Rep. Steve King, White People and ‘Civilization’

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Rep. Steve King objected to a comment during a cable news discussion at MSNBC that this will be the last election dominated by old white people.


Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) offered an unusual defense of the racial homogeneity of his party during a panel on MSNBC Monday evening.

The group, led by Chris Hayes, was discussing the first day of the Republican national convention and Donald Trump’s history of racially-loaded comments and behavior. King told Hayes that he thought Trump had “modified” his behavior in that regard, but Esquire’s Charlie Pierce said he didn’t see much diversity reflected in the gathering itself.

“If you’re really optimistic, you can say that this is the last time that old white people will command the Republican Party’s attention, its platform, its public face,” Pierce said. “That hall is wired,” he continued. “That hall is wired by loud, unhappy, dissatisfied white people.”

King objected.

“This ‘old white people’ business does get a little tired, Charlie,” King said. “I’d ask you to go back through history and figure out, where are these contributions that have been made by these other categories of people that you’re talking about, where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?”

“Than white people?” Hayes asked, clearly amazed.

“Than, than Western civilization itself,” King replied. “It’s rooted in Western Europe, Eastern Europe and the United States of America and every place where the footprint of Christianity settled the world. That’s all of Western civilization.”

There are lots of basic things wrong with King’s statement, even just starting with his category of ‘whiteness’. Whiteness is not ‘natural’– it is an invented category. Were Irish white? A lot of English didn’t think so. “Whites” rioted against Greek immigrants to the US. White supremacists still argue over whether to let in Italian-Americans. Me, I don’t want to be called white and I decline that categorization whenever the government or other people with questionnaires will let me. The Appalachian side of my family probably has some Melungeon to it and some of us aren’t all that ‘white.’

As for civilization, there are lots of kinds. Archeologists were shocked to discover that African villagers did sophisticated iron-working around the time of Jesus, even though they didn’t have big cities or other infrastructure. They were just good at smithing and the technology needed for it.

If by civilization is meant urban society with high rates of literacy, scientific and technological innovation, role specialization and division of labor, and high levels of collective government, then northern European Christians did not invent it.

Iraq, Iran, India, China and Egypt did. The Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Elamites, Persians, Indians, Chinese and the Pharaohs of Egypt had civilization for thousands of years while Celts in Britain were painting themselves blue and doing hunting and gathering in the wastes.

Sanskrit gave us our numbers, otherwise we’d be doing long division of IX into XXVI. The Arabs and Iranians at the court of the Abbasid caliphate added the zero, and invented algebra and algorithms (named for al-Khwarizmi, an Iranian Muslim mathematician). Omar Khayyam, an Iranian, pioneered using geometry to solve algebraic problems. Muslims gave us the latteen sail and a whole host of other key inventions. Chinese science in the Song period (late medieval) was so far ahead of the rest of the world that others probably did not catch up until 1750 or so. Ancient Indian astronomers were likewise way ahead of their peers in Europe of the day.

As for Christianity, while it could not be proved to cause the fall of the Roman Empire in the 400s of the common era, it is certainly the case that Greece and the Roman republic were huge successes when pagan, but went into a tailspin only a century after Constantine imposed a Middle Eastern monotheism on the empire. There doesn’t seem to be a connection between Christianity and civilization. There were some negatives. Christian know-nothingism of the Tertullian sort put paid to high philosophizing in Western Europe for centuries, with deep damage to science and innovation. Abbasid caliph Haroun al-Rashid was debating Aristotle at court while Charlemagne, lord of a few muddy villages compared to the splendors of Baghdad, was desperately trying to learn to write his name.

Western Europeans and North Americans got slightly ahead of the rest of the world with regard to gross domestic product and scientific innovation from about 1750, but this should not be exaggerated. Even as the people at the center of an empire, most Portuguese were poor, and likely poorer than the Indians they hoped to rule. It certainly had nothing at all to to with Christianity. Some of it was the ‘ghost acreage’ of slavery and colonialism, which produced economic ‘cream’ for white society beyond subsistence that got invested and had a multiplier effect.

