Classics Studies: No Country For White Men
A reader writes that he is a scholar in the Classics field who “as a student … fully embraced the Foucauldian gender/sexuality obsession that gripped the field (and seems quaint by today’s standards), but in my opinion things have now gone completely off the rails. I am currently undergoing a conversion of sorts and, for instance, now consider myself a member of the Camille Paglia/ Christina Hoff Sommers camp.” He says that he’s still active in the field, but is “terrified of speaking out for fear that I will be ostracized and made into a pariah.”
He goes on:
Regarding the Peralta situation, it’s actually worse than you might think. With all of the drama surrounding the heated interactions that followed the “Future of Classics” panel, very few people are actually talking about the content of the paper Peralta delivered, which has been made available to the public here:
[Here is a link to Peralta’s paper, titled “Racial Equity and the Production of Knowledge”.]
In his paper Peralta actually uses the phrase “zero-sum” and argues that white men should, effectively, be locked out of the publishing arm of the discipline, that in order to rectify inequality and racial injustice editors should exercise discretion and stop publishing work produced by white men, dedicating their publishing space entirely to women and especially to “people of color”. He seems to reject the concept of merit and the utility of blind peer review.
The few people who are talking about his paper do so with admiration and approval. You may or may not be familiar with Eidolon, a self-described “woke” online journal dedicated to social justice and the Classics (Peralta is a member of the editorial board), but you can read their glowing approval of Peralta’s arguments and their plan to implement them here: https://eidolon.pub/racism-responses-responsibilities-a3d96b414f19
Eidolon was created and is currently operated by Donna Zuckerberg, Mark Zuckerberg’s sister, and her high-profile presence, power, and influence are arguably doing more damage to Classics than Dan-el Padilla Peralta’s comments. The leadership of the Society for Classical Studies (SCS) has embraced Eidolon and its viewpoint, often citing and distributing Eidolon’s articles and publishing think-pieces on their blog that echo Eidolon’s obsession with identity politics. For example, the following quote appears in one of their blog posts, implicitly endorsed, it seems to me, by the SCS: “The concept of ‘Western Civilization’ is premised on a clear distinction between the ‘West’ and everyone else, a distinction that is clear to no one but those ideologues who insist upon it. If we accept the notion of ‘Western Civilization’ with a straight face, we must acknowledge that this puts us, not necessarily on the same footing as white nationalists claiming Greco-Roman antiquity as their past, but certainly on the same spectrum.”
So, I had a look at Peralta’s paper. Here are some excerpts, which I have done my best to translate from jargon into actual English:
This statement brings me now to the purpose of my remarks for this panel. I want to look at a blinding derangement: the responsibility of the major journals in the field for the replication of those asymmetries of power and authority that impoverish knowledge production in the field of Classics — by perpetrating the epistemic and hermeneutic injustice of denying a space and a place to scholars of color.
He’s saying that the historical lack of non-white scholars in the Classics is a social injustice, because it has deformed our ability to know things (epistemology) and to interpret them (hermeneutics). More:
Let me put this another way: if one were intentionally to design a discipline whose institutional organs and gatekeeping protocols were explicitly aimed at disavowing the legitimate status of scholars of color as producers of knowledge, one could not do better than what Classics has done.
Translation: Classics journals perpetuate racism through their publication standards. OK, so how do they do that, Professor Peralta?
He doesn’t say! All he does is point to data showing that most scholars in the Classics field who have been published in academic journals are white males. The fact of the disparity itself is, for Peralta, evidence of bigotry. He writes:
What factors account for this? Editors at several of the journals have complained about the gap between the volume of submissions by men and the volume of submissions by women, and from some editorial letters one gets the sense of a shrugging of the shoulders: yes, we’re trying, but it’s just so hard. Certainly, we’ll need to talk about what constitutes meaningful effort to redress this imbalance, and to contend with the fact—undoubtedly obvious to many of you in this room—that men continue to receive more explicit encouragement to submit to journals than women. But the extraordinary discretionary power wielded by editors should also be subjected to scrutiny too, and I hope we will discuss this during the Q&A. For now, let me end by noting that discretionary power can and should be flexed to progressive consequence and outcome: in 2018, when only 3% of Eidolon’s authors were tenured men, the journal published twice as many women as men.
OK, but what about the quality of their papers? Doesn’t that count? None of that matters to Peralta. Only the identity of the authors matters.
He is obsessive about this:
The significance of editorial discretionary power comes into starker relief when we turn to the racial and ethnic make-up of the publication rosters of TAPA, AJP, and CA, the bleakness of which may not surprise some of you in attendance but which still deserves quantitative exposition. For all authors who published in these journals from 1997 to 2017,1I conducted Internet searches to establish their racial and ethnic background—digging into publicly available information on parents, families, and marriages as disclosed by birth announcements and obituaries/necrologies whenever I could pin these down.
