The eagerly awaited new book by David Hackett Fischer arrived today. I have only had a chance to flip through it. I am feeling a wave of bookish excitement. This book cries out to be devoured. Oxford University Press did a superb job with the production of this book, which has many pictures. Skimming the text it looks like it is up to Fischer’s usual extremely high standard.
The publisher’s page about the book is here. An excerpt:
Fischer examines liberty and freedom not as philosophical or political abstractions, but as folkways and popular beliefs deeply embedded in American culture. Tocqueville called them “habits of the heart.” From the earliest colonies, Americans have shared ideals of liberty and freedom, but with very different meanings. Like DNA these ideas have transformed and recombined in each generation.
“…like DNA…” I’ll quibble a little with that. “Folkways and popular beliefs ” are transmitted memetically, not genetically, so it doesn’t matter if your ancestors came over on the Mayflower, or after the Stuarts were beaten in The ’45, or on a sailing ship during the Potato Famine, or a steamship from Naples to Ellis Island, or a bus from Michoacan, or on a jet from Mindanao or Pusan or Taipei. The American beliefs in liberty and freedom are living and dynamic ideals, and they are open to all Americans. (This is a point Jim Bennett emphasizes in his new book — which I have finished reading and will be writing two or more future posts about here as opportunity permits.)
Fischer lists this as the third of four books in his Cultural History of America. The first one in the series is Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America. This is the single best book on American history I have ever read. (There is a nice summary of it here.) Hackett Fischer’s 2nd and 4th volumes are still in the works: American Plantations: African and European Folkways in the New World, and Deep Change: The Rhythm of American History. I lust for these future volumes.
4 thoughts on “Liberty and Freedom: A Visual History of America’s Founding Ideas.”
You say: “‘Folkways and popular beliefs’ are transmitted memetically, not genetically, so it doesn’t matter if your ancestors came over on the Mayflower, or after the Stuarts were beaten in The ’45, or on a sailing ship during the Potato Famine, or a steamship from Naples to Ellis Island, or a bus from Michoacan, or on a jet from Mindanao or Pusan or Taipei. The American beliefs in liberty and freedom are living and dynamic ideals, and they are open to all Americans.”
Allow me to suggest that this either/or understanding of the transmission of folkways is likely erroneous. Folkways are for all intents and purposes passed “genetically” from one generation to the next. This is the way that cultures remain coherent over time, and certainly in human history nearly every culture has passed along its folkways in this “genetic” fashion.
The current understanding of the American experiment is that folkways can _also_ be passed along memetically. My current favorite example of this is Louisiana’s newly elected U.S. Representative and Indian-American, Bobby Jindal. However, it must be recognized that this is an understanding the Founders likely would not have shared, had the issue been before them. Note, for instance, the Preamble’s assertion that the rights and benefits of America should pass to their “posterity,” in other words, their _genetic_ children.
The passage of folkways memetically is a more difficult process and requires a lot more conscious effort. Witness the current problems with Muslims in the Netherlands. The passage of folkways “genetically,” on the other hand, is intuitive in the same way that children learn language, by simply observing what’s around them during a time frame in which their minds are very open to formative experiences.
Whether the idea of folkway transmission thru memes can survive multiculturalism and large-scale immigration is an open question (witness, again, the Netherlands). The “genetic” passage of culture will continue, however, as it always has.
Gotta disagree 100%, General. I use genetic strictly. Once upon a time people really did believe that one “race” or another had moral or intellectual characteristics including superiority and inferiority as a result of biology, blood, ancestry. This view was false. I am culturally a son of the Anglosphere, though my genes are German, Irish, Polish and Russian. Nothing in my DNA makes me insist that I not be arrested without a warrant issuing, or that I be allowed a secret ballot, or that I place a high degree of trust in non-kin, or that I am individualistic in my outlook in many ways. These are cultural notions embodied in institutions. If you mean that parents rear children in a culture, OK, of course, but that’s not genetic. It’s upbringing. It is cultural formation. Memetic.
