What have white people ever contributed, anyway?

If you’re really optimistic, you can say this was the last time that old white people would command the Republican Party’s attention, its platform, its public face,” Charles P. Pierce, a writer at large at Esquire magazine, said during the panel discussion…

In response, Mr. King said: “This whole ‘old white people’ business does get a little tired, Charlie. 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 are talking about? Where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?”

“Than white people?” Mr. Hayes asked.

Mr. King responded: “Than Western civilization itself that’s rooted in Western Europe, Eastern Europe and the United States of America, and every place where the footprint of Christianity settled the world. That’s all of Western civilization.”

The claim is actually quite modest.  In response to a writer gloating over the demise of his race, Mr. King asks what other subgroup contributed more to civilization than Western civilization, rhetorically implying that no other group contributed more, and therefore none of them are in a position to demand that whites be singled out in not being allowed to dominate anything anywhere on Earth.  The assertion that no group has contributed more than the West is compatible with other civilizations having contributed equally and with other civilizations in aggregate having contributed more.  It simply means that the West is second to none.

King is right to connect the white race with Western civilization.  Race is a social construct, and today being white mostly means being identified with European civilization.  He is also right to be angered by Mr. Pierce’s zeal to replace white people as the “public face” of a Western nation’s political party.  If its participants can’t be socially dominant anywhere, Western culture will cease to exist as a culture.  No one objects to Chinese being the face of the Chinese Communist Party, of Indians being the face of the BJP, or of blacks running sub-Saharan Africa.  It’s a big planet, and a little bit of diversity isn’t a terrible thing.

Still, I think the lesson here is that even the claim that the West is second to none is still too strong.  It is certainly contestable, and it triggers an argument we don’t need to win.  Suppose it could be definitively shown that, say, Islam added more to civilization as a whole than did the West.  Would we all meekly accept that Europe should then be ruled or co-ruled by African Muslims?  I prefer to avoid comparisons.  Can we not strongly argue that the West–defined broadly as Mr. King does as all Classical, Christian, and European-Anglosphere civilization–has made some contributions to civilization as a whole, and that this is an indication of its inherent worth?  After all, the main contribution any given civilization makes to civilization as a whole is its very existence.  Simply to give birth to a distinctive way of life is a stupendous achievement.

9 Responses

  1. King was, of course, the adult in that room. But the debate did suffer from equivocal use of the word “civilization.” At one moment they use it in the classical sense of a universal measure of movement away from barbarism. The next moment they use it in the more modern sense that one finds in Arnold Toynbee or Samuel Huntington: a highly complex but particular way of life. The two concepts are not antithetical, but combining them is far from simple.

    Civilization in the classical sense is not the sort of thing to which anybody can “contribute.” It is an ideal, such as holiness or manliness. Societies are more or less civilized because of the differing degrees to which they embody the ideals of civilization, not because they have somehow “contributed” to the definition or realization of that ideal.

    But the bottom line is that Pierce is not being honest. If you subtracted everything Whites have invented from his life, he would not accept what remained as civilization. For men like Pierce, true civilization is Western Civilization plus ironic or righteous contempt for Western Civilization. It is shamanism with a hospital just down the road.

  2. Charles Murray can confirm: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_Accomplishment

  3. Why should we care about winning arguments? It is far more important to be right. And a person who can’t see that Christendom is second to none us a person immune to any arguments we might make. F

  4. Apologies for the typos

  5. I guess my first reaction to the quoted passage was that King backed down. Initially he said “our race” and when Pierce said “come again?” he then switched to “our culture.”

  6. @JMSmith:

    “Civilization in the classical sense is not the sort of thing to which anybody can ‘contribute. It is an ideal…'”

    Then it is the sort of ideal that people must be able to define, even loosely, then decide they want, and then strive toward.

    For example, I’m sure I have some savage qualities in how I normally argue, but in my head I have a picture of how a perfectly civilized person engages in debate. After making the choice to embody that picture, I try to type out complete sentences and address you in a courteous way, presenting my arguments logically and so forth.

    This is a ritual and is one of many that keep civilization going, but it requires 1) knowledge of the shared ideal and 2) choosing to strive toward the ideal.

  7. […] from Bonald: What have white people ever contributed, anyway? In short, the entirety of Western Civilization, which, he points out, is a sufficient justification […]

  8. Well . . . @ I may have been splitting hairs, but was trying to distinguish between contributing to the ideal of civilization (which I said one cannot do) and contributing to the knowledge and/or realization of that ideal. My point was that the ideal of civilization must exist independent of what humans may believe or say that civilization is. If this were not so, “civilized” behavior is simply behavior I approve of. A man chewing with his mouth open would not be, in other words, inherently uncivilized. It would simply be disapproved in a particular class or culture. But if chewing with one’s mouth open is, indeed, uncivilized, then acquiring this knowledge and putting it into practice is, as you say, a contribution to civilization. It’s all rather like saying that I can contribute to the silence of a room (by sitting still and keeping my mouth closed), but cannot contribute to the ideal of silence.

  9. […] repeat what I said before:  the most astounding accomplishment of any civilization is its very existence, the fact that it […]

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