NYT article: Princeton professor calls for an end to studying classics because they promote white supremacy. Andrew Sullivan issues a strong critique

February 6, 2021 • 10:30 am

My dislike of the New York Times is growing daily. Sometimes I wonder if it’s just me becoming more critical and splenetic—either with age or because of the pandemic—but lately I’m pretty sure it’s because the paper itself is becoming terminally woke, with Critical Theory (mostly Critical Race Theory) seeping into every article, and a growing number of features, like the one below, concentrating on race and oppression. It’s not just the topics covered, either—it’s that the way the topics are presented aligns with ideologically correct views. I could spend a whole day writing four or five posts about the mishigas going on at the Times, but I’ll apportion out my spleen in installments.

For example, the following article is about Dan-el Padilla Peralta, a highly regarded Professor of classics at Princeton.  He’s black, was born in the Dominican Republic, and at a young age fell in love with Greek and Roman literature, winding up getting degrees from Princeton, Oxford, and Stanford, then returning to Princeton to teach. At some point in this odyssey (which also involved a hard childhood), he decided that the classical literature he loved and taught was actually being used to undergird racism and white supremacy. In fact, he claims that it’s had that effect since the Enlightenment. He’s now thinking about leaving the field, perhaps after he’s contributing to dismantling it.

It’s manifestly clear that the author of the piece, Rachel Poser (an editor at Harper’s) sympathizes with Padilla’s crusade to ditch the Greeks and Romans. Although she presents critics of his view, most notably Mary Beard of Cambridge University, the article is heavily slanted toward the view that yes, classics have been the pillars of racism, slavery, and white supremacy throughout history. Read for yourself.

One way you can get an idea of where the writer’s sympathies lie is how she ends the article. And here’s Poser’s ending:

On Jan. 6, Padilla turned on the television minutes after the windows of the Capitol were broken. In the crowd, he saw a man in a Greek helmet with TRUMP 2020 painted in white. He saw a man in a T-shirt bearing a golden eagle on a fasces — symbols of Roman law and governance — below the logo 6MWE, which stands for “Six Million Wasn’t Enough,” a reference to the number of Jews murdered in the Holocaust. He saw flags embroidered with the phrase that Leonidas is said to have uttered when the Persian king ordered him to lay down his arms: Molon labe, classical Greek for “Come and take them,” which has become a slogan of American gun rights activists. A week after the riot, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, a newly elected Republican from Georgia who has liked posts on social media that call for killing Democrats, wore a mask stitched with the phrase when she voted against impeachment on the House floor.

“There is a certain kind of classicist who will look on what transpired and say, ‘Oh, that’s not us,’” Padilla said when we spoke recently. “What is of interest to me is why is it so imperative for classicists of a certain stripe to make this discursive move? ‘This is not us.’ Systemic racism is foundational to those institutions that incubate classics and classics as a field itself. Can you take stock, can you practice the recognition of the manifold ways in which racism is a part of what you do? What the demands of the current political moment mean?”

Padilla suspects that he will one day need to leave classics and the academy in order to push harder for the changes he wants to see in the world. He has even considered entering politics. “I would never have thought the position I hold now to be attainable to me as a kid,” he said. “But the fact that this is a minor miracle does not displace my deep sense that this is temporary too.” His influence on the field may be more permanent than his presence in it. “Dan-el has galvanized a lot of people,” Rebecca Futo Kennedy, a professor at Denison University, told me. Joel Christensen, the Brandeis professor, now feels that it is his “moral and ethical and intellectual responsibility” to teach classics in a way that exposes its racist history. “Otherwise we’re just participating in propaganda,” he said. Christensen, who is 42, was in graduate school before he had his “crisis of faith,” and he understands the fear that many classicists may experience at being asked to rewrite the narrative of their life’s work. But, he warned, “that future is coming, with or without Dan-el.”

In other words, there’s a straight line from Aristotle to Trump. That is simply nuts. And, in the last sentence above, the “future” means either the end of classics or a revision of how it is taught: presenting it as a highly politicized discipline, taking care at every turn to point out how the ancients promulgated whiteness and bigotry.

Poser’s NYT article presents Padilla’s case in extenso of why the classics are racist, with only a tiny bit of dissent allowed from fellow classicists. In other words, what Poser gives us is not an “objective” piece on the arguments for and against dismantling the teaching of classics, but a lecture by Padilla on why they should be dismantled.  The piece would have been far more interesting had more counterarguments been presented, or had someone made the case for the value of the classics and their misuse to buttress white supremacy.

