Education, Features

Defending Western History From Political Propaganda

History, Rudge tells us in Alan Bennett’s 2004 play The History Boys, is “one [bleeping] thing after another.” Yet history as a discipline is not solely concerned with facts, or, in other words, with what [bleeping] happened. It also involves interpretation, or, in other words, why things [bleeping] happened, why they [bleeping] mattered and what [bleeping] lessons can be taken for the future.

Such interpretations can be controversial. Classical Studies—as Sandra Kotta detailed in these pages—have been subjected to violent fits of politicisation. Donna Zuckerberg (yes, she is Mark’s sister) edits the Classical Studies journal Eidolon. In a recent essay she announced her desire to “model a Classics that is ethical, diverse, intersectional, and especially feminist”. “Classics as a discipline,” she wrote:

…has deep roots in fascism and reactionary politics and white supremacy, and those ideologies exert a powerful gravitational pull on the discipline’s practitioners. If we want to fight those forces, we need to actively work against them.

How Classical Studies has “deep roots” in fascism when the field predates the dogma is a mystery. More interesting is Zuckerberg’s reference to a “gravitational pull” that draws classicists into depths of toxic racialism. In an earlier essay on the Alt-Right and its attraction to the Classics she wrote:

When you hear someone…say that they are interested in Classics because…Classics is “the foundation of Western civilization and culture,” challenge that viewpoint…Engage them on their assumed definitions of “foundation,” “Western,” “civilization,” and “culture.” Point out that such ideas are a slippery slope to white supremacy.

Classics are the foundation of Western civilisation. No amount of scare quotes will obscure Aristotle’s impact on science and philosophy; the Homeric influence on literature; the Athenian origins of republicanism and the Roman promotion of Christianity. The belief that this is true does not make one a white supremacist. The Chinese think Confucius, Laozi and Sun Tzu built the foundations of their culture but this need not make them Chinese supremacists.

It is true that Classical Studies can be exploited or misunderstood. (Dr Zuckerberg wrote an entertaining article on “pick-up artists” and their interest in Ovid.) But what of the idea that they are a gateway drug to Nazism? The American “Alt-Right” group Identity Evropa advertise themselves with photographs of Greco-Roman statues, and in Richard Spencer’s video “Who Are We?” classical figures loom as he rambles about “a culture, a history, a destiny”.

So far, so good for Zuckerberg’s thesis. But how deep does this interest go? Turning to the “education” section of the Identity Evropa website one finds a few books about race science, a few articles about crime, and, under “history”, a dead link to an essay called “What the Founding Fathers thought about Race”. Richard Spencer’s AltRight.com has a reading list as well. It offers the works of the unhinged Eurasian imperialist Aleksandr Dugin, more books on race science and, naturally, Freidrich Nietzsche, but one finds little on European (or even American) history. It is tempting to conclude that all those Greco-Roman men were just impressive avatars for their racial abstractions.

In truth, there is little Nazis like about Western civilisation. Enlightenment values are clearly verboten. Christianity is suspect, as a universal faith, not the preserve of whites. Classical societies are uninspiring, as they dwell far more on civic virtues than blood and soil. This is why Nazis have drawn on ancient pagans, aristocratic esotericists and other such eccentrics. Their racialism – that is, their idea of one European spirit (embodied, according to the Alt-Right.com-recommended historian Francis Parker Yockey, by Adolf Hitler) is ahistorical.

I suspect that Zuckerberg has a broader fear of “reactionary politics”. What concerns progressive classicists is less the idea that studying Greece and Rome will send young readers goose-stepping around to the strains of Wagner than that it will inspire a special appreciation of Western culture, and attachment to its artistic and social traditions.

It is fun to imagine an alternative Zuckerberg insisting that we must challenge assumed definitions of “Islamic”, “golden” and “age” as such ideas are a slippery slope to Arabic supremacy. I doubt it would happen. A prosecutorial approach to Western history has been ubiquitous in academic fields at least since Edward Said’s groundbreaking Orientalism. This is partly due to historical crimes, which are real and sobering but by no means unique or contradictory to belief in Western achievement, and partly due to a desire to undermine the specificity of European culture as a means of fostering more inclusive European societies.

“In your scholarship,” Zuckerberg advised in that earlier essay, “Focus on the parts of antiquity that aren’t elite white men.” It is true, of course, that Classical Studies should involve people who were not elite white men, from the goddesses of classical mythology to the Arabs who stoked the flames of Greco-Roman thought. Yet Zuckerberg does not ask us to include such figures but to focus on them, less because of the importance of their contributions to history, literature, science and philosophy than to project contemporary liberalism backwards.

