In a disastrous interview with the New York Times last week, Iowa congressman Steve King put his foot in his mouth (and not for the first time) by asking this imprudent question: “White nationalists, white supremacists, Western civilization, how did that language become offensive? Why did I sit in classes teaching me about the merits of our history and our civilization?” Put charitably (and I have no reason to attribute malice as opposed to stunning verbal ineptitude to the speaker), Congressman King wished to tell us that at one time, our teachers spoke with respect about the merits of our shared civilization. No one back then when he and I were in school attacked our civilization because it was created mostly by white men.
Establishment conservative journalists have gone after King as a vicious bigot, who has no place in their conservative movement. They also tried to set matters right by underlining the supposed fact that, in the words of John Podhoretz, “Western civilization isn’t a white thing.” But then the counter-model being proposed doesn’t really seem to work. Podhoretz, writing in the New York Post, informs us that whites could not have singlehandedly given us our civilization because “ancient Jerusalem is the birthplace of Judaism and Christianity and its residents were certainly of a darker hue.” Further, Alexander Hamilton, who came from Nevis in the West Indies, “might either be of a Jewish or black stock.” Revisions and Dissents... Best Price: $22.03 Buy New $25.00 (as of 07:50 EDT - Details)
One looks at these statements with wonder. Ancient Semites who lived in Jerusalem were Caucasians, but not Indo-Europeans (which I think is the term Podhoretz might have chosen if he understood the distinction). Caucasians have long resided in Europe, including Basques and the original Hungarians and Finns. But, like Semites, many Caucasians are not members of the Indo-European subgroup that settled in Europe around 4,000 years ago. What evidence can Podhoretz come up with that Alexander Hamilton was black? (Even the musical Hamilton doesn’t claim that, since the celebrated American statesman is played there by a white actor.)
Also doubtful is that Hamilton had Jewish blood. His natural father, James Hamilton, was a landowner of Scottish noble ancestry. The rumor about Hamilton’s highly unlikely Jewish antecedents originated from the fact that his mother was then married to a Danish trader, John Michael Lavien, whose name has sometimes been mistakenly identified with the Jewish “Levine.” Among other obstacles facing him, Hamilton had to rise above the shame of having a loose woman as a mother. But let’s give Podhoretz credit for correctly telling us that St. Augustine had Berber ancestors. Although Augustine’s father’s family was of Roman origin, his mother, the future St. Monica, was indeed a North African Berber.
None of this disproves that Western civilization was mostly the work of “white people,” broadly understood, providing we allow for exceptions (like the Russian poet Pushkin, who was of Ethiopian descent, and Alexander Dumas, who was part black).