But that argument fell to Andrew Sullivan in his latest issue of The Weekly Dish. (Click on screenshot below, though it’s a pay site and you can’t read it unless you subscribe. I’d recommend subscribing, as the $50 per year comes out to less than 14 cents per day.)

I thought of going after the article and Padilla’s views myself, but my knowledge of the classics is very scant, and without that one can’t assess his thesis. (I was of course aware that both the ancient Romans and Greeks kept slaves, which I guess are now called “enslaved people,” and that their deep thoughts resulted in part of the freedom they derived from oppressing others. But in those societies slavery was based only minimally on race, and strongly on conquest of foreigners. I have no idea if they even had the concept of “whiteness” as opposed to Athenian or Roman supremacy.) Sullivan, on the other hand, read Latin from when he was a young Catholic lad, and used it to read a ton of classics in the original. He’s also read the translations of Greek classical literature. And, basically, he sees Padilla as full of crap.

If you know classics—and I’m sure many readers here have that knowledge—you should read both pieces and judge for yourself. I won’t repeat all the arguments, but will give just a few quotes from Sullivan about why he sees this NYT article as “deranged” (he’s opposed not only to Padilla’s views, but to the slant of the article). Sullivan’s title, taken from Kundera, is also good:

In fact, I’ll give just one long quote from Sullivan, and hope that you can read the rest:

But I read in the New York Times this week, as one does, that, in fact, I was deluding myself. Rather than being liberated, as I felt I was, I was actually being initiated into “white supremacy”. And there is now a broadening movement in the academy to abolish or dismantle the classics because of their iniquitous “whiteness”.

Racial “whiteness” as a concept would, of course, have been all but meaningless to all the ancient writers I grew to love. It’s beyond even an anachronism. How on earth do you reduce the astonishing variety and depth and breadth of texts from an ancient Mediterranean world to a skin color? How do you read Aristotle and conclude that the most salient quality of his genius was that he was “white”?

You can arrive at this deranged conclusion, it seems, in two contrived ways. One is to view the ancient world as some kind of founding proof of the superiority of the “white race”, whatever that means. Imperialists and fascists have always loved this theme; Mussolini was especially fond of it. The very word “fascism” comes from the Roman “fasces”, a bound bundle of logs that was used to signify the authority of the state. In the same NYT piece, we are reminded that the “marchers in Charlottesville, Va., carried flags bearing a symbol of the Roman state; online reactionaries adopted classical pseudonyms; the white-supremacist website Stormfront displayed an image of the Parthenon alongside the tagline ‘Every month is white history month.’”

This dreck is not just bigoted; it’s ahistorical, anachronistic, and reductionist, and it ignores the vast range of classical thought, in which radicals and liberals have found as much intellectual nourishment as conservatives and reactionaries.

The other way to see the classics as a form of “white supremacy” is to embrace critical race theory. Some now argue that the study of ancient Greece and Rome “forms part of the scaffold of white supremacy” that endures to this day. This is because Western democracies can trace many of their formative ideas back to Greece and Rome — and many of these same democracies went on to practice imperialism and even slavery, thousands of years later. Some even justified their brutality with reference to classical texts. This intwining [sic] of the white supremacist assumptions of the Enlightenment with ancient Greece and Rome means the classics are therefore fatally tainted.

I’m sorry, but that’s it? That’s the argument? An entire, diverse, multi-faceted, multicultural civilization that sprawled from Turkey and North Africa to the borders of Scotland — a source of fascination to people of all political persuasions and races over the centuries — cannot be taught because some racists in the past abused its texts? That’s like saying that science should no longer exist because some scientists once practiced eugenics.

In fact, there are those who say that the teaching of evolutionary biology and human genetics should be extensively modified because “some scientists once practiced eugenics”. Although the only kind of “eugenics” promoted in my field these days are suggestions about using CRISPR to snip genetic defects out of human embryos—not an odious idea—some of my colleagues have suggested not only new courses in the history of eugenics (not a bad idea), but also apologies by entire science departments for being tarred with the legacy of eugenics. As Padilla does for classics, they suggest that our field has been used to prop up racism, and is still doing so.  That’s not in fact the case, and as a geneticist I reject the idea that my work is at all besmirched with eugenics and racism because some of my predecessors used genetics to buttress their own racism. And I deny that my area of study, speciation, or the way I analyze my data, have a racist legacy.

But I digress. If you know the classics, at least read Poser’s New York Times article and weigh in below.

