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:

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?

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.

  1. “Civilization” is also a rather fuzzy concept, imprecise at best, just plain racist at worst.

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.

The online pseudonym of the other online pseudonym Leopold “Poldy” Bloom. Really, tho, who I am doesn’t matter.