My apologies if the following seems too off-topic from what is normally on the Academe blog, and too self-serving.
What has gone on in Washington these past couple of weeks has frustrated most of us Americans (and has amazed those watching from other countries) as a colossal waste of time and money, and for what? “We fought the good fight,” says John Boehner, but what does that mean? What was he fighting for? And why?
Part of the answer lies, I think, in the 18th century. It’s an answer I’ve been looking for since 2006, when I first began to really see what is happening in American politics and culture… when I first began the reading that led to my newest book. What I have learned, and what I share in the book, is that American resentments have much greater histories than many of us are aware.
What happens when there are two major cultures in a country, and one feels that, though they represent the real spirit of the country, they are being pretty much ignored by its rulers?
Lots of things can, from protest to revolution. We’ve just seen a rather unusual one, though completely appropriate (in the eyes of the perpetrators), given the beliefs and situation of those who see themselves shoved to the outside of their own country.
The American right sees a United States dominated by people who, in their eyes, don’t even represent the “real” Americans who built this country in the first place. They see a country dominated by immigrants and minorities, by people who don’t understand the work that it took to make this country great–people who are simply taking advantage of its greatness.
They see (or imagine they see) others coddled and cut to the front of the line while they work and wait their turn. They think government, to aid these others, has gotten too much into their business and their finances, making them struggle while others relax. They look at laws that many (to their eyes) hide behind, or that favor the non-“Americans” over the true children of this country.
To them, central governments have always been villains. Since the time of the War of the Regulation in the 1760s, they have been struggling against those who want to impose their own law upon them. Though they supported the Revolution and loved General Washington, they hated the taxes that they saw as an unfair imposition on an already overburdened population. They rose up against the federal government in the Whiskey Rebellion of the 1790s–and it was only the presence of their beloved general, now President, that took the wind out of their sails.
Could resentments from so long ago be influencing attitudes to many generations later?
There’s a line that can be traced from the Whiskey Rebellion right to Junior Johnson and the birth of NASCAR, not all that long ago.
More tellingly, feelings associated with the Civil War, only a couple of generations more recent than the Whiskey Rebellion, still crop up in association with the Tea Party, so why not those just a little older (and more than a little related)?
But who are they, these Americans so close to being at war with their government?
In The Cult of Individualism: A History of an Enduring American Myth, I identify them as the inheritors of the Borderers, the Scots-Irish immigrants of the 18th century who settled in the backwoods of the time and who were the leaders of the movement westward of the 19th century. The book is a start at telling their story, a start because theirs is a story seldom told today, in a country that celebrates immigrants of the 19th, 20th and even 17th centuries but elides the Borderers almost completely from almost all of its intellectual and media discussions (making it no wonder, by the way, that they hate the media… and most intellectuals).
Here’s what my publisher’s website says about the book:
American culture is divided—and it always has been.
American individualism: It is the reason for American success, but it also tears the nation apart.
Why do Americans have so much trouble seeing eye to eye today? Is this new? Was there ever an American consensus? The Cult of Individualism: A History of an Enduring American Myth explores the rarely discussed cultural differences leading to today’s seemingly intractable political divides.
After an examination of the various meanings of individualism in America, author Aaron Barlow describes the progression and evolution of the concept from the 18th century on, illuminating the wide division in Caucasian American culture that developed between the culture based on the ideals of the English Enlightenment and that of the Scots-Irish “Borderers.” The “Borderer” legacy, generally explored only by students of Appalachian culture, remains as pervasive and significant in contemporary American culture and politics as it is, unfortunately, overlooked. It is from the “Borderers” that the Tea Party sprang, along with many of the attitudes of the contemporary American right, making it imperative that this culture be thoroughly explored.
• Documents how the concept and execution of “American individualism” is as diverse as America itself. • Explains how the American notion of individualism has roots that extend back to cultural myths that predate the founding of the nation. • Spotlights the role of the “Borderer” culture spearheaded by the Scots-Irish, whose legacy fuels much of America’s contemporary cultural and political divides. • Provides eye-opening information for any reader who wishes to know why so many of our 21st-century political debates in America seem hopelessly irreconcilable.
American Backwoods, American Folkways, Appalachian Culture, Daniel Boone, Horatio Alger, Individualism in America, Movies and Small Towns, Red States vs. Blue States, Scots-Irish in America, Self-Made Myth.
Excerpts can be read here.