Eidolon displays a radical commitment to presentist propaganda. In an essay by Dr Dan-el Padilla Peralta, scholars are told to “brown classics by any and all means”; to, for example:

…seek out aggressively and mentor meaningfully undergraduate and graduate students from immigrant and refugee backgrounds who express even so much as a hint of interest…

Fun as it is to imagine Classics professors throwing bags over the heads of migrant kids who said the Romans sounded cool, what if they have no more than a hint of interest? What if they are just bad scholars? What if there are more committed, gifted candidates elsewhere? Well, who cares. Padilla has a neat way to make lowering standards sound like an achievement. As well as drawing minorities into the field, he says, classicists should be “empowering them to center their migratory subjectivities as a springboard for the discipline’s re-definition”. “Migratory subjectivities” is a mouthful. It is also a headful. It goes without saying that modern “subjectivities” should have little to do with scholarship.

There are, then, at least two dangers facing students of the history of Western civilisation: right wing ideologues who admire it merely because it was Western and left wing ideologues who minimise its achievements for the same reason. Both of them reduce scholarship to politics, devaluing the significance of what it discusses.

God knows all historians have their biases. Victor David Hanson co-wrote Who Killed Homer?, which decried the leftist appropriation of Classical Studies, but was not above mining Greco-Roman history for lessons for the War on Terror. Fair enough, to some extent. What do we learn from except experience? Yet we must not excise events, ideas or institutions from their context. (If we take lessons from Plato, for example, we should not obscure how different his ideas were from our own.) This is partly to maintain the integrity of scholarship and partly as lessons based on bad history will be bad lessons.

36 Comments

  1. Peter Strider says

    Thanks Ben. It is always illuminating to learn about the connections between prominent persons. The Zuckerberg household must be a miserabilist affair when they all get together. Progressivism like puritanism before it, appears to lead fervent adherents to cut off from their lives all potential sources of joy or pleasure, for fear of another member of the congregation calling them out for their sinful lapse! The best classicists in my experience simply love ancient history and share and infect their students with the same enthusiasm, not with a political mission or agenda!

  2. Robert Darby says

    Presumably Ms Zuckerberg would have preferred the Persian Empire to win against the Greeks and the Carthaginians against the Romans. This would have ensured that we were not afflicted with nasty ideas such as Athenian democracy, materialist cosmological speculation and religious scepticism; and that the western Mediterranean would have been under the control of Africans speaking a Semitic language (Carthaginians were originally Phoenician), with the happy result that the world would have been spared such wicked white supremacist languages as Italian, French, Spanish and English.

    • I find your comment to be quite ignorant. Pre and Post Islam, Persians were quite astonishingly successful. In fact, Persian civilization can easily match that of Ancient Greeks. Why not try reading into it? You have got one heck of a surprise waiting for you.

      ” ideas such as Athenian democracy, materialist cosmological speculation and religious scepticism”

      There is nothing inherently Greek about these ideas. If the Persian had completely dominated Greeks, they still would have advanced civilization. Look up Herodotus, Greeks probably stole the idea of Democracy from the Persians around the time of Cyrus anyway.

      • Victoria says

        “Pre and Post Islam, Persians were quite astonishingly successful.”

        Iranian imperial power and cultural influence never fully recovered after the coming of Islam. It took nearly a millennium before Safavid’s could establish an empire even remotely comparable to earlier Iranian empires. Along the way, Islam destroyed indigenous Iranian traditions.

        ” In fact, Persian civilization can easily match that of Ancient Greeks”

        “Greeks probably stole the idea of Democracy from the Persians around the time of Cyrus anyway.”

        Well, in any case, you appear to be Eidolon’s target audience.

  3. 1. The charge that classics are “reactionary” is funny. It is precisely the corrosive marxists who are reacting to the classics.

    2. Nazis were precisely a reaction against western civilization. Donna Zuckerberg is closer to them in her romanticist, relativist, reactionary (sic) spirit than she would like to know.

    (Self plug: wisdomination.com)

  4. Simon says

    Isn’t flogging the Greco-Roman inheritage more of an Italian Fascist/Falange Española thing than a NS thing? (understandable since they’re from culturally actually descended from Imperial Rome)

    • Culturally, much of contemporary Europe is. There just isn’t that much that the Gauls or Picts contributed, compared to Romans.

