Restoring Civilization: Whose Babies?

“‘Culture and demographics are our destiny” according to Representative Steve King. Well depending on what you mean this is hardly arguable. Culture deeply shapes the way any society evolves. And everyone from marketers to evangelists to politicians to educators knows that shifting demographics across multiple dimensions will determine what products sell, who gets converted, who wins the election, and who goes to school and what they learn. So what is the big controversy in Rep. King’s statement the other day?

Oh yeah, because he ties genetic inheritance to culture and civilization. “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.”

One commentator, Kathleen Parker, suggested that those who are anxious about demographic changes in the US needed a better spokesman that Rep. King. She’s right, but that is pretty low hanging fruit among those of his ilk in the Republican party.

Our problem is that he’s hardly alone in associating genetic inheritance with culture and civilization. The association of culture with race, as in White Culture, or Black Culture, or Asian Culture (what that could mean given the diversity of Asia?) is nearly ubiquitous in the United States, even though if carefully analyzed these associations are silly. Culture isn’t passed down genetically and neither is civilization. You don’t inherit them with your skin color, or for that matter eye color. They are transmitted through a complex of social institutions that include but are not limited to the family.

My own children are “third culture kids.” I am an Anglo-American Texas. My wife is ethnic Chinese from Malaysia. And the kids were raised almost entirely outside the United States. They bear and act out of multiple cultures, not least the kind of multi-cultural international school culture in which everyone is from somewhere else and speaks a different language. No wonder one lives in Vienna and the other LA, the kind of genuinely cosmopolitan centers where they can feel at home. They are not Texans. And they aren’t Malaysians or Chinese. They are American citizens, and they certainly have and bear a culture and at least since middle school have been mostly civilized.

But let’s take a simpler case. Several of my students in Malaysia were children of one ethnicity who had been adopted and raised in a family of another ethnicity. From the way they wore their clothes, carried themselves, and of course the language they spoke they bore the culture of their adoptive family. And in many cases in that multi-cultural society the family culture was overlaid with the culture of the majority of their school mates. I saw it in Austria as well. One child of Ghanaian immigrants in my congregation could curse and converse in exactly the robust language of a working class Austrian taxi driver whose family had lived in the same Viennese district for two hundred years. If you couldn’t see him you’d have no idea the color of his skin or where he was born. You could tell where he went to school.

Our problem in the US is that we have a dual inheritance when it comes to an understanding of culture. On one hand we’re the heirs of Enlightenment universalism and the idea that all humans possess both fundamental rights and capacities in equal measure. But we’re also heir to the ideology that justified racism on the basis of the inferiority or superiority of race-based culture. And even when we maintain that all ethnic groups are and should be equal Americans tend to retain the fundamentally racist idea of race-based culture. And the idea that you can’t restore your civilization with someone else’s babies.

(A relevant aside, the last laws against inter-racial marriage were only eliminated within my lifetime, so let’s not delude ourselves about the persistence of such racism in American culture. Rep. King’s remarks fit perfectly with the justification of the old anti-miscegenation laws.)

And hence the anxiety that as the supposed “majority” culture becomes one of many “minority” cultures that our American culture and civilization will decline.

Now part of the solution to our national angst right now is only partially to get realistic about culture, genetics, and civilization. That will happen quite simply as increasing diverse workplaces, marriages, clubs, and schools undermine such notions in the popular perception. Only those intentionally segregated by our ongoing institutional racism or its “white flight” doppleganger will suffer. One from exclusion and the other from self-inflicted ignorance and isolation. Both need to be addressed, although I’m not sure we should invest much social capital in addressing the self-destructive folly of the privileged.

But it is also important that we realize that thinking of ourselves as “majority” or “minority” is fundamentally misleading when it comes to who has and will shape the future of our civilization.

As we can see even as I write (March 16th) a Republican “majority” in Congress can’t pass key legislation. Maybe because the idea of a “majority” or even (thanks Newt) a “permanent majority” is an illusion. The Republican party is the name for an ever shifting set of coalitions. The fact that the label “Republican” identifies more people in Congress than does the label “Democrat” is actually irrelevant to getting anything done. As we’ve seen for the last 8 years. Republicans and Democrats are even evolving coalitions of different cultures. (Woodard’s work, America’s Nations, continues to be useful here.)

So instead of thinking of majority and minority as the basis of political, social, and cultural influence  we need to instead ask whether a self-identified group is regarded as a potential member of those coalitions that shape society. Because it is the potential for being a coalition member more than association with a majority or minority that determines whether a group has role in shaping the future of civilization. The demographic changes taking place today simply represent potential changes in future coalitions, not the disempowerment of some presumed majority.

Another example. Women have been a slight majority of the electorate for at least 50 years, so it would seem a no-brainer that key women’s issues would be quickly addressed politically and women would play a greater role in shaping society. But this hasn’t happened, because for all practical purposes there is no gender based minority or majority when it comes to cultural influence and the formation of our civilization. There is only the ability of larger and smaller groups of women to join in coalitions (gendered or not) promoting particular interests.

Such a civilization as we have in the US is already built on multiple cultural foundations. And it will continue to be shaped and borne forward by coalitions of culture bearing groups; some ethnic, some generational, some socio-economic, some geographical, and some linguistic. Those concerned about the future of US civilization need to worry less about other people’s babies and more about with whom they will engage in dialogue and work.