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Kill The Racist Classics?

Prof. Dan-el Padilla Peralta believes the Classics are so permeated with white supremacy that they might have to be destroyed (Piero Ribelli/Penguin Random House)

A reader who works in academia writes:

The concern with race and diversity foregrounded by ALA leadership is now roiling Classical Studies thanks to a couple of incidents at the most recent joint meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America & Society for Classical Studies (San Diego, first week of January).

Some background. Classical Studies faculty and graduate students are mostly on the left just like faculty in other humanistic fields (I am not). That said, we’re a relatively staid bunch on the whole, so deeply ensconced in antiquity that the socio-political issues of the day have rather less impact in our field than in other humanistic and social science disciplines. Of course, Classicists have for decades been interested in issues of race and gender, an interest that has produced considerable compelling scholarship that would never have come from the pen of a Christian social conservative like me. That is to say, the increasing diversity of the field over, say, the last half century has resulted in scholars asking new and provocative questions that, in turn, have produced new and provocative research. A “win” for diversity in other words.

As a rather non-traditional, idiosyncratic thinker myself, I have often benefited from scholarship on e.g. Classics and colonialism and race and ethnicity in the ancient Mediterranean. Yes, Greek and Latin philology and the Classical canon will always remain the core of the field, as they should. Yet the history and culture of the Classical Mediterranean is a rich and near-inexhaustible reservoir of human experience. Spanning the deserts of southern Egypt to northern Britain and covering centuries and centuries of history, the ancient world was a place of striking diversity that no single scholar could ever hope to comprehend in a single lifetime. For this reason alone I am heartened by the increasingly fragmented and protean nature of the discipline. In a very real way, the collapse of previous understandings of the Classics and Western Civilization have made antiquity more interesting by revealing to us how much we have left to learn. Really, it’s an exciting time to be working in Classical Studies. See this article at Quillette for a good take: https://quillette.com/2019/01/10/the-future-of-our-ancient-past/

That said, the attention to issues of gender, subaltern history, and other “marginalized voices” has resulted in the in the colonization of the discipline by the militant, zero-sum racial politics of the contemporary progressive left. The dangers of this are now on full display in the multiple responses to what seem to have been admittedly unpleasant incidents at the last AIA-SCS meeting in San Diego. (I was unable to attend this year’s meeting myself so any and all commentary below derives solely from what I have read and what I have been told.)

Short version: Apparently a hotel security guard asked two non-white participants for their identification, allegedly because of their skin color (I do not know the individuals in question nor do I know where they employed). Second, during a panel on the “Future of Classics,” someone named Mary Frances Williams responded to one of the talks by defending Greek and Latin as the foundation of the discipline (so far so good), Western Civilization (uh oh), then accused the speaker Dan-el Padilla Peralta of only holding his position at Princeton because of his race (Peralta is black and Dominican). The accuser is an “independent scholar,” i.e. she has no appointment in any academic institution and is allegedly “mentally ill” (whatever that means).

The situation (which, again, I did not myself witness) is narrated in the Chronicle of Higher Ed: https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2019/01/07/racist-comments-directed-classics-scholar-disciplinary-meeting-floor-classicists

Peralta’s own response can be found at Medium: https://medium.com/@danelpadillaperalta/some-thoughts-on-aia-scs-2019-d6a480a1812a

Another semi-official reflection can be found here: https://cucd.blogs.sas.ac.uk/files/2019/01/Quinn-AFTER-SAN-DIEGO.pdf

Everything you might want to know is here: https://classicalstudies.org/scs-blog/sarah-bond/blog-roundup-reports-reactions-and-reflections-after-scs-annual-meeting

I’d like to reflect on Peralta’s response to these events because it touches on issues you have recently addressed, particularly the occupation of certain disciplines by racialist “diversity” thinking and the scapegoating mechanism. I’d also throw in a healthy dose of moral panic for good measure.

Peralta’s short article is largely unreadable thanks to the heavy use of (I assume) Critical Race Studies terminology, a field with which I have no acquaintance. Odious bits like “white fragility,” however, are common enough that I’ve heard them before (yes, what used to be called “defensiveness” has now been racialized). Still, I think he makes a number of valid points, which could be made still more effectively were he to avoid inscrutable and highly emotivist jargon. Here, however, is where things get tricky. Padilla writes:

“The most maddening aspect of Saturday’s episode was in some respects the most predictable. Seeing as 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; because my black body’s vulnerability challenges and chastizes the universalizing pretensions of color-blind classics; because my black being-in-the-world makes it possible for me to ask new and different questions within the field, to inhabit new and different approaches to answering them, and to forge alliances with other scholars past and present whose black being-in-the-world has cleared the way for my leap into the breach.”

