April 18, 2003
War Party

You probably know who this is:

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But what about this guy:


And him?

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If you'd like to know how three stupid white men -- two living, one dead -- help explain the violent course of the American history, the outcome of the 2000 presidential election, and the invasion of Iraq, then read on.

White male #1 is Jerry Falwell, political preacher par excellence, founder of the Moral Majority, and more recently peddler of some truly loopy conspiracy theories involving the 42nd president of the United States.

White male #2 is Falwell's U.K. counterpart: Ian Paisley, Presbyterian minister, leader of one of the more extreme Protestant parties in Northern Ireland, and a ferocious opponent of the devil, the IRA and the Good Friday peace accords -- not necessarily in that order.

And white male #3 (deceased) is, or was, King James I, defender of the faith, protector of the realm, first of the Stuart line to sit on the throne of England. More than any other single person, he's responsible for creating the tribe -- and the cultural tradition -- that produced Falwell and Paisley, as well as Andrew Jackson, the Alamo, George Wallace, the NRA, Ross Perot, the Oklahoma City bombing and the current shape of the U.S. electoral map.

That's a lot to pin on one head, even if it did wear a crown. But it's true: Much of what made America America -- and a lot of what the rest of the world has come to detest about America -- can be traced back to this runty little Scotsman.

Bible Story

I doubt whether either Falwell or Paisley would disagree with me, although probably for the wrong reasons. To them, King James is their brand name for the revealed word of God -- the King James Bible, translated and, um, corrected from the Greek by a committee of Church of England functionaries working under James' commission.

There's enough irony there for couple of Tom Stoppard plays, because King James also happened to be a notorious homosexual -- one of the most enthusiastic practitioners in the long, proud history of British aristocratic buggery. But that's another story. You want that story, try another blogger. Maybe Andrew Sullivan.

My story doesn't begin with King James' religious or sexual practices, but rather with his efforts to pacify one of his more rebellious provinces -- Ulster, the part of Ireland that's helped give religion such a bad name.

To intimidate and, if necessary, eradicate Ulster's native Catholic population, James encouraged some of his Scottish Protestant subjects to settle in the province. This they did, creating the Ulster "Plantations" -- islands of Protestant loyalists in a sea of angry Catholics. The results were predictable: smoldering hatred, periodically erupting into brutal, dehumanizing violence. Just think of James I as the Arial Sharon of the 17th Century.

Like the modern settler movement in the West Bank, the Ulster Scots became the hardest of the hard core, serving as Protestant shock troops in the civil and religious wars that raged across the British Isles for the better part of the century. Their fanatical loyalty to King William -- the Dutch King who seized the British throne from a Catholic in a military coup in 1688 -- earned them the nickname "Orangemen, " a nod to William's royal dynasty: the House of Orange.

This was particularly appropriate, since the Ulster Scots were ideological first cousins to the Protestant Dutch settlers who later colonized South Africa -- and eventually gave the word "apartheid" to the world.

But, as extremists so often do, the Ulster loyalists eventually alienated even their allies -- in this case, the English crown, which passed into the hands of a German dynasty that took a rather more tolerant view of religious matters -- and of morality in general (a family tradition that endures to this day.) To the new crowd, the Orangemen were a dangerous anachronism -- political shock troops in a kingdom that no longer needed shocking. Worse, their Calvinist work ethic made them a competitive economic threat to their Scottish cousins back home.

Orange Crush

So the crown did what crowns usually do to dangerous people they no longer need: It tried to break them. Taxes were raised, prices were lowered; entire industries were prohibited or tied up in red tape. The hand of big gummint descended on the Ulster Scots and squeezed the bejezzus out of them.

Result: A mass migration to greener pastures across the Atlantic. Not everyone left. Enough genetic material remained behind to produce Rev. Paisley, for instance. But between 1700 and 1776, something like 250,000 Orangemen (a huge number for that day and age) departed for America. By the eve of the Revolution, 15% to 20% of the entire population of the 13 colonies hailed from that one relatively small corner of the Emerald Isle.

To distinguish them from their Catholic enemies, the Ulster immigrants became known in America as the "Scotch Irish." And if that sounds like a blend of whiskeys, there's a good reason, as we'll see later.

