From An Angry Reader:
The Angry Blogger
How to Be a Good Classicist Under a Bad Emperor,”
by Donna Zuckerberg, Silicon Valley-based Classics scholar, Editor of Eidolon, November 21, 2016
A specter is haunting the Internet — the specter of the “alt-right.” The forces of white supremacy and toxic masculinity, fueled by a sense of entitlement dwarfed only by their inflated estimation of their own intelligence, have entered into an unholy alliance to remove feminism, political correctness, and multiculturalism from America. And on November 8th, 2016, after enduring years of mockery, months of being told that the arc of the moral universe would never let it win, the Alt-Right scored its first significant political victory: the election of Donald Trump to the highest office of the most powerful country in the world.
Who are these people? They are part of a group of a few hundred thousand men who have “swallowed the red pill” and belong to a few allied online movements: not just the Alt-Right, but also men’s rights activists, the manosphere, and GamerGate. At times these groups seem more clearly defined by what they oppose than what they support, but they’ve also mobilized to fight for men’s rights in a “gynocentric” society, harass women on Twitter, and redefine Pepe the Frog. They are younger than the typical conservative establishment, white, and male. They are antisemitic, homophobic, transphobic, Islamophobic. Some are self-described Neo-Nazis.
They also love the classics.
This is at once surprising — most classicists I know consider themselves politically liberal — and not, because when we’re truly honest, we see that for many the study of Classics is the study of one elite white man after another. The same texts that are for us sources of beauty and brutality, subjects of commentary and critique, are for these men (and they really are almost exclusively men) proof of the intellectual and cultural superiority of white maleness.
The Alt-Right is hungry to learn more about the ancient world. It believes that the classics are integral to education. It is utterly convinced that classical antiquity is relevant to the world we live in today, a comfort to classicists who have spent decades worrying that the field may be sliding into irrelevance in the eyes of the public.
The next four years are going to be a very difficult time for many people. But if we’re not careful, it could be a dangerously easy time for those who study ancient Greece and Rome. Classics, supported by the worst men on the Internet, could experience a renaissance and be propelled to a position of ultimate prestige within the humanities during the Trump administration, as it was in Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Classics made great again.
This is my call to arms for all classicists. No matter how white and male Classics once was, we are not that anymore. In spite of the numerous obstacles that remain, our field is now more diverse than ever, and that is something to be proud of.
These men are positioning themselves as the defenders of Western Civilization. Classicists, when you see this rhetoric, fight back. We must not allow the Alt-Right to define what Classics will mean in Trump’s America.
Just how interested is the Alt-Right in Classics? On the one hand, it is very interested in the cultural capital of antiquity. An article published yesterday in the New York Times shows how freely they use classical references — “crossing the Rubicon,” “ascending to Olympus.” On the other, the movement appears to have little interest in understanding the ancient world in any way other than the most superficial one.
I know about this interest from personal experience — that is, from Twitter trolls and comments on Eidolon articles. (In a sublime manifestation of Red Pill iconography, one troll’s Facebook cover photo was a Photoshopped image from the Matrix with Hitler, not Neo, stopping a wall of bullets.) But rather than discuss anecdotes from my own experience, I’m going to share their declarations.
Steve Bannon, former Breitbart News executive chairman and newly appointed Chief Strategist to President-Elect Donald Trump, told Mother Jones this August that Breitbart is “the platform for the alt-right.” In recent weeks, Breitbart editors have backtracked on that claim, and they now argue that their site has only one piece of explicitly Alt-Right content: “An Establishment Conservative’s Guide to the Alt-Right” by Allum Bokhari and Milo Yiannopoulos (who, incidentally, was using the Twitter handle “@nero” when he was banned from the platform this summer). In that article, they write that the preservation of Western Culture is of monumental importance to the audiences for Alt-Right content:
[A]ttempts to scrub western history of its great figures are particularly galling to the alt-right, who in addition to the preservation of western culture, care deeply about heroes and heroic virtues. This follows decades in which left-wingers on campus sought to remove the study of “dead white males” from the focus of western history and literature curricula… to a natural conservative, such cultural vandalism may just be their highest priority.
Yiannopoulos — whose most recent work on Breitbart includes “How To Make Women Happy: Uninvent The Washing Machine And The Pill” — is drawing on a recurring theme in Red Pill Classics: these men will defend antiquity against the ravaging hordes of liberal activist students attempting to scrub the canon of all triggering material. In his book Thirty Seven, a manosphere writer who goes by the name Quintus Curtius imagines a dystopian world where feminists have rewritten the canon and erased the classics (143–4):
One can even imagine a future where classical knowledge will be driven underground, purged from schools, or bowdlerized, as not being in tune with modern feminism and political correctness. The degradation of humanistic learning has come as a direct result of the feminization of American society. We cannot permit this to happen. The commissars of modern culture don’t want you to know too much about history, or about how things were like in previous eras.
