Jane Smiley and the Scots-Irish

One of the tricks of my teaching trade has to do with stereotypes. I teach writing, for the most part, and I want my students to be aware of themselves, their own biases, and the biases in the greater culture as they position themselves to compose. So, at the beginning of the term, I generally make use of an exercise wherein I challenge them to tell me about their assumptions about me from looking at me. “Who am I?” I ask. “What do I do? What do I believe?” My students, generally of diverse backgrounds in terms of nationality, race, and religion, are invariably wrong. Which is my point: though we have to generalize, drawing conclusions from our generalizations is dangerous.

We never know who we might be insulting.

No, we can’t see everyone as individuals right off the bat. Remember those people who said, in the sixties, “I don’t see race, I see individuals”? They were talking nonsense. Race is a part of the individual, as are religion and other ethnic heritages. We start with the easily identifiable every time we meet a person. And it’s not just race, but accent, how one dresses—all sorts of things. However, keeping to the generalizations, to draw conclusions about the individual—or even about entire groups of people through generalizations (which generally arise from the more negative traits of individuals within the particular group)—is ill-advised. Though stereotypes may be a necessary starting point, we best move away from them quickly—when they are about groups just as when they are about people.

Why? Because such generalizations, even if they are convenient starting points, are usually wrong.

Drawing from David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed, Jane Smiley, writing at The Huffington Post, falls into the trap of drawing conclusions from generalizations. She uses Fischer’s extraordinarily questionable generalizations to write about today’s political climate. Fischer posits four main strands of American culture. Smiley sees one of them as most dominate today and characterizes it as “aggressive and resentful” and bent on attempting “to disenfranchise the other cultures.” She assumes that the culture is predominately evangelical and “busy reproducing.” She also sees it as a once inward-looking culture that “has been galvanized in the last generation by social changes that it has found dangerous or intolerable.”

She doesn’t seem to be aware that many of us from that culture would see her stereotyping as unfair. After all, as she makes clear, she is not talking to “us,” simply about “us.” And she doesn’t seem to understand at all that there are many of “us” who are not at all like her stereotype.

Smiley is writing about a contemporary group in American culture that she, following Fischer, claims grew out of the early Scots-Irish culture in America that early on dominated the region extending from the lower part of western New York State down into northern Georgia and Alabama and even into Mississippi, making up what we call “Appalachia,” for centuries one of the poorest regions of the United States. The greater region covers 410 counties, with 96 as the real core.

To be fair, Smiley says that choice of one’s culture is based on affinity today, and not heritage—but I don’t think she’s completely right. She would argue that I’m not part of this culture because I’m educated and teach in New York City. But this, I believe, is actually only a further slam on that culture. My culture. Telling me I am no longer a part of it is tantamount to telling an educated African-American that she or he is no longer black.

Real mountain culture (and not the caricature Smiley presents), though now disappearing into the mainstream of America, is still preserved by the efforts of places like Berea College in Kentucky, which focuses on Appalachia and defines its mission as:

To provide an educational opportunity primarily for students from Appalachia, black and white, who have great promise and limited economic resources.
To provide an education of high quality with a liberal arts foundation and outlook.
To stimulate understanding of the Christian faith and its many expressions and to emphasize the Christian ethic and the motive of service to others.
To provide for all students through the labor program experiences for learning and serving in community, and to demonstrate that labor, mental and manual, has dignity as well as utility.
To assert the kinship of all people and to provide interracial education with a particular emphasis on understanding and equality among blacks and whites.
To create a democratic community dedicated to education and equality for women and men.

The Appalachian culture that Berea is helping preserve is expansive and open, curious and forgiving. It is inclusive without forcing differences on people (accepting people as long as they don’t themselves impinge on others) and its religion is one of tolerance. Berea grew out of a nineteenth-century Scots-Irish attitude towards education and people that has helped form the best of contemporary America (the Scots-Irish were a driving force in the development of education in America in the nineteenth century).

Few people in those mountains were slave owners. They have long hated it when they have felt imposed upon, but their suspicion of strangers stems from no desire to impose their own ways on them. Their libertarianism is honest, in other words.

A series of books under the name Foxfire began introducing the broader American culture to Appalachia in the early 1970s, especially its crafts and usages of natural products. Appalachia is best known, of course, for its contributions to American music. Bluegrass, Country & Western, and Rock & Roll all have Appalachian roots.

Scots-Irish culture isn’t nearly as venal as Fischer, through Smiley, makes it out to be. Berea’s mission statement is not far removed from the attitudes one finds even in the remotest hollow of western North Carolina. Scots-Irish can be suspicious of outsiders, certainly, but generally get over it as soon as they find that the strange brings no threat.