The combat skills the Scotch Irish had honed fighting Catholics back home came in handy in the New World. Finding the eastern seaboard largely settled, most headed for the frontier, where they began to update their skills on the local Native American tribes.

But in the process, many of these Scotch-Irish frontiersmen got back in touch with their own tribal roots -- with their inner Pict, so to speak. A kind of cultural degeneration set in. Starched Presbyterians turned into bible-thumping Baptists, without losing one bit of their fire-eating extremism in the process. But religion increasingly took a third or fourth seat to more immediate interests: guns, whiskey and an insatiable hunger for free land -- free of living Native Americans, that is.

To their established Eastern neighbors, the Scotch Irish started to look almost as dangerous as the natives they had replaced. Or, as Kevin Phillips puts it, they came to represent "the Southern back country culture . . . of what most Americans would later call 'crackers' or 'poor white trash.' "

The West is the Best

Contempt was returned in spades. No lovers of the British crown, the Scotch Irish had been savage patriots during the Revolution. But they were deeply suspicious of the Easterners and their new-fangled Constitution. And when they felt the hand of big gummint reaching into their pockets again -- after the new Congress dared impose a whiskey tax -- they didn't hesitate to turn their guns on the feds, George Washington or no George Washington.

This was actually the beginning of what would be a long love-hate relationship between the Scotch Irish and Uncle Sam. As they spread out -- mostly following the great rivers into the South and Southwest -- rugged self-reliant frontiersmen remained as hostile as ever to the tax collector. But they did come to realize that killing Indians actually would be a very worthwhile public works project.

And they found just the president for the job: Gen. Andrew Jackson -- from a Cherokee point of view, the American Karadzic. Jackson put the U.S. government into the ethnic cleansing business in a very big way, turning the tribal lands of the Deep South into the American Bosnia, and the Trail of Tears into the first link in the interstate highway system.

Jackson also gave his people an ideology -- what Walter Russell Mead likes to call "Jacksonian nationalism." From a Scotch-Irish point of view, this ideology often boiled down to a deep, heartfelt belief that people with dark skins made excellent wall trophies. And as they spread westward into Texas, Jacksonian nationalists came to realize that killing Mexicans would also be a very desirable government program.

Early lobbying efforts were not entirely successful, especially after the failure of the Alamo pilot project. But another Scotch-Irish president, James Polk, finally pushed through the funding -- using the phrase "Manifest Destiny" as his marketing slogan. Like most great slogans, it didn't mean anything, but it had a nice ring. And so another chunk of the continent was cleared for plundering.

An Uncivil War

If the Scotch Irish had no use at all for Native Americans or Mexicans, they had little more for African American slaves -- or for their masters, the slaveholding elites of the Southern lowlands. This left the tribe somewhat divided during the Civil War -- torn between competing hatreds, so to speak. But that didn't keep them from getting in on the fun: Scotch-Irish boys made up a disproportionate fraction of the soldiers in both armies, Union as well as Confederate.

And after Appomattox, there were more Indians to kill, and more feuds to fight, and more uppity nigras to lynch and . . . I think what I'm trying to say is that if you read the history of violence in America -- particularly organized violence -- you're going to run into this wild and far-flung tribe on just about every page.

You don't have to take my word for it. Here's what the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture (no, that's not a joke: it exists, and it's actually a very thick book) has to say: The roots of the apparently casual mayhem in the wild West can be found in the violence-prone ethic of Texas and the South, specifically in the history of the Scotch Irish who immigrated to America in the 18th century . . . Life on the Indian frontier was savage, and the frontiersman was familiar with violence.

And nowhere was (and is) this tendency more prevalent than in President Bush's home state. The courage and honor, the militarism and violence of the 19th century frontiersman, soldier and cowboy remains part of the present day Texas culture, the Encyclopedia notes. Here, culturally and geographically, the South and the West meet and are one.