68 thoughts on “NYT article: Princeton professor calls for an end to studying classics because they promote white supremacy. Andrew Sullivan issues a strong critique

  1. I have always wanted to read Classics more, especially drama. I read plenty in college at UC, and, therefore, a lot of Plato. I re-read The Republic a few years back. I recall in general, though, that the dialogues dealt with themes like truth and justice. One can see why progressives dislike them. (The cup of hemlock is a particularly jarring image these days, and it might lead to unpleasant comparisons.) And, of course, if one accepts that the critique is really about Western Civilization generally as being white supremacist, then the Classics play an important role in that. It’s really a question of whether you believe in the universality of humankind.

  2. “The universality of humankind” is a rather ambiguous topic. Of course there is a universality in the sense that we share an evolutionary past, and are subject to many of the same behaviors and emotions. We also share some cultural commonality due to movement of people around the globe. Finally, the common feelings of humans are the subject of literature and painting, and were some humans that alien, we wouldn’t have anything to learn from the art and literature of very different societies.

    You’d have to be clearer about what you mean by “the universality of humankind,” since clearly in many ways there is a great deal of universality.

    1. Fair enough. I guess I did say that poorly. What I mean is that there are universal values which we should hold as applying to all people, first among them the idea of universal justice. I do not mean to say that universal justice exists actually exists, or that there is a Platonic Form of Justice, but that different people of different races, religions, sexes, or classes should all be judged by the same rules.

      1. Interestingly, the academy has gone through decades of multiculturalism as the shibboleth of “woke.” It rode on the wings of Postmodernism’s mantra of “no metanarrative.” All cultures are equal. How dare we judge another culture? We should be learning from them. Now sitting flush in the middle of the massive pile of books and journal articles, tenure, and academic celebrity that preached an open non-judgmental take on culture, sits the fundamentalist critical race theorist who reduces the entire 2,000 years of Western civilization to one universal idea. To this the Postmodernist multiculturalist says with a blank stare, “Amen,”–and with no embarrassment or shame..

        “There are some ideas so absurd only an intellectual could believe them.” George Orwell

  3. I liked the way the classics prof being criticized taught a class on roman decision making, via role playing. But he was too cowardly to put his beliefs in action and have some students play the role of slaves.

    I think it is tragic that Universities are eliminating or reducing classics departments. The main justifications they are giving are that you can’t get a good job doing classics (true) and that classicists don’t bring in the big grants that STEM does (also true). Stupid reasons.

    Yes, I have studied classics. I find the prof’s argument as presented pretty stupid. the Greeks weren’t just anti-slave. Each city-state thought they were superior, by their nature, to others. I am reading Plato’s Symposium now, which contains a passage where an Athenian critizes Euboians for being stupid and lazy. Euboia was a greek island jsut off the coast by Athens. Also, where do the Homeric gods go for recreation? Africa. Reducing the classics to slavery in the form of non-white domination is just dumb.

    1. Why would you include slaves in this discussion? It seems to me including slaves as decision makers even in a role paying game would be some what odd . I would not think of it as cowardly in this instance , but accurate

    2. You can’t get a job readily doing Classics but I argue you can use the skills from studying Classics yo get a good job especially in today’s job climate where you need to be flexible and a generalist. My degree has served me well and when a naysayer scoffed at work I’d point out that I was doing the same job as they were despite that person’s formal degree in the field. As someone would say in the Cambridge Latin course, “caudex!”

      1. Grumio est in horto – the Cambridge Latin course was awful & while I passed O level latin I never learnt any grammar…

        1. Blasphemy! The Cambridge Latin course was one of my best memories of high school. I had a lot of fun in Latin class and I’m still in contact with a classmate who also looks back on it fondly. I even bought the course books in nostalgia.

  4. It’s not just you. My two — formally woke— adult daughters experience the same reaction to the NWTs. In ten years, they have transitioned from freshman Judith Butler screeds to reading the WSJ. Our home is much calmer. The remarkable part is how they weaned themselves off repellent crusades and overzealous activism.

  5. This isn’t focused on very much in “Western” academia, even among woke people, but Roman and Greek culture deeply influenced and shaped not just “the west”, but islam, too.

    Islamic theology was based, like Christian theology, on Greek philosophy – indeed Greek philosophy is so integral to islamic theocracy that Plato is venerated as holy man in Shia islam.

    Ibn Sina/Avicenna, one of the most famous philosopher of the “Islamic Golden Age” was a keen and very knowledgeable follower of Aristotle. Ibn Rushd/Averroes wrote one of the most famous and influential commentary on Aristotle, which was SO influential that it shaped lots of “Western” thinkers as well.

