Are the Classics Complicit in White Supremacy?

Are the Classics Complicit in White Supremacy?

James Kierstead
James Kierstead
8 min read

Editor’s note: This is the final instalment in a four-part series on the Classics.

As I’ve said before, for me, the debate about whether “Western Civ” should still be taught always comes back round to the situation facing my own field, classics.

And in recent years, the progressive classics website Eidolon has published a number of pieces suggesting that the idea of studying the Western classics in anything like a traditional way isn’t just ill-advised, but positively dangerous. Donna Zuckerberg, the editor of Eidolon, has warned that “Western Civ” is a slippery slope to white supremacy, for example, and Rebecca Kennedy has gone one further, arguing that classics as a field is in fact already complicit in white supremacy. I have no reason to believe that these scholars are motivated by anything other than a sincere belief that they are working for the good of their field and of society as a whole. But it’s my own sincere belief that their way of looking at this issue is fundamentally flawed, and that the kind of prescriptions they advance are likely to do more harm than good.

So, is classics complicit in white supremacism? Before we get into the actual arguments, it’s worth noting how strong a claim this is. The claim isn’t (say) that classics could work harder to make itself welcoming to ethnic minorities, or that many classicists might be affected by implicit racial biases. The claim is that classics as a field is complicit in white supremacism, an ideology that holds that “the white race is inherently superior to other races and that white people should have control over people of other races” (to use a standard definition that strikes me as reflecting most people’s understanding of the term).

As extreme as it may seem, that appears to be the claim. What kind of evidence would allow us to evaluate whether, or to what extent, this claim holds up? The kind of evidence that would convince me might include classics academics arguing that white people are inherently superior, organizing panels discussing how white people might gain control over people of other races, and so on. That may seem a pretty high bar, but that’s the bar that it seems appropriate to set in assessing the very ambitious claim that’s been made.

And I haven’t yet seen any evidence of that sort, or anything close to it. That may be because rather than trying to gather evidence of the sort that would support the claim (and maybe convince skeptics like me that classics is complicit in white supremacism after all), Zuckerberg, Kennedy, and others sympathetic to their take on this issue have focused their energies largely on documenting examples of members of the alt-right making use of classical material. Their main argument, it would seem, is that classics is complicit in white supremacy (or is a slippery slope to it) because white supremacists sometimes make use of classical material.

We can see a version of this argument behind Zuckerberg’s advice that if we’re tempted to entertain some common arguments against a “social justice” view of the classics, we should remember that these views have also been held by people like Daryush Valizadeh. That looks to me like the fallacy known as “guilt by association,” in which it’s inferred that if I agree with someone about one thing, I must agree with them about everything else. If I agree with one idea Zuckerberg mentions, that “we should study Classics because those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it,” does this mean that I necessarily also agree with Valizadeh’s claim that “women must have their behaviour and decisions controlled by men?”

I’ll change the example in case that helps some readers detect the fallacy. If a left-wing student thinks capitalism has its problems, and so did Mao, does that mean they should steer away from thinking critically about capitalism? Jordan Peterson took some heat for accepting a variant of this argument, that we should be wary of left-wing student activists since they’re influenced by the same philosophy that guided Mao. I think he was right to, and most Eidolon readers no doubt agree. But it’s essentially the same argument as Zuckerberg’s claim that anyone interested in Western Civ is enabling white supremacism.

Of course, it’s not clear that Zuckerberg is claiming that people who teach Western Civ courses are actively encouraging white supremacism, rather than just being on a slippery slope to white supremacism. I haven’t seen any data that would suggest that they are, but let’s again just change the terms of the argument while keeping its basic structure the same. Consider radical Islamism: we know that a lot of radical Islamists, and even some terrorists, admire classical Islamic culture and read the Koran. But so do a lot of moderate Muslims. Should we conclude that moderate Islam is a slippery slope to terrorism? Again, most Eidolon readers would probably reject that argument (rightly, in my view); but it’s essentially the same as the argument that your average student of Western Civ is enabling white supremacism.

Zuckerberg and Kennedy’s main argument, then—that alt-right use of classical material shows that classics is complicit in the alt-right, or a gateway to it—doesn’t hold up. To be fair, though, maybe the argument that classics is complicit in white supremacy is relying partly on the discipline’s past. Maybe the claim is partly that classics as a field has a long association with racism and colonialism.

That claim strikes me as undeniably true. Many, maybe even most, classicists throughout the field’s history were probably racists, and they were probably guilty of other forms of prejudice too. The field had a particularly close association with European colonialism; many of the men who served as officers as administrators in the British Empire in particular had an education in the classics. Some of the most unsavory movements in European history drew heavily on the classical past: the best example is probably the original Fascism, the Italian Fascism of Mussolini, which was a conscious and explicit attempt to bring back the “glory” of the Roman Empire.

