Victor Davis Hanson Private Papers

Linguistic McCarthyism

By Victor Davis Hanson
National Review

Most Americans recoil from the statue-smashers and name-changers.

‘The Bard,” William Shakespeare, had a healthy distrust of the sort of mob hysteria typified by our current epidemics of statue-busting and name-changing.

In Shakespeare’s tragedy Julius Caesar — a story adopted from Plutarch’s Parallel Lives — a frenzied Roman mob, in furor over the assassination of Julius Caesar, encounters on the street a poet named Cinna. The innocent poet was not the conspiratorial assassin Cinna, but unfortunately shared a name with the killer.

The terrified poet points out to the mob this case of mistaken identity: “I am Cinna the poet.”

The mob answers: “Tear him for his bad verses, tear him for his bad verses! . . . It is no matter, his name’s Cinna!”

Shakespeare certainly would recognize that, like the playwright’s Roman mob, we have launched a war against words in our frenzy to find targets for our politically correct madness.

Recently, there were progressive calls at the University of Southern California to rename the school’s mascot, the white Andalusian horse “Traveler.” Members of the Left thought that the mute animal’s name too closely resembled the name “Traveller,” the favorite horse of Confederate general and sudden demon of 2017 Robert E. Lee.

But the mob was not finished there. An Asian-American sportscaster named Robert Lee was recently yanked by the sports channel ESPN from broadcasting a University of Virginia football game. Apparently, Lee’s name was too close to that of Robert E. Lee.

Nearly a century and a half after his death, General Lee has gone from tragic figure to Public Enemy No. 1 of the Left.

Lee the sportscaster, like Cinna the poet, was found guilty on the basis of ignorant association with his name. If the politically correct herd could not get its hands on the long-dead Robert E. Lee, it would apparently settle for anyone in the present who shared nearly the same name.

Why would a supposedly civilized country descend into such linguistic fascism?

Part of the problem is the presumption by elites that a supposedly illiterate public must be protected from itself. But does anyone really believe that average people will confuse an Asian-American sportscaster who has the common Chinese surname “Lee” and the all-American first name “Robert” with a Confederate general — or that the sportscaster could thus be somehow tangentially connected with the recent violence in Charlottesville?

ESPN, however, does not bet on the intelligence of the average American. It prefers to virtue-signal that it is above all suspicion of sympathy for the Confederacy. In its search for cosmic justice, it cares little about the injustice it metes out to real live people.

ESPN has long politicized sports and continues to lose viewers over its adolescent political correctness. Not long ago, the network fired tennis commentator Doug Adler. He had characterized the aggressive play of tennis star Venus Williams as employing the “guerrilla effect.” (“And you’ll see Venus move in and put the guerrilla effect on, charging,” Adler had said.) Adler’s reference was drawn from the once-popular term “guerrilla tennis” that denoted a tough, brawling, take-no-prisoners style from the 1990s.

The word “guerilla,” remember, is a diminutive of the Spanish word guerra (“war”). In Spanish, guerrilla means “little war.” In English, “guerilla” is commonly used to describe a type of unconventional fighting.

But Adler forgot that “guerilla” is pronounced the same as its English homophone “gorilla.” Some ESPN viewers did not understand the guerrilla reference and charged that Adler was using “gorilla” as a racist smear. Adler tried to explain the reference, but he was fired and his career was ruined, making him a modern-day Cinna the poet, torn apart by the mob.

Why the linguistic McCarthyism? When a cowardly and self-righteous ESPN assumes the worst in people, it hopes to find protection for itself from the thought police.

When chronic inner-city problems — epidemic levels of murder, drug use, and out-of-wedlock births — cannot be solved, frustrated progressives start looking for extraneous targets to blame. And so attention turns to, for example, an Andalusian horse — as if changing the animal’s name is at least proof that they care.

Most revolutions eat their own. Monday’s most fanatical revolutionary becomes a counterrevolutionary sellout by Tuesday.

Once left-wing activists forced cities and states to pull down their politically incorrect statues in the dead of night, and once they got off scot-free in defacing and destroying publicly owned monuments, it was an easy step up to the next level: waging war against words themselves.

In totalitarian societies, cities change their names regularly. Statues go up and are torn down. Words, as the historian Thucydides warned 2,400 years ago, habitually change their meanings to reflect passing political orthodoxy — and thugs, commissars, and brownshirts oversee the charade.

For an antidote to these statue-smashers and name-changers, Americans seek just one honest public official who dares to say “no more” — and arrests rather than appeases those who destroy public property, or shames those who ruin people through guilt by association.

