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 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 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.