Steve King, Western Civilization, and Conservative Historical Illiteracy

Steve King is dumb and racist. This is hardly news. King can barely go a week without saying or doing something to demonstrate it. He is a vile man. Somewhat surprisingly, he finally said something so beyond the pale that his colleagues in the congressional GOP are threatening to punish him. His crime? He conflated the phrases “white supremacy,” “white nationalism,” “white people,” and Western Civilization.”

This is not a new idea for King. In fact, he has been saying some variation of it for the entire Trump era. It is Steve King’s foolproof way of explaining what it is that proud patriots like the President and himself are fighting to preserve. After all, what have non-white civilizations ever contributed to the world?

Steve King’s vision of world history requires a level of ignorance that should be disqualifying for any public office. Unfortunately, it is deeply rooted in how a large part of the country, proud of its ignorance and sceptical of expertise, views the world.

King’s departure from the GOP mainstream here is not in holding a bad idea, but is in “saying the quiet part loud.” The argument that “when the Zulus produce a Tolstoy we shall read him” is an old one on the racist parts of the right. Saul Bellows merely memorialized it with those specific words. It comes from the same place that King’s conflation of white supremacy and Western civilization come from– a desire to simplify history in a way that not only waves away the stains of slavery, racism, or colonialism, but rehabilitates them into benevolent triumphs of a superior and paternalistic people.

The straight line of progress from Ancient Greece to Modern America that represents Steve King’s triumphant (white) narrative of Western Civilization is, and has always been, ahistorical claptrap.

The scholars who study and write world histories do not discuss the subject in such terms. Indeed, you’d have to go back to the late 19th century and pre-WWII Europe to find much support for the notion of civilizations that rise and fall on the basis of their inherent traits. Instead, most historians ascribe to some form of the argument the late, great William McNeil first put forward in his magnum opus “The Rise of the West: A History of Huan Community” back in 1963. McNeil argued that world history is driven by the diffusion of ideas and technology across both space and time. He fundamentally shifted the study away from the idea that “civilizations” were discreet actors who rose and fell largely by internal mechanisms rather than effects of the environment and other foreign actors. Since McNeil published Rise of the West the vast and overwhelming majority of world history scholarship has validated and built upon his thesis. Not because of some liberal agenda to make history “less white” or more diverse, but because as scholars fill in the gaps in historical knowledge from understudied areas the picture of the past becomes increasingly complex. And this complex picture points to a world of highly interconnected communities that are always altering and being altered by their exchanges.

What emerges from a more serious study of world history is that human communities live within a set of environmental, economic, military, and political restraints. They are constantly interacting with other people, in cooperation and competition, and through this process are mutually altered. New ideas, techniques, and technologies emerge from the strange brew of those constraints and interactions rather than from inherent civilizational traits or temperaments. Humans had messed around with steam power for hundreds of years before the steam engine was “invented” in early 1700s England. It wasn’t something about the plucky, industrious nature of English-speaking Protestants that kick-started the industrial revolution. It was the confluence of economic incentive (the need to pump water out of coal wells in order to extract coal to power industry and heat homes), ecological conditions (a lack of wood that could be used as a cheaper alternative fuel and England’s ample coal deposits), and accumulated knowledge. Movements and moments are often responses to specific geopolitical challenges. For example, why did Europe continue to invest heavily in sea exploration in the 15th century while China pulled back? It wasn’t that Europeans have a more adventurous spirit, had the favor of God, or were simply more technologically advanced. Instead, Europe’s position on the periphery of the global economy, Muslim control of the overland trade routes that connected the east and west of the Old World, and competition between the decentralized and oft-warring nations of Europe were powerful motivators for European exploration, while China had less economic incentive and faced internal pressure from Mongols to the north that shifted their resources and focuses away from exploration, despite their greater power and technological advantage. These are vast simplifications of much larger historical processes, but you get the point. History is very messy and there is little to indicate that there is anything inherent to the success or failure of any “civilization.”

The best ideas and technologies do not belong to any group of people. Ideas diffuse just as quickly as modern technology. The Enlightenment may have first happened in Western Europe, but its ideas were based on fundamental human truths. Truths that apply to (and appeal to) all. They didn’t just form the argument for American self-rule, they also dismantled racially based slavery, European imperialism, and apartheids. The line from Locke to Jefferson is as clear as the line from Jefferson to Ho Chi Minh is. These traditions belong to the West no more than paper belongs to the Chinese. Once created they diffuse across the world, being adopted and adapted by new peoples and for new processes along the way. The whole of human history is this story.

In short, world history does little to suggest any supremacy of whites, Western civilization, or any other group. Instead, it shows how knowledge diffuses quickly through trade, politics, migration, and conflict. The winners in world history are the people who interact with the wider human community, adapt to their constantly changing circumstances, leverage new ideas and technologies to meet their challenges and opportunities, and often end up on the positive end of a variety of contingencies.

Jim Geraghty of the National Review did an admirable job of knocking down King’s strawman about the superiority of white, Western culture with a handful of examples, ancient and modern, of how “non-white” civilizations contributed to the world. But Geraghty cannot quite separate himself from the idea that there is such a thing as “Western Civilization” and conflating it with his contemporary political views:

You can love Western Civilization and believe that it gives people the greatest freedom and opportunity to improve their own lives and the lives of others, and still recognize that it is built upon the innovations of past civilizations and benefited greatly from interactions with other civilizations.

This is why Steve King has survived as long as he has. People like King and Trump take the crude seed of this idea, love of Western Civilization and the connection it has to their contemporary political positions, and take it to the most absurd and unnuanced extreme. They lack the intellectual strength to make the leap between the incongruence of a glorious Western tradition and the fact that communities throughout time have benefited from interactions with one another. How can Western Civilization both be great and also the product of intermingling of civilizations over time (and ongoing)? Because their simple minds need a binary choice,  they imply that the rise and prominence of Western Civilization post-1500 is proof of the superiority of “Western people.” This is no different than the conservative critique that liberal academics have perverted history by removing Western Civilization courses from the curriculum in favor of World History (in spite of the fact that this is restoring the way the subject was taught prior to the invention of the Western Civ course after WWI) in an attempt to indoctrinate young minds to believe that multiculturalism is positive. King and Trump just take the extra step of telling you that “Western people” means white people.

What do you think Steve King meant when he said President Obama had an insidious plan to “upset this society and this civilization” when arguing against putting Harriet Tubman on the twenty dollar bill?

As I have said many times before, the conservative movement has catered to this ugly element since the 1960s. This is the red meat they feed their base. It is a cornerstone of conservative infotainment. And it has permanently tainted the brand. Minorities will not vote for a party that plays up racist policies and ideas. As we saw in the midterms, women are becoming increasingly leery of a party that includes few female candidates and is openly antagonistic to women. Immigrants (and the descendants of recent immigrants) have little love for a party that demonizes them as an element that is destroying the fabric of the country. This is a losing coalition, growing smaller with every “bold” Trump tweet and Steve King interview.

Tsk-tsking King for saying the quiet part loud is insufficient. Conservatism as a viable political philosophy is in grave danger. Perhaps it is mortally wounded. Purging people like Steve King and Donald Trump from the conservative movement is going to require conservatives to repudiate the shallow logic of their culture war rhetoric. Most of them can start by taking a college survey course in world history.

 

 

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