This argument is made all the more dangerous because it is intimately entangled with Padilla’s otherwise unobjectionable remark that his own personal identity is bound up with his own scholarship. Of course it is, because pure objectivity is a myth. We all bring our own unique experiences, upbringing, and personality to our scholarship. As much as any artistic production, our scholarship is deeply and inextricably entwined with our own identities. We cannot disentangle our inner selves from our research nor should we even try to, as Padilla rightly states in an interview elsewhere. We should instead recognize that each scholar brings something unique and irreplicable to the table—a way of seeing the past that is informed by their own personal identity and history. This does not, of course, mean that each way of seeing the ancient world is equally correct but I would still rather have a diverse chorus of voices with which to engage than the droning monotone that characterized the field throughout much of its history.

All well and good. Yet, let me first propose replacing “blackness” in Padilla’s remarks with a descriptor more germane to me, e.g. “Christian social conservative” and emending the passage as necessary. It is difficult for me to clearly assess how my own religious and political beliefs affect my scholarship but let us safely assume that they do. Further, as a Christian social conservative, I am all but unrepresented in my own discipline. I know precisely zero other Christian social conservatives who hold academic appointments in the Classics. I’m sure there are some out there but they are unknown to me. In Padilla’s logic, these observations lead me to the following conclusion: Since my background allows me to see the past in a unique and highly underrepresented way, people like me should receive preferential treatment in hiring in order to boost diversity in the field.

Could I make this argument in contemporary academia and be taken seriously? Hardly, nor would I since I do not myself support it. Padilla, however, is allowed to make this argument with regard to his own ethnicity because of the acceptance within left-progressivism of a clear moral hierarchy of identity categories. As you surely know, someone like me—white, male, heterosexual, Christian, social conservative—sits at the bottom of a hierarchy capped by an array of intersectional identities comprised of victims of folks like me.

Further, Padilla is effectively arguing that identity categories near the top of the moral hierarchy should be taken into consideration in faculty hiring. This necessarily means that whiteness has become, at best, a neutral category or, at worst, a negative attribute.

This is a clear call for (patently illegal) racial considerations in faculty hiring, a call that has merit only insofar as one accepts identitarian moral hierarchies and the need to make reparations for past injustices. Yet Padilla’s argument takes on near-Catholic religious fervor in the following statement:

“If this discipline is to cherish the minds of scholars of color, it must begin by cherishing their bodies — and all the legacies of racisms past and present that are seared into their flesh.”

Like the original sin of Adam and Eve is borne in the mortal flesh of all mankind, so too are the past sins of whiteness borne in the flesh of the oppressed (and their oppressors). Only through the acceptance of the salvific power of contemporary racial politics and continued, lifelong reparative repentance can we hope to achieve justice and salvation.

Padilla goes on to criticize Cambridge Classicist Mary Beard’s plenary talk at the panel, which (again) I wasn’t there to hear. Beard is a well-respected member of the discipline, someone whose popularizing work has done much to spread a love and appreciation of the Classical world beyond our ivory tower. Apparently, the thrust of Beard’s talk was that things were bad in the past, yes, but not always and everywhere so bad. We’ve done some good too. Or so I gleaned from the summaries. Padilla writes that this “bored me to new heights of rage” and harshly critiques Beard for not giving the talk that he wanted to hear, i.e. for daring to narrate the history of racism, women, and people of color in Classical Studies through an intellectual framework other than his own. He then concludes with the rather shocking question:

“Why not invest (say) in an Afro-pessimistic critique that, in recognizing the inescapability of white supremacy in the discipline’s phylogeny and ontogeny, kept all options for reparative intellectual justice — including the demolition of the discipline itself — on the table?”

This conclusion, I think, speaks more eloquently than I ever could about the dangers of woke racialist identity politics to the discipline of Classical Studies. Before addressing it, however, we must ask ourselves why we continue to study the (pre-)Classical and Late Antique Mediterranean (ca. the Bronze Age-the early Islamic period).

