September 27, 2020

Race, Nation, Nature

Responses to the eponymous McCarthy and Hague text,  

Race, Nation, and Nature: The Cultural Politics of “Celtic” Identification in the AmericanWest
Author(s): James McCarthy and Euan Hague
Source: Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Vol. 94, No. 2 (Jun., 2004)

An examination of the claims of Celtic identity by Wise Use activists in NM in the 1990s. The claim of a coherent ethnic identity has given white settlers a way to describe themselves as oppressed and in resistance to the state, thereby
afforded them symbolic resources in negotiating the challenges of both multiculturalism and neoliberalism…while retaining the benefits of white privilege.

Whiteness as a study has been catching up with the study of marginalized groups, by
tracing how the exclusion and inclusion of various ethnic groups from the category “white” served both to legitimize colonialism and to divide and control the working class

…identity (is not) as a stable property or objective descriptor of individuals and groups and towards understanding it as constructed, changeable, fragmented, and often internally contradictory.
racial identity plays as important, if less apparent, a role in the geographies of rural, mainly’ “white” areas, places that are -to some eyes, at least- “less obvious sites of difference” 
Geography looks at the locales of hate groups and place-specific versions of whiteness.

The construction of whiteness as motile requires analysis of all the variables that constitute this monolithic category (the podcast Seeing White addresses this in many different instances, when it’s convenient to include or exclude, for instance).

Those (such as Jim Catron, founder of the Wise Use movement) who argue for Celtic identity in the US assert that Celtic identity as lived by
“an English speaking monoglot redneck rancher in Nevada works, lives, and believes very, very nearly the same as the Gauls conquered by Julius Caesar, and as the highlanders who fought the English monarchy for 700 years.”
With “mythosymbolic resonance,” Celts have been perceived in the 20th century as proto-Europeans, most ancient peoples, fetishized in new-age movements, and celebrated in art, music, theater (in Braveheart, for instance). An essentializing concept.
This has been contested. Some “have argued that Celticness is a recent social construction, a position in line with most contemporary theories of identity” and that archeological findings across Europe do NOT support evidence of a singular tribe “let alone evidence of a premodern Celtic empire or European unity, as is often claimed.”  By the 1990s, archeologists ditched the term “Celtic” as no longer “particularly useful” for describing the Iron Age.

Claims to Celtic origins have decidedly modern taxonomical practices (linguistic classification, contemporary construction of “the races.) In the context of British Empire, Celtic (umbrella for Gaelic languages), was used to contest and grieve over the empire’s urge to homogenize the British Isles.

Assertions of a monolithic Celtic identity rely on “the elision of evidence separated by hundreds of years and thousands of miles” and discourses of Celticness have, of course, evolved over time. Nevertheless, there has been considerable stability around what are supposedly the central characteristics of Celtic peoples. Celts are commonly depicted as emotional, passion-ate, heroic, struggling against overwhelming odds, wild, and drunken. They fight for land and family, not conquest or gain. In defense of their localities, Celts are supposedly antibureaucratic and prone to acting on instinct, reinforced by a penchant for “unprovoked violence.” This is a discourse of difference, in which Celts are defined as everything that modern Western industrial capitalist society is not. 

These stereotypes continue to shape representations of Celtic identity. Arguing that this long-standing process of identifying Celts comprises a core-periphery model for understanding of culture and society, replete with ideas of marginality and subordination, Chapman (1992) contends that those claiming Celtic identities commonly envision themselves as the last bastion of this culture with a duty to preserve it in the face of centralization and eradication. Often, the cultural decline is envisioned to have “been due to the systematic persecution and oppression,” a view that gathers currency with popularization and increases the moral symbolism and authority of those subordinated.

Celtic ethnicity is thus a powerful identity to claim. It comes replete with a rich, symbolic, and well-known history. It is also usefully ambiguous; the highly constructed nature of the category enables individuals and groups to construct whatever “‘Celtic” history and cultural identity they find useful.

This is rather indicting. The article goes on to say Celtic is an umbrella referring to people who feel an affiliation with an ethnic heartland in either Ireland or Scotland. An estimated 40 million ppl constitute a market for Irish products, and 20 million for Scottish ones.

“Since the 1970s, with public debates about multiculturalism,” argues Byron in his study of Irish-Americans, “everyone has come to be regarded as needing ‘an ethnic identity.’ Compared with previous generations, consciousness of ancestry has become heightened and people have been goaded into taking an interest in their ethnic heritage” and, we might add, utilizing that ethnic heritage as the basis for a claim to cultural distinction and political rights .

As a complement, U.S. “Celtophiles” are attracted by “old-fashioned clannishness and underdog pluck” that are embodied by Celtic ethnic identity. Irishness, as part of this ethnicity, is popular in the United States as it represents” authenticity and tradition”a strong sense of family, playfulness, and heritage “without thinking about race.” 

