Friday, January 26, 2007

Born Fighting (Book #9)

With the exception of one set of Swedish immigrant great-grandparents, my ancestors have been in America for so long that it's difficult to pick apart the threads of my heritage, but I'm probably at least half Scots-Irish. And there was a time when I almost considered that a bad thing. We've been on the wrong side of too many wars--I'm the great-great-granddaughter of a Confederate soldier, and my distant cousins are Protestant Northern Irish, the ones I've always seen as the invaders and the oppressors. Being Scots-Irish seemed somehow less worthy, and definitely less romantic, than being a Highland Scot or truly Irish.

I started changing my mind well before reading Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America (James Webb, 2004, and yes, the author is the freshman senator from Virginia who gave the Democratic response to the State of the Union this week). Living outside of the South for all my adult life, and having lost all but traces of my accent, I've encountered all the worst stereotypes the rest of the country has about the rural Appalachian South and its largely Scots-Irish people. At some point it occurred to me that when a certain subset of my fellow coast-dwelling, well-educated, lefty elite types talked about stupid, ignorant redneck hillbillies and how we'd have been better off if we'd just let them go in 1861, they were talking about ME. My family. My people. That made me angry, and my anger made me determined to be proud of who and what I am.

Born Fighting traces the history of the Scots-Irish people from Roman Britain to the present. I think Webb idealizes and romanticizes the Scots-Irish to some degree, but it's a drop in the bucket compared to all those negative redneck hillbilly stereotypes. And I put the book down with a greater understanding of several key historical issues and how they play out in the present, from the Ulster Plantation to the Vietnam War. Also, one thing that I should've known but somehow never connected to my own ancestry is that the Scots who fought with Wallace and the Bruce weren't those romantic Highlanders, but instead were mostly Lowlanders, including the ancestors of the Scots-Irish. I know it doesn't really matter 700 years later, but I like the idea that my ancestors may have been among the victors of Stirling Bridge and Bannockburn.

Basically, Webb's thesis is that Scots-Irish individualism, populism, and military prowess have been an important but little-heralded factor in shaping the overall American character. To quote the closing paragraph:

Who are we? We are the molten core at the very center of the unbridled, raw, rebellious spirit of America. We helped build this nation from the bottom up. We face the world on our feet and not on our knees. We were born fighting. And if the cause is right, we will never retreat.

Even if I don't agree with every single thing Webb says, that's my people. And it's a heritage I can be proud of.

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