    Roman laws influenced islamic jurisprudence – the Corpus Iuris Civilis of Justinian was referenced as often as the Qu’ran by islamic scholars. Greek mathematics, from Pythagora to Euclides had an enormous impact on the developments of algebra in Iran and advancements in trigonometry in Sicily or Tunisia under islamic rule.

    The library of Baghdad, the cultural center of islam before the Mongol invasion, was filled to the brim with Greek and Roman books on all sorts of subjects. The library of Alexandria, founded in the Classic Age, was another important cultural center in the Omayyad era.

    If one argues that the classics are intrinsecally “white supremacist” one has to assume that islam and Iranian or Iraqi or Arabic or Turkish culture are intrinsically “white supremacist” too. That sounds very dumb to me.

    And that’s just the pinnacle of absurdity of the NYT article. ALL movements in the “West” were influenced by the Roman and Greek culture. Christianity is intrinsically Roman in its legislative side and Greek in its philosophy, just like islam. The entirety of Western philosophy is massively influenced by Greek philosophy. Common law AND the Napoleonic code are based on Roman laws.

    Greek words make up the jargon of science, Latin is the language of jurisprudence.

    Yes, white supremacists and racists reference Greek and Roman culture. How could they not? ALL people in the “west”, of ALL political beliefs, are MASSIVELY influenced by Roman and Greek culture. Communists called themselves with the names of Roman radicals. Socialist anarchists called themselves “Spartachists”. Anti-colonial fighters used the imagery of Greek or Roman figures – Toussante Louverture, Fanon, Du Bois, Baldwin, admired and referenced Greek and Roman figures A LOT.

    Again, HOW could they NOT do that? Classic culture is EVERYWHERE.

    Just like the Enlightenment is FAR from being “white supremacist” AS A WHOLE, classical culture is ALL encompassing, and FAR from being racist or white supremacist AS A WHOLE. You NEED to have people to study the classics – the entirey of the foundation of not only “Western”, not only Christian, but also islamic AND modern Jewish culture rest on Greek and Roman influences.

    According to the logic that bad use of cultural heritage should lead to rejection of cultural heritage we should reject ALL cultures. The CCP is promoting genocide – so we should reject all of Chinese culture since it’s used to justify genocide.

    Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism exist and are a threat – so we should reject all the reflections of muslim philosophers, all the mathematic and scientific insight of muslim mathematicians and scientists.

    The Hindutva movement is intolerant and bigoted to religious and ethnic minorities in India – so we should reject the entirety of Hindu culture.

    Intolerant Buddhists repress the Rohingya – so we should reject the entirey of Buddhism.

    Yes, white supremacists use symbols, achievements and ideas of Greek and Roman culture to assert the superiority and justification of their plans. So does EVERY intolerant and bigoted group.

    Chinese nationalists use symbols, achievements and ideas of Chinese culture to assert the superiority and justification of the CCP rule. Muslim fundamentalists use symbols, achievements and ideas of the “Islamic Golden Age” to assert the superiority of islam and justification of Sharia rule or even terrorism against “the Crusaders”. Hindu fundamentalists use symbols, achievements and ideas of the highs of Hindu culture to assert their superiority and justify oppression. And so do Buddhist intolerant people with symbols, achievements and ideas of Buddhist culture.

    1. Interesting thought. You mentioned the Islamic world. I wonder what Padilla’s thoughts would be to the banning the study of the 6-8th century Islamic world which had pretty much the same virtues ( incredible literature and mathematic – just to mention a couple) and vices (oppression, wars of conquest, slavery, etc) as did the Classical world. A legal system that is in use today. Just thinking aloud…..

      1. Applause to both of you. I’d add that the Ottoman Empire was in many ways the successor of the East Roman imperial tradition.
        You make such important points, this really should be published in some form, preferably in the Times, of course..

    2. This strikes me as one of the stronger arguments against denegrating the classics due to their “whiteness” or sordid practices such as slavery. Brown people screw each other over now just like every ascendant civilization in history has and continues to do. Group on group violence whether arising from differences in race, belief, or simple resource theft is inescapable.

      The importance of the Greeks and Romans beyond great architecture and art is their major advances in philosophy, including ethics and law and government, which birthed democracy which is the best way to promote non-violent collaboration between groups and avoid the oppression of individuals. The Socratic Method eventually led to The Enlightenment, the scientific and industrial revolutions and has culminated in the Information Age.

      No civilization today should ignore this just as Western countries should do better to credit innovations from other cultures that were folded into the canon as we tell it and teach it.

      1. “Brown people screw each other over now just like every ascendant civilization in history has and continues to do.”