    • Alvaro Miranda says

      Yes mainly the italian fascism because the inheritage of Falange española can be track to not only to the greco-roman but to the catholicism mainly and to islamic institutions (this can be seen at La Guardia Mora)

  5. Sarka says

    Good piece. Recently not just the Classics but European medieval history got the “progressive” drubbing. See this story http://dailycaller.com/2017/07/20/profs-fear-white-supremacists-are-infiltrating-medieval-studies/

    The account is brief and even slightly tongue in cheek. Much worse was pages worth of contrition and “self-criticism” by one of the ordinary British medievalists at the centre of the row….

    Taking the last para of the linked article, you can see the parallels with the views on Classics:

    “Medieval period scholar Eileen Joy even suggests that the historical epoch attracts people who are resistant to change.

    “The field has been rather proud of its resistance to critical theory, which then just attracts even more people to the field who themselves want to be resistant to theory and see medieval studies as a safe place — a safe place to be elitist, a safe place to be white, a safe place to be Christian, Eurocentric, misogynist, etc.,” she told the Chronicle.
    [Aaaagh, a “safe place to be Christian” (sic)…what an awful thing…Let’s hope Isis et al. deal with the existence of such places fast….

    Ah….critical theory – an initially interesting though very challengeable current in phil/lit – but never in real history, and now in cod form a Stalinist orthodoxy for middling stupid “progressive” activists and worthless academics.
    You like me live in Eastern-Central Europe. So like me you are probably aware that while the years of communism did disastrous damage to mainstream humanities subjects and social sciences, which it was considered essential to force into correct communist ideological mode. And meanwhile, some of the more minor, exotic or just historically remote subjects continued to provide a refuge for scholars of personal and intellectual decency. Thus in Egyptology, for example, Czechs punch miles above their weight…
    After 1968, things got tougher again for some. I actually know the leading scholar on the Hussite Wars (slightly on the politically sensitive side, actually) and he was forced to become a tram driver. But if you kept your head down you could survive.

    But I see the current Western progressives wish to be even more thorough-going than the communists in that regard.

  6. LukeReeshus says

    I suspect that Zuckerberg has a broader fear of “reactionary politics”. What concerns progressive classicists is less the idea that studying Greece and Rome will send young readers goose-stepping around to the strains of Wagner than that it will inspire a special appreciation of Western culture, and attachment to its artistic and social traditions.

    Bingo.

    For anyone whose politics and moral energy are wholly focused on an imagined, idealized future—as left-wing activist-scholars like Zuckerberg’s are—any appreciation of the past, and therefore any attachment to its heritage, is considered reactionary. It impedes the long march towards the egalitarian utopia they imagine themselves to be walking.

    But, as you mentioned, they only apply this kind of moral futurism to the West. Muslims and other “brown” folk are perfectly justified, and even obliged, to glorify their past and be as reactionary as they want. Which is ironic. Because if that isn’t an orientalist double standard, a mirror image of Yeats’s “white man’s burden,” I don’t know what is.

    • That’s an outstanding point about the utopian future orientation of leftist identitarians, and their corresponding denigration of the great achievements of the past. Thank you.

  7. My period is 17th C. Anglo-American history. What struck me is that the medieval cathedral and grammar schools, which were organized first around the trivium and much later included the quadrivium, appear to reflect the intent to scour the countryside for any one who popped a verbal IQ greater than 130.

    In England, one is always running into revolutionary cadres who learned to read and write English and Latin in rural English grammar schools and then often spent some time either apprenticed to one of the livery gilds in the City or took a term or two at the Inns of Court. Those in the higher ranks seem to also have mastered Greek and Hebrew in the universities and often they also spent somewhat time at the Inns of Court. All this by age 21.

    The history I’ve read suggest the classics breed revolutionary republicans.

    • Robert Darby says

      Yes, exactly that complaint was made by Hobbes and other C17 authoritarians, and exemplified in the career of the radical republican Algernon Sidney (executed in royalist reaction of 1683)

  8. Caroline Charlese Scott says

    This is a facet of Eidolon that deserves widespread attention.

    The core value of “ideological diversity … is fundamentally incompatible with fighting against racism, sexism, and other forms of structural oppression…” “Ideological diversity” is “morally bankrupt” says Ms. Donna Zuckerberg (Mark’s sister).

    “Welcome to the New Eidolon!”

