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White People & The Persistence Of Culture

Reader Floridian2006 comments on the In The Big White Ghetto thread: I think one of the factors in the perpetuation of white poverty is the corollary to the “acting white” attitude within segments of the black community. I would call it “acting middle class.” I see it even in some members of my extended family […]

Reader Floridian2006 comments on the In The Big White Ghetto thread:

I think one of the factors in the perpetuation of white poverty is the corollary to the “acting white” attitude within segments of the black community. I would call it “acting middle class.”

I see it even in some members of my extended family — an anti-intellectualism that rejects many aspects of formal education and expert advice, an anti-establishment attitude that is exhibited in a “nobody is going to tell me what to do” attitude that makes it hard to hold an entry level job and then rise, a narcissism that leads to opting for tattoos and another firearm rather than a college fund for your children, as well as other dysfunctions such as wearing a Harley Davidson t-shirt to a job interview.

Perhaps many of these people cling to atavistic behavior because they are fearful of failure, but whatever the reason, it mires them in an economic status and subculture it is hard to break out of.

This is true. This made me think instantly of a rural Mississippi friend who, many years ago, talked about the H. family in her town. As I recall it from her telling, the H. clan were helplessly poor — and by “helplessly,” she meant that no matter what opportunities they had to better themselves, there was something about that extended family’s ethos that refused chances to better themselves (= develop the habits that lead to more stable, prosperous lives) because to do so would mean being untrue to oneself. In this way did culture — the set of ideas that most members of the H. clan carried around in their heads to explain the world to themselves — sabotage their future prospects.

This also makes me think of my friend the missionary to black and Hispanic inner-city Dallas, who left the wealthy white neighborhood in which he was raised to go live among the city’s poor, and help them. In his experience, one of the worst things the young black and brown people he worked with suffered from was the culture they carried in their heads that told them there was no way they could ever have what the middle class and well-off white people across the river have. They simply did not believe that it was possible to change their mean circumstances through hard work, study, and self-discipline. Not believing that it’s possible to do this, or desirable to try, was a sentence of doom that these kids imposed on themselves. In my recollection, one element of this mindset was the belief that to embrace the habits of work, study, and self-discipline amounted to betraying yourself and your community.

But we’re talking about poor white people, mostly from Appalachia. After yesterday’s thread, I went to bed last night with my doorstop-sized copy of historian David Hackett Fisher’s Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways In America. Fischer’s thesis is that American culture, even to this day, primarily consists of four basic patterns established by early British settlers in North America — Britons from different regions of the United Kingdom, who brought with them meaningfully different cultural attitudes. Here they are, via the Wikipedia entry for the book:

The Exodus of the English Puritans (Pilgrims influenced the Northeastern United States‘ corporate and educational culture)[3]
Distressed Cavaliers and Indentured Servants (Gentry influenced the Southern United States‘ plantation culture)[4]
The Friends’ Migration (Quakers influenced the Middle Atlantic and Midwestern United States‘ industrial culture)[5]

The Flight from North Britain (Scotch-Irish, or border English, influenced the Western United States‘ ranch culture and the Southern United States‘ common agrarian culture.

It’s difficult to impossible to sum up this book in a blog entry, but I’ll do what I can for the purposes of this discussion. Fischer observes that these four distinct British folk cultures brought with them to North America ways of seeing and ordering the world that both clashed with each other, and powerfully set the framework for the societies that emerged in the regions in which they settled. I mentioned yesterday that I had never quite grasped the subtle but discernible differences between the white people in my Louisiana parish (county) and the white people in our neighboring county. It’s something everybody knows (“everybody knows”), but no one can quite put a finger on. We all look exactly alike, and have the same income level. We are all equally rural. Most people are Protestants of some sort. But the folks from East Feliciana descend from (in DHF’s terminology) Britons who came from the Borderlands, while the folks from West Feliciana descend from South Of England folk.

DHF says this sort of thing matters a lot more than most of us realize today, in part because these cultural patterns persist even when the ethnic make-up of a region becomes much less Anglo-Saxon. For example, however secular it has become, New England remains strongly determined by the values of the Puritans, even as the region has, over time, become far less ethnically English. We hold on to these patterns of behavior without knowing where they came from. I smiled in recognition when I read Fischer talking about how the Tidewater culture developed by southern English gentry was unusually (for America) hierarchical, which emerged from those settlers’ attempt to recreate an English aristocratic culture on American soil. This kind of culture, DHF writes, will be marked by a strong sense of honor governing social relations and behavior, a particular sense of esteem devoted to the aged (of all social classes), and an ethic that valorizes the liberties of ruling-class white males. Yes, in all of America of the past, white males had more power than anybody else, but DHF’s point is that among the descendants of Cavalier culture, the idea that society was meant to be governed by white male elites was meaningfully more ingrained.

This was the world in which I grew up, even though we had no real aristocrats in my day. Everyone who had any decency — note well, I’m not talking about money or social status — paid homage to the elderly. This is why it is extremely difficult for me, psychologically and emotionally, to see young people call adults by their first names. It is impossible to overstate how much this violates a taboo for Southerners like me. DHF writes about how the Cavalier culture, which spread throughout the coastal South, treated wives of the elites — pretty much as breeders, and objects of chivalric worship. This freed up those elite men to whore around with mistresses, including slave women, as was their seigneurial right. This instantly brought to mind something my late great-grandmother told me about life in our town in the 1930s: the wives of local elites — landowners, doctors, lawyers — were hell on working-class women like my great-grandmother, but many of those elite women struggled with rage over the fact that their husbands all had mistresses, and there wasn’t a thing they, as women of that class, could do about it.

