Reactionary conservatism is a vicious thing. A majority of Americans – even those who espouse moderate-conservative ideology – would probably agree with this statement. However, the ideologues themselves aren’t the greatest source of the problem. The perpetuation of racism, sexism, and many other varieties of bigotry stems from our collective failure to confront hyperbole with fact rather than emotion – or vice versa.
During a July 18 broadcast on MSNBC, Iowa’s 4th District U.S. Congressman Steve King (not to be confused with fellow Republican U.S. Congressman Peter King of New York’s 2nd District) participated in a panel discussion on racial diversity moderated by Chris Hayes. When Hayes pointed out how the GOP, and the general electorate itself, is becoming more ethnically diverse – and this year’s Republican National Convention failed to reflect that – the ever-bombastic Congressman King responded:
“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?…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.”
When confronted about his statement later that evening by ABC News, King attempted to clarify:
“What I really said was ‘Western civilization’ and when you describe Western civilization that can mean much of Western civilization happens to be Caucasians…The contributions that were made by Western civilization itself, and by Americans, by Americans of all races stand far above the rest of the world. The Western civilization and the American civilization are a superior culture.”
Not to back down from egotism, he amended his statements yet again. One week later, while appearing on conservative commentator Mike Gallagher’s nationally-syndicated radio show, he added:
“I mean, they did that in the beginning of the Dark Ages and we spent centuries of not being able to reason. I don’t want that to happen again.”
The outcry from the liberal blogosphere was predictable. White male privilege. Coded misogyny. White fragility. Underneath it all, their subtext: white people “as a whole” have a moral responsibility to rebuke Steve King plus any residual sludge that oozes from between his paleoconservative lips.
What’s flawed about this school-of-thought is that King’s ignorance can be easily disputed with factual evidence. Congressman King’s dogma is so ludicrous that it ultimately eclipses racial and gender lines.
Professor Sarah E. Bond points out how, during the period of time commonly referred to as “the Dark Ages,” many non-European empires were undergoing their own periods of enlightenment; this included cultures within the Mediterranean, Anatolian, Egyptian, and Persian regions. Furthermore, people of African descent had prominent leadership roles in the civil and religious lives of the Roman Empire itself.
Bond references historian T.J. Tallie, who has highlighted how the concept of Western Civilization is largely a construct to propagate the agenda of white superiority. Yet, human innovations such as binary code, paper, and gunpowder have all been inventions with their origins derived from outside of European societies.
Lest anyone try to rationalize that King had “misspoken”…this is the same right-wing congressman who endorsed Ted Cruz for the presidency (joining a league of bigots that included James Dobson, Tony Perkins, Gary Bauer, Louie Gohmert, and Phil Robertson). He keeps a Confederate flag on his office desk, and opposed adding the image of Harriet Tubman to the twenty dollar bill. King didn’t just demand to see President Obama’s birth certificate – he linked Obama’s presidency to terrorism solely due to Obama’s middle name.
When opposing the DREAM Act, King generalized 99% of all undocumented immigrants as drug dealers – a statement that elicited condemnation from even his conservative Republican colleagues. He had previously slandered those who’ve immigrated to the U.S. illegally as “dogs,” and has characterized those who’ve mandated the use of energy-efficient light bulbs as “Stasi troops.” That’s not even counting his animosity toward the sexual freedom of legal American citizens.
While speaking out against the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, Congressman King made the outlandish assertion that then-Congresswoman (now U.S. Senator) Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin was pushing an agenda of protecting pedophiles. He ridiculously claimed that the definition of sexual orientation “could [be mangled to] include exhibitionism. It can include necrophilia. It could include…voyeurism.” Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic June 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges ruling, King tried to get the U.S. House of Representatives to pass a non-binding resolution against the Court’s full legalization of same-sex marriage. He then promised to introduce legislation limiting the legal definition of all civil marriages to only those performed under “holy matrimony.”
King’s social policy is hostile to women and men alike – and not just gay men or lesbians. Aside from being an unapologetic defender of former U.S. Congressman Todd Akin’s polemical statement referring to so-called “legitimate rape” during the 2012 Election – King went a step farther by praising Akin as a “strong Christian man.” Seven years earlier, Congressman King had authored a legislative amendment to ban the coverage of Viagara, Cialis, and Levitra for men in health care plans.
Neither is he a proponent for the humane treatment of animals. In February 2010, King used Twitter to brag about having shot a wild raccoon that had trespassed inside his home. Two years later, he opposed a bipartisan bill that would have banned dogfighting; he later justified his opposition to it by alleging there was a lack of “federal nexus” on the issue, and that it should be a states’ rights issue. Yet, hypocritically, King also pushed the Protect Interstate Commerce Act to prohibit any states from using animal cruelty as rationale for rejecting the sale of out-of-state food products; this legislation was killed in early-2014.
