips, The Cousins' War is a somewhat muddled book, but nonetheless fascinating and full of illuminating detail about the political and military ramifications of cultural and religious identity in Britain and America over three and a half centuries. Jim Bennett's book The Anglosphere Challenge provides an over-arching context for the various cultural streams which originated in Britain and have had a global impact, and where it all may be heading.

Posted by: Lexington Green on June 28, 2005 5:37 PM

Here is the link to the Oliver review.

Posted by: Lexington Green on June 28, 2005 5:47 PM

As for the issue of what groups are fair game for criticism, well, it's pretty clear to me. Even slightly negative discussions of nonwhite groups are almost entirely prohibited unless made by members of the groups themselves. Indeed, portrayals of nonwhites on television or in movies generally must be favorable, as an example consider how the vast majority of the New York criminals as shown on the various _Law & Order_ shows are white, when outside the realm of TV whites consititute less than 10% of real-life NYC criminals (IIRC Steve Sailer first pointed out this fact). Among whites, Jews seem to enjoy a special protection from criticism or negative portrayals, no doubt due to their unhappy history, although this appears to be changing to some extent.

Posted by: Peter on June 28, 2005 7:33 PM

Bill and Outer Life, this type of information is incredibly useful. Ethnic traits don't melt away, but they do change and evolve and it's important to always keep a pulse on them.

I'm in business, and a vital component of my success is the ability to determine as quickly as possible the characteristics of clients and potential clients so I can adapt my self to both serve their needs best, and get as much cash out of them as I can.

The same is true of politics where you're after votes rather than cash. Figruing out which types of traits tend to go together is absoultely necessary fi you're going to have any power. Maybe this is why liberals lose so much, they've blinded themselves to the truths that are needed to win in bussiness and politics...

Posted by: Zetjintsu on June 28, 2005 8:17 PM

That's a pretty crappy review, seasoned with a bunch of not-well-thought-out anecdotal junk sociology. For example,
For generations, Southern politicians have been less noted for their devotion to liberty than for their skill at bringing home pork. Thatís what their voters demand.
Think about this for one second. What is pork? Well, it's my tax dollars. Damn straight I want my tax dollars back. If not in my pocket, then in my neighbor's pocket, who builds roads or runways or whatever. It's not like the Feds are gonna sit on it or give it back, anyway.

Anyhoo, go read the book, MB. It's excellent. Yeah, it's a bit of cheerleading, but so what? It's historically accurate, and it's a good read. If you're any part Scots-Irish, it might even make you feel good about your excellent choices in ancestors. It did for me. heh heh

Oh, and think about this: maybe the hayseeds can blaze a trail AGAIN, and allow frank discussion about ethnicity and culture become a normal part of every day life.

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on June 28, 2005 10:48 PM

The most egregious aspect of that article is how it rakes Scots-Irish over the coals for backing FDR and his New Deal programs all the while ignoring that this was during the middle of the goddam Great Depression and that the South has until the last fifty years been the poorest area of the US. I don't know if it's still the poorest.

Posted by: lindenen on June 29, 2005 12:04 AM

Its OK to talk about the negative characteristics of the Scots Irish because they're secure in their position as part of the mainstream in the US. They may not be rich or powerful, for the most part, but no-one seriously disputes their right to be here or do what they do.

If you compare that with the circumstances of their cousins who stayed in Ireland, the Ulster Scots (or Ulster Protestants, or Brits, Prods or any number of increasingly coarse and innacurate terms), I'd strongly suggest not making any jokes at their expense in their country. Thats because they don't feel secure there, and their existence is threatened culturally, and, in the recent past, by terrorist violence (not that they haven't done their fair share themselves).

Posted by: Simon on June 29, 2005 12:35 AM

I'm just back from a very fulfilling day spent oppressing ethnics, women, and other "minorities" ...

Thanks for thoughts and recommendations. These damn authors, though: they sure do like to write long books. Can't they boil their points down to a blog posting? Or maybe an episode of "Modern Marvels," or at least make available an abridged audiobook version? Sheesh.You'd think I had nothing better to do than read their books ...

My own fave book on these topics is Thomas Sowell's "Ethnic America." Most discussions of the various groupings seem to start from the liberal default position -- the assumption that we're all the same and that it's up to you to prove otherwise. Sowell sensibly starts by wondering why should assume any of these groups should be alike, given the immensely different lives and experiences they brought with them. And then he supplies lots of interesing history, info and observations about nine different American ethnic groups: Jews, Irish, Germans, Italians, some others.