DHF writes that political participation in New England tends to be much higher than in regions descended from Tidewater Cavaliers because of this. The Puritan ethos instructed people to get involved in their own governance, he says; the Tidewater ethos instructed people to let the landowning traditional elites run things, because they know what’s best for all. Last year in my parish, there was our first-ever race for parish president (we changed our governing system locally), in which the two candidates — both white male elites from this place — confronted each other. One was a traditional land-owning elite who had served for years in various governmental positions; the other was a business elite who made his fortune in commerce.

It was a fascinating election in that it marked a real turning point in the political character of this place. The old guard — and I’m not talking economic old guard — for the most part rallied around the Planter, whose campaign theme was built around an assertion of his reputational worth (e.g., along the lines of, “You know me, you know I care about this place, you know I can be trusted to take good care of it.”). The emerging elites — including the young, newcomers to the parish, business class people, and others — rallied around the Businessman, who ran on a platform of managerial expertise, and the idea that the economic problems facing our parish cannot be adequately addressed in the customary way: by letting the traditional elites handle things. The New Guard candidate won decisively — but I stress that the vote did not break along economic and social class lines. It was more a matter of how strongly voters, whatever their social and economic standing, felt bound by traditional loyalties, versus pragmatism. Deciding one’s vote in this sort of election might have been a no-brainer in a place like rural Massachusetts, but it was a big deal here.

But I digress. The thing DHF makes me realize is that I assume that this kind of thing is what “Southern culture” means — but that’s not really true. This is a kind of (white) Southern culture. The other kind of white Southern culture descends from the Borderlands, and it in many ways is characteristically opposed to the Tidewater Cavalier culture (see the documentary film trailer I’ve embedded above, about an extreme example of Appalachian libertarian rebel culture embedded in a particularly dysfunctional clan; you watch the film — I recommend it — and the most amazing thing you see is that the White family — yes, that’s their name — doesn’t understand why their way of life has such deleterious consequences for them; stuff just happens to them, they think, and they don’t really know why). I was taken aback last night, reading around in the book (which I’ve never read straight through) by how ornery, cussed, and libertarian the Borderlands people have been since the very beginning. Patrick Henry was one of them, and he was so anti-authoritarian that he often shocked his fellow revolutionists with his pugnacity. He was not a learned man — certainly no reader of Locke, as were most Founding Fathers — but what he lacked in education and professional training he more than made up for in fighting spirit. He, like his people, flat-out could not stand government, believing that by its nature, government infringed upon the natural liberties of the people. Here’s DHF:

Patrick Henry’s principles of natural liberty were drawn from the political folkways of the border culture in which he grew up. He imbibed them from his mother, a lady who described the American Revolution as merely another set of “lowland troubles.” The libertarian phrases and thoughts which echoed so strongly in the backcountry had earlier been heard in the borders of North Britain. When the backcountry people celebrated the supremacy of private interests they used the same thoughts and words as William Cotesworth, an English borderer who in 1717 declared: “… you know how natural it is to pursue private interests even against that Darling principle of a more general good. … It is the interest of the Public to be served by the man that can do it cheapest, though several private persons are injured by it.

This idea of natural liberty was not a reciprocal idea. It did not recognize the right of dissent or disagreement. Deviance from cultural norms was rarely tolerated; opposition was suppressed by force. One of Andrew Jackson’s early biographers observed that “It appears to be more difficult for a North-of-Irelander than for other men to allow an honest difference of opinion in an opponent, so that he is apt to regard the terms opponent and enemy as synonymous.”

DHF’s cultural template for explaining contemporary America defies our customary explanatory categories. Why do so many Southern whites, poor as they are, remain immune to rationalist progressive programs for ameliorating their condition? Why do so many establishment Republicans defer so habitually to party elites, while so many Tea Party Republicans embrace GOP populists who thunder against those elites, typically in intemperate tones and formulations? Why do Southern whites, despite their apparent social conservatism (with its implied valorization of order and self-discipline, have among them so much more violence and disorder than New England whites (and their West Coast cultural descendants), despite the social liberalism of the latter?

It’s not economics, it’s not race, and it’s not the frontier experience (“New England was once a frontier too,” says DHF); it’s culture. Specifically, it’s British culture of 300-400 years ago, persisting today. It’s why our regions remain fundamentally irreconcilable; depending on your point of view, it’s what’s the matter with Kansas, and Alabama, and Massachusetts, etc. (though this is slowly changing). And the thing is, you cannot understand the American character without reference to all of these cultures.

For our discussion here, it’s important to recognize that ideas have consequences — that is, material realities derive from immaterial sources. In less abstract language, the reason whites in Appalachia remain poor across the generations has something to do with economics, yes, but it has much more to do with culture than people may realize. We must not be cultural fatalists, but we should come to terms with the realities that culture’s importance imposes on our ideals. Progressive reformers of the left and the right think that people are blank slates and rational actors, often because they mistake the behavior of their own regions or classes as normative for all people. This is certainly not to say that reform shouldn’t be attempted — to give up on that would be to accept fatalism — but it rather is to educate those who wish to improve conditions for poor people and others about obstacles to reform of which they are not fully aware.

You cannot reform people who do not recognize that there is anything that needs reforming. If, for example, violence is an acceptable way of handling disputes — as it is in the parts of America culturally descended from the north of Britain, where it was far more acceptable than in other parts of Britain — then you must be prepared to lower your expectations of what can be reasonably expected in terms of inculcating peaceability among those people. So too in so many other areas of life. I am an educated coastal Southerner, and I would be shocked and appalled if my 10-year-old son addressed an adult woman by her first name, but proud of his valor and virtue if he bloodied the nose of the playground bully. Your mileage may vary.

(N.B. people, I have to make a business trip to New Orleans today; I’ll update comments as I can, but it’s going to be slow.)