Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Book Review: James Webb's Born Fighting

To state the obvious, white ethnics are rarely described in any substantive manner. Whites are either a race whose counterparts are delineated in equal opportunity checkboxes or an ethnic group vaguely defined by Hispanics as "Anglos." While it is accepted practice to dilate upon the real and imagined virtues of minority groups, Americans of European ancestry are lumped into one homogenized mass. Italians and Swedes, Poles and Englishmen, Irishmen and Germans are all subsumed into racial categories. With this kind of categorical homogenization now dominant, it is easy to find refreshment in James Webb's history-cum-family memoir Born Fighting, a history of the Scots-Irish in America.

Originally colonists in sixteenth-century Northern Ireland, these Scottish Protestants found themselves and their Presbyterianism despised by their English lords almost as much as by the native Irish. Already a migratory people, many set off for the New World and settled in what would become the American South. Frontiersmen and pioneers, Webb believes these kinsmen of his to be independent, egalitarian, pugnacious, and tribal. These characteristics, forged in the wilds of the American frontier, have forged a major part of the American way of life.

Webb's history is somewhat derivative, especially his treatment of the Scottish-English conflicts for which he relies far too heavily upon Winston Churchill's history. These chapters read like a lazy student essay: long excerpts interspersed by a novice's summary. Yet his reliance on older generalist historians frees his analysis from the trendy shackles of specialization. He rightly treats ethnic formation as the product of numerous factors: geography, history, war, religion, each is discussed at some length. Though I am hardly widely read in the genre, I find this focus unusually competent compared with other contemporary popular histories.

Being a retired Marine, his discussions of the Scots-Irish at war are particularly energetic. American frontiersmen, he suggests, learned their radically novel tactics from their engagements with the Indians. While reading his energetic treatment of the Battle of Kings Mountain, I first realized that the legendary Rebel Yell could have originated in those pitched battles between the old Scots-Irish and the Indians, where Scottish battle cries fused with native war whoops.

Webb's characterization of the Scots-Irish as independent men who only respect proven leaders seems at odds with his depiction of their prowess in the organized national military. Their alleged disdain for hierarchy would, it seems, undermine military functioning whenever an undeserving officer takes command. As a former Marine and secretary of the Navy, Webb's unapplied expertise on this point is especially regrettable.

Webb complements his large-scale history with stories from his own family's past, remembering his forefathers and their lives. Being a Southerner, he includes a pretty typical defense of the Civil War: the North wasn't as abolitionist as it appears in retrospect; poor Southern whites weren't fighting for slavery but resisting an invading army in defense of the land they loved; competing ideals of national and state sovereignty; and so on. There is little unique to his arguments other than a more ethnic and class-based sympathy with poorer Southern whites. Yet upon encountering such apologetics still another time, the thought occurred to me that conservatives' precious habits of playing the tiresome find-the-racist game might derive in part from Southerners declaiming Yankee racism and hypocrisy.

Though a newcomer to the Democratic Party, Webb does not shirk from playing typical identity politics on behalf of his people. Webb recognizes that, as is typical with a long-neglected ethnicity, the Scots-Irish people have been long-neglected. They suffered at the hands of Yankee domination during reconstruction; they are tarred as violent, bigoted, and dumb rednecks in popular culture; they disproportionately do the front-line fighting in the military, with little credit; they are underrepresented in the American university. But noble people that they are, they don't complain. Much.

I realize the previous paragraph have been harsh towards Webb. I should note here that Born Fighting is nowhere near as flattering towards its targeted readers as Cahill's sickeningly oleaginous How The Irish Saved Civilization, a regrettable pop-history primed for Irish-American viewers of Oprah.

As regards academic representation, Webb marshals some statistics that do indeed suggest a problem. The Harvard graduating class is twenty percent Asian, twenty-five to thirty-three percent Jewish, and there a fifteen percent minority quota in admissions. Subtract legacy and prestige admissions, and the openings for a Scots-Irish Southerner, like many other Americans, are few indeed.

Besides such underrepresentation, he also suggests reasons that Southerners sympathized with populist concerns: white Southerners, impoverished by Reconstruction, could enthusiastically support FDR's new deal. They could easily believe the wealthy did in fact acquire privileged positions through injustice and fraud because their own ancestors had told them as much about rich Yankee carpetbaggers. The populist elements in the Democratic Party therefore lost significant support as the Southerners switched to the GOP after decades of hostility to the party of Lincoln.

While certainly of special interest to those of the tribe it celebrates, Born Fighting manages to engage a wider audience, especially by claiming the Scots-Irish as a major source of typically American values. This is a traditional appeal of the special interest genre, and one wonders to what extent it distorts the nature of its subject matter, the wider nation, or both. Yet while hardly a masterpiece, Webb's book provides a sturdy springboard for further reflection on the deeper currents of American history. For that, we can be thankful.

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