Notes & Comments March 2019
Decline & fall: classics edition
On identity politics in classical studies.
For the study of classics, it is (if we may adapt Dickens) the best of times and the worst of times. It is the best of times because there are multiple popular initiatives, mostly outside the academy, introducing people young and old to the riches of Greek and Latin. There are even a few bright spots inside the academy, for example Princeton University’s new Latin 110, a course taught entirely in Latin: the students and teacher do not speak in English about Latin but instead conduct the entire class in the ancient but still-living language. Impressive.
But such bright spots are few and far between. Indeed, even that class at Princeton has been castigated on Twitter for catering to students who are too “fit,” too male, and probably too heterosexual. More and more, it seems, 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. (In this sense, classics is different from pseudo-disciplines like women’s studies, black studies, lgbtq studies, and the like, because classics can never be entirely reduced to political posturing. You actually have to know something.)
Consider the fate of Eidolon, an online journal that was started in 2015 to demonstrate the relevance of classics to modern life. It wasn’t long before Donna Zuckerberg, the sister of the personal data magus and surveillance guru Mark Zuckerberg, engineered a palace coup and declared that henceforth Eidolon would “err on the progressive side,” dedicating itself to “the spirit of bringing politics into Classics.” Because, you know, the humanities have not been sufficiently tainted by signing up for every trendy progressive cliché going. From now on, Zuckerberg said, Eidolon would forgo objectivity—“often nothing more than a cover for upholding the status quo, and to hell with the status quo”—in its quest to become “a progressive, feminist publication with a commitment to social justice.” And how was this goal to be achieved?
Well, this year, Zuckerberg noted, the magazine would aim to make sure that “at least [at least] 70 percent of our contributors be women and 20 percent of our writers be poc,” i.e., “people of color,” i.e., not white. (But isn’t race merely a “social construction”? No, silly, that was last year.) And just how are those percentages going to be achieved? Well, going forward, Eidolon will ask people pitching stories for “demographics,” i.e., are you black or white? Male or female? “I have no interest,” Zuckerberg sermonized, “in providing bland and false reassurances that we only care about good ideas and good writing and not who our authors are.” Who would doubt it? And what about merit? “[A]ppeals to merit,” she said, are “often . . . white supremacist dog-whistles.” So: “If you’re white and we publish you, you will know, for maybe the first time in your career, that it was because of the merit of your idea and not because you’re white.”
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. Still, Zuckerberg’s destruction of Eidolon as a serious journal does raise an interesting question about the level of masochism among white classicists, especially white male classicists. Why would anyone of that description who was not a masochist submit work to a journal that is self-confessedly hostile to them? Indeed, why would anyone not a masochist read it?
But the fate of Eidolon is only one symptom of the toxic substitution of identity politics for humanistic learning in classics. An episode that took place at the annual Society for Classical Studies conference in January further dramatized the rot affecting the discipline.
These big academic conferences, in the humanities at least, are sad, repellent affairs. They are sad because one large contingent of attendees is composed of young, and often not-so-young, supplicants for an academic job, any job, anywhere. They are repellent partly because of the preening and posturing of the elect—the tenured and celebrity elite who glide through the hallways of whatever anonymous hotel is home to the event—partly because of the menacing aura of fatuousness that clings to most of the proceedings.
At the San Diego Marriott this January, a panel on “The Future of Classics” provided a notable example of the latter. Among the speakers was Dan-el Padilla Peralta, a rising star in—well, we were going to say “classics,” but that is not quite right. Yes, Padilla is an assistant professor of classics at Princeton, 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. As far as we can tell, his only published book is Undocumented: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League. If there were truth in advertising, it should have been called Illegal, since it concerns Padilla’s status as an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who, with his mother, overstayed his visa when he was a young boy.
To say that Padilla has a chip on his shoulder does not do justice to the exasperating potential of chips. There is no doubt that he is a clever man. Princeton not only accepted him as an undergraduate but also gave him a full scholarship out of its own funds (because federal money cannot go to people here illegally). He performed so well that he was the class salutatorian. After graduate work, he ascended to the Princeton faculty as a “target of opportunity” candidate. Such positions are not advertised, which is usually required by law, because there is a candidate in mind who fulfills some affirmative action goal. In other words, Padilla, in addition to his native gifts, is one lucky man. He has been given every preferment. Naturally, he is therefore especially bitter about the establishment that coddles him.
Readers of The New Criterion’s website may recall Dan-el Padilla Peralta. In 2017, he responded to an article by Solveig Lucia Gold called “The colorblind bard.” Gold argued against the idea that Western civilization was the province of white men. On the contrary, it belonged, potentially, to all of us. It was a universal inheritance, not a parochial one.
This was too much for Padilla. For him, everything must be filtered through the scrim of race (although he is happy to add sex as a suppurating accessory). There are, he said, “centuries of whitewashing to rectify” (“whitewashing,” get it, get it?). “Each and every” classics scholar, he said, has the “responsibility . . . to race the discipline.” Forget about treating people as individuals. Forget about the idea that what matters is not the color of your skin but the content of your character. Padilla is an apostle of all race all the time.