One thinks of Southern white supremacists a hundred years ago, sorting out quadroons and octoroons, or National Socialist tests to determine who has a disqualifying amount of Jewish blood. The quality of the work doesn’t matter — only the racial genealogy of the authors.
Here is the conclusion:
As far as I’m concerned, 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? How do we perform—and validate, and support—the reparative epistemic justice that the discipline so sorely needs? It is here that I will insist on a modification to the discourse of inclusion. For this reparative epistemic justice to take flight, holders of privilege will need to surrender their privilege. In practical terms, this means that (in an economy of academic prestige defined and governed by scarcity) 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. Again, however, I emphasize that this is an economy of scarcity that at the level of journal publication will remain zero-sum (until and unless this system of publication is dismantled): every person of color who is to be published will take the place of a white man whose words could have or had already appeared in the pages of that journal. And that would be a future worth striving for.
And there you have it: white heterosexual male scholarship in the Classics must be suppressed, and the papers of all others promoted, not because of the quality of the work, but because of the identity of the authors. It’s a matter of “reparative epistemic justice.”
This racist, sexist cant is a direct threat to the livelihoods of scholars, solely on the basis of their race and sex, as well as to the intellectual integrity of the Classics field. The fact that scholars like the person who wrote me about this are too afraid to speak out against racist bullies like Peralta should set off alarm bells. Peralta, as you can see, is not a fringe figure. He teaches at Princeton, and as the anonymous letter-writer points out, he is advancing a view that Donna Zuckerberg and other progressives within the field share.
Understand this: a Princeton professor issued a call for scholars to be banned from publishing in academic journals on the basis of their race and sex. This is progressivism. Imagine being a white male taking a class with Prof. Peralta, who openly says that your thoughts and opinions are worth less because of your race and sex. How is he getting away with this bigotry? Because he’s on the Left? Yes, because he’s on the Left.
Don’t overlook what the reader pointed out about the Society for Classical Studies blogger favorably citing Prof. Arum Park, who said:
“The very idea of ‘Western Civilization’ itself–and the assumption that Reed’s sole required Humanities course should privilege it–is deeply problematic. The concept of ‘Western Civilization’ is premised on a clear distinction between the ‘West’ and everyone else, a distinction that is clear to no one but those ideologues who insist upon it. If we accept the notion of ‘Western Civilization’ with a straight face, we must acknowledge that this puts us, not necessarily on the same footing as white nationalists claiming Greco-Roman antiquity as their past, but certainly on the same spectrum.”
Got this? Even saying that such a thing as Western civilization exists makes you kissing cousins to neo-Nazis. Donna Zuckerberg has written that esteeming the study of Greece and Rome because those pre-Christian civilizations are the foundation of our own is “a slippery slope to white supremacy.” Do you see what they’re doing here? This is pure ideological will to power. There is no principle here. They only want to destroy.
People who care about the Classics (which, if you don’t know, is the study of Greco-Roman culture) had better find some courage and start fighting back. If they lose, or if they judge that the fight is unwinnable on ordinary terms, then they had better start building a Benedict Option for their field. Remember your MacIntyre:
A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead—often not recognising fully what they were doing—was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness.
As a matter of self-defense, and defense of the scholarly tradition, dissenting Classics scholars may have to quit trying to maintain the ideologically corrupted structures of their discipline, and instead construct new forms of community within which the scholarly tradition can survive the madness of this cultural moment. I’m not talking about a religious Benedict Option; I’m talking about building a community of traditionalists who genuinely love Classics, and want to teach them, and do research on them, free of the commissars.
It could be that traditional Christian colleges and schools that uphold the tradition of liberal learning will end up as the only places where legitimate scholarship on pre-Christian Greece and Rome can be done.
Conservative donors, would you please start paying attention to this stuff? It’s more important than tax bills. It’s not something that can be dealt with in legislatures. We’re talking about the future of our civilization, if it’s going to have one. There are so many classical Christian schools, and other initiatives (like the Circe Institute) that are trying very hard, on very little money, to keep the tradition of classical learning alive. They really and truly need your help. The people trying to destroy the tradition from within are very well-funded — Donna “Sister of Mark” Zuckerberg! — and have institutional support.
I wish to address the other question: the reason for studying them in the first place. This is of paramount importance. After all, university officials, deans, provosts, and presidents all are far more likely to know how to construct a Harvard Business School case study than to parse a Greek verb, more familiar with flowcharts than syllogisms, more conversant in management-speak than the riches of the English language. Hence the oft-repeated call to “make the case for the humanities.”
