Monday, May 25, 2015

Book review: Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America

Every so often I hear news stories indicating that former Senator James Webb is considering a run for the Presidency. Obviously, none of the people advising him have bothered to read his rather muddled, contradictory, and definitely autobiographical defense of the American redneck, Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America. Not long ago one of the feminist blogs I read regularly had a post castigating Webb for some sexist, borderline misogynistic comments he made back in the 1970's. It annoyed me at the time because I figure that stupid stuff people said several decades ago shouldn't be held against them -- we all say dumb stuff, we gain more life experience, theoretically we get a little smarter, and the amount of dumb stuff we still believe diminishes.

Unless you're Jim Webb, of course, in which case you work at taking all your racist, misogynistic, aggrieved white guy bullshit and wrapping it in a paean to your aggrieved white guy ancestors, the much-maligned redneckus Americanus, i.e., the descendants of the Scots-Irish who left Ulster back in the early 1700's. If Webb does formally enter the race, his opponents' researchers don't need to bother looking for pithy quotes from four decades ago. All they need to do is open this book to find Webb's thoughts on liberal elites, activists of various stripes, and the horrors of reverse discrimination. We all know what "reverse discrimination" is -- it's the rallying cry of angry white guys. You know, the ones who are totally convinced their life would be a bed of roses if only all the good jobs weren't going to minorities or, even worse, women. It's a shame Webb wrote this book over 11 years ago (it was published in 2004) because no doubt if it had come out more recently it would also contain a few homophobic jabs at gays for contributing to the continuing oppression of poor whites everywhere. 

Born Fighting is an odd book. It's rather incoherent, internally contradictory, and has a faint tinge of desperation. Not to mention that Webb seems to think that "culture" is one of those hard and fast, fixed in amber, never changes a whole lot concepts. He also seems to think it goes just one way. The Scots-Irish influence everyone else, manage to inculcate every group they interact with their cultural values, but apparently no one influences them. Anything good that happens in this country is thanks to the influence of the Scots-Irish and their fierce independence and warrior spirit; if bad shit happens, hey, not our fault. We're just the poor, downtrodden backwoods hillbillies that everyone else picks on.

Name a politician who's an icon in American history and Webb manages to find a Scots-Irish ancestor lurking in the family tree to use as proof of the Scots-Irish influence. For example, Theodore Roosevelt gets claimed as part of the Scots-Irish tribe because his mother, Martha Bulloch, had Scots-Irish in her ancestry. The fact that TR was raised in New York City and came from a wealthy family whose paternal ancestry went back to the original Dutch settlers is apparently irrelevant. It was the Scots-Irish ancestry and culture that imbued Teddy with his fighting spirit. That strikes me as a bit of a reach, to say the least. Besides, you could just as easily look at TR's brother, Elliott, an apparently lovely man with a major drinking problem who died a few days after trying to kill himself by jumping out a window, and argue that Elliott being a drunken sot can be blamed on that Scots-Irish link.

I'll confess that it's possible that one reason this book annoyed me as much as it did is because I was inclined to like Webb. Not only is he the author of what I still consider to be the best novel I've ever read about Vietnam -- Fields of Fire -- he's said some very sensible things about the need for prison reform, the plight of the white underclass, economic inequality, and other issues. He's also got a compelling life story. He was an Air Force brat; his father enlisted in the Army right after Pearl Harbor, got trained as a pilot, and, despite having only a high school diploma, eventually retired as a full colonel. Webb's grandparents were apparently dirt poor; he has what some people (like the New England elites he obviously despises) would refer to as white trash roots.

On the other hand, somewhere along the line the man picked up an incredible inferiority complex. Eleanor Roosevelt (using Webb's logic, yet another Scots-Irish person. She was, after all, TR's niece and Martha Bulloch's granddaughter) is often quoted as saying, "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent." Well, somewhere along the line Webb consented. No one can spend as much time denouncing liberal, intellectual elites as much as Webb does without having a deep-seated inferiority complex. It's bizarre. This is a man who's a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, served as a combat officer in the Marines in Vietnam (earning a Navy Cross, Silver Star, Bronze Star, and a Purple Heart, among other medals, in the procees), eventually became Secretary of the Navy, and successfully ran for the office of U.S. Senator from Virginia (although that last one happened after he wrote the book, not before), but he's still feeling compelled to decry elitism? Doesn't he realize he's part of the elite?

Then again, career politicians and lifelong Beltway bandits love to rail against career politicians and Washington insiders, and this book did come out when he might have been contemplating running for elective office. I could see it appealing to the good folk who live in towns like Grundy (a mining community in southwest Virginia that's buried so deep in the Appalachians it probably gets about an hour of sunlight a day) and Pearisburg. IIRC, Webb did a lot of appealing to his redneck roots when he ran for the Senate, trying to make himself sound like a Virginia native even though he was born in Missouri. He starts off the book by talking about the cemetery in the Virginia mountains where his paternal ancestors are planted, and that is definitely campaign material.

So what else did I pick up from this book? Well, Webb isn't the sharpest tool in the shed when it comes to picking examples to cite. At one point he's whining about the anti-war protests of the 1960s and bitching about Neil Young's song "Ohio" as an example of how the left hates the military and then a sentence or two later refers to Steve Earle's "Copperhead Road" as one of the positive songs about the military coming out of the country music tradition. News flash for Webb: 1. "Copperhead Road" is rock, not country. 2. It describes the grandson of a moonshiner who comes back from Vietnam to set up a marijuana grow operation and is clearly planning to kill federal agents if they interfere with his farming endeavors. It's a great song, but a tribute to the military? On what planet?

And then there's Webb bizarre take on religion. He seems to think that the fundamentalism rampant in the South today practiced by all those Biblical literalists is still following the same traditions as that of  their Presbyterian ancestors, the Calvinists who came from Ulster 300 years ago. WTF? One of the fundamental tenets of Calvinism is predestination: God decides who's saved and who's not. You're never going to see an altar call in a Presbyterian church. If you're raised Presbyterian, you don't get saved or find Jesus -- you grow up just knowing He's there and if you're reasonably successful in life it's proof you're not going to burn. If nothing else, the migration of southern whites from being Presbyterians to Pentecostals is nice, solid proof that the culture Webb views as immutable and fundamental to the character of low income Southern whites has changed a lot, and not necessarily for the better.

I could go on, but I know from talking with my kids that anyone who started to read this gave up a couple paragraphs ago. Bottom line: If you're ever tempted to read Born Fighting, don't bother.

Although I shouldn't be too hard on Webb. After all, he's given me an excuse to embed this (sarcasm warning} stellar example of country music:


  1. makes yo wonder who helps them get dressed in the morning.

  2. Well, the Scots-Irish did make a big impact on America in at least one area.
    Read: Cattle: An Informed Social History, by Laurie Winn Carlson. Their approach to cattle raising (and rustling) compared to that of the British and Germans, created the "West" we know and love.


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