This was the theme of “Racial Equity and the Production of Knowledge,” Padilla’s talk in San Diego. Tabulating the number of women and “people of color” published in major classics journals, he issued an anguished bulletin in the minatory, reader-proof argot so favored by left-wing academics today. Decrying the “hegemony of whiteness,” he called for strategies to “decenter and displace white privilege and supremacy from its position of preeminence and priority in the discipline’s self-image.” According to him, “the most fundamental question for the future of knowledge production in Classics is this: how do we recognize, honor, and repair the silencing of the knowledge that people of color carry?” In fact, of course, every classics journal and every classics program in the Western world is on high alert, scouring the landscape for “people of color” they might employ, publish, and advance.
But that is not enough for Dan-el Padilla Peralta. He wants “reparative epistemic justice,” i.e., the expulsion of whites from the discipline and (like Donna Zuckerberg) the end to colorblind assessment of merit. “[H]olders of privilege,” he intoned, “will need to surrender their privilege. In practical terms, this means that . . . white men will have to surrender the privilege they have of seeing their words printed and disseminated; they will have to take a backseat so that people of color—and women and gender-nonconforming scholars of color—benefit from the privilege of seeing their words on the page.” Should that not happen, he has said elsewhere, “all options for reparative intellectual justice—including the demolition of the discipline itself [our emphasis]”—should be kept open. In other words, institute a new regime of prejudice or we’ll destroy classics.
This repugnant species of racial redress is par for the course in the fetid bubble of academia these days. But there were a couple of additional entertainments in San Diego. At one point, hotel security guards asked to see credentials for a couple of black attendees in working-class dress who were not displaying their badges. Horrors! Why were the badgeless white men not similarly accosted? Possibly because they acted and were dressed appropriately for the occasion. But Padilla and many other attendees were outraged by this instance of what Padilla called “racial profiling.”
Then there was the pièce de résistance: question time after Padilla’s talk. One woman, an independent scholar named Mary Frances Williams, had the temerity to defend Western civilization—how that stung!—declare that she was “not a socialist,” and allegedly—dictu nefas—tell Padilla that he only got his job because he is black.
The hundred or so people in the room could not believe what they had just heard. The Twitterverse erupted in outrage. Williams herself was deemed to have violated a new interdiction against “harassment” and was ejected from the conference.
Now, Williams’s observation was certainly impolitic. But was it inaccurate? “Only” is a strong word. But it appears to be the case that Padilla was the beneficiary of racial prejudice. So let us say that he was hired in part because he was black. He claims to have been outraged by the comment. But the irony is, in a much-reported whining response to the episode, he championed the idea of appointing people to academic positions because of their race. Since, he wrote,
no one in that room or in the conference corridors afterwards rallied to the defense of blackness as a cornerstone of my merit, I will now have to repeat an argument that will be familiar to critical race scholars of higher education but that is barely legible to the denizens of #classicssowhite. I should have been hired because I was black: because my Afro-Latinity is the rock-solid foundation upon which the edifice of what I have accomplished and everything I hope to accomplish rests . . .
So there you have it. Not only was Padilla the beneficiary of racial preference. He proudly asserts that he should have been and that race is the “rock-solid foundation” of his work. Yet only he is allowed to acknowledge that.
As we have observed previously in these pages, “racism” is a neologism so recent that it wasn’t in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1970. George Orwell noted in the 1940s that “fascist” was a content-free negative epithet, applied to anyone and anything of which one disapproved. “Racism” performs a similar disreputable function for the permanently aggrieved today. It is, we think, a question worth asking: why has racism emerged as the cardinal sin of our era, precisely at a moment when age-old bigotries have been laid to rest and institutions throughout our culture bend over backwards to cater to racial sensitivities?
Answering that is beyond our remit. But one thing is clear: the obsession over race (and exotic sexualities, too) has done more to disfigure our academic culture than all of the ancient bad prejudices we have overcome.
We have long appreciated the admonitory wisdom contained in the observation that “things are always worse than they seem.” Pathetic though that panel ostensibly devoted to “The Future of Classics” seemed to us when we first learned about it, it turns out that it, and the professional response to it, was far more cringe-making than we understood at the time.
We wrote about the event based on several reports, some of them eye-witness reports, but before the video of the panel had been released. This has now happened. The video is available on YouTube here. We said that such academic events tend to be “sad and repellent.” As the video shows, we understated the depressing reality of the situation.
The papers were bad enough, oscillating between the politically tendentious and self-congratulatory. Sarah Bond, now an Associate Professor of Classics at the University of Iowa, disparaged the great 19th-century Latinist Basil Gildersleeve for racism, bragged that she did not cite people of whom she disapproves, and suggested that her blog posts should count towards tenure. But the really repugnant part starts about 44 minutes in when the question period opens. Multiple reports said that Mary Frances Williams, the brave but scared and hapless “independent” (i.e., jobless) scholar who put in a few words on behalf of Western civilization, had “shouted” the accusation that Dan-el Padilla Peralta had got his position at Princeton because of his race.
