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Historians react to that weird thing Rep. Steve King said about whites and ‘subgroups’

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) speaks during an Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition banquet in Des Moines in November 2013. (Justin Hayworth/AP)

Historians have a lesson for Rep. Steve King.

King, a Republican from Iowa, was on an MSNBC panel Monday night talking about the Republican presidential convention. Here, according to this story by my colleague Philip Bump, is how part of the conversation went:

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.”

Here are responses from some historians:

Charles S. Maier
Leverett Saltonstall Professor of History
Harvard University
The appropriate reaction to Congressman King is not to engage in a competitive tally of the achievements of Western civilization vs. the contributions of other cultures. Keeping that sort of score has little to do with the issue of whether the GOP is open or closed to the contemporary pluralism of American society. Of course his statement overlooks the legacies of other civilizations, but that’s not what’s at stake here. The Chinese have run a huge cohesive political system for 3,000 years; Arab thinkers preserved Greek classics and developed sophisticated mathematics; most large societies have left us remarkable aesthetic achievements. And if we’re counting, shouldn’t we assign negative numbers to shadow sides of European civilization — the Holocaust, say, or the atrocities in colonial plantations?
But let’s be fair: When I attended Harvard College at the end of the 1950s, we were infused with a glorified notion of Western civilization; it was the basis for so-called general education. The point is that the ethnic homogeneity of the Republican Party cannot be justified on the basis of Plato or Michelangelo or even John Locke — the job of a national political party is to represent the cultures and enduring values of the society it aspires to govern. And in this respect, the Republicans have abdicated a role that all the major parties in a democratic society should be playing.

Joel Beinin
Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History
Stanford University

Speaking to a panel convened by MSNBC, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) opined, “This ‘old white people’ business does get a little tired, Charlie (Pierce)….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?”

(Chris) Hayes asked: “Than white people?”

“Than, than Western civilization itself,” King said. “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.”

Less than 48 hours later Rep. King confirmed in a live TV interview with Philip Rucker that his remarks were not inadvertent and were intended as an affirmation of white supremacy by asking “what ‘subgroups’ besides white people had made any contributions to civilization.”?

Mocking and correcting ignorant and malicious statements by Republicans has emerged as a highly competitive sport in this electoral season. I enter the field with no training as a comedian. My qualifications are solely having written and taught about the history of the intertwining of Jewish, Muslim, and Christian cultures in the Mediterranean region.

Rep. King asserts that what makes “Western civilization” great is that it has a unique capacity to borrow from other cultures. That’s not quite how cultural exchange works. All cultures borrow from their neighbors, far and near. But, such exchanges are often circular and multidirectional, not linear.

When the Muslims conquered and occupied Spain from the early 8th to the late 15th centuries, they introduced 17 different new foods, mostly from parts of South Asia, which they had also conquered. Among them are well known “Spanish” fruits like the Seville orange. “Western” Spain, under Muslim rule for over 700 years, was the secondary recipient of Muslim developments of Greek and Hindu culture.

Whiteness isn’t a natural historical category. Who is considered “white” has changed over time. Jews, Irish, and Italians – whose whiteness is unquestioned, beyond white supremacist fringe groups, in the United States today – were not considered so less than a century ago.

“Judeo-Christian civilization,” a term popular among Republican evangelicals and others, came into common usage only after the Holocaust. Both Catholic and Protestant Christianity had spent the better part of the previous 2,000 years excoriating Jews for being “Christ killers.” That charge is historically inaccurate. But it made no difference to the righteous Catholics who slaughtered Jews in the Rhine Valley before advancing to wreak havoc in the Holy Land in the 1st Crusade or to Orthodox Christian pogromists, whose depredations led to the mass migration of some 2 million Jews from the Russian Empire to the United States from the 1880s to the 1920s.

For hundreds of years after the rise of Islam in 632, it made more sense to speak of a “Judeo-Islamic civilization,” a term whose positive content is difficult to imagine today. Jews and Muslims often found themselves aligned against Christians. When the “Catholic Monarchs” Ferdinand and Isabella expelled all Jews and Muslims from Spain in 1492, the Ottoman Sultan, astonished by the stupidity of eliminating so talented and useful a population, welcomed Spanish Jews into his realm.

Rep. King views Western Civilization as residing in “Western Europe, Eastern Europe and the United States of America (why not also Canada, which has universal health care and stronger trade unions?). If the term “Western Civilization” refers to any historical reality, it would have to be rooted in Latin-speaking Catholic Christianity as opposed to Greek-speaking Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Latin Christians literally forgot the entire heritage of classical Greek learning because even most of the highly educated among them stopped reading Greek.

Under the patronage of the court of the Muslim Caliph Harun al-Rashid (786-809) in Baghdad, Jews and Eastern Christians systematically translated Greek philosophical, mathematical, medical, and scientific works into Arabic. The Arabic roots of hundreds of words like algebra, algorithm, alchemy azimuth, zenith, and cipher (zero, from Hindu mathematics) testify to Muslim contributions to mathematics, medicine, astronomy and other sciences. “Islamic civilization,” had no difficulty borrowing from Greek and Hindu science, and philosophy.

Muslim scholars made enormous advances in these fields and shared their knowledge with Arabic speaking Christians and Jews in Muslim-ruled Sicily and Spain. Under the rule of the Spanish Catholic King Alfonso “the wise” (1252-84), Jewish scholars took the lead in rendering Arabic translations of Greek philosophical and scientific works into Latin, making them available to scholars in Western Europe.

So what is commonly imagined as “Western civilization” emerged on a foundation of Muslim and Jewish developments of the Greek and Hindu classical traditions. That’s perhaps too complicated a story for Rep. King and others in his camp.

(Beinin’s latest book is Workers and Thieves: Labor Movements and Popular Uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt

Sumaiya Hamdani
Associate history professor
George Mason University

Civilization does not equal Western civilization. And “Western” civilization is more than any other, a byproduct of the contributions of the exchange of ideas and inventions of others. Its Christianity does not originate in the geographical West, has generated countless wars within it (Crusades? Hundred Years War? Thirty Years War? World war? Concentration camps? Atomic bombs? Hello?) and justified barbaric oppressions of others (witch hunts, slavery anyone?).

And to the extent that the white “category of people” have had the leisure to invent shampoo, antibiotics, smart phones, whatever, it has been because of the theft of resources, land, and labor of countless millions of “non-white categories” of people within and beyond the geographical west. Besides, much of the material comfort and refinement enjoyed by people in the West today comes from the ingenuity of non-Christian, non-“white” individuals who are King’s neighbors (in Ohio), fellow citizens (in Silicon Valley), and global partners in trade (in South Korea or China).

(Update: Adding reaction)