        That’s exactly what woke activists in their madness and/or stupidity deny. Each and every evil in the world and all racism comes from whiteness. They are the greatest defenders of white exceptionalism.

    3. Excellent comment–I encourage you to repost it in the comments section of the NYT article, if it’s still allowing comments. From what I’ve heard, a majority of the comments are sharply critical of the errant professor.

    4. Yeah and it’s the reason a Classical education was the education of Freud, Darwin (he sucked at his Greek though) and many other important thinkers. I’m sure they will all be labelled white supremacists. In fact Classics is so everywhere it’s the reason I can always look smart to my doctors and dentists and when they ask I can quote Hans Gruber and say “benefits of a Classical education” and because they haven’t seen Die Hard they just look at me.

    5. Well said. Who would have thought the expansive digital availability of knowledge and of classic literature would have resulted in such widespread ignorance and moral insanity?

      False words are not only evil in themselves, but they infect the soul with evil.—-Plato

      The simple act of an ordinary courageous man is not to take part, not to support lies! Let that come into the world and even reign over it, but not through me.
      —Alexandr Scholzenitzen

  6. The whole of Western thought and culture is derived ultimately from the Classics in one form or another. Just to take a couple of, obvious, examples: outside of the Anglo-Saxon tradition the fundamentals of the Western legal system is based on the Codex Justinian, the set of laws issued in the early 6th Century. Secondly, and even more obviously, Christianity as we know it today is from the Classical tradition – FFS it is called Roman Catholicism after all! To understand the people and the culture of those times is fundamental to the understanding of the Western world!

  7. He didn’t notice enough. I’d think that amidst the offensive T-shirts and slogans the Professor might have noticed the Capitol itself.

    1. Yes, and if he and Poser went inside the Capitol, they might have noticed something further pertinent on the floor of the House of Representatives, viz., behind the Speaker’s chair, each flanking the US Flag, the two fasces in bas relief. I’m surprised that Sully didn’t call this fact out and remark on it, too.

  8. Apparently Sullivan willfully misconstrued Peralta, then passed that misconstrual to his readers.

    From Poser’s piece:

    That afternoon, Padilla was teaching a Roman-history course

    Does that sound like the action of someone who wants students to stop learning about Rome and Greece? He wants to ditch the label “Classics.” Fine. I agree. He wants to teach about the experiences of slaves in those societies. Sounds like a good idea.

    I only made it half way through Poser’s article before I decided that this is a tempest in a teapot, not worth finishing. Maybe I missed the crucial point. But I really doubt it.

    1. Why make a deal about teaching about the experience of slaves? You can very easily learn all about slaves in Classics and it’s taught about all the time. Of course we only know so much, just like we only know so much about women. Our mist strongest literary evidence is from well educated males who ran the society but there are other ways of learning such as indirect interactions in histories, literature and of course by understanding archaeology.

  9. The offense committed by the culture of ancient Greece and Rome is obvious: it took place in Europe, and the people doing it were Europeans. In short, they were honkies. and their literary, philosophical, and scientific products have been disseminated since then among honkies. One might understand Professor Padilla’s problem of double-mindedness, but the aptly named Rachel Poser is just another recent white graduate of collegiate wokism, still striking poses.

    There is a subject in history which has been well researched, but which will never appear in a NYT article: the venerable history of slavery in Africa. It long pre-dates the African encounter with Europeans, and in some African kingdoms as much as 1/3 of the population was enslaved (see Wiki). After contact occurred between Africa and Europe, and the Arab world, then there were whole, independent Black kingdoms, such as Dahomey in the west and Zanzibar in the east, in which the economy depended heavily upon the slave trade. When students like Ms. Poser sat in breathlessly in a CRT Studies class, I suspect that they did not hear a single word about this aspect of human history.

      1. In fact, it was Western civilization, Enlightenment and all that, that was the only civilization that made slavery a real nono. I cannot think of any other civilization that abandoned, and banned, slavery.

      2. Every human civilization seems to have included slavery at one time or another, most for very long periods. On the other hand, some regions outlawed slavery a lot earlier than others. For example, Wiki tells us:

        1315 Flag of France (XII-XIII).svg France Louis X publishes a decree abolishing slavery and proclaiming that “France signifies freedom”, that any slave setting foot on French ground should be freed.[19] However some limited cases of slavery continued until the 17th century in some of France’s Mediterranean harbours in Provence, as well as until the 18th century in some of France’s overseas territories.[20] Most aspects of serfdom are also eliminated de facto between 1315 and 1318.[21]

        1335 Royal Banner of Sweden (14th Century).svg Sweden Slavery abolished (including Sweden’s territory in Finland). However, slaves are not banned entry into the country until 1813.[22] In the 18th and 19th Centuries, slavery will be practiced in the Swedish-ruled Caribbean island of Saint Barthélemy. Sweden never had serfdom in except in a few territories it later acquired which was ruled under a local legal code.