    “Will this shift lead to a less diverse Eidolon? Our writers always have been, and will continue to be, a diverse group. Our writer pool has excellent diversity of race, age, gender, professional status, and sexuality. We work hard to keep it that way. But we’ve been accused of not being “ideologically diverse.” This charge is a common one, but I think it is misguided, in addition to being morally bankrupt. Making ideological diversity a primary objective is fundamentally incompatible with fighting against racism, sexism, and other forms of structural oppression, and we choose to prioritize the latter.”

    https://eidolon.pub/welcome-to-the-new-eidolon-3b8a4230da5b

  9. I’m quite disappointed by this article. It seems to fall well short of the standard of others I’ve read on Quillette. If I wanted to find articles hacking viciously at straw men there are countless other places I could turn on the internet. The author seems to have seized upon a single sentence in Zuckerberg’s essay/post and, rather than attempting, generously but fairly, to understand and then address the real point she was trying to convey (which would have required putting the quote in context), he has taken the most ridiculous available interpretation and spent the rest of the post attacking it.

    From a quick read of the Eidolon website two things are clear.

    First, Zuckerberg doesn’t want Eidolon to be a journal about classics, she wants it to be a journal about “the intersections of the ancient and modern world”. Now you may say that sounds boring or pointless (and I might agree) but you can’t attack the journal for not doing what it does not set out to do (ie. carry articles that focus on accurately portraying the Classical world, as it was, without comparison to the present).

    Secondly, from reading other posts on the site, I wonder if Zuckerberg misspoke when she said Classicism has roots in white supremacy etc. She may have meant the reverse – that white supremacists draw on Classics. That may not be true of the Nazis but it is true of others. I regret that I can’t name specific commentators here but I have often heard the assertion that white, Western civilisation is superior because it is the descendant of Ancient Greek and Roman Civilisation.

    Thirdly, Zuckerberg has a real point when she says it’s worth thinking critically about concepts like “foundations”, “culture” and what is “Western”. It’s a viewpoint that isn’t that hard to find elaborated upon elsewhere. Part of it goes like this: (1) We (people of European descent) are only the inheritors of Classical ideas because of the preservation of the vast bulk of them by Muslim scholars during the Dark Ages (an episode that is apparently forgotten in most people’s inventories of the Western intellectual endowment; and (2) without the recovery of Aristotle and others, you’d have no Aquinas, no Renaissance, and the arrival of the Enlightenment would have been doubtful. Now you can disagree with any or all of that, but it is a real argument and it’s not one that the author of this piece even bothers to articulate, let alone engage with. He just makes fun of the quote without bothering to understand the point it is making.

    Overall a thumbs down. Less like this one please Quillette.

    • Duane Hershberger says

      A journal about “the intersections of the ancient and modern world”, means applying ‘intersectionality’ to the analysis, not seeking accurate portrayal of the Classical world. Thus, you are correct that Eidolon has not much at all (worthwhile) to say about classicism in general.

      Not that stops them from claiming “Classics as a discipline …has deep roots in fascism and reactionary politics.” And I don’t buy for a second that she ‘miswrote.’

  10. Sam,

    I’m quite disappointed by this article. It seems to fall well short of the standard of others I’ve read on Quillette.

    I’m sorry to hear that.

    …you can’t attack the journal for not doing what it does not set out to do…

    Zuckerberg and Peralta’s articles explicitly offered advice to classicists regarding their work in the field. I criticised them on the basis of their advice.

    I wonder if Zuckerberg misspoke when she said Classicism has roots in white supremacy…

    Perhaps, but it is not strawmanning someone to criticise what they said and not what they might have intended to say.

    • Now you can disagree with any or all of that, but it is a real argument and it’s not one that the author of this piece even bothers to articulate, let alone engage with.

      In fact, I both articulated and implictly agreed with it:

      It is true, of course, that Classical Studies should involve people who were not elite white men, from the goddesses of classical mythology to the Arabs who stoked the flames of Greco-Roman thought…

      But this does not mean Greco-Roman societies did not build the foundations of Western culture. If Pete builds the foundations of a house and John repairs them; Peter still built them.

      Overall a thumbs down.

      Fair enough, but I disagree with your criticisms.

      • Ben,

        Thank you for your considered response.

        I don’t agree that Zuckerberg is telling classicists how to do their thing – she seems to be talking about her journal’s approach, which is as I described above.

        Padilla is, in part, telling classicists how to do their thing. It’s clear though what he means by migratory subjectivities, even though that is an atrocious bit of social sciences gobbledygook – he’s saying that people with different life experiences and cultural backgrounds are likely to ask different questions, and to come up with different interpretations of the same facts. He gives examples. As for the bit about encouraging non-white people to be interested in Classics, he’s not advocating non-merit based hiring or promotion like you appear to suggest. He advocates mentoring (ie guidance and encouragement), not patronage. And I don’t think you’re seriously suggesting he would encourage forcing classics on people against their will, just because they showed a hint of interest.

        Your comments have convinced me that some of my criticisms were ill-founded, but not all of them. I would still prefer to see a piece that conforms better to Rapoport’s Rules.