Predictably, Quintus Curtius has an extremely limited understanding of “how things were like in previous eras.” His stated goal is “to remind readers of the glories of leadership, character, and masculine virtue that can change their lives” — so of course, his understanding of antiquity is of a world inhabited by only a few extremely elite men. He has no sense of or interest in social history, cultural history, women, slaves, children, and broad historical trends. The ancient world is reduced to a textbook model for leadership, character, and masculine virtue.
Unfortunately, I have met a few professional classicists who would prefer that the entire discipline embraced the model Quintus Curtius espouses for “classical knowledge.” Victor Davis Hanson explicitly trumpeted the same views in Who Killed Homer: “This new, ultrasensitive curriculum and its appendages — diversity training, journal writing, gender and racial sensitivity, multiculturalism, situational ethics, personal growth and self-indulgence, and the politics of commitment — ran directly counter to Greek wisdom” (118). For all that he is beloved by the Right, most classicists have little time for VDH these days — but many nevertheless agree, quietly, that as a field we’ve lost something in our increasing focus on race, class and gender in the ancient world. Our field is still, in many ways, in thrall to the Great Men model of history. And others may disagree, but still feel that Daryush “Roosh V” Valizadeh has a point when he writes of the moral vacuum that would exist without an understanding of historical precedent in his article “What is a Social Justice Warrior (SJW)?” …
Victor Davis Hanson’s Reply:
Dear Angry Blogger Donna Zuckerberg,
I have never heard either of Eidolon or of you until this was sent to me. So excuse the tardy reply.
I took the liberty of excerpting a relevant portion from your longer and rather monotonous rambling. Is your self-identification as a “Silicon Valley-based Classics scholar” to remind us that you may well be the sister of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, the third or so richest man in the United States? While I have criticized him in print on occasions—exclusively for disparaging the need to enforce immigration laws and specifically the construction of a fence/wall at the southern border, while also seeking to fence in, or otherwise use his security details and capital to privilege his own residences with various borders, walls, or guards—nonetheless, I have no personal animus toward him or you, and admire anyone who can provide a useful product for the enjoyment and advantage of over a billion consumers.
If you are indeed related, I hope you can apply some of those boundless resources to promoting classics—first—and professionally—to advocate for freshly minted PhDs and help them find jobs that offer financial sustenance and some dignity without the humiliations of poverty and exploitation that so often are the wages of young classics scholars in part-time and lecturer positions, and second—and more broadly—to introduce the teaching of Greek and Latin to non-traditional communities, minorities, impoverished whites, the underclass, and the middle classes in general.
You talk breezily of being on the classics barricades in “Trump’s America” and seem to suggest an interest in promoting classics. A more pressing worry then might be why did so many who were destitute and without avenues of upward mobility vote for a multi-billionaire New York grandee? If you could ponder that incongruity, I think you might get closer to the central problem of an unsustainable contemporary classics—namely that people such as yourself (fairly or not) do not resonate with the less fortunate, who do not share your privilege and see elite classicists (admittedly, perhaps unfairly) as reflective of dilettantism. They are the logical constituents of any project to expand classics. I wish you well if that is your interest.
I spent over two decades of my life, teaching 8 to 10 semester classes per year, trying at CSU, Fresno to introduce Greek and Latin to those without opportunities or much hope of upward mobility; we were not in “thrall to the Great Men model of history,” but rather to improving the linguistic, grammatical, and composition skills of first-generation college students as part of a larger appreciation of the beauty and power of Latin and Greek. And yet again I confess we were also pragmatists, with idealist hopes of preparing mostly poor, white, Hispanic, and Southeast Asian students to compete in the wider world with those who had had the benefits of traditional education that so often only capital and influence can ensure. I think we called that in Who Killed Homer? “academic populism,” an admittedly failed attempt to redirect the field towards undergraduate teaching and broadening the scope of research to ensure it was accessible to non-traditional audiences.
So why not lobby for or indeed fund a position or two in Latin instruction at Cal State Bakersfield or at Turlock or Merced? I am sure with good teaching and empathy toward non-traditional students, the investment would help the field in a more cost-effective manner than in regurgitating tired and redundant race/class/gender angsts of a tiny elite. I think the effort would surprise you and pay real dividends.
