Most people know that legendary playwright William Shakespeare wasn’t American. But most people aren’t Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton.
"If Chinese students want to come here and study Shakespeare & the Federalist Papers, that's what they need to learn from America. They don't need to learn quantum computing" — Sen. Tom Cotton proposes restricting Chinese students from studying science & tech at US universities pic.twitter.com/Sn6f6MMwtW
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) April 26, 2020
Cotton dropped this gem during an appearance on Fox News on which he argued that Chinese students shouldn’t be allowed to study sciences in the United States in the aftermath of COVID-19. “If Chinese students want to come here to study Shakespeare and the Federalist Papers,” he said, “that’s what they need to learn from America.”
Except, of course, that Shakespeare wasn’t American. He lived and produced all his work in England and died in 1616, more than 150 years before America existed as a country.
Cotton apologists will say it was a figure of speech, a way to punctuate his statements that it’s a “scandal” American universities have “trained so many of the Chinese Communist Party’s brightest minds” in “quantum computing and artificial intelligence.” The senator’s words are an obvious attempt to capitalize on post-coronavirus Chinese xenophobia. He and other extreme Republican hawks need a supreme enemy to villainize, and COVID-19 has provided one they already performatively hated. (This is a guy who tried manufacturing consent for war in Iran, after all.)
But Cotton mentioning Shakespeare as something Chinese students can “learn from America” lets slip the Western civilization superiority complex that fuels his belief system. It’s the notion that human civilization truly began in Ancient Greece, which pioneered novel concepts like democracy, proper societal structure, and rule of law—dismissing any culture or civilization that came before it.
Western civilization superiority has been repeatedly debunked, despite a Ben Shapiro book and several PragerU videos arguing the opposite. Philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah famously referred to Western civilization as a modern invention created to lionize countries like England and the U.S. as logical descendants of Ancient Greece, bestowed with the values of “liberty, tolerance and rational inquiry” as a “birthright”—you know, despite their consistent intolerances, suspension of liberties, and elevation of irrational inquiries.
American exceptionalism is cut from the same cloth as Western civilization superiority. The belief that the United States is inherently better and more wholesome, especially than Asian or African states or cultures, is inherent among conservatives like Cotton. We can do no wrong even when we consistently, repeatedly do. Cotton crediting Shakespeare to America is just an acceleration of the creeping dogma that the entire world begins and ends with the United States.
Famous American playwright, William Shakespeare https://t.co/ypZxdhisee
— Steadman™ (@AsteadWesley) April 26, 2020
Twitter users were quick to laugh off Cotton’s idiocy. Others, like New York Times opinion columnist Jamelle Bouie, pointed out his logical incongruence—if you truly wanted to “undermine Beijing,” wouldn’t you want their best and brightest to stay? But there’s little point in parsing the logic of a corny xenophobic senator with fever dreams of all-out war with anyone who’ll have it.