If you've followed me this far, you're probably wondering why I dragged you along on a guided tour of over 300 years of Scotch-Irish history. It's because I think the impact these people have had on American culture is still important, politically as well as socially:

We've seen this same combination at work in the Scotch-Irish tradition over the past three centuries:Obviously, this doesn't mean all conservatives are Scotch Irish -- or vice versa. But culturally, the Scotch Irish are the heart and soul of "Jacksonian nationalism," which in turn is the ideological foundation for what I'll call the Permanent War Party -- the political wing of Eisenhower's Military Industrial Complex.

The Red and the Blue

The Census Bureau can help illustrate these trends. The 2000 census includes data on ethnic and national origin -- based on the responses of a sample of all U.S. households. Among the 107 possible categories (including "other") is Scotch-Irish.

It's hardly a big number -- only about 1.5% of those claiming a specific ethnic ancestry named Scotch-Irish. And the percentage declines quickly as you move away from the tribe's original U.S. stomping grounds in Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Tennessee. This isn't surprising: Ethnic identity tends to fade with time, to the point where many Scotch Irish probably put themselves down as Irish or Scottish or English. Or, given their traditional nativist tendencies, many may have buried themselves in the 20 million or so who listed their ethnic identity as "American."

That said, Scotch-Irish ancestry still has a distinctive political flavor to it. On the following map, the states in red are the 30 states with the highest Scotch-Irish population (except Alaska, which isn't shown.)

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Look familiar? Kind of like this map?

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The second map, of course, shows the electoral results of the 2000 election. Of the 30 (red) Bush states, only seven were not among the top 30 Scotch-Irish states. The contrast becomes even starker when we look at vote totals. Of the top 10 Scotch-Irish states, Bush won all but one -- Maine -- with an average vote share of over 55%. Of the 10 states with the lowest Scotch-Irish population, Bush won only two -- North and South Dakota -- and his average vote share was only 41%.

The correlation (for those of you with a statistical bent) between a state's Scotch-Irish population and its percentage vote for Bush was just under 0.40 -- on a scale of -1 to +1. That's significant, although not overwhelmingly so. Which I suppose just demonstrates that presidential elections are complex things, with lots of wheels in motion.

But, considering how low the reported Scotch-Irish ancestry figures were to begin with, I think the numbers do suggest the enduring influence of one of America's original political tribes. Still a little crazy after all those years.

The Permanent War Party

There's another connection that comes out in the Census data: the link between Scotch-Irish heritage and military service. The tribe has always contributed more than its share of soldiers -- officers as well as enlisted men -- and filled more than its share of graves at Arlington Cemetery. Small surprise, then, that veterans are more likely to live in states with a heavier Scotch-Irish tinge.

Of the 10 states with the highest percentage of veterans in their total population, seven also ranked in the top 20 for Scotch-Irish ancestry. Of the bottom ten states ranked by veteran share, only one ranked in the top 20 Scotch-Irish states. The correlation between Scotch-Irish ancestry and veteran population was just over 0.44 -- even higher than the correlation with Bush votes.

I don't want to slander the value of this contribution. Too many members of my own predominately Scotch-Irish family have served, and served honorably, in the U.S. military -- in every war since the Revolution. Some of them sleep in those graves at Arlington Cemetery.

But politically, I think the Scotch-Irish contribution has been largely for the bad. It helped give the national character that selfish but self-righteous quality the rest of the world (as well as me) find so obnoxious. It spawned a culture of violence that is now almost completely out of control. And, of course, it gave us Jerry Falwell.

This is the America that Michael Ledeen was talking about when he said that "we are a warlike people . . . we love war." He cited the example of Gen. George Patton -- or rather, George C. Scott pretending to be Patton -- the grandson of a Confederate general from the Scotch-Irish heartland of Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, who grew up thinking the portrait of Stonewall Jackson hanging in his boyhood home was actually a picture of Jesus Christ.

There are other traditions in our history -- those of Martin Luther King and Eugene Debs and Henry David Thoreau, of the Quakers and the Dunkards and the Pennsylvania Dutch, of people who came to this country to escape wars, not fight them. But Ledeen and his neocon fellow travelers have found the culture they want -- militaristic, xenophobic and paranoid -- in the cultural legacy of the Scotch Irish -- the original shock troops of the Protestant Reformation.

Only in America, right?

Posted by billmon at April 18, 2003 02:41 PM | TrackBack