When it comes to undermining and polluting once-respected conservative beliefs and principles, Steve King has a message for Donald Trump: Hold my beer!
A New York Times piece on King is generating more controversy for the already embattled Republican. “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization—how did that language become offensive,” King wonders in the piece. “Why did I sit in classes teaching me about the merits of our history and our civilization?”
(King later issued a statement attempting to clean up his comments. But he did not dispute the quotes or suggest that he was misquoted.)
For conservatives (who care about conserving the values of Western civilization), King is doing tremendous damage to the movement. As conservative writer and podcaster Jamie Weinstein observes, “Among the many things that make people like Steve King so odious is that they make ‘Western Civilization’ toxic by falsely tying it to White Nationalism.”
People like King have done just that. Indeed, as the Times goes on to note, “hate-watch groups” like the Anti-Defamation League view terms like “Western culture” or “Western civilization” to be “buzzwords that signal support to white nationalists, along with an obsession with birthrates and abortion rates among different ethnic groups.”
What King, then, is doing is lumping what was (until very recently) a consensus position in with hate groups. Western civilization has been taken for granted by the vast majority of Americans, regardless of race, religion, or gender, as, OK, maybe not an unmitigated good, but certainly as a positive force that undergirds human flourishing and a free society.
One could spend a lifetime studying the virtues of Western civilization, but it occurs to me that I should at least explain what I mean when I say those words. In general, we are referring to the norms and values that began in Western Asia and were developed and influenced by the Greeks, the Roman Empire, Judeo-Christian traditions, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment.
Due to a set of unique circumstances, this culmination of these events gave birth to innovative ideas like reason, tolerance, skepticism, individualism, natural law, human rights, liberal democracy, and an emphasis on science—in short, many of the virtues and values that a good “liberal” ought to endorse (not to mention the art and literature in the Western canon).
Ideas like “individualism” and “tolerance” transcend race and religion. Any baby (white, black, Asian, Hispanic—it doesn’t matter) born in America is assimilated into this culture; yet, we have had a difficult time exporting these values at the macro level. That’s because the miracle of Western civilization has nothing to do with genetics, but everything to do with culture and assimilation.
Western civilization belongs to whites no more than algebra belongs to the Persians or movable type printing belongs to the Chinese. As Rod Dreher argued, “Every descendant of Africa and Asia who lives in the West and broadly affirms the values that shaped Western civilization is a Westerner. Louis Armstrong and Muddy Waters are as much sons of the West as J.S. Bach and Ludwig von [sic] Beethoven.”
Western civilization is not perfect; blemishes, bloodshed, and sins litter our past and present. Nor did Western civilization emerge quickly; it took thousands of years. Consider that Magna Carta, the document limiting the power of the monarch, was signed in 1215 AD. We are now 800 years removed, and our ability to deliver human rights is still evolving. Here in America, we still wrestle with how to build a more perfect union.
So why are we talking about this now? A parallel debate is taking place on the right over whether America is a creedal nation or one that embraces “blood and soil” nationalism. This fundamental debate argues whether ideas matter more than blood and soil.
Men like Steve King see whiteness as a fundamental ingredient of Western civilization and, ultimately, of the United States of America. This is, by definition, a “racist” view. Moreover, it puts King is on the same level with radical leftists who agree that “Western civ” is a dog whistle for racism.
The fundamentals of Western civilization are precious—again, I’m referring to concepts such as the “rule of law” and tolerance. These fragile liberal values must be constantly defended and guarded. In this regard, King isn’t helping.
In politics, there is something called the “Overton Window.” When politicians hold fringe views, it is sometimes said that they expand or move this window, making positions that were previously considered to be extreme look (by comparison) moderate. King has done the opposite for conservatives who want to conserve the values of Western civilization. He (and others of his ilk) have taken a generally uncontested idea and made it toxic.
By associating Western civilization with racism, Steve King has done more damage to this tradition than anyone I’ve seen on the left.
With friends like these, who needs friends?