Congressman Steve King’s getting what he deserves from his fellow House Republicans and the editors of National Review. In today’s New York Post, John Podhoretz lays out the ways that “Western Civilization” isn’t “white” — shaped by ancient Jerusalem, Christian thinkers from North Africa, and portions of southern Europe that were not considered “white” for most of American history.
For a guy who thinks of himself as a defender of Western Civilization, King has an odd habit of conflating it with “white nationalism,” “white supremacy,” or “white people.”
Back in 2016, during the GOP convention, King said on MSNBC:
This old white people business gets kind of tired, Charlie. 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 are talking about? Where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?
That was a surprisingly brief-lived controversy.
When asking who contributed what in human civilization, one would figure the development of agriculture in Mesopotamia in 10,000 B.C. has to rank highly in the most important developments in human history, along with the domestication of the first animals around the same time. Then the domestication of horses in 3,500 B.C. in Kazakhstan created the primary means of transport for most human beings all the way into the twentieth century.
The formation of the city-state in Bronze-age Sumeria, Ancient Egypt and the Indus Valley, roughly 3,000 years before the birth of Christ, has to rank pretty high up there, along with those civilizations’ development of written languages. The Code of Hammurabi, establishing written law, in ancient Mesopotamia in 1754 B.C., is another key milestone, setting the stage for the Magna Carta, Declaration of Independence, and U.S. Constitution.
The first civilization in Europe was the Minoans on the island of Crete, starting around 2,700 B.C.; by that point the Indus Valley civilization in India had developed wells, an early sanitation system including toilets that connected to wastewater channels, a public bath, a system of uniform weights and measures, and dentistry. The “Arabic numeral” system also originated from India.
If you want to fast forward a few millennia to when Western Civilization was rocking and rolling, you’re still going to have to acknowledge the Chinese invention of the compass around 200 B.C., the invention of paper around 100 B.C., gunpowder around 900 A.D., and the movable-type method of printing around 1,000 A.D. (Gutenberg invented his printing press in Germany about 400 years later.) Let’s throw in the first seismographs, the development of paper currency in the ninth century and the first mechanical clock about a century later.
If you want to fast-forward even further, Japan invented and developed wristwatches and CDs, liquid-crystal displays, flash memory, digital cameras and lithium-ion batteries, as well as the first novel in 1100 A.D. We can argue about whether Russia counts as part of Western Civilization, but if it doesn’t, we have to give credit to them for the first satellite and first man in space.
None of this takes away from the extraordinary contributions of Western Civilization to humanity — from the innovations of the Industrial Revolution, the principles and values of the Enlightenment, the vulcanization of rubber, the bicycle, steam engine, the first vaccines, locomotives, photography, fertilizer, steel, the electric battery, the electric light bulb, refrigeration, automobiles, human flight, jet aircraft, most advances in spaceflight, transistors, satellites and global-positioning systems, nuclear power, the Internet, and so on.
You can love Western Civilization and believe that it gives people the greatest freedom and opportunity to improve their own lives and the lives of others, and still recognize that it is built upon the innovations of past civilizations and benefited greatly from interactions with other civilizations.