Culture does not stay “coherent”, as you put it, at all. It constantly changes but with continuity. Cotton Mather and a modern-day doctrinaire environmentalist would have many, many things to disagree about — but the man of one age is the cultural ancestor of his daughter today and the line of development can be traced and understood in detail, and there are commonalities even across the centuries. That is what Hackett Fischer’s new book is about, how liberty and freedom came to be understood in different ways by different generations and sub-populations of Americans. Jindal proves my point and disproves yours. He and his family assimilated here and adopted American values while maintaining certain of their own. This is what every immigrant group and family and individual has had to do and it can be a difficult process. Memetic. Nothing in his genes makes him permanently a denizen of the subcontinent of India or more or less suited to live here. You say “requires a lot more conscious effort”. Again, I think this is almost wrong. People pick up on practices by watching and trying to fit in and seeing what works. This is a difficult process at times, but it is not so much a matter of study or learning (though learning English is) as it is inductively figuring out what you need to do to get by in America. Again, millions of people have done this for centuries and millions more will do it in the centuries ahead.
I disagree also that what happens to Muslims in the Netherlands tells us anything about this country, which has been extraordinarily open to foreigners for centuries. That in itself is part of our culture. “the Preamble’s assertion that the rights and benefits of America should pass to their “posterity,” in other words, their _genetic_ children.” This has nothing to do with anything. The legal status of citizens is automatically conferred on the children of citizens. That is not what we are talking about at all. Legal status is not the issue. There are other ways to become a citizen besides birth. The question is not legal status. The question is cultural continuity and cultural incorporation of individuals and groups who came here and adopt the values needed to succeed here. “the idea of folkway transmission thru memes can survive multiculturalism and large-scale immigration is an open question.” Not really. It has been asked and answered in the affirmative repeatedly, in the United States and in other Anglosphere countries, which have been magnets for immigrants for centuries. The influx of Irish was supposed to doom “Anglo-Saxon civilization” in the mid-19th century. America carried on, adapted, but still at its core the same. The massive influx of Southern and Eastern Europeans were similarly presented as a threat. They, we, I am entirely American three generations later, though America has changed, too.
The only issue is whether America has enough faith in its culture, its heritage, its institutions to preserve them and maintain them and assert what is good about them. If so, Americans will have the cultural confidence needed to assimilate anybody, since people come here and want to succeed, and they will play by the rules that are required if they perceive them as good and fair. If do not believe in ourselves, then we will have a more difficult time, of course. But understanding ourselves, our history, the roots of our culture and our institution, what we have here, and why it is good is the first step.
David Hackett Fischer is one of our great guides and teachers in this process.
Lex: Thank you for the interesting response. Please allow me to retort.
I agree with your debunking of the formerly popular genetic theory of cultural transmission. I was using the term a little differently (and imprecisely), hence my decision to put it in “quotes”.
Cultures do stay “coherent,” however, and I don’t think we disagree on that point. You say that cultures “change but with continuity.” I would suggest that this is the same thing as coherence. In other words, they don’t change randomly, and any changes can be explained logically (even if they are unwelcome).
The clash of civilizations in the Netherlands does provide a useful analogy for the United States, because Holland has also been welcoming to immigrants. They are now feeling some regret over this policy. My suggestion is that their problems are caused by a failure in the “memetic” transmission of culture, which runs into a possibly insurmountable barrier — Islam.
I also agree with your “cultural confidence” theory, but I wish you could see that this actually supports what I was saying. My point was that cultural transmission is weakened by multiculturalism and massive immigration. Your rejoinder merely supports that observation, since what I’m getting at is the idea that multiculturalism and massive immigration are likely to weaken the very cultural confidence to which you refer.
While you both mostly do agree, there is a VERY signficant genetic issue. The “best” test of assimilation is this: would you let your daughter marry one of “them”.
Racism in the US only really ended with “Guess who’s coming to Dinner”, and such — when interracial marriage, and actual genetic coherence, was accepted.
Jewish resistance to assimilation, and marriage with gentiles, is a mild form of racism (underdiscussed because of the worse discrimination against them — but they’re not innocent.)
Most culture transmission comes from parents to children. Note even some CA bumper stickers: born in California. (I was born in Chicago, went to CA when 5, now in Slovakia.)
Lex makes a great point though: The only issue is whether America has enough faith in its culture, its heritage, its institutions to preserve them and maintain them and assert what is good about them The Dutch do NOT have any faith in their culture.
I argue that any country whose churches are empty have lost “faith”, including losing faith in themselves. And the Bush-haters in America, mostly w/o faith in anything but PC, are against America.
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