Accomplishments that Make Civilization

So, this happened today:

On MSNBC today, Congressman Steve King reacted to a fellow panelist’s comment about white people by saying something kind of unbelievable.

Esquire‘s Charles Pierce talked about “old white people” commanding the GOP and said that the halls of the RNC convention are filled with “loud, unhappy, dissatisfied white people.”

And this is what King proceeded to say:

“This whole ‘white people’ business, though, does get a little tired, Charlie. I mean, 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 sub-group of people contribute to civilization?”

King walked his comments back a bit when prodded by Hayes, specifying “Western” as the civilization in question. But that’s not what said, and while I cannot look into his dark little heart, it’s probably what he really meant.

That non-white people have contributed nothing of value to human civilization.

So let’s take King’s comment at face value, and examine it.

When we think of civilization, we are probably inclined to look at our mass, modern, industrialized and urbanized world and view tall buildings, science, 15-minute symphonies, moon shots, debt financing, and mass production leading to something akin to mass prosperity as civilization. Anything else is quaint, but really, mud bricks and pyramids and chanting in Akkadian do not a civilization make. Not really.

But nothing about our world would be possible without many millennia of hard, dreary work and innovation.

The hard work of building this globe spanning, democratic, capitalist wonder we live in began sometime 8,000 to 10,000 years ago, with the human beings in Anatolia and the Tigris-Euphrates river valley eventually figuring that some grasses, if cultivated, could reliably yield good stuff to drink and eat. Human beings elsewhere — along the Yellow River in China, the Mekong River in Southeast Asia, and the Indus River in what is today Pakistan — soon figured this out as well.

Note that none of those places is in Europe.

The domestication of wheat, barley, cows, goats, and elsewhere corn, potatoes, and rice is where civilization begins. The invention of bread and beer, and the technology needed to make those things possible (weaving, pottery, ovens), the building of the fist cities and figuring out how to live in them without making killing ourselves with the resulting waste, the creation of writing, and record keeping, and the contemplation of creation that this allowed, all of these inventions scattered across all sorts of places that weren’t Europe. That weren’t even all that close to Europe.

And not one bit of it — not one bit — was done by people that today we’d call white. Sure, we don’t quite know who the Sumerians were or even what kind of language they spoke (it was neither Semitic nor Indo-European), but we can fairly well guess they weren’t white by any modern understanding. A case can be made that Persians and Kurds are closely related to the Aryans, (the first Pahlevi Shah renamed the country Iran in the 1930s to curry favor with Hitler, as well as lay claim to the country’s pre-Islamic heritage), and are therefore white, but no one claims them as white today, I don’t hear many racialists claiming Persia and Medea as part of the heritage of “white” civilization.

At most I will concede that white people domesticated horses. A useful skill, along with farming, when you live on a vast and broad steppe stretching across what is probably today southern Russia. But you don’t build a civilization with horses — you conquer it.

So, contributions by people who aren’t white? Farming. Cities. Writing. The work of civilization that makes everything else possible.

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