Is America a culture or an idea?

Is America an idea about “liberty and justice for all” that can be embraced by an endless assortment of people from a wild array of cultures; or is America a uniquely White Western cultural phenomenon that only works when White Westerners are in control of the process?

Shortly before his death in 2005, Samuel T. Francis was asked to compose a statement of principles for the Council of Conservative Citizens, an unabashedly racist organization created in 1985 from old White Citizen’s Council mailing lists. Francis had been an editorial writer and columnist with the Washington Times between 1986 and 1995, but lost his job after criticizing the Southern Baptist Convention’s apology for slavery. This bold stand transformed Francis into a standard bearer for Lost Cause stalwarts in Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. By the time he authored a statement of principles for the CCC, Francis was terminally ill and didn’t pull any punches. For example, here’s his take on immigration:

We believe that the United States derives from and is an integral part of European civilization and the European people and that the American people and government should remain European in their composition and character. We therefore oppose the massive immigration of non-European and non-Western peoples into the United States that threatens to transform our nation into a non-European majority in our lifetime. We believe that illegal immigration must be stopped, if necessary by military force and placing troops on our national borders; that illegal aliens must be returned to their own countries; and that legal immigration must be severely restricted or halted through appropriate changes in our laws and policies. We also oppose all efforts to mix the races of mankind, to promote non-white races over the European-American people through so-called “affirmative action” and similar measures, to destroy or denigrate the European-American heritage, including the heritage of the Southern people, and to force the integration of the races.

The Council of Conservative Citizens claims that its racist vision is shared by a majority of White people in America. I hope they are wrong. Everything hinges on our definition of America. Are we primarily an idea to which anyone can ascribe, or are we a distinct culture that will always be alien to non-white people with roots in the non-Western world?When I read through the comments section of most mainstream media outlets, the latter option appears to be ascendant.

For instance:

Since 9-11 it has become acceptable to demonize the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims.
In recent weeks, many White readers have suggested that George Zimmerman was justified in profiling Trayvon Martin because Black males have a proclivity for violence and should therefore be regarded with suspicion.

An all-too-common argument for opposing immigration reform assumes that the United States of America was created by White folks from western Europe and will lose its distinctive character if too many non-Whites enter the national conversation.

Matt K. Lewis, a columnist with the right-leaning Daily Caller, is alarmed by some of the rhetoric he has been hearing recently. “Clearly,” he writes, “there is a sense among some anti-immigration-reform proponents that whites are genetically superior, and thus, uniquely suited to living in a free society.”

That is precisely what Sam Francis believed. But Francis argued that his opposition to immigration, racial integration and mixed marriages would stand even if it could be proven that the idea of “race” was a social construct with no basis in genetics. The European-American culture Francis prized so highly was a tangle of ideas, attitudes, virtues, habits and mores that are passed from father to son and mother to daughter. European-American culture might not be genetically determined, Francis argued, but it is inherited all the same.

This understanding of culture is reminiscent of the “memes” biologist Richard Dawkins’ has been talking about since the late 1970s. “Memes propagate themselves in the meme pool,” Dawkins wrote in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, “by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.”

Memes, in short, are “self-replicating patterns of information.”

Richard Dawkins, and fellow “New Atheists” like Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, have been criticized for directing hate speech at Muslims. Few have suggested that there is a necessary relationship between atheism, per se, and religious intolerance; but if, like Dawkins, you see cultures as self-replicating bundles of information, ideas and attitudes, one must reckon with the possibility that some cultures are antithetical to freedom and democracy and must therefore be identified, denounced and rejected.

Dawkins has referred to religion as a cancer, but has always stopped short of suggesting that religious people, whether Christian, Jewish or Muslim, should be eliminated or excluded from society. Nonetheless, the British biologist is deeply offended by the fact that the religious contagion is transmitted from parent to child and has suggested that Christian parents, especially evolution-denying fundamentalists, should be prohibited from passing their pestilent opinions down to their impressionable offspring.

Apply this contain-the-contagion logic to the immigration debate and you get the “seal the borders” hysteria we are currently witnessing.

Apply Dawkins’ mimetic understanding of culture to African Americans and you get George Zimmerman. If “those people” are “that way” they must be treated with suspicion. There is no practical alternative. It matters little if it is genetics or cultural memes that make “those” people “that” way; the logic of cultural contagion demands a draconian “final solution” of some kind: relentless racial profiling, walling the baddies out, launching a holy war on the adherents of a wicked religion.

Richard Dawkins’ meme theory can be helpful so long as it is applied consistently. All cultures must be measured by the same yardstick. I am a product of European culture (primarily Scottish, English, Dutch, Swedish and Czech), but I can’t take credit for the accomplishments of European culture without confronting the horrors my ancestors loosed upon the world. Every culture is a hopeless tangle of good, bad and ugly. When we start comparing “good” cultures (ours) with “bad” cultures (theirs) bad things happen.

Some of my ancestors moved from Pennsylvania to Ontario; others from South Dakota to Saskatchewan. I reversed the process in 1975 by moving from Alberta to Kentucky, and finalized the project in 2007 by becoming an American citizen. I wanted my voice to count. I wanted to vote. I wanted to participate in an evolving American experiment. There were hundreds of people in the room when I became a card-carrying American, and very few were from Europe, Canada, Great Britain or Australia.

The notion that only White Europeans can be true Americans saddens and bewilders me. If we find ourselves talking about liberty and justice for some, but not all, the big American idea is dead.

Alan Bean

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About the Author
Alan is executive director of Friends of Justice, an organization that creates a powerful synergy between grassroots organizing, civil rights advocacy, the legal community, the mass media and ultimately the political establishment. Friends of Justice is committed to building a new moral consensus for ending mass incarceration and mass deportation. Dr. Bean lectures frequently at universities, legal conferences, churches and community organizations on the issues of mass incarceration, drug policy and criminal justice reform. He has been quoted extensively in leading publications such as Newsweek, The Washington Post, USA Today, La Monde and The Chicago Tribune and CNN and his work with Friends of Justice been featured in the religious media outlets such as EthicsDaily.com and the Associated Baptist Press. Dr. Bean is the author of "Taking out the Trash in Tulia, Texas," an insider account of the events surrounding the Tulia drug sting. He lives in Arlington, Texas with his wife Nancy, a special education counselor and is a member of Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth.

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  • Jay G B

    The concept that North America is an idea rather than a culture is an interesting topic. Instead of delving into the subject matter this article is used as an angle to attack Richard Dawkins, atheism and memetic theory by connecting invisible dots to some crazed, old racist. How can we link the theory of cultures as memes to racism, as the article suggests, other than that racism is a meme (and a primitive, detestable one at that). If anything, memetic theory points to the possibility that society may someday shed all primitive ideas for better, more educated ones. The author’s commentary is a meandering stream of straw man arguments with very little substance tied together by loose connections. If he’s a public speaker I hope he picks better topics than this.

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