But there is another critique of what King said, which is that our model of civilization may be very damaging. It is after all a high-carbon enterprise that produces masses of pollution. It may have endangered our species with its carbon emissions. A less ‘civlized’ life like that of pre-European Native Americans would certainly have been in greater harmony with the environment.

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33 Responses

  1. Thanks for this response.

    Just a note: You mean of course big cities in Sub-Saharan Africa, but imo you should be sure to say so here since the kind of person who makes ridiculous statements about “white” culture (your explanation of this term is great) also like to sever the continent. For obvious reasons.

    That said, Sub Saharan Africa – did- have big cities such as the ancient Nubian cities which for a time controlled Egypt, Great Zimbabwe, built in stone, which probably housed 18,000 people. By the mid 15th century, Timbuktu probably had 100,000 people which was the 14th century population of London before the plague. Paris in 1450 had 150,000 people.

  2. I think you are losing the main thread here professor, in emphasizing the ‘white’ factor. Its the old people who are the one’s being maligned with colour and religion playing only a small part. There is an ever increasing complaint that governments are largely run by middle age white males which is true for the most part. However, over here in the UK there is a distinct feeling of threat against the older community these days. There is a large vocal section of the younger generation who are complaining that the old are financially better off. The old dominate parliament. The old are responsible for the European referendum vote winning the day to leave the EU. The old shouldn’t be driving any more. The old are cluttering up the hospitals and so on. Most young people are saying the elderly should not have been allowed to vote in the recent EU referendum election because the future belongs to the young. The logic of this of course, is that the old shouldn’t be allowed to vote at all. Cameron won the last general election due largely to the older voter and it was prime minister Cameron who set up the referendum. Perhaps those in the media who have a wider voice than most of us, should be pointing out that wisdom and experience comes with age. Throughout the history of man kind, in modern governments and simple tribes, its the elders who have occupied the seats at the head of the table because its the older generation who have the experience of life and can see what the young can’t see or don’t want to see.

    • The old shouldn’t be driving any more.

      If you would have left this out, this rant would have been marginally more convincing.

  3. I’ve always read the tale of the ‘short twentieth century’ as the culmination of several centuries of trends which made the world safe for Europeans to slaughter each other on an unprecedented scale, much as the Romans did once they had conquered the known world in their own time. That period of history has ended decisively and is now behind us as we enter a new phase with robotic, genetic and information technologies set to transform our civilisations, and with Asian states reformed and reasserting their historically important positions in the world.

    People like Rep King look back on this period with a nostalgic gloss that overlooks its atrocities and (more importantly) blinds them to the new realities around us. ‘Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall’ as his holy book says. Their failure to adapt reminds me of the clinging to out of date rituals in Confucian courts during the 19th century in East Asia. If they continue to do so they will be swept aside; I might add the traditional strength of the British elite has been knowing when to bend, which is why we still have influential families hear with roots going back to the Conquest. King could learn a thing or two about eating humble pie whilst cashing the cheques.

    I don’t hold Western (code for white) civilisation as being uniquely evil during its period of expansion nor of having to carry the burden of my ancestors’ deeds. The Arab, Chinese and Mongol worlds all celebrate the memory of their own periods of power and pomp (and arguable skate over the nasty bits more), and we can too. We just shouldn’t think of it as the enduring and dominant thing some people think it was; it was only a phase of a story which is still being written.

    • From my perspective (German) “Western” is not a code for “white”. In German political discourse it is shorthand for keeping Germany anchored to the US (via NATO etc.), or seeking closer alignment with the Russians. Who’s more white I leave up to you to decide.

  4. When asked what he thought about Western civilization, Gandhi replied that he thought it would be a good idea.

  5. Woody Guthrie’s song takes on a different meaning when sung by Rep. King to the GOP convention….

    This land is your land This land is my land
    From California to the New York island;
    From the red wood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
    This land was made for you and Me. ( AND NO ONE ELSE!!)

