When ‘Western civilization’ is code for white nationalism

To see what Steve King means by the term, watch how he uses it.

Rep. Steve King speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 24, 2013. CREDIT: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File
Rep. Steve King speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 24, 2013. CREDIT: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File

Rep. Steve King (R-IA) has received a lot of attention this week.

On Sunday, King tweeted that “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies,” while endorsing a far-right Dutch candidate who campaigned on the slogan “Stop Islam” (and who has since lost the election). By Monday, King’s tweet, and his defense of it, were so popular that white nationalists began calling him “King Steve.”

But King’s obsession with civilization is nothing new. In the past, he has said Latinx immigrants to the United States bring violence with them, as they are coming from a “violent civilization” to a “less-violent civilization.” In July of last year, he questioned whether any “other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization” than white people. He supported a drawing contest of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad because he believed it would teach Muslims that “Western civilization is superior.” And he has complained that birth control is “not constructive to our culture and our civilization.”

He even once took to the House floor to give a bizarrely long speech on the history of “Western civilization” — moving from Moses to ancient Greece to Jesus, then going through the entire history of Christianity, the Declaration of Independence, and the Industrial Revolution. He ended by once again arguing that Latinx immigration threatens the United States.

Dividing the world into our babies and “somebody else’s babies” makes it easy to justify different policies for immigrants, for people of color, and for anyone who is not considered to be a citizen of the “West.”

Despite King’s insistence, there’s really no such thing as a “Western civilization.” It’s a vague term that doesn’t mean much historically, given the rapid rise and fall of empires and the way social identities evolve over time. Even today, it’s never entirely clear what people mean when they talk about “civilization,” says Nell Irvin Painter, the Edwards Professor of American History at Princeton University and author of The History of Whiteness.

“If you say Western civilization, and I say Western civilization, we might agree on what we’re talking about. But if we include Representative King in the discussion, we won’t agree,” Painter said. “So in a way, it’s kind of like race. People recognize the term, but what it means depends on who’s using it, and whom they’re talking to, and when they’re talking. So for instance in the mid-19th century, you wouldn’t use a word like Western civilization to talk about, say, the British Isles, because the Irish were considered an inferior race of white people.”

“It’s an instrumentalist concept; it doesn’t exist out there in the world, in science, with one meaning, or one definition,” she added. “Its definition depends on who’s using it and for what purpose.”

Still, King speaks about it like there is a fixed definition: an essence that allows him to compare one civilization with another and argue, a day after his tweet, that “Western civilization is a superior civilization.”

Dividing the world into our babies and “somebody else’s babies” makes it easy to justify different policies for immigrants, for people of color, and for anyone who is not considered to be a citizen of the “West.”

There is no room for complexity in identity in King’s worldview — there is us and there is them.

That mode of thinking is likely what allows King to call for an electrified fence along the U.S.-Mexico border to shock people like “livestock,” describe torture and human rights abuses at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison as “hazing,” and say former President Barack Obama has “a default mechanism in him” that “favors the black person.” He can question whether a Muslim American member of Congress believes sharia or the U.S. Constitution is superior, because in King’s mind, sharia, like civilization, is a fixed thing that all Muslims must interpret in the same way, and it must be in opposition to the “Western civilization.” He can ask whether Muslims have ever “assimilated into the broader culture of civilization wherever they’ve gone” and suggest the surveillance of mosques as a legitimate counter-terrorism strategy.

There is no room for complexity in identity in King’s worldview — there is us and there is them. It’s not clear if he knows that in his own district at home, about 10 percent of children under 18 live with at least one parent who was born overseas. Many of his own constituents are “somebody else’s babies.”

At a time of increased bigotry — and increased hate crimes — the rhetoric is particularly dangerous, said Painter.

“In terms of politics, that kind of talk emboldens the kind of anti-immigrant and xenophobia,” she said. “The question in politics is will there be legislation against hate crimes? Will there be rhetoric against hate crimes?”