I am reluctant to defend Rep. Steve King, the Iowa Republican, who stepped in it yesterday on MSNBC. But I do want to make a point about the dust-up. Here’s what happened:
If you don’t have time to watch it, the clip starts with Charles Pierce, a grey-bearded white liberal, saying that the “optimistic” view is that “this is the last time that old white people” will command the GOP. He continues:
Tell you what, in that hall today, that hall is wired. That hall is wired by loud, unhappy, dissatisfied white people. Any sign of rebellion is going to get shouted down either kindly or roughly but that’s what’s going to happen.
To which King responds:
This whole white people business does get a little tired, Charlie. I would ask you to go back through history and figure out where are these contributions that have been made by these other categories of people you are talking about. Where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?
Host Chris Hayes asks incredulously, “Than white people?”
“Than Western civilization itself,” says King. “That’s rooted in western Europe, eastern Europe and the United States of America, and every place where Christianity settled the world. That’s all of Western civilization.”
King answered that poorly, but I’ll sympathize with him on this point: this “whole white people business” carried on by liberals like Charlie Pierce really does get tired. Let me explain.
First, the fact that the GOP, especially under Trump, is doubling down on its identity as a party only of white people is a perfectly legitimate political point to discuss. Steve King ought to have been prepared to discuss this instead of launching into a weird tangent about the comparative cultural contributions of white people to Western civilization.
(Side note: isn’t “Western civilization” — the civilization that emerged in Europe from the intellectual and cultural confluence of Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem — by definition almost wholly a matter of the contribution of Germanic, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew people we now consider to be “white”? Isn’t this a silly debate? Does anybody really believe that Europeans made a significant contribution to Chinese civilization, or African civilization, or Indian civilization, and so forth? Who cares?)
But I understand why King went there. It is deeply annoying how often liberals deploy “old white male” as a term of abuse. Let’s say that this has been a panel on the Fox News Channel covering the Democratic convention, and some right-of-center writer criticized a Black Lives Matter moment at the event as being “wired by loud, unhappy, dissatisfied black people.” How well do you think that would have gone over, even if it was true? I think Pierce’s observation was, in fact, true, but the context in which he made it is the believe that there is obviously something bad about white people being angry, or in any way being conscious of and defending what they perceive to be their interests. This is a double standard that nobody on the left applies to black people, Hispanic people, gay people, feminists, or anybody else on their side.
The discourse on the left, in fact, has become so saturated with the concept of “old white males” as hate figures that I don’t think many liberals understand that they do it, and why it is offensive. In point of fact, everyone who enjoys the fruits of Western civilization owes a lot to old white males. Everyone who enjoys benefits bequeathed to us by African culture owes a lot to old black males, and so on. It’s a stupid, anti-intellectual argument, one that’s the mirror image of the stupid, anti-intellectual argument that says only whites, or white men, have anything worth saying or contributing.
If I had been writing Steve King’s response, here’s what I would have said:
This whole white people business does get a little tired, Charlie. It gets really tiresome, hearing people like you spout off about white people, as if the color of our skin was some sort of moral fault. If you really feel that way, why aren’t you, as an old white guy, not giving up your chair here on the MSNBC set to a young black woman? I presume that’s because you believe that you have valuable things to say about politics. So quit racializing things, and stop talking like there’s something wrong with white people acting in what they perceive to be their own interests. You don’t talk about any other racial or demographic group that way. Liberals don’t go on TV to complain about ‘angry black people’ — and if a conservative did, you’d all scream bloody murder about what racists we are. Why the double standard?
Look, Charlie, it’s fair to ask why the Republican Party attracts so few racial minorities, and how we plan to deal with that as the country gets less white. But let me turn this around. Why does the Democratic Party repel so many white working class people? Why do the Democrats alienate religious conservatives? It wasn’t always this way. You have become the party of racial minorities and educated white elites. If minorities and white elites see their interests better represented by the Democrats, then I don’t blame them for being Democrats. But why don’t you worry about why so many of your fellow Americans feel excluded by the Democratic Party? Why is this not a concern to you? Maybe it’s because they know that liberals like you look down on people like them, and consider them the enemy. And you know what, Charlie? They’re right.