In the 1980s a “Celtic thesis” about the antebellum South emerged that analogized Celts and Confederates on the one side, and British and the Union on the other, describing the Civil War as a continuation of old conflict in Britain. Although the Celtic thesis was debunked, it had caught on in the popular imagination as a justification to myth-adherence.

The Wise Use movement, a broadly anti-federal, anti-environmentalist political activity in the United States from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s.

Like the Tea Party, it was partly comprised by neoliberal think-tanks who “created” grass roots local orgs to lobby for them.
It pitted environmental issues and regulation against infringements on property rights (“takings”), it was tied to extractive industries, and ALSO contained truly Libertarian, populist, anti-corporate elements.

In the face of a. increased regulatory pressure by the federal government since 1980, b. declining profits and employment opportunities in their region, and c. an influx of non-local “elites” who wanted the land preserved and valued for its scenic and recreational qualities,
the major goal of Wise Use activists was to ensure that rural primary commodity producers maintained their privileged, subsidized access to the federally owned lands that make up over half of the West.
Wise Use arose in the late 1980s largely out of a desire-both in corporate boardrooms and in small-holder kitchens around the West-to defend and maintain commodity production on federal lands. 

While described as ASTROTURF more than grass-roots, it had significant steam in both individual and corporate-fueled arenas.

Catron County, one of the sites of extensive interviews on Wise Use, is a county I know a little bit about from the Gila 2.0: Warding off the Wolf project I did with Christie Leece. They are proponents of the Celtic origin myth, much cited in this article.
Marston, publisher of The High Country News -a widely read and generally progressive and pro-environmentalist regional newspaper published in neighboring Colorado- explained that, “the ‘real’ residents of the region have been on the run from the organized wage economy for several centuries. When … Adam Smith’s economy began to dominate Europe, they fled that continent to settle in America’s wild places-Appalachia and the Ozarks. When the time clock reached those areas, they came to the rural West, where they could continue to live as free people” 

Wise Use leadership likened federal regulation to the Land Enclosure Acts of England (a tragedy TO the commons). They offered claims of discovering ancient Celts in pictographs found in the region.

Participants in interviews in Catron County routinely told stories of homesteading ancestors seeking a new start in the West after multiple evictions and oppressions elsewhere (many from the South during Re-construction), drew explicit parallels between changes in federal land policy and British royal hunting preserves, and warned that they were ready to defend their claims by force.

(When I shared that I was Jewish with a rancher in Texas, he shared that his ancestors, cousins of Robert E Lee, also were evicted and otherwise oppressed during reconstruction). 

Wise Use’s strongest claims to federal lands boiled down to the argument that they (meaning primary commodity producers) had been there first; their ancestors had homesteaded the West and built up a productive landscape before there were federal conservation agencies and long before there was an environmental movement. They now viewed themselves as an em-battled minority being pushed off of the land unfairly, their prior uses summarily extinguished, just be-cause environmentalists, with their greater numbers in coastal cities, had different priorities for those lands, and because the federal government wanted to increase its power. A major problem with this argument, of course, was that Native American and Hispanic groups, pushed out by the homesteading ancestors of Wise Users and the U. S. Army, could advance far stronger historical claims. If Wise Use activists wanted to argue that historical precedence should decide between competing claims and that a larger, more powerful group was not justified in displacing a smaller, weaker group in order to enforce its own claims on the land, then some formidable ideological acrobatics were required to avoid the conclusion that Wise Users should relinquish their claims in favor of those of Native American or Hispanic groups.

And even if a larger public doubted the Celtic findings in the petroglyphs that appeared to demonstrate that Celts preceded Hispanic and Native cultures in the West, the Celts were fleeing from English oppression in Europe and thus positioned them as fellow victims alongside indigenous and Hispanics in America. (Catron, Ballinger, and other Wise Use activists emphasized this analogy repeatedly, referring to themselves as “the new Native Americans” and comparing the Highland clearances to the Trail of Tears).

This is FURTHER complicated by the economic facts about production in the Southwest. Those with power were not the smallholders, but the multinationals and local elites. Linking Wise Use to a Celtic identity, defined in terms of perennially displaced smallholders, cast its participants as victims of capitalism rather than its agents, and as victims rather than beneficiaries of federal administration of natural resources in the West. 

The racist components of this are very complicated. Jim Catron apparently said “environmentalism.. . is to the West what abolition was to the Old South, a political and philosophical tool of cultural destruction.”
I’m very interested in this and wish to unpack it. Catron bemoans the loss of his antebellum privileges, denying that slaveholding was a problem except occasionally (i.e Uncle Tom’s Cabin tales, created as anti-southern propaganda). His claims, and Wise Use perhaps in general is prescient of the current backlash agains multiculturalism, and a fervent denial that we have institutional racism in this country, and furthermore, see no problem with people hanging only “with their likeminded kind.”