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About victorhanson

Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow in Residence in Classics and Military History at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, a professor of Classics Emeritus at California State University, Fresno, and a nationally syndicated columnist for Tribune Media Services. He is also the Wayne & Marcia Buske Distinguished Fellow in History, Hillsdale College, where he teaches each fall semester courses in military history and classical culture. He recently published an historical novel The End of Sparta (2012), a realistic retelling of Epaminondas invasion and liberation of Spartan-control Messenia. In The Father of Us All (2011), he collected earlier essays on warfare ancient and modern. His upcoming history The Savior Generals(2013) analyzes how five generals in the history of the West changed the course of battles against all odds. He was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2007 and the Bradley Prize in 2008. Hanson, who was the fifth successive generation to live in the same house on his family’s farm, was a full-time orchard and vineyard grower from 1980-1984, before joining the nearby CSU Fresno campus in 1984 to initiate a classical languages program. In 1991, he was awarded an American Philological Association Excellence in Teaching Award, which is given yearly to the country’s top undergraduate teachers of Greek and Latin. Hanson has been a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford, California (1992-93), a visiting professor of classics at Stanford University (1991-92), a recipient of the Eric Breindel Award for opinion journalism (2002), an Alexander Onassis Fellow (2001), and was named alumnus of the year of the University of California, Santa Cruz (2002). He was also the visiting Shifrin Professor of Military History at the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland (2002-3). He received the Manhattan Institute’s Wriston Lectureship in 2004, and the 2006 Nimitz Lectureship in Military History at UC Berkeley in 2006. Hanson is the author of hundreds of articles, book reviews, scholarly papers, and newspaper editorials on matters ranging from ancient Greek, agrarian and military history to foreign affairs, domestic politics, and contemporary culture. He has written or edited 17 books, including Warfare and Agriculture in Classical Greece (1983; paperback ed. University of California Press, 1998); The Western Way of War (Alfred Knopf, 1989; 2d paperback ed. University of California Press, 2000); Hoplites: The Ancient Greek Battle Experience (Routledge, 1991; paperback., 1992); The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization(Free Press, 1995; 2nd paperback ed., University of California Press, 2000);Fields without Dreams: Defending the Agrarian Idea (Free Press, 1996; paperback, Touchstone, 1997; The Bay Area Book reviewers Non-fiction winner for 1996); The Land Was Everything: Letters from an American Farmer (Free Press, 2000; a Los Angeles Times Notable book of the year); The Wars of the Ancient Greeks (Cassell, 1999; paperback, 2001); The Soul of Battle (Free Press, 1999, paperback, Anchor/Vintage, 2000); Carnage and Culture (Doubleday, 2001; Anchor/Vintage, 2002; a New York Times bestseller); An Autumn of War (Anchor/Vintage, 2002); Mexifornia: A State of Becoming (Encounter, 2003),Ripples of Battle (Doubleday, 2003), and Between War and Peace (Random House, 2004). A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War, was published by Random House in October 2005. It was named one of the New York Times Notable 100 Books of 2006. Hanson coauthored, with John Heath, Who Killed Homer? The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom (Free Press, 1998; paperback, Encounter Press, 2000); with Bruce Thornton and John Heath, Bonfire of the Humanities (ISI Books, 2001); and with Heather MacDonald, and Steven Malanga, The Immigration Solution: A Better Plan Than Today’s (Ivan Dee 2007). He edited a collection of essays on ancient warfare, Makers of Ancient Strategy (Princeton University Press, 2010). Hanson has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, International Herald Tribune, New York Post, National Review, Washington Times, Commentary, The Washington Post, Claremont Review of Books, American Heritage, New Criterion, Policy Review, Wilson Quarterly, Weekly Standard, Daily Telegraph, and has been interviewed often on National Public Radio, PBS Newshour, Fox News, CNN, and C-Span’s Book TV and In-Depth. He serves on the editorial board of the Military History Quarterly, and City Journal. Since 2001, Hanson has written a weekly column for National Review Online, and in 2004, began his weekly syndicated column for Tribune Media Services. In 2006, he also began thrice-weekly blog for Pajamas Media, Works and Days. Hanson was educated at the University of California, Santa Cruz (BA, Classics, 1975, ‘highest honors’ Classics, ‘college honors’, Cowell College), the American School of Classical Studies, Athens (regular member, 1978-79) and received his Ph.D. in Classics from Stanford University in 1980. He divides his time between his forty-acre tree and vine farm near Selma, California, where he was born in 1953, and the Stanford campus.

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