  6. “There are lots of basic things wrong with King’s statement, even just starting with his category of ‘whiteness’. Whiteness is not ‘natural’– it is an invented category.”

    Your observation about “whiteness” being an invented category is spot-on, Professor Cole. But if it was wrong for King to use it in his statement, it was equally wrong for Esquire’s Charlie Pierce to use it in his statement quoted below.

    “If you’re really optimistic, you can say that this is the last time that old white people will command the Republican Party’s attention, its platform, its public face,” Pierce said. “That hall is wired,” he continued. “That hall is wired by loud, unhappy, dissatisfied white people.”

    Pierce is just as guilty of using color and racial categories in support of his opinions as King is in support of his.

    • No, because if people choose to belong to a faction and kill for it and oppress others for it, instead of recognizing legal equality, then it’s real. It’s as real as the Nazi Party or ISIS or the Khmer Rouge. The problem is that these particular factionalists believe a mythical origin story. Stop trying to impose moral equivalence on America’s lopsided history of injustice.

      • ” Stop trying to impose moral equivalence on America’s lopsided history of injustice.”

        No one is “imposing moral equivalence on America’s lopsided history of injustice.” The question revolves around the invented categories of color and race, something Professor Cole pointed out and anthropologists have known for decades. Pierce is indeed just as guilty of using such invented categories to support his opinion as King is in support of his. Invented categories are invented categories, period.

  7. I don’t buy the “Christianity held civilization back” argument. The Dark Ages were not (as many anti-theists argue) the result of Europe becoming Christian, but rather the economic and political fallout of the collapse of the Roman Empire. The Dark Ages would have happened under paganism too. I’m rather surprised Dr. Cole made that argument.

    I wholeheartedly agree with his thinking on the virtue of civilizations that predate Western civilizations though.

  8. Melungeon? Had to look it up. Maybe you are, maybe you aren’t borned that way. Get a DNA test. My Western Appalachian roots thought they were part Cherokee (indeed, on my Grandma’s side) and my DNA shows it not to be so.

  9. Steve King not only is ignorant of many elements of world history, he apparently is disinclined to taking the first step towards wisdom; that is, recognizing how much he doesn’t know.

    Except for soldiers imported from the British and French empires, World War One was very much a “white” event that led to the mindless deaths of tens of millions of people. And that was only one of many “white” wars.

  10. An interesting post Juan, but it needs some qualification.

    At this late date, any historian who does not understand the deep inter-change of culture and diversity in the Mediterranean and Near East would not be given much credibility, rightly so. E.g., “The Greek Miracle” is now understood to have been the product of rich cultural exchange, from the Mycenaean and Minoan (if the Minoans were indeed Greek) period on – exchanges with the cultures of Egypt, the Near East, especially Anatolia, and throughout the Mediterranean in general. The classical foundation of Europe is scarcely purely “white” (whatever that means, since as you point out Greeks have been a persecuted minority in this country), as certain know-nothings would assert.

    But it seems that there was almost a biological propensity, a la E. O. Wilson, towards aggression in the European tradition, beginning with the fiercely competitive Greeks and reaching its apex with the Romans and that this tradition of fierce colonial aggression abided into the modern era (hence the British Empire, Spanish conquistadors, etc. right up to French colonialism and so on). Europeans were just really really good at it (if you consider successful enslavement, extermination, exploitation and resource extraction inherent “goods” – I do not!), but so too were the Arabs (oh that fabulous seventh century!), the Turks, and the Mongols. Just not as good as the Europeans, and without the unique sets of historical circumstances and traditions.

    It doesn’t help things that many of us were raised and taught a particular narrative of human history which skews towards Europe (though I think it should, simply because of the reason stated above – an aggregate of fiercely aggressive cultures whose innovations, curiosity, and cruelty, led to the conquest of the planet and the establishment of polities based on ancient systems of democracy and republicanism; it was, after all, not the Chinese landing in Oregon, or the Polynesians on the coast of California, or native Australians landing in Chile who conquered the Americas).

