On Tuesday June 2nd, Iowa Congressman Steve King lost his bid for reelection in that state’s primary. In recent years, King’s racist and incendiary statements about western civilization and white supremacy have produced angst among the Republican House leadership and offended many in the general public. In a January 2019 New York Times interview, King matter-of-factly stated; “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization– how did that language become offensive?” Public outrage ensued and Republican minority leader Kevin McCarthy felt compelled to remove Steve King from his congressional committee assignments. But, that was not the first time, nor was it the last time, Steve King expressed those sentiments.
In July 2016, at the Republican national convention in Cleveland, sitting on an MSNBC panel, Steve King said; “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.”
“Than white people?” Chris Hayes asked.
“Than, than Western civilization itself,” King said.
And then, in May 2019 at a Webster County town hall (in Iowa), Steve King proclaimed; “If we presume that every culture is equal and has an equal amount to contribute to our civilization, then we’re devaluing the contributions of the people that laid the foundation for America and that’s our founding fathers. It is not about race, it’s never been about race. It is about culture.”
So, if this has all been about culture, and the supposed lack of cultural contributions to Western civilization from “other categories of people,” then let us look back in history and discover the origins of Western greatness. Of course, one thing people like Steve King don’t understand is that until very recently, the last three or four centuries, Europe was a poverty stricken backwater offering very little in terms of prosperity or culture. Jack Weatherford, an anthropologist at Macalester College in Minnesota, has written extensively on Genghis Khan and the success of Mongol trading networks. In 2004, Weatherford explained that after planning an invasion of Europe for two years, the Mongols arrived in Europe and were so “disappointed with the general poverty of the area compared with the Chinese and Muslim countries, [they] turned away and did not bother to conquer the cities, loot the countries, or incorporate them into their expanding empire.” Think about that for a minute. In the thirteenth century, the people who were supposedly the most barbaric in all of world history arrived in Europe having traveled five thousand miles, looked around, and said forget it.
So, how did things change for the West? First, and most obviously, the Industrial Revolution happened. The West industrialized first and set Europe, and later the U.S., on a course of global dominance. When the British arrived in Canton, China in 1839 to confront the Chinese for dumping twenty thousand chests of opium into the harbor, they (the British) arrived with four battleships. The Chinese had sailboats, known as junks. Things did not go well for the Chinese at that point. By the time the Chinese signed the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842, Britain utterly dominated China: they controlled Hong Kong, opened five new trading ports, and British merchants and deckhands then working in China possessed the legal right of extraterritoriality. But, how did the West industrialize, and what innovations and cultural developments set Europe on that path?
Moving backwards, it kind of went like this: in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries 3 Europe experienced the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. Think Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler, who together mathematically proved the heliocentric model of the universe. Those mathematical advances led to additional advances in engineering, building design, production efficiency, and so on: you know, the industrial revolution. In addition, during the Renaissance in 1450, in Mainz, Germany Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press. This utterly, utterly changed the western world. Over a 350 year period, from roughly 1450 to 1800, literacy rates in places like Germany, France, and England went from around three percent of the population to about seventy percent. These intellectual improvements set the West on the path of learning and technical achievement that simply outpaced the remainder of the world. So, at the most fundamental level, what were the specific cultural innovations that so profoundly changed the West? It was the basics: math and reading. And, yes Congressman King, therein lies the irony.
The building blocks of Western civilization, the very foundation of Western progress, the alphabet and numerical system that we use every single day, in every walk of life, came not from Europe but rather from the Middle East. The very first alphabet was created by the Phoenicians, whose trading empire originated on the Mediterranean coast in present-day Lebanon. Granted, the Greeks took the Phoenician alphabet and tweeked it, and made it their own. The Romans then took the Greek alphabet and made Latin. Nevertheless, the very foundation of Western civilization, the Latinized alphabet, originated with the Phoenicians, who were no doubt one of those so-called “subgroups.”
In addition, the numerical system we use every day was not created by Westerners either. Until roughly the thirteenth century, Europeans still used Roman numerals. The numbers that we use today in engineering and science, 1, 2, 3… 10, 20, 30, have a specific name: Arabic numerals. These numerals were created by scholars of the Abbasid Empire, whose empire lasted from 750-1258, and whose capital was Baghdad. Actually, Abbasid mathematicians took the central idea for that numerical system, a system based on 0 and units of 10, from Indian scholars who came up with the notion of 0. Roman numerals had no 0. Abbasid mathematicians expanded mathematical knowledge by leaps and bounds, and even devised things like spherical trigonometry. British historian Violet Moller noted that “scientists in Baghdad measured the circumference of the earth, revolutionized the study of the stars, developed rigorous standards for translation and methods for scientific practice, [and even] produced a map of the world.”
In 2016, Mark Kurlansky suggested that one way to determine if a society had reached the status of civilization was its ability to manufacture paper. Kurlansky wrote; “In this version, civilization begins in Asia in 250 BCE and spreads to the Arab world. For centuries, the Arabs were the world’s dominant culture, while the Europeans were among the most backward people on earth.”
Western civilization has indeed achieved many wondrous things: from great works of art and literature, to astonishing feats of exploration and engineering, to more recent advances in communications and information technologies. But, it must be remembered, the West achieved greatness by building upon the creative genius of others, just as those societies built upon the achievements of those who preceded them. It’s called learning, and Congressman Steve King should try it some time.