Great stuff I wish I'd read before moving to NYC, where life can be very tribal. When I arrived here as a kid of 23 or so, I genuinely had no idea what the "Irish" package might consist of, or the "Italian." I had a dim sense that Jews were smart and talked a lot about guilt, but not much beyond that. I coulda used a scorecard. Especially because people in NYC often identify tribally.

The formal-public/informal thing fascinates me too. In NYC, people will say streetwise, commonsensical things to each other all the time: the Italians know the Irish are such-and-such; the blacks are wary of the Jews because of this-and-that, etc etc endlessly. Yet almost none of this can be said in respectable society, and very little of it ever makes its way into print.

Blogs are an interesting development in the midst of all this. They're somewhere between a traditionally-published thing and watercooler chat. So it seems bloggers are freer to raise these kinds of questions than pro writers are -- we get to stand between the pros and the private conversations and wonder why the two are so out of synch.

At the same time, I'm not against a certain amount of public hypocrisy and pretence, and I'm not against decent sensitivity being shown. On the other hand, I've heard the most amazingly insulting generalizations made about My People (cornfed-vanillas) by "ethnics" -- they've been much more open in their hostility and insults than all but a few cornfed-vanilla people I've ever known would be about the "ethnics." I don't know whether they thought I was one of them, or maybe they thought that since I was in NYC that meant I'd turned on my people, or something. Anyway, it does seem more than a bit unfair that everyone gets to take potshots at two or three main groups, but no one gets to take potshots at the masses of other groups.

Which reminds me of a movie-history thing. Have y'all heard of the Before the Code movies? Sound movies made by Hollywood between 1929 and 1933 (if I remember the dates right) - after sound became commonplace but before the Hays Office cracked down on movie licentiousness. Well, these movies are known and loved for being quite unbuttoned and racy. No nudity, but plenty of open acknowledgement of the funkier sides of life. Moviebuffs love this -- sex and movies, yes. What's much less often talked about is something that's just as obvious when you watch the films: they're also very uninhibited about racial things. Some of the name-calling and tribal behavior is a little much even by my very loose standards. But I found most of it to be a kick: good-natured, rough-hewn, companionable. This side of the Before the Code movies seldom gets mentioned, probably because it's un-PC. And it's wildly un-PC to notice that the rough-and-ready rapport the various ethnic groups have onscreen in these movies seems healthy and extraverted, and much preferable to the dainty/armtwisting/lying/suppressing thing we have going on these days ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 29, 2005 12:44 AM

"I'm just back from a very fulfilling day spent oppressing ethnics, women, and other "minorities" ..."

Bwah! I'd love to see this as something actually said in a movie by an actor to another person's inquiry about how their day went. Such a comment would probably be unacceptable if it came from a businessman or politician, but if the character was a put-upon janitor, then comedy.

Posted by: lindenen on June 29, 2005 1:08 AM

The Epic of Gilgamesh blog occasionally documents the ongoing Mexican invasion of the North American version of the Scotch-Irish heartland in Appalachia.
Last night I went into town to get pizza. There was a beat up old van pulled over by the Sheriff's Department just as I got to town, and the city police showed up as well. There must have been thirty Mexicans crammed into that van, no exaggeration. I have no idea what it was about. They're everywhere in the mountains now. I went out to the owners place to work on a computer in his home office, and there was a crew out there cutting beetle infested pine trees down. Six Mayans and one local guy. I asked the fellow in charge , flat out, why he was using Mexicans and not local men when we have such a bad unemployment program. The answer was simple, and one I've heard before. They work cheaper. They'll do dangerous jobs it's hard to get white or black locals to take on. He didn't say so, but the rest of the story is that he is almost certainly paying them under the table, which saves him a huge amount on workers compensation and in his share of payroll taxes.

Posted by: guaro on June 29, 2005 1:38 AM

Hmmm... I'm a German-Norwegian mix which is not all that unusual in Wisconsin. My husband, who is not, says that makes me both dumb and stubborn.

Posted by: Deb on June 29, 2005 8:08 AM

Is it the German or Norwegian half that's supposed to be "dumb"? :)

Michaels' right---many groups seem exempt from discussion, some don't.