Well, (a) for its own sake; (b) because we’re nerds and think it’s just neat; and (c) because this very long expanse of history laid the groundwork for later historical developments in Europe and the Islamic world, and because the cultural inheritance of the ancient/late antiquity Mediterranean forms the backbone of European and neo-European culture as well as (yes) the cultural inheritance of Islam (the dialogue between Classical learning and late antique/medieval Islam world was intense and profoundly generative, something that should never be forgotten). I’m sure there are other reasons but these are the three that occur to me now. As I stated above, the left-liberal turn within the discipline over the last half-century has also allowed us to see the past in new and interesting ways. Although Classics was once a discipline focused solely on the canon and a narrowly-constrained, exclusionist version of “Western Civilization,” we have become much, much more.

Padilla, however, would do away with this diversity and retrench, thereby transforming the discipline into the mirror image of its narrow, parochial former self. If I am reading him correctly, Padilla argues that racism and white supremacy are so woven into the DNA of Classical Studies that they are inescapable. If this is the case, working to eradicate these evils is a lifelong project, one that may well be impossible. The best we could hope for would be to replicate Catholic dogma and practice by continually acknowledging the inescapability of the Original Sin of racism and devoting ourselves to a life of repentance and good works. There would hardly be time for anything else. Yet we should also, he argues, even remain open to the possibility that the discipline may need to be destroyed if it cannot be saved.

This is a profoundly objectionable and dangerous idea. Padilla has taken two small incidents, one instigated by a security guard, the other by a satellite member of the discipline with no academic appointment, and transformed them into an indictment of the entire field of Classical Studies, past, present, and even future. Williams and the Marriott security guard have become condensed symbols of the supposed systemic, structural racism of the Classics, representatives of the wicked power structures that must be uprooted and destroyed in order to restore order and justice to our little world. Let the crusading begin.

In more prosaic terms, we are now in full moral panic mode. My own department’s diversity committee has organized a meeting (optional, not mandatory) to discuss these issues and I will probably attend. I have never hidden who I am from my colleagues yet I remain on good terms with them. They are good people and I respect them immensely. Indeed, I am closest to arguably my most far-left colleagues because we have reached similar conclusions about certain structural problems within the department and its various graduate programs. We work well together because we are aware that even if we at times disagree, our radially dissimilar intellectual and moral frameworks are complementary and help to illuminate each other’s blind spots. Another “win” for true diversity.

Yet if the upcoming meeting reveals that Padilla’s narrow, blinkered, and destructive racialist thinking cannot be challenged by reasonably well-like people of good will like myself, I will have to question my future in this profession.

Understand what’s happening here: this black Princeton professor believes he is entitled to a Classics job precisely because of the color of his skin, and moreover, holds out the possibility that his entire field should be destroyed because it is racist.

This would be like Citibank hiring a Bolshevik as a vice president, or the Catholic Church ordaining a militant atheist. To be honest, the latter would be more likely than the former; Villanova University, which is Catholic, hired white theologian Katie Grimes, who once wrote in a paper (see this link for discussion) that the Catholic Church, of which she is a communicant, is so racist it ought to be … something, I dunno. Destroyed, maybe? She writes:

Since the racially segregated space of the United States operates as a habitat of white supremacy, the vice of white supremacy pervades the church’s corporate body and thereby permeates all of its practices, including those of baptism and the Eucharist. Rather than turning to the church’s sacraments as an antidote to the vices of a presumed external culture, this paper chronicles the way in which these very practices have been corrupted by it. The church cannot reform itself from within. In order to enable these sacraments to build the body of Christ, the church must work to dismantle regnant patterns of white supremacist racial segregation in the world. …

Indeed, the vice of white supremacy entered the church’s corporate body not just when the church was acting in un-Catholic ways; the church acquired this vice even by being itself.

Can you imagine taking a class from a Catholic theologian who believed that even the sacraments are irredeemably tainted by white supremacy? A Catholic university actually hired this person. And Princeton employs a racialist Classics scholar who believes that the field in which he teaches is so racist that it perhaps ought not to exist at all.

I cannot believe this nihilistic lunacy is taken seriously. How is this not disqualifying as a teacher of a particular subject? Do other scholars within the field have the moral courage to denounce this absurd threat to the integrity of their scholarship? The reader is right: if they give in on this, the field will be fatally compromised; honest scholars will have to go elsewhere to keep the discipline alive as left-wing politics consumes it within universities.

Liberalism is dead; progressivism destroys everything it touches.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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