Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Steve King is Wrong (Obviously)

On the first day of the Republican National Convention, Representative Steve King (R-IA) caused a social media storm by appearing on Chris Hayes's show and claiming non-white "sub-groups" have not contributed as much as western and eastern Europeans to world civilization.

To anyone educated in world history, this is clearly not true. That was the reason Chris Hayes gave for not arguing with King on his Euro-centric, racist framing of civilization, calling such a debate "as odious as it was preposterous".

Here's the problem: King's view of history is not preposterous to a large number of Americans, and what he said reflects the way we teach and present history in most of our public institutions. When these views are expressed, it's important for anthropologists and historians to explain why they're wrong.

So, in order from most theoretical to most concrete, here are three quick thoughts on why Rep. King is wrong:

1) Define "white": Our racial groups ("white", "Black", "Native American", etc.) are not universal. The United States has an unusual history of colonialism, slavery, and mass immigration, combined with a tendency to disavow inter-racial marriages. Our racial categories reflect this history, as well as being a driving force in our history. Rep. King is assuming a universality and essentialism to these categories that doesn't exist through the scope of world history.

Case in point: we can all agree that the Roman Empire was powerful and historically important for the development of Europe, in particular. Was the Roman Empire "white"? It sat on three continents: Europe, Asia, and Africa; in it's final centuries it was centered on Asia Minor. It's citizens had a wide variety of physical traits, and, more to the point, they would not have divided each other into the same racial categories we use today. To the extent that Rep. King was likely considering the Roman Empire as part of "civilization", he was white-washing its history considerably.

And while we're here, I'd like to point out that Rep. King was clearly using "civilization" and "Western civilization" as synonyms. I'm sure other world civilizations, such as Babylon, Han China, India, the Aztecs, the Incas, Aksum, and the Mali empire, just to name a few, would disagree.

2) Define "contribution": In a society where one race or gender is dominant, as whites and men have been in Europe/North America for at least 300 years, their contributions will always dominate history. This is not, as Rep. King likely believes, because other races or genders have contributed nothing, but rather because:
     A) elites write the history books, so they either leave out non-elites or out-right lie about their contributions
     B) elites take credit for inventions, discoveries, or feats that should have been actually or equally credited to members of other races and/or genders
     C) elites tend to focus on their role in a particular endeavor, ignoring all the work that other people had to do in order to pave the way for their success. In this way, history gives an officer credit for the bravery of the enlisted men, a factory owner the credit for his employees' work efficiency, or an architect credit for the monument built by slaves. Behind every canonical white male author is the wife, daughters, servants, slaves, laborers, etc., who provided him with the wealth, meals, laundry, and contemplative time free of those chores that are necessary for everyday life. Is he really the only one who deserves credit for his work?

3) Yeah, yeah, but...: OK, so maybe you're thinking that I'm just making excuses for why non-European or non-white men and women don't appear more often in the history books. The truth is, even if you allow Rep. King's assumptions to stand, he's still wrong. There are so many ways that world history and world civilization rely on non-white or non-European contributions that it's impossible to list them all. Obviously, the history of the world outside of Europe is full of non-European people (and, let's face it, the chapters that feature Europeans don't exactly make white people look like harbingers of civilization). And of course, you can always do a quick google search for, say, famous African-American inventors and scientists, or notable Asian-Americans. Just because you hadn't heard about these historical figures doesn't mean they weren't important (see point 2).

As an archaeologist, of course, I'm more interested in deep history, so here's a partial list of what western modern social and economic systems owe to non-Europeans:
  • the vast majority of what you've eaten or will eat in your life, including anything made with wheat (Middle East), corn (Mesoamerica), rice (East Asia), or potatoes (South America). Almost all the meat you eat, as well, such as beef (Middle East), pork (Middle East and East Asia), turkey (Mesoamerica) and chicken (East Asia).
  • mathematics, the foundation of architecture, engineering, and economics, was largely borrowed from the Arabs, along with the Arabic numerals we use.
  • gunpowder, steel, and several other critical technologies for modern warfare were developed in China. Obviously, this isn't the aspect of civilization we most like to dwell upon, but we can't pretend that the implications for human history haven't been monumental.
  • writing systems were independently developed in a number of different places, particularly China, the Middle East, and Mesoamerica. The concept of writing and record-keeping, so critical to modern societies, only spread later into Europe, where no native writing systems developed.
  • the compass and other aids to navigation -- critical aspects of European colonial domination -- were developed by the Chinese, arriving in Europe via Arab traders
  • all that which makes life worth living, namely coffee (east Africa), sugar (south Asia) and chocolate (Mesoamerica).