        1347 Poland The Statutes of Casimir the Great issued in Wiślica emancipate all non-free people.[23]

        1. Note that all the examples you mention are Western civilizations. Some of it well before the Enlightenment, but the ideas of the Enlightenment are also older. [Roughly, printing and some degree of literacy -as well as being fed up with those very bloody religious wars- were the most important factors leading to the Enlightenment, I’d guess]
          Lest it appears I’m contending that the will to get rid of slavery is uniquely Western, I do not. Only that Western civilization was the only one (AFAIK) that actually succeeded.

    1. Your “honkies” comment is dead on and also made me LOL. I’ve already quoted it when explaining the preposterousness of this whole concept.

  10. I am a Classicist, as you know, Jerry. I only have a measly Masters though; my thesis centralised on Roman Epistolography, and therein, I delved into current events, ideologies, etc.; I didn’t explore matters of race or even slavery or conquest.

    I agree that the position that Classicism espouses and spawns racism is preposterous. Many of the provinces were in modern-day Africa and the Mideast, and as empires were expanded, people were conquered. Classical civilisations did not recognise skin colour as recognition of race; for example, the Romans did not just enslave darker people; rather, anyone they conquered in battle.

    The Greeks embraced a somewhat binary view of the world, which reduced these down into “this/that;” all non-Greeks were labelled “barbarians;” this had nothing to do with melanin and everything to do with the fact that the objects of this appellation…merely weren’t Greek.

    As for ancient languages and military stories and histories: thanks to Google, anyone can conduct a cursory search and unearth terms or several sentences on a subject and draw his or her incorrect conclusions. Countless English words have their roots in Latin: not just “fascism.” A two-second Google search yielded, “molon labe.”

    So, as you can see, I disagree with this allegation too…

    1. Haha well I only have a measly undergrad degree but I consider it a part of my identity. And all that you said above is so right on. Not to mention that if any of us went back to those times we’d be horrified by the way groups talked about other groups. I don’t even know where to start with these people but I do know that some of the most clever, funny faculty I’ve happened upon have been Classicists. I think the study is so esoteric, it tends to attract extremely astute and amusing people.

      1. I agree with what you said too: 100%. And I am delighted to know a fellow Classicist. Who is not malevolent! 😹 It does tend to be integral to one’s identity. We don’t study Classics for any reason apart from a love for the civilisation. 👍🏽

  11. I am a retired music teacher, with no classics background, but I consider myself well-read and have read some Greek philosophy, read about eastern and European history, and religions. I too subscribe to the NYT. I read the article in question, and I found it profoundly irritating. I may be just subscribing to the NYT Crossword before long, if this kind of writing keeps showing up.

    1. I meant to also thank the commenters for their really interesting and educational posts. It’s why I keep coming back to this blog.

    2. We’re on the same wavelength! I, too, have been considering whittling down my NYT subscription to just the Crossword and the Spelling Bee.

  12. The Neo Nazi rebranding effort called “identitarian movement” is steeped in imagery from the classics. You see lots of Greek helmets, hoplites, replacing the U with a V, (e.g. EVROPA). Their very logo is a yellow lambda on a black round shield.

    They are also not fringe anymore. It seeped into the so-called “Intellectual Dark Web” (IDW) too, as I complained about here long ago, and probably ealier, too. In the USA, it’s undeniably part of the far right, QAnon and Trump cluster. It’s probably no coincidence that “Proud Boys” are clothed in WASP colours of black-yellow that are also the preferred colour scheme of the European identitarians, with the lambda icon. This crowd was most loyal to the former president, and still makes up a large part of the Republican party.

    The imagery seems in particular inspired by the Battle of Thermopylae where Spartans and others fended off the Persian army of Xerxes, while severely outmanned. This was popularized not because Neo Nazis or “Identitarians” study the classics, but they saw the film “300” (an adaption of a comic book by Frank Miller) where hypermasculine white Spartans bravely fend off the darker skinned Xerxes and his hordes. This imagery obviously stands in for a war of the so-called “West” against the invading Muslims, where both “West” and “Muslim” have strong racist undercurrents.

    But is it classics? Will right wingers stop using Thermopylae iconography without classics departments? That’s of course nonsense. We could explore this as a form of appropriation, in much the same way as Nazis appropriated pre-Christian germanic icons for their cause. But that’s just one problem.

