After years of making racist statements and promoting racist policies, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) may finally have gone too far. In a recent interview, he told the New York Times, “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive? Why did I sit in classes teaching me about the merits of our history and our civilization?” King’s GOP colleagues have stripped him of his committee assignments, and he faces possible censure. In response, the congressman claims that he was misrepresented — that his fellow Republicans and other observers did not understand his syntax. In a statement, he said he was not defending white supremacy or white nationalism but only “Western Civilization” from those who say the term has become “offensive.”
Given that King has frequently used “Western civilization” as a shorthand for whiteness, his defense is hardly credible, but the attempt is revealing. The term has been used to justify racism since it was coined. When King says, “No one ever sat in a class listening to the merits of white nationalism and white supremacy,” he’s conveniently overlooking this fact — and relying on the similar reluctance of many academics to acknowledge it. That needs to change.
Part of the project of modernity has been to justify itself. During and after the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries, citizens of the monarchical European powers attempted to explain how they got to where they were by looking to their roots. They started from the idea that their world was “better” than what had come before. Europe had supposedly crawled out of the “Dark Ages” and into the light. Those familiar terms — dark and light — mirrored the value judgment behind this investigation of the past, one that selectively privileged white skin.
These were, after all, countries ruled by rich white men for other rich white men. So in searching for the history of “the West,” they ignored stories they didn’t recognize — stories of people who didn’t act, think or look like them. That was true even when those stories were central to European and Mediterranean history, as was the case with a history of “the West” told in other languages such as Arabic, Turkish and Hebrew; written by women; or enacted by medieval people of color.
Although the histories of Europe began as national ones, thinkers in the 18th and 19th centuries looked to 4th-century Germanic tribes as their pure, white ancestors. In alliance with the “scientific” study of the past, scientific racism, the international slave trade and colonialism, this approach began to change the way people understood the past. No longer individual nations — and also no longer simply “Europe” because of the need to include North America — these thinkers used the term “the West” to encompass one (supposedly) common heritage that explained why white men ought to rule the world. Western civilization, then, became the story of an unbroken genealogy that stretched from Greece to Rome to the Germanic tribes to the Renaissance to the Reformation to the contemporary, white world.
This history undergirds the way many Americans think about “Western civilization,” a term that today quietly suggests our understanding of the past should be the same as it was at the end of the 19th century. Since the late 20th century, however, that premise has been challenged as scholars have begun to incorporate other stories into the tapestry of history. We talk about the role of women, about what gender meant at different moments in the past, about the construction of race as an idea, about the diversity of Europe’s peoples. The research in these areas is original and convincing.
But the older voices — the ones who fall back on the earlier, racist conception of the West — still speak loudly. In the 21st century, violent white supremacists, including Anders Breivik, Jeremy Christian and other neo-Vikings, and the racists who marched in Charlottesville, all deploy this nostalgia for a mythical “West” in their fight to dominate the future. They insist that Europe has always been white, Christian, patriarchal and pure. They want to see Europe and its colonial children “return” to that imaginary state and are willing to go to extreme lengths to ensure it happens. King’s defense of “Western civilization” does the same work, especially when placed alongside his long history of racist statements. It just does that work more politely.
Asking these different questions of the past is not a way to reject it but simply a way to understand it better. Both of us have spent our careers teaching, among other things, courses called “Western Civilization.” But when we do, we seek to show our students that there is value in exploring the conceptual category of the “West,” as long as students learn that there are many different Wests, all of them located in particular moments of time, few of which have anything to do with the actual past. The real story embedded in the history of Western Civilization is a tale of permeability, of movement and change.
By contrast, King’s understanding of “Western civilization,” entwined as it is with white supremacy, offers little more than bad, outdated history. To combat this, history teachers are going to have to discuss both the newer voices and the old, those who use the history of the West as cover for racism as well as those both past and present who worked to challenge that narrative. Teaching the real story of the West — one that’s multiethnic, encompasses all genders, and takes account of both its horrors and its triumphs — will ensure that the Kings of the future will no longer be able to fall back on semantics to paper over their bigotry.