The Chronicle Op-Ed in Support of Western Civilization kinda Sucked
I’ve been struggling to decide if I should write about James Kierstead’s (JK) unfair response to Johanna Hanink’s A New Path for Classics. A few years ago, I came to the conclusion that JK is not the sort of writer who can be trusted to represent arguments fairly, a writer who seems more interested in cos-playing reason than using it. A mutual friend suggested I was wrong, that he simply disagrees about the influence of classical Greece and Rome. So, I gave the essay a try: absolutely terrible, full of just the sort of persistent misrepresentations and sophistry that so often characterize, ironically, the “reasonable debate”crowd. Best probably to ignore it; after all, anyone who reads it will see through it. But JK and I share an interest in the history of the influence of Greece and Rome. Is it possible to find, although he seems bent on obscuring it, any difference in our views? I think it is possible. And there is also some points to make about the rebarbative habits of mind that so characterizes the writing of JK and some other heterodox academy types.
This piece is argued poorly.
I’ve called it “unfair” and “terrible” and accused it of “misrepresentation.” I guess I have to support some of that. So, let’s start here:
The fact that the radical take on classics that Hanink espouses has been criticized by scholars who aren’t white, male, or American might suggest that it is, in fact, possible to disagree with her without being a caricature of a Trump supporter.
A claim is not rendered invalid because people with specific identities disagree. “You say that women are discriminated against, but my mom says no, and she’s a woman, so…” This deeply unfair way of framing Hanink’s statements seem designed simply to tar Hanink as an unreasonable radical who rejects all commonsense disagreement and who thinks anyone who disagrees is a Trump voter. It not only fails spectacularly to engage what Hanink said, it activates a common trope of the leftist ideologue professor who refuses to engage in ideas and accuses anyone who disagrees with political parti pris. That JK activates this unnecessary dog whistle makes me wonder who he is really writing for.
It is ironic that JK claims Hanink misses the argument “on the other side.”
She declares that recent work “has shown, incontrovertibly, how ideas about ancient Greece and Rome have been used to authorize racist and other exclusionary practices and narratives.” But as skeptics have pointed out several times now, ideas about ancient Greece and Rome have been used to authorize pretty much any project you could think of, from communism and fascism to feminism and liberal democracy.
The phrase “but as skeptics” is getting a real workout here. The arguments on “the other side” are, apparently, that Hanink is not wrong but incomplete. But Hanink does mention other uses, such as Luis Alfaro’s Greek Trilogy, and so it is hard to imagine that she means her phrase to be comprehensive. And it must be noted that these categories are not mutual exclusive: racism and exclusionary practice goes perfectly well with Communism, fascism, feminism, and liberal democracy.
So, although JK has not invalided the claim, he will continue blithely on as if he did.
Can the academic field of classics really be held responsible for all of these uses of the Greco-Roman past? As more than one critic has noted, claiming that institutional classics is “complicit” for the way extremists talk about the ancient world makes very little sense. Is Islam “complicit” in terrorism because Islamists sometimes draw on the Quran?
This is, I imagine, the core of “the other side’s” perspective: because a hammer can be used for nails, instances where it is used for murder are irrelevant. This shift from what people do to these abstractions is pure sophistry. It is just another repeat of the common refrain that, e.g., the Aeneid isn’t racist. Hanink has not made that claim: the word “accomplice” occurs only once in her piece, in order to place the discipline within social structures. Think of the way that the teaching of Latin was segregated and used for university admission in the past, for just one example. JK slips in the “speech of extremists”, unfairly, to misrepresent Hanink and others. I’m honestly insulted that this stuff was supposed to convince me. Now that I think I have supported my assertions about an unfair, terrible, misrepresentation, there may be some interesting points that can come from this first part.
Complicity & Responsibility
The words “responsible” and “complicit,” make more sense when used for “people.” Moving beyond what JK says, we can replace his abstractions with people and see if the questions may have real answers. How might professional teachers and scholars of classics be complicit in extremist uses? Well, obviously, by silently ignoring them for one. I recently read an article that showed how polluting power plants have been located in poor neighborhoods so that they pay the price of a more polluted environment while people like me reap the rewards of cheaper electricity. If I benefit from a system that harms another group, am I complicit? I really would like the answer to be “no,” to carry on with a clean conscience. I am afraid the answer may be “yes.” And if so, what is my responsibility?
