The Borderer's Lament

2016-12-30

For students of American culture, one of the most fascinating books of the year was Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. The author's descriptions of his troubled upbringing in the rural hills of Kentucky and a fading industrial town in Ohio have spurred casual observers to note that these are just the kinds of places that switched political allegiances in 2016. Yet cries of "Trump!" uncover only a minuscule percentage of the story. To truly understand what's going on here requires a long-term historical perspective.

As David Hackett Fischer explained in copious detail within the pages of Albion's Seed, the roots of the hillbilly way of life go back almost a thousand years. The peoples who eventually settled the Appalachian backcountry came from the Scottish-English border region (either directly or via Northern Ireland) in several waves between 1717 and 1775. Even three hundred years ago their patterns of behavior and belief were already firmly established through their searing experiences of chronic war and instability over the prior seven hundred years. Most of the characteristics we associate with hillbilly culture in comparison to the other founding cultures of America - violence, poverty, defense of family and personal honor, lower levels of educational attainment, a weaker work ethic, and all the rest - were formed between 1000 and 1700, not on the American frontier. These patterns of behavior and belief have been socially transmitted from generation to generation over a span of hundreds of years, and they will not change simply or easily (cultures never do). To understand what Vance describes, you really must read pages 605-782 of Albion's Seed.

What I find most distressing about the current flash of attention is the shallow and even derogatory nature of the commentary. Deep histories underlie America's four founding cultures: New England Puritans, Mid-Atlantic Quakers, Tidewater Cavaliers, and Backcountry Borderers (not to mention the New Amsterdam Dutch, the awful yet brilliant legacy of African slaves, and the other more recent additions from all over the world). You might hope that 250+ years later these peoples would have come to understand each other and to accept their respective contributions to American life. Needless to say, that is very much not the case.

I often think that America needs a cultural exchange program. Forget about hosting foreign exchange students from far-flung parts of the world: how about families in Seattle or Minneapolis or Boston or San Diego or Orlando or Denver hosting kids from southern Ohio or eastern Tennessee or Missouri or Oklahoma? While we're at it, kids from coastal cities and suburbs could live with and learn from families in rural areas (here's where your food and energy come from and hey while you're here do you want to learn to shoot?). An intensive initiative focused on cross-cultural and inter-regional understanding might help all Americans treat each other with greater respect.

FOR FURTHER EXPLORATION

Here are some older blog posts and essays about Albion's Seed and related topics:


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