Why We’re Here


The election in the US has brought attention to a part of the people that has been misunderstood, and looked down upon — sometimes with justification — since the very beginning. I am talking about the relatively poor, non-college educated white class, predominantly of Scots-Irish ancestry, that’s spent most of the past 250 years in the mountains and hollers of Appalachia. This is a huge area that stretches from Maine to Georgia, and culturally influences even more territory.

We modern Americans like to sort of gloss over our origins, sometimes. I know enough about my own family history to smile at the old joke, that Americans “have been thrown out of some of the best countries in the world.”

My ancestors were non-conformist religious refugees, Quakers, from England and then Ireland, who took advantage of William Penn’s offer of refuge in Pennsylvania. They fled civil war, after 100 years of the beatings and trials and property confiscations and, in the case of at least two of them I know about, a mother and son, execution at the hands of the Crown at York Castle for refusing to bend a knee to a magistrate.

So I have a sympathy for the people who are still stiff-necked and proud and poor, those who get stomped on by the elites on either coast. At the same time, it’s fair to judge that culture as inferior in some ways, and to realize that they’ve learned how to be poor, stay poor, and resist any outside ways. [Note: my wife, who is of Scots-Irish ancestry, objects to the term ‘inferior’. I don’t mean it in the moral sense, or in the sense of not “being as good as everyone else.” I believe that all cultures have good and bad traits, in the sense of how well they work as adaptations to life’s circumstances. As admirable as Scots-Irish culture is in most ways, it doesn’t work as well as some others, such as Jewish or Indian, to drive young people toward academic and financial achievement. Sorry dear. 🙂 ) The very traits that make them who they are, the good things, also make them keep doing things that mire them in poverty.

But let’s give them a little slack, too, and remember that a lot of us are here because our ancestors were too damn hardheaded to adapt, to assimilate. We are here because someone with a name very much like mine, or Ferguson or O’Farrell or MacDonald or Sandburg picked a fight with the King of England or France, and the Church of Rome or the Church of England.

That’s who we are, too. Stubborn and tough and not partial to anyone telling us what to do or how to live. And, yes, frequently dumb.

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4 Replies to “Why We’re Here”

  1. I love this. Understanding and sympathy does not mean agreement. It is half way to a solution without wall building and scapegoating. I think that the main problem is that the Anglo-Saxon economic model is failing through poor management. At present it favours the few over the majority. Both in the UK and in the US there needs to be more Keynesian infrastructure projects, thereby creating more jobs and better conditions for the working classes. Fewer tax breaks and a cap on excessive corporate pay for the baronial “wealth creators” is also necessary, because history has always shown that no amount of money can protect them from the Masses once they put their mind, however dumb, to something.

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  2. Interesting post. I think there are all kinds of “smart” and it doesn’t always come from a school. Having worked with children and families in poverty (in New England) it does pain me to see people struggling and stuck in a system that makes every step upward a battle. When people make it worse, by making choices against the best interests of their children’s future, I just want to cry.

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  3. America’s strength comes from her diversity but also adds to her problems. It is much easier to be united when you live in a country that has shared a culture for thousands of years, but keeping out other cultures will eventually lead to stagnation.

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