Steve King Thinks I’m a Threat to American Civilization

My father is a white Christian from Iowa. He married an immigrant. And then they had me: somebody else’s baby.

Brian Frank/Reuters

On Sunday, Iowa Congressman Steve King embarked on what was to be a multi-day revival of the Steve King Xenophobia Road Show, tweeting out support for the far-right anti-Islam Dutch politician Geert Wilders:

By Monday morning, King was effectively doubling down on the idea that “somebody else’s babies” are not really, truly American babies.

CNN host Chris Cuomo began his interview by citing King’s tweet:

Cuomo: If you want to apply that kind of thinking to America, it seems like a complete contradiction of what we’re all about. This is the melting pot. We are known by those countries as the bastion of diversity. It’s an unqualified strength for us … Who is ‘somebody else's babies’?

King: There’s an American culture, American civilization. It’s raised within these children in these American homes. That’s one of the reasons why we require that the president of the United States be raised with an American experience…

King went on:

This is an effort on the left, I think, to break down the American civilization and the American culture and turn it into something entirely different. I’m a champion for western civilization … I want more of that, not less. There are civilizations that produce very little [freedom], if any. This western civilization is a superior civilization, and we want to share it with everybody.

As my colleague David Graham points out, these utterances are all Classic King. Speaking to MSNBC’s Chris Hayes last year, King unambiguously stated that he believed “Western civilization” had contributed more to human civilization than any other “category” of people. It was, as Graham writes, “Nonchalantly delivered, stunningly offensive, and completely fact-free, since non-white people, and indeed non-Western people, have contributed a great a deal to the world.”

Speaking to Cuomo yesterday, King was marginally more accepting of these unnamed other “categories” of human beings, offering that certain groups “contribute differently to our culture and civilization,” but maintaining his opinion that “certain groups of people will do more from a productive side than other groups of people will. That’s just a statistical fact.”

Though King offered that he would one day like to see “an America that is so homogenous that we look a lot the same...” and that he believed there’s been “far too much focus on race,” ahem, “especially in the last eight years. I want to see that put behind us,” the more alarmingly racist and floridly delusional parts of his message are the ones that have proven most popular—and increasingly so—in America today. No less than the sitting president of the United States, Donald Trump, told an audience in Iowa in 2014 that King had “the right views on almost everything.”

White supremacists including David Duke and Richard Spencer, who believe that truly “American” babies are the products of Western civilization, the rightful heirs to its bounty of freedom, Christianity and the English language, praised King’s tweet. And they affirmed that Western religion, culture, and language are the tenets upon which they believe this country was founded and to which it must return—if it is to survive.

Instead of roundly condemning King, though, establishment Republicans like House Speaker Paul Ryan offered only tepid responses to his bluster. In a statement, Ryan’s office allowed: “The speaker clearly disagrees and believes America’s long history of inclusiveness is one of its great strengths.” (Rep. Carlos Curbelo, an immigration moderate from Florida, was noticeably more offended.)

Meanwhile, babies of non-Western stock (brown, and apparently occult) are, in the eyes of Spencer and Duke—and perhaps King—dismantling American civilization. They are not of this place, not of this land. They are “somebody else’s.” I am one of them.

In part this is ironic, because the Wagners of Lansing, Iowa (Mr. King’s home state) would have been familiar and happy characters in any King homily: my paternal grandfather was a rural mail carrier, his wife a stay-at-home mother of six. They were devout Catholics who ate fish on Friday and had home-made donuts on Sunday. Their town was lily white, and my father could recall ever only having seen one person of color during his childhood: the town’s black dry cleaner. When Steve King and his brethren dream of the Good Ole Days, I imagine my father’s Iowa childhood is exactly what they envision: stickball in the evenings and “Western” homogeneity that stretches further than the cornfields in late July.

This is the part of America they wish to see more of, and these Wagners are the Americans King and Co. wish would just have more babies—presumably in a bid to balance the scales with the country’s increasingly brown population. So far, most of my family has obliged: The Wagner progeny, overwhelmingly, would qualify as “American babies” in King’s estimation. They remain mostly headquartered in the Midwest, products of white, Christian, Western unions (if not necessarily Republican ones).

All of the Wagner progeny, that is, except me. My father, ever errant, left the Hawkeye State and moved to Washington D.C., where he met and married an immigrant: a dark-skinned non-Christian whose first language was not English but something else, whose orientation to the world was not born of Judeo-Christian tradition, but of something decidedly animistic and superstitious. Who worshipped not at the cross, but knelt in devout prayer in front of a different icon.

At this moment, it does not matter that I grew up speaking English and eating Chips Ahoy! and watching the very same Angela Lansbury re-runs as my cousins in LaCrosse. I also grew up eating fish cakes and dried shrimp, in a household where a non-Western language was spoken (especially during meal preparation), where certain Sundays found us not at Holy Trinity church, but at the monastery in suburban Maryland.

All of these things made me who I am. But today, these parts of my heritage also classify me as a nefarious element, a spur on the glide path of Western enlightenment. My father, by so foolishly procreating with someone of non-Western stock, unwittingly diluted the broader “American culture,” and redirected his bloodline into some unknown beyond, damning generations hence to an uncertain (but certainly less enlightened) future. If only he’d known what he was doing to himself—and his country.

Even when I was younger, at family reunions, it was never lost on me that my version of Wagnerism was slightly different than everyone else’s: My sunburns were never as bad when we went to the beach and I thought of bratwurst as an exotic treat. But I didn’t take these differences to be disadvantages, nor did I think they qualified me as some sort of outsider. I was a Wagner and an American as they were, just born in a different city and to different parents.

This was the case until one afternoon at the American City Diner, where I had gone to have lunch with my father. He stepped away from the counter while I ordered a vanilla malted and the line cook turned to me, perplexed about where, precisely, I’d come from—and asked, “Are you adopted?” It was a question, but it was also an accusation. And it marked the first time I realized that, to certain people, I could not possibly be the natural-born child of an American union, and could not, therefore, be American. I was an exception, a cast-off.

Even then, barely 11 years old, I was humiliated. I remember very nearly apologizing as I explained my mother’s country of origin—as if to excuse myself for not being what he had expected. Grinning, I said that no, I wasn’t adopted, a feeble attempt at reassurance (for both of us) that I was of this place, of this country.

Steve King’s comments have done—and will continue to do—damage by exacerbating the ongoing fracture of American society along racial lines, a schism borne out equally on social networks, and in the media, and at the ballot box. His tweets and cable-news proclamations remind Americans that the hobgoblins of prejudice and racism still stand proud, and that whatever you think of its origins, American “enlightenment” remains a work in progress.

But King’s contention also forces a subtler, but no less pernicious, sort of destruction. Inevitably, in the face of comments like his, brown children and indeed brown men and women, are inclined to enumerate the ways in which their cultures are also valid or worthwhile, or, conversely, to articulate the ways in which they are the same as everybody else (“everybody else” being the white and Western among us), whether through language or habit or values.

These explanations may be public or private, they may be the result of conversation or internal monologue. But—as it was for me that day at the diner—there is no mistaking that such explanations and articulations are themselves a form of apology, of somehow accepting blame. Perhaps this, as much as anything, is what Steve King wants.