“Other people’s babies,” The Humanities, and Responses to White Nationalism

This past weekend, Represenative Steve King (R-Iowa), tweeted his support for the far-right Dutch politician, Geert Wilders. Wilders is openly anti-Islamic, and has argued that mosques should be closed and the Koran should be banned in the Netherlands. King wished Wilders good luck in the election in the Netherlands, but he said more than that when doing so. In his most recent tweet, King stated that “Wilders understands that culture and demographics are our destiny” and that “we can’t restore civilization with somebody else’s babies.”

King has a history of making such statements. This past September, King tweeted a picture of himself with Wilders and the statement “cultural suicide by demographic transformation must end.” He has also commented that he believes America is on a similar path as that of Europe, albeit fifteen years behind. Would you like to hear a doubling down on that doubling down? King gives us one: “We need to get our birth rates up or Europe will be entirely transformed within a half century or a little more.”

As an English professor, one of the skills I emphasize in my literature courses is that of close reading, or the process of pulling apart language in a careful and detailed fashion. Words, I say, are often like people; they walk into texts like people who walk into rooms: with histories. Thinking about those histories helps us to unpack the complexity of statements, to think about the ripples of meaning that spiral outwards when people choose certain words and phrases. Even thinking about the ways in which words are organized within sentences and paragraphs, and the punctuation that accompanies them, helps us to think about larger contexts. When working with students in close reading work, I often suggest we come up with an inventory of questions we might have about a text: Why did the author choose those words? What images do they draw? In what social or cultural contexts are words resting?

In the case of King’s statements, we might ask: What is “cultural suicide”? Whose culture does King think is about to die? What does King mean by a “demographic transformation”? How is demography changing, and what does King believe is being transformed? Why does he think “civilization” is in need of restoration? Who is the “somebody” else whose babies he believes will not be able to do the restoration? What might we make of the word “destiny”? And, what of his link between “culture,” “demographics,” and “destiny”? In what other contexts do we hear the word “destiny” and how has it been linked to specific “demographics”?

There are two ways I would approach these larger contexts; both are based in the Humanities. The first might be more familiar to readers: American history. I’ll get to the second one below. There has been much talk in the past decade about the fact that non-Hispanic whites will be in the minority as we reach the middle of the century. While King’s tweet was in support of a Dutch politician, King is using the moment to make a point he wants to make about the U.S. In his case, the “culture” he is convinced must be protected is one he sees himself a part of: white, likely descending from Western Europe. His odd conflation of “we” with Europe when talking about increasing birth rates confirms this. It is also one that practices a certain limited version of Christianity, a version that sees Islam as threat. It is also one that sees life as a zero-sum experience: there is no room for plurality in terms of race, immigration, religion, or what King refers to as culture. King sees the growth in a population that he does not consider his own, and he seems to experience that as an actual attack.

He has narrowed the world down into an “us versus them” vision. It’s a small and sad (and by sad, I also mean truly pathetic) way to live one’s life. It’s one grounded deeply in fear, and anger, and in putting oneself first, at all costs. His claim that “culture” is under attack also suggests an imperialist vision: “culture,” again in his mind, is white. His calling on “destiny,” in an American context, also brings us two overlapping possibilities: 1) “manifest destiny,” or the idea that European whites who settled in the U.S. were meant to move westward in America, taking the land of Native Americans, and killing them along the way. It was destined to be, so the statement suggested; 2) “destiny” in a religious context—one that suggests Christians are destined by God to be a favored people. This second one echoes the Crusades and builds on it: East versus West, Christianity versus Islam, conquering and outnumbering all over again. And again. And again. Put them together, and you have territorial power that promotes one “race,” one religion, one “culture,” and the power, in the mind of the believer, is backed by none other than God himself.

While those are a few pieces of the American context that might help us to think about King’s claims, I am in fact a Victorianist. I specialize in nineteenth-century British literature, and my ears prick up when I hear anyone link demographics, reproduction, and fear of declines in power. Believe it or not, one novel that helps us to understand King’s statements is Bram Stoker’s Dracula, published in 1897. What could a novel about a late nineteenth-century vampire possibly have to do with our own time? More than you might think.