I guess my problem is, I never really found these discussions that helpful. I don't think knowing I'm half-Italian helps anybody understand me, and I don't know if I think---"ohhhh, he's Scotch-Irish, NOW I get it!" about someone else. I'm just not one of those people who has found these "national characteristics" to be very true on an individual basis, at least unless someone is still living in their native country or just moved here. Anybody who is "American" has a healthy dollop of that in them, too. I think a lot of Americans want to tell a revenooer to git, regardless of their surname!

Posted by: annette on June 29, 2005 10:05 AM

Well, if a nice, vanilla cornfed, Ivy-educated, liberal-arts kind of guy is starting to feel "amazingly insulted", maybe something's afoot - and the "respectable magazines" and "polite opinion" are as clue-challenged as ever. Meanwhile, out in the nice, respectable but non-elite, liberal-minded middle-middle-class (where I live), folks have been letting it rip for a while now, and it's been interesting to watch "acceptable speech" evolve over the last couple of decades.

Why has the speech of "nice people" become more "free-and-easy" on the topic of ethnicity? Maybe it has to do with my (as of yet unrigorously formulated) "Breen's Law": PC is inversely correlated with genuine diversity, or the degree to which a speaker actually lives the nitty-gritty of the multi-culti life. For example, the egregiously, hilariously PC UC-Boulder in the early 90s was the whitest place we'd ever lived - my black hair felt downright exotic, and we used to joke about not being able to tell all the blondes apart. Genuinely diverse Florida, from which we'd moved, was, hmmm, not particularly PC, to say the least.

Posted by: Moira Breen on June 29, 2005 11:33 AM

Michael: " seems bloggers are freer to raise these kinds of questions than pro writers are...."

Journalists and (famously) academics are forbidden to ask the questions, bloggers are allowed to ask (but not answer) the questions, "historically disadvantaged minorities" are allowed to ask and answer the questions, but only about "historically advantaged" groups*.

Does that help?

* Somehow the descendants of destitute starving Irish refugees from the potato famine, Norwegians who decided that farming rocks was unrewarding, Chinese coolies who broke rocks and their backs to build the Central Pacific, and Russian serfs escaping slavery are considered historically advantaged. Don't ask why, it's just the way it is and you'd better never suggest otherwise.**

** You might surmise that I find this ridiculous; you might be right.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on June 29, 2005 11:57 AM

Years ago there was a great article in National Review proposing that people be granted property rights to telling jokes about their own ethnicity. The property rights, by being tradable, would permit people to sell such rights to those not sharing their ethnicity. There was even a line about the KKK paying enough to get the rights to tell black jokes to eliminate poverty among blacks (but presumably also increasing it among the KKK).

Posted by: Hatcher on June 29, 2005 12:20 PM

I forgot to put this in my first comment:


At least respect the whisky, if not the man. I don't want to have to tell you this again...

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on June 29, 2005 2:17 PM


Enjoyed your piece. I guess that if one accepts culture as cultivation, as a "liberation of man from his self-imposed minority" in the words of Kant, and not as viewed by the Romantics "as the life-blood of a people", one would never fall in this trap. For example, as a non-American I could never figure out this African-American thing: Would Jazz, black musicians' great Jazz in particular, have been possible without America?



Posted by: William on June 30, 2005 5:22 AM

Re Michael's post above-- anyone ever read the police- NYC thrillers by "Robert Tanenbaum" ?( Actually until the last awful one they turn out to have been written by his cousin Michael Gruber, now author of two good novels under his own name). They are full of the realistic intergroup talk, banter, humor, insult, sometime uneasiness, sometime respect I remember from my childhood in "ethnic" Boston.

Perhaps the spectrum of who can talk about these things runs from academics (never) through "serious" novelists (never except from a New Yorker magazine cliche liberal viewpoint-- rednecks bad) through popular/ genre novelists (some do it very well) to "ordinary" folks. Some of these bring a mordant humor to the matter too. When euphemisms for those who were once known as retarded started up some years back, my family in Boston began referring to any ordinary stupid person as "gifted".

Ethnic? I'm conflicted. Half Italian, half very mixed Irish German Scottish English via Canada among other places. And I have lived in rural New Mexico for 25 years which complicates culture....

Posted by: Steve Bodio on July 1, 2005 9:42 PM

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