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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Weaktard: The Obnoxious Word That Explains American Politics

Weaktard:  Noun and adjective, a portmanteau of 'weak' and 'retarded', a puerile term of contempt for an opponent

A couple of months back a good friend of mine gave me copies of the great books "Albion's Seed:  Four British Folkways in America" by David Fischer and "Born Fighting:  How the Scots-Irish Shaped America" by Jim Webb.  My pal is of proud Ulster Scots descent--but much more importantly, very active in trade unionism and local politics.  For nearly 20 years now my friend has been one of the core on-ground volunteer campaign workers for a line of great local and state candidates, like Senator Bob Wirch, who exemplify the best in Wisconsin's heritage of progressive politics.  Yes, those books do explore his ancestors' experience[1], but their real importance is explaining the social dynamics that win American elections in the 2010's--and offer us a jumping off point to think about alternate paths that American society might evolve into.

Contemporary Americans[2] have a shocking amount in common with those Ulster Scots who came to America in the 1700's:  they are both the products of broken societies.

Historical Populism, Dispopulism and Mispopulism
As described by Fischer and Webb, the border country between England and Scotland, whence the majority of these families originated before migration to Ireland and thence to the United States, was just short of being a lawless no-man's land.  The writ of neither crown had been particularly effective here, and folkways that were both staunchly un-ideological and un-sentimentally brutal flourished here.  In the absence of a reliable government, a man's surest remedy would be the strength of his own arm--and the loyalty of his kin.

This particular brand of populism diverged from its British and Irish counterparts considerably upon introduction of a very different sytem of class relationships in America.  The scope for individual ambitions provided by the vast American hinterland of the 18th century seemed endless.  No longer were tenant farmers locked, without even theoretical recourse, into abusive rack-renting relationships with tituladoes whose only claim to their land lay in crown grants arising from military conquest.  Military campaigns which the poor fought but which the aristocrats profited from.  Even if very imperfectly realized[3], the theoretical possibility of homesteading his own family farm was open to any willing lad, regardless of his origins.  This seems to have effectively dissolved the traditional antagonism between the rural poor and landed gentry, to the point where many were more than happy to embrace secession and Civil War on behalf of a slave holding elite whose interests were starkly at variance with their own.[4]  Those Ulster Scots in America still demanded shows of raw agression from their political leaders[5], but now they lost whatever progressive moral valence they originally had in Ireland.

Contemporary Echos
Sound familiar?  It should.  This minimalist, personal rather than institutional approach to governance is exactly what an idle elite devoted to preying on their fellow Americans have been praying to Moloch for:  a clear field, a total lack of effective opposition.  Apart from the disasterous and partially quantifiable effects failing to regulate and tax the wealthy and their corporate proxies, it articulates and magnifies a fundamentally anti-Christian, anti-social philosophy of hatred of self and others that alienates America from the rest of the world today.  It has rendered Wisconsin a black pit of corruption.

In this environment, where the electoral success necessary to provide meaningful opposition to Evil requires an ability to exhibit almost vicious aggression, all the national Democratic Party has been able to offer of late has been a tired, washed-up whore named Barack Obama.  Yes, there are proud exceptions on the state and local levels--and my pal's trade unionism and political work is a part of that.  But on the national level, where almost all key policies must be enforced, due to constitutional provisions such as the Commerce Clause?  Not so much.

The Way Forward Under Taboo
My conceptualization of this is still very much "in progress".  What's needed is an uncomprimising display of integrity and vigor by a candidate willing to do or die by actual populist ideas, not just some phony re-tread bullshit a la hedge fund millionaire like Mitt Romney or weaktard traitors like Bill Clinton or Barack Obama.  But this much I do know:  It cannot be presented as an ideological platform.

Modern Americans, despite the variety of their religious or ethnic backgrounds share with those first Ulster Scots immigrants a rabid fear of imposed credos.  They may well demonstrate a shocking lack of respect for others' beliefs and traditions, but Hell if they're going to submit to anyone else's.  Even if they're not particularly political or religious themselves, they have an incredible paranoia about the efforts or imagined efforts of anyone else to proselytise them.  This is why Obama, despite actively supporting or caving into every one of the Republican Party's demands can still be "credibly" labelled a socialist among America's unsophisticated and unideological electorate:  he keeps talkin' in abstract, bullshit language like "hope" and "comprimise" among nations.  That's "ivory tower, faggit-talk".

If and when the "Left" identify an electorally viable rhetorical framework, I don't know.  Still working on it.  Could have a lot in common with the reinterpretation of history like the one that worked so well to harness the progressive energies of the Irish Land Reform movement and Scottish enlightenment into the 19th century trade union movement.[6]  One thing's for damned sure, though:  worthless wastes of bumwhipe like Obama have to go.

[1]  I don't want to digress too far into my friend's pedigree, but it's a fascinating example of the many divergent threads of historical continuity and the way their distinctive individual character can seem to be temporarily submerged by those of their more dominant neighbors only later rise to the surface and assume more prominent leadership.  While the remainder of this post will focus primarily on the ideology-free character of early Scots-Irish politics and its current legacy in the U.S.A., it's worth noting that my friend's family left Ireland in the mid-1790's--just prior to the 1798 Rebellion.  In fact, reproductions of the diary of his original emigrant ancestor discuss at several points their connection to a Reverend James McKinney--a man praised for his courageous Irish patriotism in these terms by James Seaton Reid in the book "A History of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland":

"His ministry terminated abruptly in 1793, for, preaching to a large open-air meeting at Ballinaloub, he took as his text, Ezek. XXI., 27 : "I will overturn, overturn, overturn it," and delivered " an inflammatory discourse," implying the threat of the overturning of the British Government.

