U.S. Representative Steven King from Iowa’s fourth congressional district, on January 24, attempted to play kingmaker by bringing some of the most politically conservative of the Republican Party’s potential 2016 candidates to his so-called “Iowa Freedom Summit” in Des Moines. This event is seen as the kickoff — of a deflated Right’s game ball — to Iowa’s first-in-the-nation presidential caucus.
I find the title of this gathering very misleading, and actually a form of false advertising. When Steve King talks about “freedom,” just what exactly does he mean? As a former resident living in his congressional district, I never understood his definition of the term.
King certainly has no need of promoting freedom to undocumented residents. Last year, he dismissed the notion that many undocumented immigrants are high-achieving students. He asserted that they should not receive a pathway to citizenship saying that for every valedictorian who is legalized, “there’s another 100 out there that weigh 130 pounds and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.”
And King has no use for the concept of “freedom” for the diversity of cultural traditions in the United States other than his own. He claimed that the promotion of the concept of multiculturalism will ultimately bring about the demise of the country as we know it.
In the course I taught at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa titled “Multicultural Foundations in Schools and Society,” I showed students a video of Steve King’s. Speaking to supporters on August 21, 2012 at a Le Mars, Iowa, Town Hall meeting, King conjured up a supposed deep and sinister plot to ensnare young and impressionable first-year college students into campus multicultural groups for the purpose of turning them into victims, which he asserted will convince them to work toward the eventual overthrow of this country’s power structure.
King talked about preparing for a debate some time ago on the Iowa State University campus on the concept of multiculturalism. He talked about checking out the university’s website: “I typed in ‘multicultural,'” he stated on the video, “and it came back to me at the time, 59 different multicultural groups listed to do, to operate on campus at Iowa State….And most of them were victims’ groups, victimology, people who feel sorry for themselves.”
He warned that these groups are “out there recruiting our young people to be part of the group who are feeling sorry for themselves….But just think of 59 card tables set up across the parking lot on the way to the dorm….And the first group says, ‘Well, you’re a victim that fits us. We want to help you. Why don’t you join us?’….And then you’re brought into a group that has a grievance against society rather than understand there’s a tremendous blessing in this society.”
Though King attended Northwest Missouri State University from 1967 to 1970, taking courses toward a career as a wildlife officer, he never completed his degree. His political career officially began when he was elected to the Iowa Senate serving from 1996-2002. While there, he was instrumental in passing the law mandating English as the “official” language of Iowa. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representative in 2002 serving on the Agricultural and Judiciary Committees, Constitution Subcommittee and Immigration (really?) Subcommittee. He also chairs the powerful House of Representatives Conservative Opportunity Society caucus (and how does he define “opportunity”?). While in public office, he has consistently taken stands championed by the political Right opposing affirmative action for women and minoritized people, marriage equality for same-sex couples, abortion, and gun control, among others.
Continuing his conspiratorial theory in Le Mars, King warned of the work and philosophy of Antonio Gramsci, whom he referred to as “the president of the Italian Communist Party from 1919 to 1926…” and “the father of multiculturalism.” According to King, “[Gramsci] made the argument that Karl Marx was right in his broader theory but wrong in the details that the Proletariats (sic) would never rise up against the Bourgeois effectively because they needed the Bourgeois for their jobs….And so, he said they needed to find victims groups and then that way if they could have a common sense of being victimized, they would have a stronger resistance toward the establishment, and then you could bundle up these victims groups and they together could overthrow the establishment….”
Maybe King should have taken my Multicultural Foundations course since it is obvious he has lots to learn on the topic. Yes, Gramsci was a leader in the Italian Communist Party, as well as a political theorist, politician, and linguist whom the Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini imprisoned for his outspoken advocacy of human and civil liberties (freedom!). At his trial in 1926, the chief prosecutor argued: “For twenty years we must stop this brain from functioning.” While serving his sentence, he wrote more than 30 notebooks between 1927 and 1935 constituting over 3000 pages of history and analysis together known as the Prison Notebooks. In these writings, he stressed the imperative for workers’ education founded upon the strong bedrock of history and understanding of social relations, and on the origins and functions of ideas. Gramsci’s health deteriorated dramatically while incarcerated, and he died in 1937 at the age of 46.
Gramsci wrote about the concept of “cultural hegemony,” which describes the ways in which the dominant group successfully disseminates its social realities and social visions in a manner accepted as “common sense,” as “normal,” and as “universal.” This hegemony maintains and expands the marginality of groups with different or opposing views. Gramsci knew the true definition of “freedom,” and he worked to advance freedom tirelessly throughout his tragically short life.
Steve King is a prominent and outspoken member of the so-called “Birther Movement.” He has consistently tried to define President Barack Obama as “other” by attempting to prevent our President the right of self-definition – an apparent contradiction within a political party that emphasizes rugged individualism, freedom, and liberty over one’s life. In August 2012, King made the absurdist accusation during a tele-town hall meeting that though his staff had found Barack Obama’s birth announcement in two separate Hawaiian newspapers, “That doesn’t mean there aren’t some other explanations on how they might’ve announced that by telegram from Kenya.”
In addition, according to King while Obama was running for the presidential nomination in 2008:
“When you think about the optics of a Barack Obama potentially getting elected President of the United States…[w]hat does it look like to the world of Islam? I will tell you that, if he is elected president, then the radical Islamists, the al-Qaida, and their supporters, will be dancing in the streets in greater numbers than they did on September 11 because they will declare victory in this War on Terror.”
Rather than resisting the concept of multiculturalism and viewing it as a challenge to our country’s very existence, I advise Mr. King that we need to embrace our rich diversity. According to the National Association for Multicultural Education:
“Multicultural education is a philosophical concept built on the ideals of freedom, justice, equality, equity, and human dignity as acknowledged in various documents, such as the U.S. Declaration of Independence, constitutions of South Africa and the United States, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations. It affirms our need to prepare student for their responsibilities in an interdependent world.”
Without a strong emphasis on multiculturalism in our school and larger society, we will continue down the shameful historical path laid by those who have gone before us in the United States, which Joel Spring refers to as “cultural genocide” defined as “the attempt to destroy other cultures” through forced acquiescence and assimilation to majority rule and standards. This cultural genocide works through the process of “deculturalization,” which Spring describes as “the educational process of destroying a people’s culture and replacing it with a new culture.”
Social theorist Gunnar Myrdal traveled throughout the United States during the late 1940s examining U.S. society following World War II. He discovered a grave contradiction or inconsistency, which he termed “an American dilemma.” He found a country founded on an overriding commitment to democracy, liberty, freedom, human dignity, and egalitarian values, coexisting alongside deep-seated patterns of racial discrimination, privileging white people, while subordinating people of color.
The Jewish immigrant and sociologist of Polish and Latvian heritage, Horace Kallen, in 1915 coined the term “cultural pluralism” to challenge the image of the so-called “melting pot,” which he considered inherently undemocratic. Kallen envisioned a United States in the image of a great symphony orchestra, not sounding in unison (the “melting pot”), but rather, one in which all the disparate cultures play in harmony and retain their unique and distinctive tones and timbres.
Today, the United States stands as the most culturally, ethnically, racially, linguistically, and religiously diverse country in the world. This diversity poses great challenges and great opportunities. I would advise Mr. King that the way we meet these challenges will determine whether we remain on the abyss of our history or whether we can truly achieve our promise of becoming a shining beacon to the world.
Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), and co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense), and co-author of Looking at Gay and Lesbian Life (Beacon Press).