Monday, August 11, 2008

Ivan Meets GI Joe

This month's Prospect has an opinion-piece by Anatol Lieven about 'Fighting' John McCain (as in he's a fighter). It includes the fairly prescient:
"McCain's frequently expressed loathing of Putin's Russia and his deep
attachment to Georgia and its president Mikheil Saakashvili could have serious
implications if Georgia and Russia go to war over Abkhazia and South Ossetia...
In a crisis, where would McCain's explosive temper take him?"

That follows Lieven's highlighting McCain's 'Scots-Irish' (i.e. Ulster protestant settler) heritage to explain his "McCain's hot temper and intense patriotism..."
'By ancestry, John McCain is a Scots-Irishman. That is to say, he comes
from one of the oldest, most admirable and most worrying ethno-cultural
traditions in the US. To a remarkable extent, that tradition is reflected in
McCain's character traits: his obstinancy; his tendency towards unshakeable
friendship and implacable hatred; his hair-trigger temper; his deep patriotism;
his obsession with American honour; and his furious response to any criticism of
the US. These are not just the products of his military upbringing and
experiences as a prisoner in North Vietnam, but also the result of his being the
proud descendant of Indian-fighters and Confederate soldiers.


Non-Americans are not used to thinking of white Americans in terms of
old ethno-cultural traditions, except when it comes to imported immigrants such
as Italian-Americans. Yet the Scots-Irish cultural traits live on everywhere,
from evangelical religion to country music. They have been examined by several
great American scholars, including David Hackett Fischer and Kevin Phillips, as
well as more popular authors like Walter Russell Mead.


Both sides of McCain's family come from the old Confederate southwest:
his father's side from Missouri, his mother's from Tennessee, Texas and
Oklahoma. McCain's great-great-grandfather, Will-iam Alexander "Fighting Bill"
McCain, was a Confederate soldier. His paternal family took the classic
Scots-Irish route in the 18th century, from Scotland, down from Virginia through
the Carolinas to the old frontier in the Appalachians and beyond. McCain's
mother was born in Muskogee, Oklahoma, the setting for Merle Haggard's iconic
anthem of patriotic, conservative small-town America, "Okie From Muskogee,"
where: "We don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee/We don't take our trips on LSD/We
don't burn our draft cards down on Main Street/We like livin' right, and bein'
free."


The Scots-Irish tradition has been praised, with reservations, by
another Scots-Irishman, Democratic senator Jim Webb, in his book Born Fighting:
How the Scots-Irish Shaped America. Until he ruled himself out in early July,
Webb was considered a favourite for Obama's vice-presidential pick. This would
have given the election a flavour of a Scots-Irish family feud—and you can't get
more combative than that.


The American Scots-Irish are the descendants of the Scottish
Protestants settled in 17th-century Ulster by the Stuart kings, a process that
involved the ethnic cleansing of much of the native Irish Catholic population.
In the 18th century, those of the Scots-Irish who moved on to the western
frontier of Britain's colonies in North America took with them a prior
experience of frontier fighting and a fundamentalist identification of their
cause with God. The American frontier's lawlessness, high levels of violence
among white males and ferocious conflicts with the Native Americans perpetuated
this culture into modern US society. In the words of a biographer of McCain's
personal hero, Scots-Irish president Andrew Jackson: "It appears to be more
difficult for a North-of-Irelander… to allow an honest difference of opinion in
an opponent, so that he is apt to regard the terms opponent and enemy as
synonymous." Similar things have often been said about McCain.


The Scots-Irish tradition belongs above all to the "greater south," and
is indeed at the core of most white southern traditions. The southern historian
Grady McWhiney has gone so far as to attribute most of the cultural difference
between the south and the rest of the US to the Scots-Irish heritage. The most
enduring political reflection of this has been "Jacksonian nationalism," named
after President Jackson, whose career was shaped by ruthless conflict with
Native Americans and their British, French and Spanish backers. Jacksonian
nationalism has been described by Walter Russell Mead as one of the four key
historical strands of US foreign and security policy.


The first defining character of the frontier was of course conflict
with Native Americans, in which both sides committed appalling atrocities. This
has bred in sections of the American tradition a capacity for ruthlessness and a
taste for unqualified victory. The second was constant expansionism, often
pushed for by the white frontier populations against the wishes of Washington
administrations.


The frontier also helped keep alive a cult of personal weaponry
associated with a certain kind of egalitarianism and belief in every man's right
to defend his honour—a classic theme of Hollywood westerns, but one with real
roots in the southern and frontier traditions.


One of my favourite stories of upper-class southern violence in the
19th century comes from the family history of William Faulkner (an old Ulster
Protestant name; Faulkner added the "u")—a history which renders the lurid
subject matter of some of his novels more comprehensible. In 1848, Faulkner's
great-grandfather William C Falkner stabbed and killed a friend of his, another
Mississippi gentleman, in an election dispute—one of several killings in the
course of his life. The unusual aspect of this otherwise commonplace occurrence
was that the election in question was to the local chapter of the Sons of
Temperance.


As someone remarked of Appal-achian society in the 1890s, "It has been
found impossible to convict men of murder… provided the jury is convinced that
the assailant's honour was aggrieved and that he gave his adversary notice of
his intention to assail him." John Shelton Reed has described this as a
tradition of "lawful violence": a socially sanctioned response to certain
actions that observes codes and limits. This is related to the idea of the
community right to administer "justice" when the state is unwilling or unable to
follow the popular will. Lynching is most associated with the terrorisation of
blacks in the south in the century after the civil war, but the practice on the
frontier was much older, and was usually deployed against deviant whites (as
well as Native Americans).


Of course, these attitudes have faded greatly in the south and west,
but they still stand out in these regions compared to the rest of the US, let
alone the rest of the developed world. According to one 2003 study—reportedly
based in part on heroic researchers at US universities bumping into students,
shouting "asshole" at them, and then comparing their reactions to their states
of origin—"students from the southern part of the US reacted far more
aggressively than those from the north… and in tests regularly suggested more
belligerent solutions to problems. America, it seems, remains culturally divided
along the Mason-Dixon line."


This has had obvious effects on US attitudes in the wake of 9/11, when
the world has come more than ever to seem to many Americans like a lawless
frontier populated by alien savages.


Of course, it would be wrong to see the Scots-Irish of today as forming
some tight community with uniform cultural traits. As their culture has spread
to influence much of white culture in the US heartland, so it has weakened.
Though both McCain and Webb stress their faith, neither espouses the
fundamentalist religion at the core of the Scots-Irish tradition.


Nonetheless, there is enough of the Scots-Irishman in McCain to make me
nervous about how he would behave as president. This is less because of his
policies, which differ less from Obama's than it may appear from the election
campaign (with admittedly the immense exception of Iran). Rather, my nerves stem from McCain's possible reaction to unexpected events, shocks and provocations, of which there will be plenty in the years to come.


For example, McCain's frequently expressed loathing of Putin's Russia
and his deep attachment to Georgia and its president Mikheil Saakashvili could
have serious implications if Georgia and Russia go to war over Abkhazia and
South Ossetia. McCain may not set out to attack Pakistan, but how would he
respond in the face of an increase in attacks on US troops by Taliban forces
based there? In a crisis, where would McCain's explosive temper take
him?


McCain's temper is the stuff of legend in Washington. Republican
senator Thad Cochran recalls a confrontation with a Sandinista rebel in which
McCain "got mad at the guy and he just reached over there and snatched him." To sum up both McCain and his ethnic tradition in an old nutshell, one might say
that there is no one better to have on your side in a fight—and no one more
likely to get you into one.'

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