Notes & Comments October 2021
On contemporary politics and the study of classics.
We wonder if Dr. Jalali or her colleagues bringing enlightenment to the natives of Afghanistan subscribe to the Society for Classical Studies blog? As we’ve noted several times in the pages of The New Criterion (most recently with Victor Davis Hanson’s essay “Classical patricide” last month), the discipline of classics, at least in its academic instantiation, has become among the wokest of woke redoubts. The Society for Classical Studies, which began life in the mid-nineteenth century as the American Philological Association, is a poster child for the new anti-classical approach to classics. Its blog is edited by T. H. M. Gellar-Goad, who teaches at Wake Forest—make that “Woke Forest”—University and specializes in Latin poetry, “especially the funny stuff.”
That’s as it should be, because the blog of the Society for Classical Studies is an inadvertently comic repository of politically correct attitudinizing, dilating everywhere on such crimes as “whiteness” (a Gellar-Goad speciality), patriarchy, and anything beginning with “hetero-.” One page is devoted to a hysterical (and we definitely do not mean “funny”) mischaracterization of the protest at the Capitol last January, though what possible connection that protest may have with the study of classics is never revealed. Another page provides exhaustive (not to say exhausting) advice about avoiding “disability terminology” when discussing the ancient world. The jollity here starts with a “content warning” that what follows includes “disability slurs & ableist language,” so caveat lector. It also includes some strange linguistic abnormalities, if we may so put it, but faulty diction is a small price to pay for woke rectitude. We learn, for example, that scholars aspiring to write for the blog should eschew the word “normal” and use “nondisabled” instead. Don’t say that someone is “insane,” “crazy,” or a “lunatic,” but rather that he exhibits “neurodiversity.” Don’t say that someone is “mute” or “dumb” but that he is a “person with mutism.” Someone is going to have hours of fun updating the Gospels, purging them of all those cripples, lunatics, and deaf, dumb, and blind people whom Jesus cures. (Is it OK to say he “cures” them? Isn’t that invidious, suggesting, as it does, that it might be preferable not to be crippled, blind, mute, etc.?)
As a concrete example, the scs contrasts two ways of describing the fact that Hephaestus was (in most accounts) born with a withered foot. “Hephaestus suffered from a congenital deformity that limited his movement” versus “Hephaestus had a congenital mobility impairment.” The first, they say, is bad because “disability is given a negative valence from the start with words like ‘suffered,’ ‘deformity,’ and ‘limited.’ ” It’s too bad that they didn’t get this memo to Homer and other Greeks who wrote about the great blacksmith. They could have altered their description of Hephaestus as “ὁ Ἀμφιγυήεις,” “the one that [as the Liddell & Scott Greek lexicon tells us] halts in both feet, the lame one.” The relevant part of the Greek compound is γυιός, which means, well, “lame,” but we’re sure that can be changed in a future edition of the dictionary.
The friend who sent us the link to the scs blog did so not to call our attention to the filigree of politically correct virtue signaling. Rather, he alerted us to two announcements. First, that, henceforth, anonymous or pseudonymous postings would be allowed on the blog. Naturally, this will make it much easier for disgruntled classicists to attack with impunity people they don’t like. Second, that the “scs position on political content” had been “modified.” You see what cards these people are. Previously, the editors wrote, they did not “normally” consider contributions that took a position on current political issues. Maybe someone called their attention to that contentious post about the protest at the Capitol. The editors had changed their minds. The “tumult of the last several years,” they wrote, had made their previous position “untenable.” Henceforth, posts that take overt positions (though, we suspect, only certain positions will be welcome) will be permitted.
What really caught our attention, however, was their concluding comment. The site’s original position, the editors said, the position that frowned on introducing contemporary political concerns into a blog ostensibly devoted to the classics, “denies the fact that our discipline is inherently political and has been since its foundation. An ‘apolitical’ stance is itself political.”
They offer this as a novel idea, though of course it is an idea that has been with us at least since the 1960s when slogans like “the personal is the political” and, indeed, that everything is “always already” political (to paraphrase Jacques Derrida) were repeated ad nauseam. (The idea has a long genealogy, as anyone who has encountered encomia to “German physics” in the Germany of the 1930s or “socialist science,” as distinct from the bourgeois variety, in the Soviet Union from the same period will know.)
That said, we want to end by agreeing that, in a sense, “an ‘apolitical’ stance is itself political.” It is so in this sense: we found schools, universities, and other educational institutions in order to perpetuate knowledge and hand down certain civilizational values. One of those values is the affirmation that some things are worth pursuing for their own sake: the study of the ancient cultures of Greece and Rome, for example, and the languages that unlock their mysteries. We decide to teach classics rather than political attitudinizing because we think classics is important. It is a foundational political commitment to say that such things are inherently valuable and that they transcend the vagaries of contemporary politics. This is the basic raison d’être of liberal education. Here was something the great classicist and board member of The New Criterion, Donald Kagan, eulogized later in this issue, understood. The Society for Classical Studies has hopped on to the rickety bandwagon transporting that commitment to oblivion. Like other fatuous armchair revolutionaries, their members seem blissfully unaware that in repudiating the culture that formed them they are also repudiating themselves.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 40 Number 2, on page 2
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