Readers of Eidolon will no doubt be familiar with all of this. But there are a few things worth bearing in mind. The first is that classics is one of the oldest of all academic fields, with roots in antiquity itself. If a lot of classicists have been racists, that probably has more to do with the periods most of them lived in than with the nature of the field. And though it’s probably easier to find examples of great classicists with dubious views than great Media Studies scholars, that’s probably because Media Studies wasn’t even around in periods where views we now think of as dubious were widespread.

Another thing to take note of is that classics was, for most of history, the dominant form of education for elite Europeans. That means that we’d expect to find people with a background in classics at the forefront of virtually every political and cultural movement in Western history, both those that we’d now rather forget and those that we’re now inclined to celebrate. And that is exactly what we do find. In the nineteenth century, for example, imperialists certainly studied the classics, but so did abolitionists. Conservatives were steeped in the classics—but so were democratic reformers like George Grote. Karl Marx studied the classics, but so did Grote’s friend John Stuart Mill.

This pattern repeats itself for as long as classics retains its dominance at the top level of European education—even into the twentieth century. So it is that while a fair number of Fascists (both in Italy and Germany) had some familiarity with the classical world, so did a good number of their victims, as well as a good numbers of the politicians and military officers in the countries that eventually defeated them. Anyone trying to evaluate how complicit classics has been in white supremacy should take into account, alongside Mussolini, Jewish classicists (like Eduard Fraenkel, to give just one example) who were forced to flee their homelands. It should also take into account the many British and Commonwealth classicists who risked their lives (and in many cases lost them) in order to face down the most violent and successful white supremacist movement of them all.

One particularly well-known sub-set of these men found themselves putting their classical knowledge to good use as part of the Cretan resistance to Nazi rule. These included the Australian classicist Tom Dunbabin, his college friend Sandy Rendel, and the writer Patrick Leigh Fermor. These men were celebrated above all for their daring plot to kidnap a German general, General Kreipe, a plot that they successfully carried out. At one point, Fermor found himself alone with the kidnapped general high in the Cretan mountains. When Kreipe began quoting sections of an ode by Horace, Fermor replied by the reciting the rest of the poem. As Fermor put it, “We had both drunk at the same fountains.”

The reason I’m repeating this anecdote here is because it encapsulates the point I’ve been making for the past few paragraphs—that a classical education was something that was common to virtually all elite Europeans, the ones that ended up fighting for Fascist countries and the ones that ended up fighting against it. And that suggests that a classical education in itself probably had relatively little influence on what side you ended up fighting on. Both fascists and democrats could find what they were looking for in the classics—hardly surprising, once we remember the long duration and vast diversity of the classical past.

To sum up, there’s no reason to believe that classics as a field has had any particular tendency towards white supremacism either in the present or in the past. If that’s comforting, it should also free us to deal more effectively with two problems that are currently facing our field.

The first is an enormous political imbalance. Academics in the humanities lean overwhelmingly to the left. According to one study from the U.S., conservatives make up only seven percent of professors in history, only four percent in philosophy, and only three percent in literature. I don’t know of any comparable figures for classics, but I think it’s a fair bet that the field isn’t wildly out of line with these related disciplines. Given what we know about our tendency as human beings for various types of in-group bias, this poses a moral challenge for anyone who wants to ensure that our field is genuinely open to people from across the political spectrum.

The other problem is declining enrollments. Humanities majors as a share of all majors in the U.S. have been falling for quite some time, and as far as I can tell a lot of classics departments are under considerable pressure across the English-speaking world. Economic factors may well explain a lot of this (even most of it), but it may be that the political imbalance I just mentioned also plays some role. That, at any rate, is the implication of a Pew Research study that found that a majority of U.S. Republicans now believe that universities do more harm than good—something that wasn’t true until 2015, but is true now.

I would suggest that one way of ameliorating both these problems would be to engage more positively with people who want to study classics in a more traditional way, including from a “Western Civ” perspective. Since our field is composed largely of people on the Left, we should try especially hard to off-set out natural biases and be accommodating to the considerable proportion of our societies that don’t identify as left-wing. This has the potential not only to help us meet the moral challenge of being genuinely open to everyone—it also might just help us secure the future of our discipline by making sure we’re not unnecessarily turning off a good number of our potential students.

Finally, genuinely embracing students from the moderate Right may well be the best way to ensure that they don’t fall onto any slippery slopes to white supremacism. After all, if people don’t think there’s a place for them in university classics departments, it’s likely that they’ll simply pursue any interest they might have in the classical world through video games or on YouTube. That means they’ll be less likely to be exposed to left-wing ideas, less likely to have their own ideas challenged, and less likely to be given access to high-quality information about the ancient world. Some of them may even drift towards the radical Right—a result that nobody wants, least of all the good editors of Eidolon.

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James Kierstead

James Kierstead is Senior Lecturer in Classics at Victoria University of Wellington and the current co-ordinator of Heterodox Classics, endorsed by Heterodox Academy.