    The NYT article is again exceptionally weak woke tea. I wonder how does one “educate yourself” (as they say) when woke writers only ever say either total banalities or arrant nonsense, and shy away from the interesting bits.

    For instance, the idea of “the West” has a long history of Cold War connotations behind it, which apparently deeply shaped the American national mythology, turbocharged thanks to McCarthy especially on the Right. This was evidently revived on 9/11, now “the West” taking the role of American Christianity versus Islam. Classic departments played no apparent role. The article is puff held together by loose association.

    Other interesting questions are about the value of classic departments, or more broadly, the value of fans studying some artistic or cultural output and getting paid for it. We might ask, why aren’t there more Harry Potter scholars, or opposite, why do people are allowed to study, say, American sitcoms, or Herodot? We won’t get an answer here, but it partly shades into such questions.

    Finally, we can only tread water yet again with statements like these …

    But Padilla believes that the uproar over free speech is misguided. “I don’t see things like free speech or the exchange of ideas as ends in themselves,” he told me. “I have to be honest about that. I see them as a means to the end of human flourishing.”

    Again, the usual wokitus interruptus with predictably the same obvious questions: what’s the alternative? Who determines which ideas can be exchanged and so on. I suggest to ignore these until the woke spell out what they want. Have them say they want to burn books.

    1. Haha. The 300 comment was going through my mind when I read about the Thermopylae obsession. These schmucks don’t even know about Darius except what they see in science fiction and bad remakes involving Classics. Do they even have a clue that Cincinnati is named after a Roman who demonstrated Roman values exemplified in the humble farmer taking up arms, then surrendering his temporary power and returning to the fields anf what that meant to Romans? Nah, they just like macho imagery. There is also the trend of adopting Viking culture and myths as well. All plastic to these people.

  13. Thank you, didn’t know about the Identitarian angle
    “West” in modern usage is indeed a cold war term, before that, it meant France/England vs. Germany/Austria.
    If seen as a translation of Occident/Abendland, “West” was originally coined to opposed Western Christendom (Catholicism) with eastern Christendom, i.e. Orthodoxy, in essence: West Rome vs. East Rome. Later, it was also used as an antithesis to the Ottoman Empire when the Ottoman Imperialists expanded to Hungary.
    It certainly never meant “White” . It was mainly used as a within-European distinction.

    1. Unless you insist that white means precisely Caucasian, western does mean white.

      Historically, Westerners viewed themselves primarily as Christians. But after the Islamic Expansion, the Great Schism and the Christianization of pagan Europe only a subset of Caucasians could be part of Western civilization. Christian Filipinos for instance could at best be westernized, but not become western. Today, the word western still implies something dominated by whites. Only that it’s no longer about Christianity, but values like promoting LGBT rights (which are mostly embraced by WEIRD people). Note that modern firearms, schools and hospitals were once considered distinctly western, and that this is no longer the case since they became common worldwide.

      1. I think my south East Asian friends would take umbrage with the idea that they aren’t part of the western civilization they live in because they are brown.

  14. You can have somewhat diverse classics by focusing on topics like Indo-Greek kingdoms, brown-skinned Romans and the Huns. But there is no way to make that subject all about blacks, and that makes it racist in today’s America.

    I deny that the classics can appeal to everyone equally. They are merely essential for the history and self-image of white civilization. To those who deny it: how much effort have you put into studying the literature of Japan, the history of Uganda? Do you care about preserving Scots without having some Scottish relatives?

    1. Well the Mediterranean civilizations did form the basis of our own western civilization irrespective of race so people don’t study classics because it’s about the history of white people but because it’s about the history of western civilization (and law). It appears all of us, no matter our pigmentation and ethnic origins, live in this here western civilization and if not we are certainly influenced by it.

  15. It’s remarkable how many people in the Humanities departments are busy sawing away at the branches they sit on.

    For those who dismiss Greco-Roman civilization because it involved slavery and generated a version of democracy that was severely limited: what other foundational civilization was slave-free? And what other civilization of that time was promoting a version of democracy where everyone got to vote? How odd that presentism prevails among the same people who pride themselves for relativism elsewhere.

    “Padilla suspects that he will one day need to leave classics and the academy”

    One can only hope.