These are all facts. They are all documented statements and actions of U.S. Congressman Steve King. I don’t see how any sensible person could make a case that these types of thought processes are in any way beneficial to advancing American prosperity.
But allow me to highlight a few other facts for Steve King and his like-minded ilk. He indicates that a majority of the world’s most significant contributions have come from people with European or Anglo cultural identities. The evidence suggests otherwise. How do I know this? Well, take a look at these more well-known inventors and industry leaders up through the middle of last century.
Among them: machinist Cai Lung, real estate administrator Alexander Miles, anatomist Miguel Servet, railroad mechanic Granville T. Woods, chemist Luis Miramontes, mechanical engineer Elijah McCoy, archaeologist Bertha Parker Pallan Cody, computer engineer An Wang, graphic designer Victor Ochoa, draftsman Lewis Latimer, cinematographer James Wong Howe, electrical engineer Guillermo Gonzalez Camarena, hematologist Charles Richard Drew, painter Fritz Scholder, maritime engineer Narcis Monturiol, industrial technician Garrett Morgan, physiologist Bernardo Houssay, beauty entrepreneur Sarah Breedlove, designer Philip B. Downing, telegraphist Roberto Landell de Moura, laboratory assistant Otis Boykin, epidemiologist Carlos Finlay, aerospace engineer Mary G. Ross, surveyor Benjamin Banneker, topographer Hercules Florence, physicist James E.M. West, architect Maya Lin, and surgeon Daniel Hale Williams.
These were people of color who single-handedly propelled human technology in the areas of computation, design, transportation, and medicine. Even those who were American citizens brought new cultural perspectives – from outside of the white-dominated social order of the time – to the table.
Now, let’s take a timelier look at those who’ve shown even keener ingenuity in the years since the dawn of the Information Superhighway.
More recent innovators who are also people of color: nuclear physicist Shirley Ann Jackson, surgeon Kenneth Matsumura, computer scientist Mark Dean, biologist Ann Tsukamoto, STEM ambassador Samantha Marie Marquez, rear admiral Grace Hopper, eCommerce entrepreneur Pehong Chen, digital author Victor Celorio, nuclear engineer Lonnie G. Johnson, computer engineer Jose Hernandez-Rebollar, cryptographer Taher Elgamal, electronic engineer Gerald Lawson, HIV/AIDS researcher David Ho, molecular/cell biologist Lydia Villa-Komaroff, solar energy scientist Deepika Kurup, ophthalmologist Patricia Bath, cancer researcher Angela Zhang, transgender activist Nicole Maines, mathematician Philip Emeagwali, literary publisher Aliyah Chavez, semiconductor expert Shunpei Yamazaki, wireless transmitter Thomas David Petite, social media blogger Ziad Ahmed, architect Zena Howard, designer Caroline Herrara, virologist Flossie Wong-Staal, radiologist Seema Prakash, computer architect Ajay V. Bhatt, chemist Betty Harris, civil rights attorney Vilma Martinez, computer programmer John Henry Thompson, community organizer Maria Teresa Kumar, physicist Steven Chu, clean energy researcher Javier Fernandez-Han, social entrepreneur Moose Scheib, and advertising mogul Tom Burrell
Again, not one single “mostly-Anglo” person in the bunch.
None of these facts should be used to trivialize or marginalize the inventions that white people have contributed to our world. Nor is this some backhanded way of me trying to deny the existence of white privilege and male privilege – although that’s certainly what many from the Political Correctness Crowd may attempt to charge, in the hopes of disputing what I’ve said.
White male supremacy ends up mutating the entire discourse. It allows people to hijack the narrative by alleging that white male privilege is the underlying cause of every injustice that occurs. We’ve seen this happen with the recent Brock Turner and Ryan Lochte crimes, as well as those who try to control the way Americans vote. Certain shit-stirrers grasp at straws to make these controversies all about “white male privilege” when, in fact, there can be multiple separate factors of intersectionality at play.
Should white privilege define Caucasians – or should male privilege define men – any more so than disenfranchised groups should be defined by their traits? Fact-based and emotion-based arguments naturally complement each other; if we embrace one at the expense of its counterpart, then it becomes a battle to “turn the tables on” a perceived rival…rather than listening to, and attempting to understand, one another. It can devolve into vindictive sandbox fights where we use the odium of “feelings” to exert psychological projection upon one’s enemy; this is especially dangerous when infused into academic curriculums. And it’s inherently hypocritical.