Bela Lugosi in the 1931 film version of Dracula

The novel opens with the narration of Jonathan Harker, a young solicitor from London who is on his way to Eastern Europe to settle property transactions with Count Dracula. The Count, it turns out, has decided to purchase an estate, one that is notably located in the suburbs of London. He is, Stoker suggests, planning to move westward, and gradually multiply (his victims tend to be women), something that would, to use King’s own phrases, complicate the “demographics” of London, and possibly the British empire itself, an empire that was straining to maintain its reach.

Some critics have noted that Dracula’s features are linked to anti-Semitic stereotypes. There was also a large immigration to London in the last two decades of the nineteenth century, and many of these immigrants were from Eastern Europe, and a number of them were Jewish. At the same time, we see the birth of social Darwinism and the eugenics movement in this period. In 1875, Cesare Lombroso published The Criminal Man, a book in which he theorized that one could pinpoint a criminal by first identifying his or her facial and racial characteristics. In the 1880s, Sir Frances Galton argued that selective breeding should be put into practice to “improve” the human race. In 1893, Max Nordau argued in his book, Degeneration, that hearty Anglo-Saxons were deteriorating, even entering a sort of reverse evolutionary process as they weakened, while other “demographics” were on the increase. Students come to these theories through the fiction, as when the Dutch Van Helsing asks Jonathan Harker and others for their observations about how to defeat Dracula, Jonathan’s wife, Mina (who continually impresses the male characters with what Van Helsing calls her “man’s brain”) responds, “‘The Count is a criminal and of criminal type, Nordau and Lombroso would so classify him.’”

During these decades, special emphasis was placed on reproduction: as first-wave feminists began to work outside of domestic spaces, agitated for the vote, and sometimes decided not to marry, some fin-de-siècle writers argued that it was the end of the Anglo-Saxon race, and that women were in fact neglecting what was not only their moral duty, but their national responsibility. It is not a coincidence that in his recent CNN interview, where he was asked to clarify his tweet, King talked about reproduction, suggesting that “any population of people that is a declining population that isn’t willing to have enough babies to reproduce themselves” is in trouble and that “you’ve got to keep your birth rate up.” Women’s bodies and reproduction become topics of obsession during periods of nationalism (I’ll leave a discussion of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale for another day).

I teach Dracula in a class on the gothic and on monsters. By the end of the semester, we have read a range of works that help us to see, time and again, that fictional monsters represent specific fears—about race, nationality, religion, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and more—in a particular time period. There is always an outsider, a “someday else,” who those in power fear, dehumanize, and often kill.

King’s tweet and follow-up comments were praised by the well-known white supremacist David Duke, who re-tweeted him (notably, writing “God Bless Steve King” and writing “TruthRising”). While Duke might be one point in a tweet chain, those who study the Humanities will recognize that the pattern we are seeing right now is an old one. Humanists can draw a line from Lombroso to Galton, to Nordau, to King, and to Duke, and others, like Steve Bannon. (In what we might of as a nineteenth-century version of the re-tweet, Nordau dedicated his book to Lombroso.) The language, the fear, the dehumanizing is not new; they recylce it. It’s an old narrative, one printed at different points in late nineteenth-century pseudo-scientific texts, mid-twentieth century posters and legal orders in Europe and America, and now in 140 characters, tweeted and re-tweeted by white supremacists, both in and out of office.

This is another moment, I would argue, where the Humanities have something unique to offer in response to the fanning the flames of fear. The Humanities are, in their essence, the study of the records of human experience. These records might take the shape of a novel, a work of art, a work of history, a memoir, a film, a philosophical theory and more. They allow us, even if only momentarily, the chance to empathically inhabit the perspective of someone who might be very different from us—from another time, another nation, another religion, another gender. They help us to navigate beyond imagined (or right now, increasingly real) borders. They also help us to see patterns that repeat, lessons that have been learned, but sometimes, need to be learned again. They help us to see the thing we’ve seen before, to name it, to know it, to pull it apart and break it down and think of the person who came before us and left us a work that tells us: “This. This is how it felt.”

The Humanities, at their best, offer us the opportunity to shift the discussion from “other people’s babies” and gothic claims about the results of changing demographics to deep thinking about human experiences, both shared and unshared. As walls go up, nations retract, groups within nations pull away from each other, humans are splintered into categories, and fear and anger dominate, the Humanities continue to offer us chances to do a different type of work: to reach, and stretch, and to open ourselves anew.

 

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