    A couple of minor (or maybe not so minor) quibbles: Yes, the Celts could be savages, but as we come to learn, Stonehenge and its surrounding monuments constitute one of the most sophisticated achievements of the ancient world. On-going archaeological work verifies this. And yes, Charlemagne was not particularly literate, but he did us a tremendous service during the so-called Carolingian Renaissance, when he set out to have copied as many manuscripts of the pagan past as he could find. Many of the manuscripts that survived and were rediscovered by the Italian humanists of the 15th and 16th centuries were written in Carolingian miniscule. We would have lost significant works by Tacitus, Cicero, and others had this not taken place (and Tacitus had a profound influence on the Founding Fathers).

    As for Christianity and the Roman Empire – Christianity represented a huge cultural shift that few historians, I find, can really come to terms with. It replaced an entire cultural system (at the center of which was animal sacrifice and polytheism) that had existed for (possibly) as far back as 8000 years. That’s a long time for Zeus to sit on Olympus! But surely it was a series of demographic and political pressures that finally put a period on Roman rule, particularly a series of very unfortunate events (invasion coupled with civil war) that spiraled out of control from 378 (the Battle of Adrianopolis, a disastrous Roman defeat) going forward.

    As a Classicist I struggle with issues like this. Like you I hate the term “white” and even the term “western civilization”. (Like Gandhi, I think western civilization would be a good thing!) It is to impoverish our understanding of human societies and their histories when we suppress the contribution of divers communities. But I don’t see how modern inclusive democracy would have developed in historical terms without a series of complex interactions between Greek and Roman historical developments, French and English Enlightenment thinkers, and yes, Christianity; these are – perhaps – the most important (obviously not the only) influences, the deep background as it were, that have led us to inclusive democracy. Furthermore, I don’t see abolition, women’s rights, concern for the poor, and other socially progressive movements and inclusion happening in a pagan context: they want the deep ethics espoused in the Old and New Testament – I say this as a militant agnostic, and following the acknowledgement of Julian the Apostate in this regard.

    This is the complexity of our historical predicament though: the European cultures that conquered the globe have contributed much to make life in much of the world fabulous; they have also created Stephan Daedalus’ nightmare from which we are trying to wake up.

    • Enjoyed reading your post and agree (mostly).
      While Great Charles did indeed spread learning, and by doing so possibly rescued some of the “pagan” things from forever being lost, the pagan past of his own people didn’t fare so well. If the recording of the Germanic mythology and legends that he commissioned was actually done, it was lost during the tenure of his son. A period of darkness seems to have followed the Carolingian Renaissance.
      Fortunately the likes of writers like Paulus Diaconus were able to hide some of the old stuff in their histories.

    • hmmm…. but the Chinese did (likely) land on the coast of California (before Europeans) and seafaring Polynesians did spread their culture across the vast Pacific, often though conquest. The internal colonialism of the Americas, pre-Columbus, was no less thorough than in Europe. Not to diminish your many good points. White people didn’t do everything great and they did not do everything bad. This is the key, imo.

      • “The internal colonialism of the Americas, pre-Columbus, was no less thorough than in Europe. ”

        The Aztecs (known as the “Mejica”) were no less imperialists than were the Spanish. They conquered surrounding groups, exacted tribute, slaves, and sacrificial subjects. Cortez conquered the Aztecs with the assistance of some 30,000 Tlaxcalan and Totonac warriors who were happy to throw off Aztec dominance.

        The Apache and Navajo both arrived relatively late in the Southwestern U.S., arriving in the 14th and 15th centuries. Migrating from Canada, they proved hostile to the Pueblo Indians who had dwelt in the area for centuries, mounting raids, stealing, and killing.

        And the Plains Indians had a long history of hostilities among themselves. Imperialism and dominance over conquered peoples is not a phenomenon unique to Europeans.

  11. Prof. Cole how can you write this, Just when Melania Trump’s speech demonstrated to everybody how oppressed white people are in America?