As for your more specific cast-off criticisms. I am included in your strange rant against something called the “alt-Right”—a term that has no real meaning other to conjure up all sorts of race/class/gender bogeymen. It seems to me analogous to something the Right calls the “alt-Left,” a purported motley group of social justice warriors of the Michael Moore stamp. Such labels on either side mean nothing. I live in the same house where I was born, in the poorest section of California where the minority population elsewhere is the vast majority here. I put all my children in the public schools, have an extended multiracial family, and farmed and worked side by side with people for over thirty years who never finished high school. The idea that I would be associated with a racially exclusive group or wish to exclude groups in my research is absurd and little more than Silicon Valley or faculty lounge talk.
More to the point, it is obvious you have never read at all Who Killed Homer? We discussed at length the unusual Hellenic focus on women, from the Antigone to Sappho to powerful females in Euripides’ plays and the morally superior heroines that inhabit classical literature from Homer to Plutarch. We discussed at length poverty, slavery, and the so-called Other, but not from the position of cheap 20-century elite disdain that indicts an ancient, rural, and impoverished people for not living up to our sophisticated standards of probity some 2,400 years later. Tragedy, not melodrama, is the proper mindset to explore the contradictions of the classical world.
Your cookie-cutter take on the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s is, I must confess, puerile. Deconstruction, Foucault, Derrida, Black Athena, the gender obsession movement—all that prevailed and is now, as we predicted, the status quo—with disastrous results for undergraduate enrollments. It is surely not some edgy dangerous way of looking at the world—as young PhD students accept when they chart the parameters of their own careers. The outsider, the revolutionary, the insurrectionist is the young scholar without a job or tenure who dares to see universal liberal and positive truths in the classical achievement and hopes to become a superb Greek 1A teacher and is not shy of voicing those aspirations. I fear for those who try, because their futures are nonexistent in the field and as back-up they do not have access to the privileges which you and many in Silicon Valley enjoy.
To take one example, Camille Paglia nearly thirty years ago made headlines not because she was some sort of right-wing traditionalist, but because as a Leftist feminist, she saw a disturbing new sort of classicist, who, ignorant of what she thought were the great works of the past—Nietzsche, Marx, Freud, etc.—were narrowly trained and often poorly so, and were utterly careerist (“Junk-bond” traders and salesmen, she called them), whose jargon-ridden, opaquely written work brought few real insights to oppression and victimology, but served in cult-like fashion to launch careers that valued conferences, release time, grants, and esoterica at the expense of teaching an increasingly poorly educated generation the value, tragedy, paradoxes, and exceptional beauty of classical literature. You can read an account of the crisis in classics in the recent survey by Prof. Eric Alder who is often critical of Who Killed Homer?, but in disinterested fashion lays out the arguments of the book as he sees them in explaining why it often evoked such furor in the field.
Your essay is also quite sloppy: “Victor Davis Hanson explicitly trumpeted the same views in Who Killed Homer?”. Where to begin with such nonsense? First, Victor Davis Hanson co-authored Who Killed Homer? with John Heath. I did not write anything myself; it was a 50/50 effort. Why did you single out one author and not another, if not to find some easy contemporary political resonance?
We did just the opposite from your notion that we were ignoring cultural history, women, slaves, and broad historical trends. Instead by intent we focused upon them, noting both bias, oppression, and prejudice among the Greeks and Romans, but also the irony, tragedy, and paradoxes of Greek liberal values that clashed with traditional and often rural inspired norms—suggesting that the plight of women, slaves, and the underclass was under discussion in classical culture in a way not true of the wider Mediterranean, or in fact anywhere else at that time (or at any time later). Well over two decades ago in The Other Greeks I wrote of the culture of the agrarian mesoi and their creation of the polis, often in the context of class and slavery; that book had nothing to do with the “Great Man” platitudes you refer to. I wrote a novel, The End of Sparta, whose two heroes are a slave and a young woman, who are the moral superiors of all the men in the book, a fictional account of Epaminondas’s liberation of the Messenian helots. Reciting boilerplate phobias without nuance or context is virtue-signaling at best, at worse a window into an impoverished mind.
Unfortunately, you cannot seem to get things right even when offering a cast-off line about my career: “For all that he is beloved by the Right, most classicists have little time for VDH these days .” I am not “beloved” by the “Right;” I often have as many detractors there as among the Left. And I don’t believe classicists ever had any “time” for me, so I am confused about your qualifier “these days.”
All “these days” have been about the same.
Victor Davis Hanson, San Joaquin-Valley-based Classics scholar