Are teachers and scholars responsible for how classics has been and is used? Now, in one sense clearly not. But is there another way to think about responsibility? Responsibility is not just being “to blame,” but responsibility is also a duty to care: I am responsible for my children, for my fellow human beings. I’ll just quote what I wrote on White Supremacy and Classics:
It is clear that I’ve moved far from what JK was talking about, but I hope in a way that adds some nuance and complexity to a real problem we all face as classicists and humans.
A proper debate?
Is a debate always the best metaphor? I’ve noticed that those who talk about debate tend to frame their interventions as confrontational and antagonistic, even when it is inappropriate. JK does use the phrase “the other side,” but the reason I put the quotation marks around it was to call attention to the fact that there may not be two sides here. A debate really needs two sides, positions to argue against, opponents to defeat. But JK’s position does not really seem to be in opposition, but supplementary. At least on the apparent topic of Western Civilization. If you have read JK’s piece, however, this conclusion may come as a shock. It did to me. JK becomes frustratingly vague when describing his view, saying e.g., “Western Civilization is a thing.” What sort of thing, for fuck’s sake? But we need a different frame, since “debate” has proven so terrible. Let’s try framing it as a conversation, a discussion aimed at understanding, teasing out differences and noting agreements.
Hanink noted that the term Western Civilization was largely a post WWI development and JK agrees (admitted in the op-ed and in one of the linked threads). And since everyone agrees that Ancient Greece and Rome have been immensely influential, there is little substantive disagreement. I initially thought our disagreement might be around the “golden nugget,” criticized by Appiah, since JK says that there is a continuous tradition that distinguishes the west in global history, a tradition based on a “cluster of ideas and customs.” Still frustratingly vague, but we might disagree about the extent of continuity and whether specific ideas and customs really (1) are continuous and (2) distinguishing. I watched the linked video to find out, the whole hour and twenty-two minutes of it.
It was illuminating in ways I did not expect. (1) JK admits to significant discontinuities and pushes back against his host’s view of a continuous tradition. (2) His notion of distinguishing is essentially Aquinas tended to cite Aristotle, not Confucius. (3) He is unwilling to specify ideas and customs beyond the tendency to look back to Greece and Rome. Looking back to a past does not distinguish any tradition and the fact that Greece and Rome was important for many who had access to them is simply contingent. (4) He has an idea of tradition as a networked system like Twitter. This is interesting and useful, as long as we remember what Coleridge tells us (I found it Collini and could not find it in Coleridge):
“As Coleridge nicely put it: ‘Analogies never walk on all fours,’ or in other words analogies inevitably illuminate some hitherto unnoticed similarities while at the same time obscuring real differences.” Stefan Collini. “What Are Universities For?” P.134
I do not find much to really disagree with in JK’s longer explication of his views. As far as I can tell, the differences are less substantive than terminological: JK wants to keep using the phrase Western Civilization. I want to scrap it. There might be some other minor differences in approach and conceptualization of tradition. But let’s see if I can lay out why I favor scraping the term “Western Civilization” when exploring questions of influence.
- “Western” becomes anachronistic when you move back in time, it is always oppositional, and has an unclear reference. It may have some occasional use as a short-hand, but it also has contemporary racist resonances because of its cold-war usage (among others). To avoid being misleading and racist, it is best to scrap it.
- “Civilization” is also a rather fuzzy concept, imprecise at best, just plain racist at worst.
Another question relevant for terminological discussions: Who is the audience? I, for one, do not want to court the right-wing culture warriors. I want to study and discuss all the influences of Greece and Rome from a scholarly perspective rather than a political one. Western Civilization is a bad tool for that job.
Oh, I mentioned racism…
My best efforts did not turn up much substantive differences between JK, me and others. If I think his model of the twitter network is interesting, he seems to be otherwise unsophisticated in his approach to influence and traditions. I suggested that the desire to frame everything as a “debate” encouraged JK to take an antagonistic tone. There may be another reason. JK accuses Hanink of “overheated rhetoric.” I’ve read her piece many times and have not noted much overheated. If anything, JK seems overheated, especially given the apparently broad agreements. Why is this? He will not like my answer. I think he is made uncomfortable by talk of racism.
In the Video interview, the host says, “whenever anyone mentions the word racism, I do this,” raising his hand as if giving the Greek μούντζα, but probably just signaling his refusal to engage. I’ve noted a tendency with the Heterodox academy crowd to display a real discomfort with talk of racism, a whole set of strategic avoidances, a desire to treat every mention of racism as “overheated rhetoric.” After I watched the video and read the linked material, I came away with the impression that the whole Op-Ed was an attempt to ward off talk of racism. It won’t work.