Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Cancel Culture Goes on an Odyssey

A Massachusetts teacher brags about chucking out Homer as wokeness burrows even deeper into our classrooms.
The Odyssey

What books make up the American canon in the year 2021? What texts do we hold in common? These are more difficult questions to answer than they ought to be. Once the Bible would have been at the top of that list, but no longer; The New England Primer, with its famous “in Adam’s Fall, we sinned all,” our nation’s first earworm, has likewise been secularized out of existence. So what then? One imagines a robot teacher in an American Studies class 400 years from now: “All right, children, let’s turn to verse 40 of the Peloton instruction manual…”

Even the young adult novels that briefly anchored our literary culture—the Harry Potters and (saints preserve us) the Twilights—have mostly lost their hold. And while I suppose there’s still enough boring anger over the last season of Game of Thrones to form a civic religion around, even the best TV shows don’t inspire the way a good book does. No, the common reading list seems to have given way to the common void. What’s worse, we’ve now taken it upon ourselves to start canceling the very books we once canonized.

This is what happened recently at a high school in Lawrence, Massachusetts. After a Twitter activist named Shea Martin (“they/them,” since I know you were wondering) tweeted, “Be like Odysseus and embrace the long haul to liberation (and then take the Odyssey out of your curriculum because it’s trash),” a Lawrence teacher named Heather Levine responded, “Hahaha …. Very proud to say we got the Odyssey removed from the curriculum this year!” You go, girl! Someone has to stand up for those marginalized by Homer, such as nymphs and Laestrygonians. It all comes amid a campaign called #DisruptTexts, which “advocates for curriculum and instructional practices that are culturally responsive and antiracist.”

The Odyssey was once part of a canon, one of three epic poems that most everyone in Ancient Greece was familiar with, alongside Homer’s Iliad and Hesiod’s Works and Days. (If you think Homer tramples on sensibilities, give the wonderfully unvarnished Hesiod a read. Among his pearls: “Don’t piss in the mouth of a river that flows to the sea, / Nor in springs either. And don’t ever shit in them.” And: “Don’t let your privates be seen smeared with semen / Near the hearth at home. Be careful to avoid this.”) So now Odysseus and the gang—Penelope, Telemachus, and you O swineherd Eumaeus—have all been canceled. In one Massachusetts classroom, Odysseus’ name is now Noman. I’m not sure what recourse is available to the old warrior here, especially given what happened the last time he sought restitution against an ignorant crowd.

Homer’s great works, of course, should not be above criticism, nor were they even for the Greeks who revered and pored over them. Plato and Aristotle both criticized Homer, while the Athenian playwright Aristophanes spoofed Homeric motifs. But the point is that the Greeks made these texts available, held them up as exemplars of beauty and honor, used them to better comprehend their own civilization. What the Greeks did not do was to remove the Odyssey from their curriculum because it contained offensive portrayals of women living in caves. Only modern progressives are so benighted.

The good people over at #DisruptTexts claim to be against this kind of censorship, advocating for addition instead of subtraction. They only want to open students’ minds to new works by authors of color, they say. And certainly there’s something to, as one of their tweets puts it, “resist[ing] universalism that ends up defaulting the ‘human experience’ to the experiences of White ppl.” Surely mankind means more than just the West along with a brief passage from Things Fall Apart and cursory stops at Avicenna and Averroes. Yet what then are we supposed to make of another tweet they sent: “Do we encourage teachers to replace racist, harmful texts? ABSOLUTELY,” criteria that could easily be stretched over Homer? What about when they retweeted a link to a blog post that recommended teachers let “some of our old favorites go,” everything from The Secret Garden to The Indian in the Cupboard to Dr. Seuss?

This is the tension at the heart of these critical analysis efforts. Laudable attempts to enhance curricula and make them more representative inevitably overlap with cancel culture, social media mobs, students triggered by the white paint on the classroom walls. These trends have been snowballing for some time. It’s been almost a decade since new editions of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn were released that scrubbed out all the racial slurs. Back then, the American Library Association condemned the censorship and many liberals expressed outrage. In 2019, New Jersey legislators tried to remove Huckleberry Finn from state schools entirely.

This is where the cultural tides are pulling: towards a drained and pemmicanized and Orwellian arts and letters in which even a satirical critic of American racism can’t be read in full because he dares to depict that bigotry in all its coarseness. Anything that doesn’t fit through the woke pinhole must be discarded. Even those young adult novels we once passed around the national campfire aren’t safe. Back in 2019, one young adult release was mobbed on Twitter and ultimately had its publication delayed because—I’m not making this up—it depicted a fantasy world with slaves who weren’t necessarily black. J.K. Rowling has been canceled for daring to argue that gender shouldn’t be abolished. And surely we can’t continue to tolerate the likes of Katniss Everdeen, that antigovernment Tea Partier with not a single Latinx in her love triangle.

Against such a cleansing, what chance does Homer stand? Still, maybe it’s possible to meet the wokesters partway. I’m reminded of a passage from the Iliad in which Zeus gives a speech to his fellow gods about their repeated meddling in the Trojan War (from the Butler translation):

If I see anyone acting apart and helping either Trojans or Danaans, he shall be beaten inordinately ere he come back again to Olympus; or I will hurl him down into dark Tartarus far into the deepest pit under the earth, where the gates are iron and the floor bronze, as far beneath Hades as heaven is high above the earth, that you may learn how much the mightiest I am among you. Try me and find out for yourselves. Hangs me a golden chain from heaven, and lay hold of it all of you, gods and goddesses together–tug as you will, you will not drag Jove the supreme counsellor from heaven to earth; but were I to pull at it myself I should draw you up with earth and sea into the bargain, then would I bind the chain about some pinnacle of Olympus and leave you all dangling in the mid firmament. So far am I above all others either of gods or men.

Sounds a bit…Trumpian, doesn’t it? There’s a certain toxic masculinity—I almost set my keyboard on fire after typing that—at work in Homer’s epics of which the poet himself seems keenly aware, whether in Zeus’ dictatorial caprice or Achilles’ petulant pride or the suitors’ frat-boy arrogance. So teach that. The Greeks loved combat, an obsession that, among other things, enabled the pointless carnage of the Peloponnesian War. Teach that too. Teach about how the Spartan state we glamorized in 300 was undergirded by mass slavery. Teach about how women didn’t enjoy the same rights as men.

Teach history with all its starts, stops, scandals, and stupidities. And then one day, too, teach about the censorious goofiness that briefly infected our intellectual life as a matter of past not prologue.