    1. I once took a biomedical ethics class. The TA said that we shouldn’t think of slavery as bad like it was in the US south because Plato had slaves. I, a Classics student, thought “wow, this guy is a dumbass” but the students nodded along. It was my Classical education that exposed me to the horrors of slavery especially as used as a way to build a society (City slaves had the worst jobs which as someone who worked in government for a time I found a little funny bit of course their jobs were very dangerous and exposed them to all sorts of unpleasant things). My point is it’s ironic they think you can magic away racism and slavery by abolishing the study of cultures that didn’t recognize such evils because all it does is foster ignorance.

  16. There are no prospects that classics studies will end, so the call to do so is simply pointless. 99% pure virtue signaling.
    What can be done is to expand faculty lines on other cultures and histories. Oh, wait, that’s already been done. Years ago. Ok … what can be done is to expand course offerings on other cultures and histories. Oh, wait, that’s already been done as well!
    Never mind, then.

    1. I think it could very well end. Classics is a very underfunded field in universities as it is. Oddly some depts are relatively rich but I think they find rich benefactors. However, parents don’t see the point of learning dead languages or learning about foundational history and law. Part of that is the failure of humanities depts in general and the discipline of Classics in particular to demonstrate their usefulness in modern society.

  17. Why not just add “Asian Studies”, which will add a lot of literature and artwork that promotes Asian supremacy? Or “African Studies”, which will add… not so much…literature and artwork that promotes African supremacy? Or “Native American Studies”, which…still less. Oh, but hasn’t that already been done? Ah, then it’s clear that the whole point of this campaign is *racist* — an attempt to denigrate the culture of White people. Racism! Racism! Ride this bum out of town on a rail.

  18. Padilla is of course welcome to leave the field. As a gesture of repentance for having devoted his professional life to something he now disdains, perhaps he should renounce the Princeton pension he earned from teaching it …? Now *that’s* a virtue-signal that would show real commitment.

  19. Yeah, I’ve been waiting for the woke to come after Classics. I’m actually surprised it took them that long. I have studied Classics since high school Latin. I took most of my electives in Classics when I did my first degree and then went back and did an honours Classics degree. I actually did that with the desire to become a Classics academic focusing on language and I’d already taken a lot of Latin, Greek, and European languages. I burned out though and was frankly very financially destitute with high student loans (I’m not of the privileged class) so I decided to try other things. Classics was always there as something so interesting to me and so vast in its study. I’m sure I will be considered a villain now having ever studied such racist things. Oh well, me and Hans Gruber will be talking about Alexander and hopefully they don’t run me out of town before I can retire.

  20. Here’s the simplest way to put it: there’s a difference between the ‘Classics’ as a field and the ‘Classical’ world in and of itself and the use and misuse of that field and that world over the centuries. It’s perfectly reasonable to analyse the ways in which Mussolini used themes from that world, perhaps legitimately, perhaps not- but only to an extent, given the multifacetedness of said world. It would also be valid to analyse the Classical influence on the American Revolution and the Founding Fathers, in particular, Thomas Jefferson, a racist but not a fascist. Point is: that world and the study of it in and of themselves do not constitute racism or white supremacy, while their use and misuse past and present are valid to study while not invalidating the valuable aspects to be gleaned from them. Ancient Greece can be both philosophically radical and politically conservative. There’s a good essay in Vanity Fair by Christopher Hitchens on the Parthenon, incidentally, in which he emphasises the former aspect. In fact, he wrote a book on the subject. And Greece has itself been home to both the most odious of reactionary, militaristic fascisms AND enlightenment. History is complex. Humans are complex. Life is complex.

    In other words: deal with it and kindly fuck off with your totalising categorisations of the world, Professor Padilla!

  21. I truly cannot abide this utterly rancid bullshit anymore. The Enlightenment and its antecedent philosophies and philosophers are what ended nasty regimes like slavery, theocracy, patriarchy, and other systems of oppression. It was countries that went through the Enlightenment and built upon it that eventually took it upon themselves to end such practices. Where do we still see such systems sanctioned in the world today? In places where the ideals that started with the classics have not yet taken hold.

  22. Oh you sure are “becoming more critical and splenetic” but for VERY good reason.
    As am I. There was a BLM protest – in the snow – outside my window on 8th last night.

    It is hard to find myself on Andrew Sully’s side much but there I find myself. And I’m no classics scholar but boy am I sick and tired of race and CRT being the lens through which we apparently HAVE TO VIEW EVERYTHING. Damn!

    I live here – I have no choice but to subscribe to the NYTimes…. but maybe save yourself. And …. while I’m doling out advice you should probably cut down your HuffPost huffing to very rare occasions (blood pressure, professor, blood pressure).

    So many idiots at these places. And I AM IN NO MOOD to “check my damn priv.” one more time!!!


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