Only, Williams didn’t shout that or anything else. Nor did she later “run” from the room, as at least one report stated. Although clearly ill-at-ease among the fancy people on the panel, she endeavored to make the case for the civilizing importance of classics. Here’s what she said, in part:
For thirty years I’ve heard you talk about the need for diversity and inclusiveness, and reaching out, doing “Women in Ancient Rome,” and all sorts of other areas, which is fine, it’s interesting, it’s important . . . . But, maybe, we should start defending our discipline in-and-of-itself, and saying, it’s Western Civilization and it matters . . . because it’s the West.
It was at this point that Sarah Bond interrupted to inform Williams that “Western Civilization” is “a construct . . . that’s complete construction.” Williams soldiered on, insisting that Western Civ was “important, particularly in its focus on liberty, democracy and freedom.”
Take a look at the video: you can practically feel the contempt emanating from the panel, particularly from Associate Professor Bond who objected (speaking of shouting) “We aren’t Western Civ!” We daresay that no one who witnessed her performance would have any doubts on that score.
For ourselves, we think Ms. Williams was right. Quoth she: “We’re not? Then we might as well just shut down. . . . We don’t have to only do Women’s Studies, only do Ethnic Studies, only do a Balkanization of our field.” She went on to underscore the intrinsic value of classics and offered the radical suggestion that Classics was worth pursuing for its own sake. “Maybe,” she suggested, “try doing the Classics as Classics?”
She went on to stress the importance of teaching Homer, Cicero, Thucydides, Herodotus, and Demosthenes. She also declared “I am not a socialist” and “I believe in merit! I believe that the journals have articles on the basis of merit, I don’t look at the color of the author.”
Ms. Williams seems to have taken the ideological temperature of her surroundings, so she really ought to have seen Associate Professor Bond’s retort coming. All the writers you mentioned, she objected, are “all men,” and what about Sappho: “you don’t think Sappho has merit?,” she asked, voice dripping with disdain.
It was at this juncture that the catastrophe occurred: “You may have got your job because you’re black,” Ms Williams said to Dan-el Padilla Peralta, “but I’d prefer to think you got your job because of merit.”
Perhaps this was, as we said, impolitic, but was it, given the context, wrong for her to say? Was it . . . (dread word) racist?
Everyone there excitedly said it was. The person running the Society for Classical Studies conference, like the Archangel Gabriel in Eden, banished the wretched Ms. Williams from the conference entirely. (A banishment, it is worth noting, that was reaffirmed even after the video was posted, even though it largely exonerates Ms. Williams.)
For his part, Dan-el Padilla Peralta instructed Ms. Williams that she was “going to let someone who has been historically marginalized from the production of knowledge in the Classics, talk.”
And here’s what I have to say about the vision of classics that you’ve outlined: If that is in fact a vision that affirms you in your white supremacy, I want nothing to do with it. I hope the field dies, that you’ve outlined, and that it dies as swiftly as possible!
As we noted in our original piece, the end or death of classics is something Dan-el Padilla Peralta goes on about a lot. He seems to relish the prospect. Nevertheless, the Chairman (or, as they now say in the non-gender-specific paradise of academia, “Chair”) of the Classics department at Princeton is just so pleased to have him as a colleague. On February 14, responding to an article about the episode in a publication of The National Association of Scholars, this poor man took out his bag of clichés and bleated about “promoting diversity in the study of the classics at all levels,” “non-conforming sexual identities,” etc., etc., assuring all and sundry that “Prof. Padilla Peralta’s work challenges all of us to think hard about why the Greek and Roman past matters and powerfully articulates an intellectual perspective on that past based on personal experiences of social injustice all too common in our society, but all too rare in our discipline.”
Enough. We wish these representatives of the most pampered generation in history would stop whining and get on with their work as scholars and teachers. They might start by weaning themselves from their embarrassing obsession with racism. Here’s a practical suggestion. Give up talking and fantasizing about putative racism from after breakfast until luncheon. When, after a few weeks, that is mastered, extend the prohibition until tea time. Soon, they’ll go for days on end without manufacturing make-believe racist climates where none exist.
That done, they might move on to distinguishing between their sex lives and their scholarly interest. Here too, bad habits will be hard to break, as a recent entry from the Council of University Classical Departments Bulletin suggests. Titled “LGBT+ Classics: Teaching, Research, and Activism,” this curious document begins by announcing that “our field does not give enough visibility to the intersections between queer research, teaching, and activism.” Really? It sometimes seems that one hears about little else: sexual exotica and racism, all part of today’s most popular major, oppression studies. 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. Even a brief acquaintance is enough to make one empathize with Macbeth when he said that he had “supped full with horrors.”
Update: Mary Frances Williams just published an account of the episode at the SCS conference here: “How I was Kicked Out of the Society for Classical Studies Annual Meeting”
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 7, on page 1
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