    Blacks get all the best things, even the best words! Michele Obama was allowed to use all these wonderful sentences in her speech eight years ago, yet when a beautiful white woman uses the very same sentences, she gets attacked for it!

    How very unfair, and obviously racist is that!

    :-)

    (The sad thing is, this pretty much reflects the sophistication of Trump surrogates on TV.)

  12. I’m no classicist, but here’s another quibble: of the some 90 naturally occurring chemical elements, the overwhelming majority were discovered by European scientists.

  13. Gunpowder, printing, and the compass are a few of the multitude of things that originated in China. “Science and Civilization in China”, are a series of books initiated and edited by Sir Joseph Needham, Ph.D. To date, there are 7 volumes in 27 books. Rep. King’s question about contributions of “these other categories of people” have been sufficiently answered by Joseph Needham’s work.

  14. Most people, and King is not unique, are simply unacquainted with the contributions of Islamic science to western civilization. And in the minds of most people the great contributions of the Italian Renaissance and the scientific revolution of the 17th century overshadow anything that preceded them.

    People remember Christopher Columbus, Leonardo de Vinci, Michelangelo, the advances in art, engineering and mathematics of that era, and the seventeenth century with Galileo, Kepler, Descartes, Huygens, Newton, and then the 18th century Enlightenment philosophers.

    Was the Renaissance sparked by Fibonacci’s trips to the orient? Probably. But how many people have heard of Fibonacci? Or Mohammad al Khwarizmi, who wrote the first algebra book, and introduced the decimal system at the House of Wisdom in Baghdad in the 9th century? How many people know that ‘alcohol’, ‘chemistry’, from ‘alchemy”, ‘alkali’,or even ‘coffee’ come from the Arabic, and that ‘algorithm’ derives from the name of al Khwarizmi himself?. Or that most of the visible stars in the night sky have Arabic names. And Algorithm from “al Khwarizmi’ himself?

    Mr king is hardly unusual. And politician are not normally know for their depth of knowledge.

    But its is fair to say that the great progress of the Italian Renaissance, and the greatness of the 17th century Scientific revolution are overshadowing events in the history of mankind.

    • In main I agree with you, but much of what you say is tilting at windmills. Hell, trying even to get students to remember the date March 15, 44 BC in my Roman history class is an uphill struggle. It’s kind of an important one in the annals of human history. I can tell you that even the prominent names of the 17th century you cite most of my college age students have never heard of, and certainly have only a vague idea of their significance – they are too f*****g busy tapping at that weapon of mass distraction the i-phone.

      Worst of all, in human historical terms we just went through a bout of fascism in Europe; I was born in ’63 and over dinner heard stories nightly about the war, about relatives occupied in Europe (Denmark and Norway), and my father made sure I knew in detail about what happened in Germany in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. Anyone who heard similar stories and votes for Trump should be ashamed – and I know at least a fair number of the grumpy old farts making up the current GOP did, magnifying their disgrace.

      We have seen this show before, and we know where it leads.

      And as always, pars Republicana delenda est!

  15. Interpretations vary depending on who the interpreter is.

    What appears in the West to be the emergence, return to, or resurgence of culture is in fact a struggle within societies over the definition of culture and faith

    No one person, authority or institution has total control over that definition. But some writers assume their own definition and interpretation.

    Same way there is contest in defining Islam among the sects and sections. Fundametalism’s epistemological mistake is to think that “fundamentals” are ahistorical categories, not subject to and therefore outside the critical scrutiny of true believers.

    A number of critics tamper with the beliefs of sincere believers and cast doubts on their beliefs and try to show such beliefs to be fraudulent and non-divine. There is blind gloating, uncritical patriotism, extreme xenophobic nationalism and downright rather unpleasant chauvinism.

    May not all agree, but many faith based persons individuals like me feel that we need some strong religion based moral foundation to stand on, even if it is meant outside the statute books.

