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Saturday, January 26, 2008

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Janet

I, too, found an unexpected and seductive pull in Born Fighting. As John says, these ARE the people I know and love. Both sides of my family are Scots-Irish, recent genealogy research proved this more true than we even imagined.

Being a big believer in the power of DNA and pre-birth proclivities (I recommend James Hillman's The Soul's Code) it was powerful to think that dispositions and attitudes were a legacy as much as curly hair and a turned-up nose.

There are so many bits of personality, certainly in my own life, that I cannot ascribe to personal experience. I was just born that way. It's a bit of a relief, frankly, to think that my sometimes ridiculously belligerent first-response is based on a genetic predisposition lovingly bequeathed by my ancestors.

Can one take this too far? Of course. Natural tendencies aren't an excuse for bad behavior and an unwillingness to change. We can all choose.

Is it a bit much to ascribe all that's good about America to one cup of DNA soup? Probably. Most people who left a motherland to come here would have shared many of Webb's Scots-Irish characteristics. You didn't come to America because you were a sheep. Even those forced to come had to be strong and resilient to make it.

And while Webb does give examples of where these characteristics become less than charming, I do think he's little wide-eyed in his assessment.

When my dad, whose Scots-Irish forebears settled in the SC mountains in the 1800s and never left, was pitching Webb's premise to my mom (who is more Irish than Scot), she rolled her eyes a la Bonnie and fired back "These are the meanest people in the world."

And she's got a point: There are some very ugly sides to such traits as stubborness, hostility to authority, and a distrust of outsiders. Read Bushwhackers by William Trotter for a glimpse of just ugly. His recounting of incidents during the Civil War in North Carolina's mountain hollows will haunt you.

Any information one receives should be played with and rolled around and held upside down and shaken before being integrated. For me, the book gave me the ability to appreciate where I came from and understand myself and my family a little better. It gives me things take pride in and be wary of.

If Webb's book goes a little Vaseline-and-cheesecloth in its portrayal of the Scots-Irish as the intrepid salt-of-the-earth prototype American, so what? It's a nice counter image to that of pop culture's all-too-prevalent brawling, backwoods redneck.


Martin Kennedy

I enjoyed Born Fighting a great deal. As an Irish-Catholic I never quite understood who the Scots-Irish were (are).
And Jim Webb, should be SecDef in either a Republican or Democratic administration.

dan

I learned a lesson about the power of this myth last year when Janet learned that my greatgrandmother, Bessie McElroy, was pure Scots-Irish. Because even though I already mistrusted "Born Fighting," the proof of that connection brought me the sweet rush of belonging (a rare feeling, if you know my history).

You can't be a white Southerner and read this book and not feel a sense of validation. You can't watch the bad-ass warrior-poet Jim Webb and not feel like a wise bad-ass yourself.

But this isn't the full picture. The great power of Webb's book is the way that it connects the dots of identity and history into a mythology that is validating and uplifting and inspiring. The great problem that I have with Webb's book is that the dots are only loosely connected, and the mythology is exactly what we wanted to believe all along.

What do Southerners -- even liberal Southerners -- want to believe? That we're the salt of the Earth. What do blue-collar people want to believe? That we're the yeoman heroes who made American civilization possible. What excuse comforts us when we look around us at the failures of our "culture" and the disillusion of our dreams? That we were betrayed by weak men who secretly fear our strength and innate superiority.

Salt of the Earth. Heroes. Betrayed. It's a great mythology. Tough, courageous men and women of conviction and will, punished throughout the centuries for being too strong and too independent and too brilliant and too principled and too talented. That's what Webb says his people are, and in doing so he turns American history into a shadow theater. The Scots-Irish are the actors -- our history is the shadow of that action, disintermediated, dishonest, obscured. Everything good about America -- America itself, if you follow the narrative -- is a Scots-Irish invention.

Webb's book tells belligerent, violent Southerners that we're not only right, we're heroic. "Born Fighting" glorifies the military. It is, in a sense, distilled martial kitsch, concentrated and then writ large.

And brother, do I feel it.

I dislike this book because it whispers seductively to all my dark corners -- the chip-on-my-shoulder redneck, the betrayed blue-collar class warrior, the enlisted soldier who looks down with epic disdain on the "chickenhawk" patriots and armchair generals who collect all the perks of war. I get huge cultural validation when I embrace these distortions. I get cultural ambivalence -- even hostility -- when I embrace the other, non-violent, peace-seeking, side of my heritage and personality. So I have to fight back against it. It's too easy for me to hide behind my sometimes combative male identity and pretend that nothing else really matters. That everything else is basically pussy intellectual wimp-talk.

There is much truth in this book, but also great distortion. It's a brilliant book, but it isn't brilliantly true. It is brilliant in discerning what we wish to be true. And what we wish to be true, but isn't -- not quite -- is exactly what we should treat with ginger care. Because such distortions contain the seeds of our own beautiful failure. And I'm done with celebrating failure.

Janet

Oh lighten up, Dan. You completely forget the power of myth: It inspires us to be our best selves. There is always a place in life for what we wish to be true and it's separate from rationalization.

I didn't take the book that seriously, certainly not as a manifesto on "distilled martial kitsch," just as a different perspective - albeit all Joseph-Campbelled-up - on traits I've seen in my family and myself for as long as I've been conscious.

All virtues can be made vices when taken to the extreme. Time and place have a lot to do with which qualities are valued and valuable and which aren't. There was a time when being aggressive and violent kept you from being 6 feet under. But 19th century frontiersmen on a hostile Indian border aren't the guys you want refereeing Saturday morning soccer. I took from the book a clear understanding that traits don't always wear well through the centuries.

Yeah, some people are going to read into it an excuse to be assholes, but they hardly needed a book for justification.

You need to trust that people can read a book, take what's good from it and move on. It's not a manifesto for Scots-Irish violence (see paragraph above.) It's just a nice story that allows room for pride and identity and a belief that we are more than the here and now.

You don't have to like it; you're entitled to your opinion, of course.

But I am right.

Janet

I'm going to kick your ass, you bald-headed Dutchman.

jmsloop

When you get right down to it--I mean, past all the silliness and the posturing--well, it turns out that Janet is completely right and Dan is completely wrong.

Again.

Go figure.

jmsloop

On the more serious side . . . after reading the last section of Dan's first response, I'm reminded of a conversation I had with Dan back in 1983 or so on the campus of Appalachian State. We were looking at a group of pseudo-hippies talking about peace, and Dan looked at me and said, "Sometimes I miss some of the Quakers I knew when I was growing up. They were for peace, but they were warriors for peace."

I always liked that image and that sentiment. The entire idea of being an angry forceful warrior for peace was a seductive one.

Daniel

Wait... we're supposed to get PAST the silliness and posturing?

Janet

"Born Fighting" is also a bit of pushback against images of the rednecked, uneducated, uncultured "salt-of-the-earth." The Irish in America certainly were discriminated against, and the mountain Southerners felt their share too. That stuff sticks in families' memories, I'm sure. It's not a stretch to see this book as a retort against snobbery and elitism.

It's key to note that this book comes from a man steeped in Washington culture, where, at least in the last few years, millionaires are running the show and a man is judged by who he is rather than the content of his character.

Sloop, you might want to read "How the Irish Saved Civilization" by Thomas Cahill. A different type of book but very well done.

Jean

Come on folks, when have Southerners ever let the truth get in the way of a good story?
Janet's always right.

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