Cultural identity is good if we're smart about it

Stephen B. Young, The Daily Record Newswire

Last month the United Kingdom dodged not a bullet but a large cannon ball. Scottish ethnic pride came up short in the referendum for the region to part company with the English and go it alone - but with the queen still as head of state, not the Stuart Pretender to the Scottish Throne.

My Young ancestors were lowland Scots and most likely invading Angles before that. My mother descends from the Highland Clan of Ross. So every so often I attend the Minnesota Highland Games to hear the massed bands of pipers peal out "Scotland the Brave!"

The question for us all after the Scottish referendum on independence is whether identity politics is a blessing or a curse.

Without an identity, our souls are truncated. We wander lost, searching, insecure, needing an "other" to give us tribal solidarity and a sense of home. Not good.

How many baby boomers are still stuck in unresolved identity crises? How many Gen X, Gen Y, and millennials are on the hunt for an inspiring personal identity? Or how many have given up the quest and live instead with hollow feelings inside brittle shells?

We do indeed need identities, especially ones of dignity, of some transcendent meaning surviving our mortal days. The Chinese and Vietnamese say that a good name is worth more than money.

But our identities are the very stuff out of which come conflict and division, resentment and discrimination. Identities create common bonds while also making it hard to work together for a greater common good.

So we Americans invented diversity training to smooth over the rough edges of identity differences.

But in the case of Scotland, who needed the diversity training? The Scots to get along with the English or the English to better appreciate the Scots?

In the dulling of our sensibilities brought on by too much insipid cultural diversity training, we Americans have lost track of the diverse cultural identities which have made our democracy what it has become.

The first major identity groups to arrive for permanent residence in the Atlantic colonies - the groups that overthrew the dominion of native peoples and built the American republic - were four sub-cultures from England and Scotland.

First were the Puritans - Calvinists who came almost entirely from counties and towns northeast of London. The Calvinists shaped the American identity and as Yankees fought and won the Civil War to save the Union and free the slaves. As moderate Republicans they then provided several generations of servant leaders for the federal government, and especially in foreign affairs and the old white shoe firms of New York lawyers and investment bankers.

Second among the founding identity groups were the Cavaliers - landed gentry who left England for Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia - whose families had supported the losing side in the English Civil War of the 1640s. They came from western England mostly, around Oxford and to its southwest. They gave us revolutionary war leaders like Washington and the society families that later led the Confederacy. Subsequently they furnished the barons of Southern politics.

Third were the Quakers from the north of England, who were earnest and hardworking and injected a more optimistic moral tone to America than the Puritans did.

Fourth, and perhaps most important of all, were the Scotch-Irish. These were the hardscrabble lowland Scots - my Young ancestors - who first went to the Protestant plantations in northern Ireland as colonialists and from there came to the American colonies in waves from the 1720s on down to the Revolution. They were tough, irascible, rugged individualists who had no time for hierarchy, gentility, education or refinement.

They quickly moved from the Atlantic coast to the Appalachian mountains, and from there to the West. They were the frontiersmen like Daniel Boone and hunters and fighters like Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, Sam Houston and Andrew Jackson, who pushed farther and farther west. They were the mountain men like Kit Carson, and they gave us the cowboy persona.

Those who stayed behind became the hillbillies and gave us country and western music.

The Scotch-Irish provided the backbone of the Confederate regiments, though they owned no slaves (think of Stonewall Jackson). They were born to fight, as some have said.

Many Mormons - Brigham Young was one - came from this determined, unyielding stock, but most were Baptist and other revivalists. The camp meetings of their open-air religion started with the Scottish Covenanters who fought the English and lost to Cromwell (like my ancestor Richard Otis). They have provided us with many presidents.

Today, John McCain, Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney carry on the "take-no-prisoners" Scotch-Irish tradition of individualism. But so, too, do the Tea Party and the Evangelical cultural right.

George H.W. Bush was a Calvinist patrician, but his son, George W. Bush, parted ways with his father to follow the Scotch-Irish mores of Texas, where he grew up.

The war for national independence came about through a coalition of these identity groups. Then they split over slavery, with the Calvinists, Quakers and some Scotch-Irish in the north supporting Lincoln, and the gentry supported by the Scotch-Irish in the Southern backcountry going for independence for the Confederacy.

The arrival of the Catholic Irish starting in the 1840s brought a post-Revolutionary War identity group to the country. Rejected by the Calvinists as "Papists" and in turn rejecting them as heretics, the Irish Catholics built their own subculture mostly in urban communities around their own schools. They formed the core of the big-city political machines that were the northern support base of the Democratic Party (the other base being Southern gentry and Southern Scotch-Irish). During the Depression, Franklin Roosevelt took the Irish Catholic/Southern Gentry and Scotch Irish alliance and added some Calvinists, other immigrants like Italians and Jews, and some African-Americans to make up a majority coalition.

That Democratic coalition broke apart when Catholics and Scotch-Irish in general opposed the educated and baby boomer counterculture elite on the issues of big government, abortion and feminism. They then moved over to the Republicans under Reagan in the 1980 presidential election.

Major contributions to American culture, economics and politics were made by European Jews, whose identity brought new sensibilities to intellectual institutions, media, and politics, mostly in line with the Democratic Party's coalition of those who were left out of the Protestant identity grouping.

And the forced immigration and subsequent abuse of Africans under slavery and segregation constituted their descendants as a subculture that had little in common with non-African-Americans in terms of access to power, social prestige and wealth.

In recent decades, Hispanic and Asian immigrants have added more identity groups to our politics. But Republicans have been singularly inept and unfeeling in reaching out to these voters. That's a puzzle since, as new Americans before they became part of the Democrat Party coalition, many Hispanics (Catholic) and Asians had family values and/or a work ethic very much in tune with Republican predilections for culture and public policy.

Culture explains much and identity politics can be richly pluralistic - all for the greater good - if we can be smart about it.

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Steven B. Young is executive director of the Caux Round Table, an international network advocating ethical principles for business and government.

Published: Fri, Oct 03, 2014

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