Rising and Evolving: Classical Studies in the News

The the Notes & Comments Article from the March 2019 Issue of New Criterion (“Decline and Fall: Classics Edition.”) presents not a moment of original thought or convincing argumentation. Instead, it is an intellectually lazy but rhetorically effective collection of fear-mongering and base-rallying. I say “rhetorically” effective because it plies the right phrases and plays the right notes to get the right people riled up about an attack on their culture they just can’t wait to complain about abide.

The essay’s first rhetorical aim is to incense and by incensing reaffirm a sense of community and belonging which is so ephemeral and hard for this embattled audience to maintain. Its second (or perhaps coterminous) aim is to inspire response and rage from its targets and those aligned from them in hopes of a juvenile opportunity to say “Look, these are savage maniacs. Hypocrites. Not (really serious) people.” Those who are targeted and attacked can do nothing about the first aim. The rhetoric is to belittle, dehumanize, and marginalize the ideas (and people) found threatening.

The thing that is important about this piece, the Quillette piece (and its ongoing tweetstorm), the Breitbart coverage, and the ongoing plunge of the participants of Novae Famae into that whitest of darknesses, is that they are all over-reactions to cultural change–they are examples of white fragility. But in doubling down on certain values and ideas, in rhetorically crafting this whitest of universes, these voices have the potential to do more than simply join a Trumpian paroxysm of sub-literate protest. They cause emotional harm to those already marginalized; they prey upon those who feel isolated and feed on their worst inclinations; they further polarize and by polarizing obscure pathways to truth; and through their deceptions and misconceptions they lay the groundwork for violence (emotional and otherwise).

My friends, these reactions are not a sign of the progressive vision of the future of Classics losing. I know it feels like it and this noise hurts. But this whitegasm of fury is a sign of fear. International coverage of the SCS is a sign of a shifting battleground, of a desperate search for a win, of an attempt to grab some territory before all is lost. They are attacking Eidolon, and Sarah Bond, Rebecca Futo Kennedy and Dan-el Padilla Peralta on the message boards and these articles because they represent the future and because they represent what they fear.

This is what intellectualized racism and misogyny looks and sounds like. Who gets attacked matters because we are not dealing with strategic masterminds: they tip their hand every time they make up a juvenile nickname. They fear women. They fear people who aren’t white. They fear the changing field. They fear challenges to a ‘traditional field’ because it is a metonym for a changing world. We can ignore them to take their power away. (And I am not doing a good job of that). We can show how foolish and frightened they are. But we must keep doing the work that we do in aligning our values and beliefs with the way we work in the world. We must support our colleagues. We must speak out where we can. But above all, we must just keep doing what we do.

They are attacking because they are losing.

A coda.

Some brief comments on the New Criterion piece. The author speaks the language of right-wing intellectualism, flavored with an special fear of sexuality and a banal recitation of paint-by-number disses. In paragraph 2 he lazily slides from claiming that Twitter criticized the Princeton spoken Latin class as “probably too heterosexual” into the generalization that “the study of classics—like the study of the humanities generally—has fallen under the spell of grievance warriors who have injected an obsession with race and sexual exoticism into a discipline that, until recently, was mostly innocent of such politicized deformations—largely, we suspect, because of the inherent difficulty of mastering the subject.” Here’s the checklist: “grievance” = the grievance studies attacks on the humanities perpetrated last year by the Sokal Squared group; race and sexual exoticism = pangs of heteronormative fear and anxiety about whiteness; and ‘inherent difficulty’ is the old rigor canard.

Pretty much, after that paragraph, you could stop reading because once the author calls black studies, LBGTQ studies, and women’s studies “pseudodisciplines” the cards are all on the table. By the end of the second paragraph, all of the affinities, beliefs, and soundings of disharmonious dogwhistles are over. This is esoterica for the delusionally elect.

But let’s hit up the invective in brief. Donna Zuckerberg is called out for, you know, having a brother who does stuff some of us don’t like (god, this line of slander is stupid). Also, there was a palace coup! (This is the splitting of Eidolon from Paideia Inst). In an acrobatic paragraph or two, the author plants the whole “reverse racism” fear without actually saying it coming to the most cancerous point of the first half: “We’d like to know if there are any cases of anyone anywhere being published in a classics journal because he (or even she) was white.” This is, well, just a titanic level misunderstanding of structural racism. Look, Donna Zuckerberg has helped to create the first new and really successful Classics publication in forever. Oh no, it’s progressive! She is successful, outside the normal academic track, and a woman. That’s why she’s attacked.

The article then proceeds to slander Dan-el Padilla Peralta’s scholarship and person (“but to date his reputation has depended not on his work in classics but his expertise in a species of grievance-mongering and racial complaint”) before summarizing his presentation at the SCS as seeking to “destroy classics”. Ah, he transitions from this to talking about the SCS with quite a purple sentence: “This repugnant species of racial redress is par for the course in the fetid bubble of academia these days.” Ugh – adjectives. Look, this is easy: Dan-el Padilla Peralta is really, really smart. He’s a great scholar who does great work, some of which is related to race. He is attacked because of the work he does and the body he inhabits.

There is, of course, a spin-mastered version of what happened at the SCS, a passing attack on Sarah Bond, a record of the horrible things taught by Classicists, and this: “As with most academic disciplines ostensibly concerned with the humanities these days, to look into the works of classics is to peer into febrile hothouse where the announced subject is merely the pretext for juvenile and tendentious, not to say pathological, grandstanding.” Sarah Bond created her own public platform long before she had tenure. She writes well for a large audience and has pioneered using social media as an academic space. She is attacked for all these reasons.

The Classics here and through the entire essay and the (perhaps coordinated) attacks are being used as a fall-back point in the academic culture wars. The language used throughout could be the same in any onslaught on any academic discipline. People on twitter, Novae Famae, and Facebook will likely parrot the same words and the same arguments. Let’s take one point from the article “and get on with [our] work as scholars and teachers”.

Our work is winning. This fear and hate filled rhetoric proves it. It is not going to stop. It is not going to get easier for a while. This is all a part of the same cultural over-reaction to a more diverse society and demands for a more just one.

arrogant finger

7 thoughts on “Rising and Evolving: Classical Studies in the News

  1. Well said (again). I read the piece yesterday and felt sick to my stomach. Your deconstruction is timely and better than I could manage. I’ve been pretty under the weather so I found it difficult to take away anything positive, so thanks for that!

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