I came relatively late to Jim Webb’s Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America. Indeed, I’m somewhat embarrassed to say that I knew very little of Webb at all until I watched him from time to time during the 2006 Senatorial campaign in Virginia. From the first time I saw him speak, however, I was hooked. There was something about the gritty, plain spoken demeanor that was comfortably familiar to me.
After hearing me talk about Webb ceaselessly after his election, and after watching me do endless imitations of him, Bonnie threw her hands up and bought me a copy of Born Fighting, hoping, I think, to either get me over my fascination or to not have to listen to me during the times when I was reading. It didn’t work. Each night I read the book and would shout out lines in an almost giddy fashion. For one born and raised in the South, especially close to the highlands in North Carolina, this book did so much to affirm me—perhaps to a fault—that I’ve only gotten louder.
For those not in the know, Webb claims to offer, in 343 pages, a wide ranging history of the Scots-Irish people, focusing specifically on their immigration to what would become the United States and on the ways in which their “acute individualism, dislike of aristocracy” and their military tradition, over time defined “the attitudes and values of the military, of working-class America, and even of the peculiarly populist form of American democracy itself” (that’s directly from the cover, for those counting). The pace of the book is necessarily quick and the writing style—a mix of Webb’s family stories, vernacular folktales, and textbook history—keeps one tied to both the overall argument Webb is building as well as to the local heroes and family favorites. Like his speaking style, Webb’s words combine the voice of the scholar with the wisdom of the rustic. (Why aren’t we drafting him to run for President?)
In such a book, with such a powerful and overarching argument (Webb comes close to making the argument that all of the things we admire about “America" are really characteristics of our collective Scots-Irish heritage), there are bound to be mistakes. Indeed, I can almost hear my buddy Dan typing up a list of Webb’s overgeneralizations and misguided claims already. But I’m neither interested in writing a review of the book nor of defending Webb’s claims. No, I’m more interested in disclosing the powerful rhetorical effect it had on me and of wondering about the value(s) of that effect.
In the briefest possible terms, Webb has provided—no, created—an ethnic identity I can choose to take up, an identity in some ways that I have a difficult time refusing. Don’t get me wrong—there have always been Scots-Irish people. And it’s always been true that my mother’s side of the family were proudly and loudly Scots-Irish folks who settled in North Carolina early on (indeed, some of the earliest elements of the Hawkins family are buried on land that is now part of the Biltmore estate). So, I’ve always “genetically” been at least half “Scots-Irish,” so it’s not genetics or bloodlines that Webb has provided. It’s an identity that he has crystallized in print regardless of the accuracy of its “material” existence.
It’s like this: while my mother’s family was Scots-Irish, my father’s line was a messy mix of German, English, Cherokee, Jew, and so forth. A motley crew was his family. And I liked that. Throughout my life, I’ve enjoyed being a mutt, a pure American mutt. I’ve enjoyed finding others fairly goofy when they attempt to claim a particular ethnic identity (e.g., Irish, German). The whole idea seemed to me rather ridiculous. If you grew up here with the rest of us, I always thought, you’re as mutt as I am. Be proud of your mutt heritage; it’s what makes us family.
Then along comes Webb; along comes this book. While Webb begins by tying Scots-Irish to a bloodline (and dangerously moves back to this logic from time to time throughout the book), he makes it clear that Scots-Irish is more of a powerful ideology, crafted by Scots-Irish people, that is capable of assimilating people of a variety of ethnicities and belief structures.
My glee in reading the book—and Bonnie could confirm this while rolling her eyes—was in repeatedly and powerfully identifying with a lot of the logic, the personality, of the people he described. These were all people I knew; these were all people I loved. These were all people who had been made fun of in the common sense logic of mass mediated books, films, and television for years, but these were people I knew to be better than their representations. As a result, by the end of the book, I found myself wanting to thrust away my mutt identity and to acknowledge the multiple, hard headed, blue collar work ethic ways that I am Scots-Irish. Webb’s discourse, in other words, might not have made me Scots-Irish in terms of heritage, but his words gave me a way to grab ahold of that identity.
There are always costs and benefits to taking on any identity, of course. As the late Kenneth Burke noted, to identify with is also to differentiate from. That is, to choose to take up one identity is also to differentiate yourself from other identities. To identify strongly with the type of ideology Webb draws forth here is to, at least in part, to give up other ways of being.
Ultimately, then, this is why I make this post: I’m writing at least in part in the hopes that Dan, or others, will force the issue a bit by challenging elements of the “ethnicity” Webb draws forth (I use Dan as my example only because I’ve spoken with him about this before). I welcome such challenges because I’m so amused and so amazed at how much I want to identify with the characters Webb draws for me. In my mid-40s, I find myself oddly seduced by an idea that used to give me chills