For the last year or so, Representative Steve King of Iowa has flirted with white nationalism. It’s the kind of flirting where you drink four cocktails and just start talking, although King was presumably sober in October when he tweeted that “cultural suicide by demographic transformation must end.” That was ominous. “Cultural suicide” and “demographic transformation” are vague terms, but the accompanying photo with European ethno-nationalists Frauke Petry and Geert Wilders offered a hint of what he meant. This weekend, the congressman praised Wilders again and got a little more explicit:
To paraphrase an old joke: What do you mean “we,” white man? The tweet raises some obvious questions. Who are we, again? And which babies aren’t ours? While we’re at it, we should probably figure out what the congressman means by “restore civilization,” considering that he is tweeting this message using a cell phone that distributes his words via a worldwide communication network to people who can read. Mad Max it ain’t. The questions about what King means by “we” and “our civilization” and “somebody else” lie at the heart of this tweet and, increasingly, his whole perspective.
Given his relative inactivity on Twitter, King tweets about civilization a lot. He called both the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump victories for western civilization, which he also tends to associate with Wilders and Marine Le Pen. On the Fourth of July in 2014, he remarked that “we derive our strength from western civilization, Judeo-Christianity and free enterprise!” Since 2016, he has warned that western civilization is “at risk” in retweets of stories about refugees and Muslim immigration.
Evidently it got wrecked while we weren’t looking, because now western civilization needs to be restored. It’s hard to say what induced King to move the civilizational threat level from “danger” to “destroyed.” King’s increasing interest in western civilization roughly coincides with the the rise of Donald Trump at home and ethnic nationalist leaders abroad. It seems likely that the success of Trump’s apocalyptic rhetoric and increasingly explicit racism have emboldened King to speak his mind.
This brings us to those troubling pronouns. When King says “we can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies,” he implies that “our” western civilization does not belong to everyone. For example, he excludes certain babies. But which ones? Here lies the sneaky power of King’s rhetoric. He keeps saying “we” without specifying whom he means, so readers can supply their own referents according to whatever identity they consider most important.
For example, “we” might mean Americans. King could just strongly oppose immigration, which strikes me as un-American but not necessarily racist. Perhaps he wants to stop Canadians and Britons from swamping us with their foreign tastes. In this case, “our civilization” is simply America, and King is advocating for a kind of Know-Nothing border closure.1
But if King means America when he talks about “our civilization,” why does he also use “our” and “western civilization” to comment on immigration to the Netherlands and France? It seems like his concept of our civilization extends beyond the borders of the United States yet consistently excludes large numbers of people. If our civilization is under attack in Europe, and “we” are raising babies in America who are “somebody else’s,” then what’s the principle that unifies us and is missing in others, even from infancy?
The answer seems pretty obvious. When King talks about “we” and “western civilization,” he is most likely talking about whiteness. But he can’t just say “white people” or “white civilization,” because it draws attention to how stupid those ideas are.
First of all, large portions of western civilization—for example, anything that requires algebra—came from outside the western world. Cultures do not develop in isolation from one another, and western civilization borrowed plenty of “foreign” elements to become what King wants to restore. Second, whatever western civilization is, few would argue that a baby adopted from China and raised in the United States couldn’t get the hang of it. I have a lot more in common with nonwhite kids I went to high school with than white kids in France. The more you think about it, the more it seems that the whiteness of western civilization is a coincidence. White people may have come up with most of those ideas, but you hardly need to be white to embrace them. That’s why so many nonwhite people keep coming to the United States.
The cynical beauty of King’s “we” talk is that it hides these glaring flaws in his ideas. Instead of making you wonder what whiteness is, anyway, and how exactly it is necessary for western civilization and free enterprise, King’s vague “we” scales to whatever level of racism you feel comfortable with. If you are an old person who doesn’t like to hear foreign languages at the grocery store, “we” can just be native-born Americans. If you’re a hardcore racist, “we” obviously means white people.
King himself probably falls somewhere in between. He keeps a Confederate flag on his desk, even though Iowa was on the side of Union in the Civil War and voted overwhelmingly for Lincoln in the election of 1860. It seems like his sense of history and culture is pretty vague. Perhaps even he could not say what he means by “we,” when he talks about the task of restoring our civilization. But he opposes somebody, and his enmity extends even to babies. Perhaps, for himself and for his constituents, he should say which babies we are against, and what he thinks we ought to do to stop them.