Preachers sometimes complain that their sermons fall on listless ears, but it was not so with Mr. McKinney. Some of the loyalists among his audience reported his expressions; and he found it convenient to betake himself hastily to America, and there became a very distinguished minister at Rocky Creek, S.C., and died 16th September, 1802. A ballad composed in his honour by a local poet is now lost to history, save a few lines, one of which concluded each verse, declaring that:  '. . . At Ballinaloub he played the man.'"

Elsewhere Rev. McKinney is mentioned as a "Houstonite"--a supporter of the radically populist, anti-authoritarian views of Reverend David Houston.  To my knowledge, this never became a formal faction, but it does seem a clear precursor to the progressive "New Light" movement within the Presbyterian church.

The seemingly endless vistas for expansion into the 18th century American wilderness resulted in a greatly reduced level of friction between the elites and common settler folk as compared to the relatively narrow confines of the north of Ireland.  An ironic result was that the influence of progressive movements lasted somewhat longer in Ireland than in the nascent United States.  In Ireland, New Light Presbyterianism was more or less destroyed in the early 1800's, by internal schism, and to some extent British persecution for their involvement in resistance actions like the 1798 Rebellion.  Until then, New Light Presbyterianism had served an interesting political role in mobilizing the peasantry against the confessional descrimination and abusive rack-renting practices of established church elites.

The social utility of their progressive doctrines being less, their influence gradually faded, and I think my friend was entirely unaware of the heroic role his ancestors had played in the history of Irish nationalism and progressive politics.

[2]  Again, I don't want to go overboard with the digressions in the body of the post, but I think some explanation may be called for given my distinctive moniker.  My ancestors came from the very same county as my pal's--but obviously of the RC rather than Presbyterian persuasion.  Which is kind of interesting, because persons of BOTH persuasions can be found with the McGonagle name or variants thereof who cannot remember a time when their ancestors subscribed to a confession different than their own.

The reason I've chosen to explore in this post the specifically protestant Irish experience in America rather than the experience of my own ancestors is manifold:

1.  Historians typically date the earliest significant influx of Roman Catholic Irish into America at more than 100 years after the migration of their protestant neighbors, and therefore the protestant experience can be more clearly linked to the events of the American revolutionary period.

2.  Although the Roman Catholic church in the U.S. is by far the largest single denomination (I think like 22%), far more Americans subscribe to one or another of the protestant churches (maybe like 53%).

3.  Catholics of Irish descent are only a small minority of total American Catholics--maybe like 20% at most.

4.  Even the Irish brand of Catholicism as practiced in the United States is significantly different than that brand practiced back in Ireland.  I guess I can speak only from personal experience here, but the differences seem ENORMOUS to me. 

I think roughly 95% American Irish Catholics are so thoroughly American that they do not even recognize the deep, deep psychological centrality of the Christian story of Jesus' persecution, death and resurrection to Ireland's conception of itself as a nation, and the political rallying point the RC church represented during times of persecution by an alien aristocracy.  The outlook and behavior of Irish Americans is much more like their non-Irish and non-Catholic neighbors than their Irish cousins.

Maybe another 2.5% are radical conservatives in the Opus Dei / Mel Gibson tradition who regard anything short of the Latin Mass as heresy, and another 2.5% are interested in cultivating a deeper understanding of Irish church history, but don't feel particularly well served by the hierarchy.

Anyhow, while all that stuff is massively interesting, and some of it may be useful to provide context for my post here, I decline to elaborate further now.  Though I do have some vague plans to use the Irish RC experience as a starting point for another post about theoretical pathways that progressive movements can branch into the future:  "Everything Old Is New Again:  Is It Time for A Re-Think on Brehon Law?"

[3]  From page 751, section entitled "Backcountry Wealth Ways:  Border Ideas of the Material Order", of Albion's Seed:

"Throughout this great region where virgin land existed in abundance, most men were landless.  At the same time, a few families owned very large tracts. . . . By the last decade of the eighteenth century . . . . (t)he top decile of wealthholders owned between 40 and 80 percent of the land.  In many areas, one-third to one-half of taxable white males owned nothing. . . . "

[4]  And I don't think I have to remind many of my American readers that this self-loathing romance for an abusive past continues to this day.  But it may shock some of my overseas friends.  Crypto-Klan phenomena like the book "Bell Curve:  Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life" have tarted up in psuedo-scientific clothing the all the essentials of the old slave "morality" to the point where it was openly embraced by Tea Party douchebags like Wisconsin's own loathsome lout, Ron Johnson.

[5] I will not catalogue here the litany of voter intimidation and ballot-stuffing offenses that provide ample illustration of this aspect of historic American political culture, the books do a great job of that themselves.  And until you get a chance to read those books, I'd say viewing the film "Gangs of New York" does a fair job of rendering an approximate subjective equivalent.  It's about NY, obviously, and RC Irish experience rather than those specifically of Ulster Scots on the American frontier, but they have a lot in common in this regard.

[6] Like I said, I'm still working on it.  But in the meantime, you might enjoy a relevant episode from the awesome Scottish history series presented by Neil Oliver.

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