        Cheers,
        Sam

        • Rapopart’s Rules fir critical commentary:

          1. Attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your target says: “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
          2. List any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
          3. Mention anything you have learned from your target.
          4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

          Anatol Rapoport was a Russian-born American mathematical psychologist (1911-2007).

      • Victoria says

        I’m glad you are careful to use the term “Arab,” because lazy erasure of Arab Christians and Mizrahi (and Sephardic) Jews from Medieval “Islamic” schoalrship by Islamophiles is a chronic problem.

        You do, however, concede to the left their increasingly restrictive definition of “white,” which is another thing they ironically share with the white nationalist fringe.

        The U.S. census has counted Arabs as “white” since the 19th century and indeed the definition of “white” was that of Caucasoid (extending to Northern India), not the restrictive definition of ‘non-Jewish indigenous European’ that now prevails at the extremes.

        To use a more prosaic example, no one referred to Freddie Mercury or Ralph Nader in their heyday, both being non-Europeans, as non-white. It’s a post-9/11 leftist strategy to turn all Muslims, and all non-Muslims from the Muslim world into a ‘brown people’ political tribe irrespective of reality.

        In other words, the Levantine Arab Christians responsible for much of preservation of Classical texts were quite arguably still “elite white men.” The Byzantines, who don’t get nearly the credit due for preserving Classical culture, were just indigenous Greeks living in Asia Minor, which says more about the artificial division of Eurasia into ‘two’ continents than anything.

  11. Duane Hershberger says

    This is fact, “all historians have their biases. Victor David Hanson co-wrote _Who Killed Homer?_, which decried the leftist appropriation of Classical Studies,”

    This is opinion (unsupported), “…but [VDH] was not above mining Greco-Roman history for lessons for the War on Terror.”

    I found Professor Hanson’s (that’s Victor Davi_s_ Hanson) miner’s helmet to be illuminating regarding the modern terror problem.

    • Thank you for the typo spot. Appreciated. To be clear, I wasn’t saying that VDH’s work was not illuminating! Only that it had a bias. But then I had just said that everyone had biases so that is not a savage critique.

  12. Michael says

    Fantastic essay. I will be sharing this with my students.

  13. Curle says

    “Their racialism – that is, their idea of one European spirit . . .is ahistorical.”

    More a reaction to other highly promoted ahistorical fictions perhaps? Egalitarianism, multiculturalism or multiracialism?

    Kevin MacDonald is, I’m told, one of the worlds worst people; but contentious debates involving race often seem illuminated by one or more of his ideas. His theory that cultures with a high emphasis on individualism react to become more race oriented when another highly ethnocentric group is introduced to the mix seems plausible. Using this approach one could see how the Nazis saw themselves as inheritors of a largely individualistic ancient western tradition while seeming to turn from that tradition and adopting their characteristic hyper ethnocentrism in response to a rise in power and status of a minority religious group that was itself very ethnocentric.

    • Victoria says

      Sigh.

      1. Ashkenazi Jews are indigenous Europeans. Despite some earlier claims, possibly biased by geopolitical issues, more recent analysis shows matrilineal and general genetic heritage as being distinctly European.

      2. Judaism has been in Europe longer than Christianity, so much for “introduced into the mix.”

      3. Jews became the greatest per capita contributors to European culture and Enlightenment-based science after their emancipation and in combination with rejection of orthodox Judaism, starting with Moses Mendelssohn.

      4. Ashkenazi Jews test the highest for IQ among European ethnic groups.

      5. The Nazis murdered or contributed to the premature death of tens of millions of Slavs and other non-Jewish European civilians.

      6. Millions of German and other European soldiers died due to Nazi aggression.

      7. The guilt over their crimes is why Europeans/the West waivered in the face of the developing world’s irresponsible population growth, and now can’t muster basic self-presevational instincts in the face of a migrant crisis that is only just beginning.

      So remind me of where the Nazis had anything but a barabaric, crippling, dysgenic effect on European peoples?

  14. “It is true that Classical Studies can be exploited or misunderstood. (Dr Zuckerberg wrote an entertaining article on “pick-up artists” and their interest in Ovid.)”

    Why is Ovid misunderstood? Indeed, he wrote the world’s first known book on how to pick up women. (A male interest that, apparently, spans thousands of years.) Of course, modern culture is different than ancient Roman culture, so some of the advice may no longer work.

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  18. I’m 70 years old. I have a list with two columns-“1. Why I want to live longer” and “2. Why I’ve lived long enough.” Ms. Zuckerberg definitely get a listing in Column 2. Seems Column 2 is getting quite long.

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