    Some critics overtly or covertly want to accomplish a materialistic empire that is attached to the imperialism of yesteryears by forcing people to declare themselves to be Westerners or Easteners forgetting the unity of humanity.

    They are under the impression that ethnic minorities in the West can not represent themselves nevertheless, out of political neccessity the minorities can be represented only by the majority race.

    The opposition between Orient and Occident, Christians and Muslims or even secular and religious, is both misleading and highly undesirable in the fast changing globalising world that moves towards multiculturalism rather than the xenophobic and aggressive cultural nationalism.

    Cultures are hybrid and heterogeneous and cultures and civilizations are closely interrelated and interdependent to beggar unitary description of their individuality

    A handful of western values and ideas none of which have any meaning outside the history of conquest, immigration, travel and the mingling of peoples that gave West its present mixed identity.

  16. There is also the question of what the word civilisation means to King since it is used as a blanket term which, while it may have broadly accepted parameters, has myriad, often conflicting, meanings within, some of which are mutually incompatible. It is a concept derived from the evolution of natural law into social or civil law. Natural law relates, of course, to those actions that are assumed, with good evidence, to be ‘right’ in human behaviour and therefore may be seen as the foundation of the concept of morality. Morality is less a question of what people do or don’t do than of what they know deep within that they should or should not do. What civilisation certainly is not is simply the latest stage in the historical transformation of human society which is a process without any inherent qualities. In many areas of the Western world today there is no longer any notion of natural law; permissible behaviour has become almost entirely determined by whether or not actions are specifically prohibited. Again and again we hear the justification that this or that egregious action is not breaking any law. As civil law which is fluid is progressively detached from natural law which is unchanging the more manipulable it becomes. That may be what King means by civilisation but it sure as hell isn’t moral.

  17. Most directly relevant to Steve King’s racist and Eurocentric rant is the issue he stresses the most — Christianity. One wonders if he is aware that Christianity emerged from an Asian tribe, the Hebrews, and Hellenized Asian origins. Jesus, Mary and Joseph may have white skins in Western art and in the Sunday School literature that King grew up with, but that is a crude distortion of what would have been true for a family in Nazareth.

  18. I applaud your rebuttal to the ignorant maunderings of Mr. King. But I was shocked by the assertion that “Celts in Britain were painting themselves blue and doing hunting and gathering in the wastes.” European hunter/gatherers lived long before Celts(who are Indo-european) arrived. Also, the implication that hunter/gatherers are some lower, loutish life form is incorrect. And as for Celtic culture; it had superior metalurgy, craftmanship, agricultural technology, medicine, astronomy, and legal structure than the Romans. See The Ancient World of the Celts by Peter Berresford Ellis to get a good overview.

  19. Mr. Hayes should have asked Gauleiter King these simple questions:
    “So do you believe that this makes Whites superior to other ‘subgroups’?”
    “So do you believe that Whites are a Master race?”
    Because there’s no point in deriding “contributions” to civilization unless you are making a claim on who deserves what today. The White side is arguing a superiority that is relentless in its demands, always demanding more and more, and in modern history once resistance to it fails, the roads all lead to slave plantations and ghettoes and death camps. I dare any damned right-winger to explain where a “moderate” White supremacy existed in practice.

    Meanwhile, we are all letting the GOP off the hook for Charles Pierce’s noticing that its delegates this year were 99 percent non-Black, probably the highest percentage in its entire history. You know, like the 1-percenters who own everything.

  20. “Sanskrit gave us our numbers, otherwise we’d be doing long division of IX into XXVI. The Arabs and Iranians at the court of the Abbasid caliphate added the zero”

    I think that you have mistakenly reversed “numbers” and “zero” in this statement. Our modern mathematics uses ARABIC numerals not Indian

    Marcus du Sautoy has an excellent series “The Story of Maths” where he traces the history of mathematics. In episode 2 he mentions the numerals we use today and the discovery of the first indication of the use of zero in a cave in India

    • The numerals are Sanskrit & borrowed by the Arabs

      The Zero has been invented several times but our zero is the Baghdad one

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