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Essay

Words from our King

By July 22, 2016 10 Comments
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You know?–I think I get at least something of what my representative in Washington was talking about. I mean, I have something similar in my soul. I roll my eyes at those dopey bumper stickers that insist “You’re not much, if you’re not Dutch”; but that doesn’t mean I’m not dang proud of my heritage. The first book I wrote was all about Dutch immigrants, and just about everything I’ve written since has greatly to do with the mystery of identity.

I feel the cutting edge of my heritage in small Midwestern towns that don’t have curb-and-gutter. I feel it when I’m next door to yards gone to jungle, on an acreage with rust buckets that sit unmoved since a thistle takeover. I recognize what I come from when my frustration rises at public meetings that don’t start on on time. I spot my own heritage all around me in starchy emotionlessness and a half-smile signaling some embarrassment at being happy. I feel it in dedication to task, in saintly elbow-grease, in the reign of hard work in a robe of sweat. 

I claim identity as a Calvinist even though the connotations haven’t changed much from the days Elizabethan England called us “roundheads” for rigid, bowl-cuts. I know what we did when we used our ample elbow-grease on European cathedrals and New England witches. No matter. I’m still proud of my Calvinist heritage. 

And I’m proud of the historical fact that in the Netherlands, orthodox Protestants were more likely to take up with the Dutch underground than other segments of their society. Orthodox Protestants is what I came from. 

But I’m also aware that the Dutch lost a higher percentage of Jews to Hitler’s madness than did any other country under Nazi occupation. I know thousands of Calvinists looked the other way when Dutch Jews were rounded up in the middle of the night and sent to Germany, never to return.

I know it was the Western civilization he’s so proud of that created that little mustachioed madman and disciples to design death factories. The culture of Goethe, Beethoven, and Bach created amazingly efficient mechanisms for genocide.

And I know it never dawned on my pious immigrant ancestors that the land they claimed for their families was the homeland of Native Americans who never asked white Europeans to swarm into and over an earth they considered sacred. Maybe a decade ago, I held in my hand, a note from an esteemed Christian Reformed pastor who claimed that his experience on the frontier made it unquestionably clear that Indians could not be saved. 

I know white people, inheritors of a Judeo-Christian heritage, killed whole herds of buffalo for sport and amusement, shot them from fancy railroad cars, peed on their rifles to keep the barrels from getting too hot to aim, killed millions more, not simply because it was fun but because some of the nation’s foremost thinkers determined the way to kill off Indians was cut off their food supply and destroy their culture by eliminating bison altogether.

I get it–I really do. I think I know what Rep. Steve King, my fourth-district Representative in Congress, means when he says there’s nothing quite like Western culture, when he wallows in the glory he believes still grows from good, strong northern European, Judeo-Christian roots. I know something of that myself.

Before a national audience, Rep. King couldn’t help bragging about the glories of white culture. “I would 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,” he told a commentator. “Where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?”

It wasn’t enough for him to argue a month ago that Harriet Tubman should not be on the new twenty-dollar bill or that lately he’s been photographed with a Confederate battle flag on his desk, hundreds of miles from Mason-Dixon. He determined, on national television, to go out of his way to deliver a racist homily about white people. And he’s my congressman, in good part because 85 percent of the people in the county where I live vote for him.

Our own Steve King considers himself, I’m sure, a valuable part of what we white folks contribute to civilization. 

Wednesday night, downtown Orange City, Iowa, an African-American woman took the stage in the city park and wailed away with her clarinet, playing a species of bluesy New Orleans jazz that’s out of the range of most anyone touting a Steve King heritage. We did well at slavery, made fortunes for ourselves and others. But that night the daughter of a race we enslaved came here and did something few can: she brought joy that’s nothing at all like Tulip Time. She made small-town Iowans–wooden shoes or not–feel something in their souls that’s blessed.

Friday, today, in torrid South Dakota heat, I’ll bring three dozen high school kids up the knoll at Wounded Knee to tell them the story of a 7th Cavalry massacre created by Judeo-Christian men who killed men, women, and children, some of the dead found a mile away from where the shooting began. A few days later, those men buried hundreds of frozen bodies in a mass grave on the very hill where we’ll be standing.

Perhaps Rep. King would like to offer his thoughts about contributions to civilization when standing right there up on that hill with us. This one.

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James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

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