Smoky Mountains Sunrise

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Youth for Western Civilization Group at Vanderbilt Stirs Furor

Founders of the local branch of Youth for Western Civilization Devin Saucier, left, and Trevor Williams at the Parthenon in Nashville. SANFORD MYERS / THE TENNESSEAN

From The Tennessean

By Jennifer Brooks

Meet the Youth for Western Civilization.

Its members, 13 strong and counting on the campus of Vanderbilt University, are out to "promote the survival of Western civilization and pride in Western heritage."

The club has sprung up at seven colleges around the country in the past few months, sounding a warning cry against "radical multiculturalism," "mass immigration" and the "leftist occupation" of America's college campuses.

To its critics, it's the new face of intolerance on America's college campuses.

At a YWC-sponsored event at Vanderbilt last week, protesters outnumbered club members by a margin of 10-to-1. The Southern Poverty Law Center has the group's national founders on a watch list, suspected of ties to white nationalist groups.

Vanderbilt sophomores Trevor Williams and Devin Saucier, who founded the local chapter last fall, say it's their critics who are intolerant.

A matter of perception

"We're not racists," Saucier said Friday, sitting on the steps of Nashville's concrete Parthenon, a monument to the kind of Western heritage he believes is vanishing from college textbooks today — squeezed out by lessons on non-Western cultures and non-Western heritage.

In other circles, Youth for Western Civilization is being hailed as a bold new right-wing youth movement, out to light a fire under fellow conservatives and wrench the national debate back to the topic of immigration.

The group had its coming-out party at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C., in February.

"There are four policies on campuses that have led to the subversion of Western values," Williams said, ticking them off one by one.

"Mass immigration without regards to assimilation. Illegal immigration. Affirmative action. And multicultural ideology."

Almost every large wave of immigration in American history has sparked a backlash. The Chinese, the Germans, the Italians and now Hispanic immigrants have stirred fears that a wave of newcomers will overwhelm the national culture, breed crime and weaken the nation.

In the mid-18th century, the Know-Nothings railed against the hordes of Irish immigrants, who sent their children to separate schools and held allegiance to a foreign pope.

Reminded of the legends about "No Irish Need Apply" signs that used to hang in shop windows, Williams thought about it for a moment, then said, "They probably had the right idea … at least, until (the Irish) assimilated."

Talk disturbs some

No one has accused the local chapter of YWC of being a hate group, but its talk of assimilation and the preservation of Western culture above all others gives many people pause.

"It's totally fine for them to talk," said Southern Poverty Law Center spokeswoman Heidi Beirich, whose organization tracks hate group activity around the country.

But the language the group is using, she said, "To us, it's racism, pure and simple."

Many recognized hate groups, from the Ku Klux Klan to the Council of Conservative Citizens, begin their mission statements with a rallying cry to preserve this country's Western heritage.

"When I hear a statement like that, I have to wonder — is it a euphemism for white civilization?," said Frank Dobson Jr., director of the Bishop Joseph Johnson Black Cultural Center at Vanderbilt.

"A lot of groups use language that's veiled, but still the intent is clear."

Immigration lecture

Last week, the YWC sponsored an evening lecture on immigration by former U.S. Treasurer Bay Buchanan, who shares the group's views on immigration and assimilation. The event attracted more than 100 protesters, all organized over the course of a single weekend by Vanderbilt junior Erica Santiago.

"All week long, I've been seeing the signs they put up against immigration," said Santiago, standing in a long line of protesters formed at the entrances to the lecture hall last Monday night, holding up pro-immigration and pro-diversity signs.

"We came here to show our disapproval. To show people that this is the face of Vandy," she said.

The message Santiago gets from this group is that immigration weakens America, and she finds that concept unacceptable.

"My mother came from Colombia. You want to take my entire existence away."

To become a recognized student organization on campus, groups must show that there is no existing campus group with similar goals and that others on campus are interested in joining their proposed organization.

Youth for Western Civilization met those criteria, filled out all the necessary paperwork and lined up a faculty adviser, said Courtney Salters, director of student governance in Vanderbilt's Office of Student Organizations.

Vanderbilt was aware of the unsavory rumors swirling around the group, she said, but found no evidence that YWC was involved in harassment or hate speech on campus.

The Southern Poverty Law Center issued a warning last month that the national founders of Youth for Western Civilization, Marcus Epstein and Kevin DeAnna, have posted to white supremacist Web sites in the past.

Youth for Western Civilization say DeAnna is the sole founder of the group. And DeAnna denies that he or Epstein has racist leanings. He blames the allegations on a "crude, tribalistic instinct that's opposed to us."

Williams and Saucier started out in the College Republicans club at Vanderbilt. The group met once or twice a year, they said, and everyone wore suits and talked about getting ahead in the party and maybe, at some point, going out and canvassing for John McCain.

Frustrated, they started looking for a group with fire in its belly. A group that could go toe-to-toe with the liberal activists on campus.

Broad agenda

The YWC's agenda spans the political and cultural spectrum. It picketed a campus production of The Vagina Monologues, branding it pornography, and invited Bay Buchanan to lecture on immigration and assimilation.

At the moment, Williams is planning a YWC-sponsored lecture series on opera and its importance in Western culture.

March was Multicultural Awareness Month at Vanderbilt, but "there wasn't a single event about Western culture," Saucier said. "Our contributions have been heavily overshadowed. We're kind of that [forgotten] voice."

But for all its opposition to multiculturalism on campus, Youth for Western Civilization welcomes it in its own ranks.

On Saturday, Saucier and Williams called in with the news that they'd recruited their 13th member — Neelam Khan. She's a Memphis-born Muslim of Pakistani descent, and YWC won her over at the Bay Buchanan speech.

"I absolutely loved it," she said. "I found I really agreed with everything they said. I felt so comfortable with them, and we agree on so many topics."

She sees nothing at odds between her Eastern heritage and her membership in a group that believes Western culture should predominate in this country.

"I love my culture, I love my heritage, but having lived here all my live, I identify more as an American," she said.

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