Such an endeavor is fraught with ambiguities. Vulgar conservative critiques of the humanities are usually given the greatest exposure, and yet it is often political (and religious) conservatives who have labored the most mightily to foster traditional humanistic disciplines. Left defenders of the humanities have defended their value in the face of an increasingly corporate and crudely economic world, and yet they have also worked to gut some of the core areas of humanistic inquiry — “Western civ and all that” — as indelibly tainted by patriarchy, racism, and colonialism.
The humanities have both left and right defenders and left and right critics. The left defenders of the humanities are notoriously bad at coming up with a coherent, effective defense, but they have been far more consistent in defending the “useless” disciplines against politically and economically charged attacks. The right defenders of the humanities have sometimes put forward a strong and cogent defense of their value, but they have had little sway when it comes to confronting actual attacks on the humanities by conservative politicians. The sad truth is that instead of forging a transideological apology for humanistic pursuits, this ambiguity has led to the disciplines’ being squeezed on both sides.
Indeed, both sides enable the humanities’ adversaries. Conservatives who seek to use the coercive and financial power of the state to correct what they see as ideological abuses within the professoriate are complicit in the destruction of the old-fashioned and timeless scholarship they supposedly are defending. It is self-defeating to make common cause with corporate interests just to punish the political sins of liberal professors. Progressives who want to turn the humanities into a laboratory for social change, a catalyst for cultural revolution, a training camp for activists, are guilty of the same instrumentalization. When they impose de facto ideological litmus tests for scholars working in every field, they betray their conviction that the humanities exist only to serve contemporary political and social ends.
Caught in the middle are the humanities scholars who simply want to do good work in their fields; to read things and think about what they mean; to tease out conclusions about the past and present through a careful analysis of evidence; to delve deeply into language, art, artifact, culture, and nature. This is what the university was established to do.
He goes on:
The humanities and the university do need defenders, and the way to defend the humanities is to practice them. Vast expanses of humanistic inquiry are still in need of scholars and scholarship. Whole fields remain untilled. We do not need to spend our time justifying our existence. All we need to do is put our hand to the plow. Scholarship has built institutions before and will do so again. Universities have declined and come to flourish once more. The humanities, which predate the university and may well survive it, will endure — even if there is no case to defend them.
As Stover, who teaches at the University of Edinburgh, argues, you cannot make an instrumental case for studying the Classics, or the humanities at all. If they are going to survive, it will have to be because people love them. Alt-rightists who want to study the Classics because it gives them a cheap sense of racial superiority are profoundly misguided, but they are not the ones who are attacking the discipline from the high ground — within its precincts — for the sake of “reparative epistemic justice,” or some other empty SJW cant giving respectable cover to ideological hatred.
I have no idea if these destroyers can be stopped. You readers who work in academia, and in the Classics, are invited to share your perspectives. I do know this, though: that traditionalists and others who, in Stover’s words, “just want to do good work in their fields” without being colonized by left-wing or right-wing ideology need to work on building institutional alternatives to keep the traditional humanities alive. Vaclav Benda talked about the need to construct a “parallel polis” as a way to keep knowledge that the commissars hated from disappearing. It’s extremely relevant advice today, not only for the Classics, but for all the humanities.
UPDATE: Reader Chiara, whose e-mail indicates that she is at a prestigious university:
I have an undergrad degree in Classics, earned decades ago, and all my profs were white males and excellent teachers. After graduating I started a PhD in the same field at an ivy-league school; all my profs were white males and abysmal teachers, and one was also a sexual predator while two others were true misogynists. (Moral of the story: maybe we should look at qualifications and genuine competence when we’re condemning folks, ya think? because race and gender aren’t good predictors. Yeah I know, call me crazy…) Left after a year, and later got a doctorate in a different field.
Thank God, too! because a few years back, one of my students expressed interest in a summer classics program at that ivy-league school. I took a look at the current list of faculty and doctoral students, and found that today, it consists mostly of women doing research into goddess-whatever.
Just think, if I had stuck it out, today I would be a Catholic woman with a PhD in Classics, completely surrounded by wiccans…
Rod, academia is so thoroughly screwed up, I don’t see any effective way to “fight back.” If I were still in the field of classics today, there is zero doubt that I would be professionally mowed down. And there wouldn’t be a damned thing I could do about it. Appealing to the administration, seriously? Suing and claiming…what, exactly?
But to those undergrads studying classics today, I still say DO IT. Get your BA and go teach high-school kids sum es est sumus estis sunt, and you’ll manage to make a difference. But trying to navigate the already deadly pitfalls of graduate school, in a field now so full of psychos? You’d might as well tap-dance in a minefield.