If we’re going to accept the premise that no person should be expected to “speak for” or “represent” his or her entire cultural group – regardless of whether one’s skin is black, brown, beige, yellow, or red – then that same principle must be extended to Caucasians. Many on the Left insist that whites are already treated as individuals – unlike people of color. But if that was true, we wouldn’t see professional educators, social commentators, or politicians constantly trying to lecture or discredit the apparent ways in which “white people [supposedly, as a whole] think” or how “white people [supposedly, as a whole] behave.”
Some cynics might accuse me of whining about so-called “reverse-racism.” On the contrary: what I’m saying is that there’s no such thing in the first place. It’s not “reverse”-anything! Racism is racism. Discrimination is discrimination. Bigotry is bigotry. That applies regardless of whether citizens are white, black, brown, olive, tan, whether they have a penis or a vagina, irrespective of their religion, wealth, dexterity…or lack thereof.
Yes, I’m rejecting those academically-accepted notions of race, sex, and other characteristics being defined, exclusively, in terms of how they relate to institutional power. We need to treat all types of institutional, social, and cultural oppressions with the utmost seriousness across-the-board.
You might disagree with that…well, tough bunnies.
So how does all of this commentary of mine apply to Steve King? Well, when the Steve Kings of the world go out of their way to make it a special point to praise the achievements of white people…or of men…or of any other institutionally-privileged group – they reinforce the myths that people of color, women, LGBT people, the working poor, immigrants, people with disabilities, or religious minorities are somehow “less than” by default.
If what we really desire is for every single person on this planet to be judged by her or his own individual merits, actions, and character…then invoking “Western Civilization” or “the Dark Ages” hardly improves our chances of accomplishing that objective, does it?
During a Q&A session with civil rights activist Heather McGhee on a recent episode of C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, a white male called into the show and openly admitted he realized he was prejudiced against black people…and wanted to figure out how he could change and overcome his fears. McGhee thanked this North Carolinan man for his raw honesty, responding that if he makes it a point to get to know people of color in his daily life (specifically black people) – along with reading history – it will go a long way toward strengthening how he’ll understand those outside of his cultural sphere of experience.
In a later interview, McGhee admitted she felt a connection to this man’s vulnerability – and she reemphasized how building relationships is the key to rejecting the media’s stereotypes; she points out how these media messages have been subverting public opinion since the beginning of American history. She called for us, as a society, to “enroll people of all races in this project out of a sense of patriotism that America’s greatness comes from our diversity. But we’ll only be fulfilled if we do the hard work to find the human capacity within all of us across races.”
By contrast, Huffington Post culture writer Zeba Blay recently took British actor Daniel Radcliffe to task for publicly stating that he could never voluntarily end his friendships with people who say racist things but are (in his eyes) good people. Blay asserts that Radcliffe would be enabling casual racism by remaining silent…and if he isn’t willing to break ties with people who are racist, then he’s being complacent and is thereby part of the problem.
I agree with Blay that people should openly call out prejudice, bigotry, and discrimination whenever we see it. What she misses, however, is that “cutting ties” entirely with every racist, sexist, or otherwise-bigoted person isn’t always a practical or wise option. In fact, sending them into exile guarantees that they’ll never be able to see past their unquestioned worldviews. It’s easy for Zeba Blay to tell Daniel Radcliffe what he “should do” from her own lofty perch – but, ultimately, she isn’t the one who has to live his life.
So, the royal question: what can we do? Quantitative data is essential…but it still doesn’t always tell us the full story. Feelings and emotions serve a purpose when identifying patterns and trends from a series of anecdotal occurrences. But we shouldn’t allow anyone to cherry-pick from these variables in order to misuse the straw man of “feelings” – in either one direction or the other – just so they can misrepresent their opponents’ arguments as fallacious.
Liberals do it. Conservatives do it. Progressives do it. Libertarians do it. Even centrists do it.
Congressman King has been described, even by his opponents, as interpersonally “charming.” This became a public concern during the period when King was mulling a senatorial run to pursue the vacancy created in 2014 by retiring U.S. Senator Tom Harkin (although King eventually passed on the race, and Harkin’s open seat was subsequently won by Tea Party nutjob Joni Ernst).
How do we overcome personality-based manipulations of those who want to use white male supremacy as a vehicle to increase their own power? We do it by pinpointing facts, and then, where relevant, combining them with feelings and emotion that will educate our friends, acquaintances, and complete strangers in ways that are savvy but not accusatory.
In the same way Steve King isn’t representative of all white people…or all men…or all Christians…he likewise isn’t necessarily representative of all politicians. I believe there are indeed public servants out there who can get us on a productive path to solving these problems…but most of them are low-key, and haven’t made much noise. So we assume they don’t exist.
That’s a very dangerous assumption that could be our collective downfall.