Friday, January 4, 2008

James Webb, the Ulster Scots, and Red State voters

With politics on our minds, and our eyes turning to New Hampshire, let us revisit the political insights of Senator James Webb (D-Va.). Webb (right) was a decorated Marine in Vietnam and an assistant secretary of defense and secretary of the Navy under Reagan before carrying out the political upset of the Millennium in 2006 by defeating a popular incumbent, George Allen.

Webb has written many novels, but his 2004 non-fiction book, Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America, was especially thought provoking in its insights into the influence of Scots-Irish culture on the American political climate of recent years.

In an editorial in The Wall Street Journal several years ago, Webb wrote that Scots-Irish voters line up fiercely behind God, pride in the flag, honor, no taxes and no gun control---all of which are based on hundreds of years of history and deep-seated culture.

The character traits of the Scots-Irish, writes Webb, are loyalty to kin, mistrust of governmental authority, fierce independence and military readiness. Another trait is the tendency of Scots-Irish culture to absorb members of other groups, which enabled it to become the dominant culture of the American South (see also: country music and NASCAR) and "the heart and soul of working class America."

Webb does not like the term "redneck," but that is a term that has accompanied Scots-Irish people for nearly four hundred years --- long before Jeff Foxworthy and Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby.

The word redneck was first cited in 1638, when Scots -- riding the wave of the Protestant Reformation -- adopted the Presbyterian Church (in which each church is run by its own Presbyters, or elders) and rejected the Church of England and its episcopacy (rule by bishops). Scots signed a National Covenant, often using their own blood. Many wore red pieces of cloth around their neck to signify their position to the public. Hence, they were referred to as Rednecks.
(Of course the idea of choosing to govern one's own religion led directly to the idea of choosing one's own government. This latter idea was carried over from Scotland, planted in America and brought to flower in the American Revolution.)

It was back in the 17th century that a large group of tough, independent "rednecks" migrated from their lowland Scottish home to Northern Ireland, where they lived for a few generations.
When the English began to abuse them in Ulster, they migrated to America -- notably Appalachia and the South. There they provided a buffer between the Indians on the frontier and the more gentile settlements in the coastal regions.
Many Scots-Irish also ended up in the mountains of New Hampshire, which helps explain the state's low taxes; its motto, "Live Free or Die;" town names like Derry, Londonderry and Keene; and the descriptions we'll hear in the next several days of "fiercely independent" voters.
The Scots-Irish were the fiercest fighters in the Revolutionary War and have remained so in every American conflict. It was their eagerness to fight in the Mexican-American War (and the Alamo) that gave us the term "Tennessee Volunteers."
Their version of Presbyterianism morphed in to fundamentalist strains of Protestantism that dominate the South. (In part this was because Presbyterian higher-ups might have at some point tried to tell individual churches what to do.)
In colonial times, the hardy, sharpshooting Scots-Irish were also called "crackers" by English neighbors, from a Gaelic word "craik" meaning to boast. As one Englishman wrote, "I should explain ... what is meant by Crackers; a name they have got from being great boasters; they are a lawless set of rascalls on the frontiers of Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas, and Georgia, who often change their places of abode."

The Scots never bowed to Rome or to the English kings. The Scots-Irish have never bowed to anyone. Webb once asked one of his uncles -- who was near the end of his long, tough, life of hard work and few rewards -- what he was proudest of in his life. The older man responded, "I never kissed the ass of any man."

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