My point, though, isn’t to extol Appalachian culture—even though it is, in many respects, my culture. Yes, I was born “down the mountain,” in the piedmont of North Carolina, but much of my family is Appalachian. My ancestors lived in Wilkes County (the birthplace of stock-car racing) from well before the Revolution. On the other side, they lived on the banks of the Ohio River from 1804 almost up to the Great Depression. Though I teach in New York City, my house and home address are in the Appalachian region of central Pennsylvania—where I feel I am really “home” in a way I never will in the city, for mine is an essentially rural culture.

Yet I do also have roots in the other three cultures Fischer identifies, the Puritan New England culture (ancestors of mine settled in Connecticut in 1630), the “Cavalier” culture of the Virginia region (another branch was among the early settlers of Baltimore), and the “Quaker” (my parents became Quakers when I was quite young—and I am still a member of the Society of Friends). These three, however, are have never faced the disparagement long experienced by those who Fischer calls the “Borderers” (after the border region of Scotland and England, from whence many of my ancestors began a journey that would take them first to Ireland and then to the colonies). And I have never identified with them culturally as strongly as I do with the “Borderers.”

“Poor white trash.” That’s how many see us, no matter what any of us have done. It began early. Charles Woodmason, a traveling preacher in the hills of South Carolina, wrote a journal that was later published as The Carolina Backcountry on the Eve of the Revolution in which he characterizes the people of the region in ways not so different from Fischer and Smiley. By the time of the movie of Deliverence in 1972, the stereotype of dirt-eating (perhaps coming from a symptom of hookworm), inbreeding, clannish people was so strongly engrained in our culture that few recognized that they held it.

Even today, attitudes towards Appalachians tend strongly towards the negative. Smiley makes use of that, extending “Borderer” culture to all of those who support George Bush. Because it is so acceptable to poke at the “Hillbillies,” Smiley doesn’t have to excuse herself, as she might, were she using another ethnic group. We’re an easy target—for one thing, we rarely complain.

In Smiley’s view, for “Borderers and their descendants, patriotism is about passionate loyalty to the group, alert self-defense, and domination in every sphere.” Again, she does temper her attack by saying that, today, affinity with one of the four groups doesn’t depend on genetics but on choice but, by using the Scots-Irish as the base for the group she opposes most strongly, she is still demeaning the vast majority of us “Borderers,” people who don’t fit her “definition” at all, but who still idenfity with that culture—the real one, not the one she imagines.

She finishes her attack on us by stating that the “Borderer” culture

is an uncompromising culture that has been reluctant to assimilate itself into the larger society for a thousand years, both in Britain and in America. It is a culture that is passionately intense about weapons, social hierarchy, and religion, three things that are in and of themselves threatening to the broader social compact.

This makes me extremely sad for it is not only wrong but extremely small-minded.

Yes, I know: Smiley is creating a metaphor for the Bushists of today out of the history of one ethnic group—and maybe some will want to excuse her for that. But can she really be so easily excused? What if the group she were using were African-American, or Italian? Is it OK to pick on the Scots-Irish in ways that one would never do to another ethnic group?

Rather than “reluctant to assimilate itself,” “Borderer” culture is the basis for much of what we think of as mainstream America. Just take religion: two of the most “white bread” Protestant denominations are the Presbyterian and the Methodist—big time “Borderer” churches.

If “Borderers” are concerned about social hierarchy, it’s because we were excluded for so long. How do you think we ended up in the mountains? We were escaping the stultifying hierarchies along the coast. As to weapons, well, I suspect that one would find them seen more as tools and not as objects of fetish in most “Borderer” communities. Far from being a threat to the social compact, we have more often been threatened by it. Even so, in America, we have become one of its bulwarks.

George Bush, who Smiley tacitly posits as ‘chief Borderer,’ is not part of “Borderer” culture any more than Queen Elizabeth is part of Cockney culture. He’s part of an elite who slums as an average joe. He has no real affinity for the “Borderer” culture, for it is one of real aversion to power (Smiley has it completely wrong about that). Furthermore, the fundamentalism that Bush follows did not arise among the “Borderers” but in the deep South, on the plains, and in California. It arose out of the rootlessness of people who no longer had a cultural affinity, who fight the loneliness of not belonging.

It’s not the “Borderers” who are a threat to the “Quaker” culture Smiley styles herself as part of. Super patriots? Not the “borderers. In fact, having been driven out so often, all the “Borderers” ever have wanted is to be left alone. Sure, they’ll do their bit for the commonweal, but don’t press them too hard or, you know what? They’ll move away.

Some threat.

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