Top Posts of 2017--An Assessment

Everybody's doing it, so why don't we! Here is a run down of the top 10 posts (based on stats) to my blog for 2017 and what we can tell about the state of the world from it.

The List

10. How is the Ancient Mediterranean Diverse If Everyone There Is "White"?

An attempt to disconnect the ubiquitous concept of "whiteness" from the issue of "diversity" as it pertains to both ancient Mediterranean contexts and to our modern construct of race.  Lots of links to good work being done in biological/forensic anthropology.

Roy Moore isn't the only one to think that dating children is OK! It was a widespread ancient practice and if you (selectively) base your morality on ancient texts (I'm looking at you, evangelical Christians), you might think it is OK, too. It's not. 

The idea that North Africans are all historically "white" and sub-Saharan Africans all historically "Black" is not supported by our ancient sources. We should think about how we selectively use evidence to demonstrate modern racist points. Or how we unwittingly continue parroting 19th century racist ideas without going back to the sources. 

Lots of Neo-Nazis like to point to genetics as the proof that white people rule the world and are the source for all cultures worth studying. Sad for them, it's not true. This post examined the way modern genetics categories are created and their inherent subjectivity. Genetics runs the risk of becoming the new eugenics as it becomes popular with people who don't actually know much about genetics or know enough to manipulate it to look like it proves their points (looking at you, Taleb).

This one is a work in progress, but it shares my own and others' syllabi for teaching race and ethnicity in classical antiquity. Keep watching it as it will just keep expanding.

Conservative defenders of the current President often point to his defense of "western civilization". But the Western Civilization of DT and his friends is a toxic stew of white supremacy and misogyny that many of us who study and teach it don't recognize. Mark Bauerlein tried to support this stew on Thanksgiving and I. Just. Could. Not. 

There is a long-standing trope in scholarship and among modern people who want to deride affirmative consent movements that antiquity did not have a concept of consent. On the contrary, laws from Greece and Rome as far back as the 7th century BCE (and further back in Hammurabi's Law Code outside of GReece/Rome) show a clear concept of consent. Consent matters and it always has.

My favorite since it is part of an ongoing research project that is close to my heart, here I did a cursory look at the ways classical iconography and architecture were used at the Chicago World's Fair to intentionally connect the Classical with the idea of "whiteness" and white supremacy. The words of the creators were explicit, so this isn't something I just made up. Sorry. And, not a bit of polychromy in sight, of course...

Another ongoing labor of love that I want to share with others in my ever growing bibliography for studying and teaching race and ethnicity in the classical world. Since going live, I've added a reception section and am happy to add any new book I come across or that you recommend. The biblio is vast and I'm absolutely sure I don't have it all.


This one took off and has a life of its own with almost 30,000 hits since August 8. It takes its inspiration from the backlash to the BBC cartoon using a dark skinned family as well as the attacks on Sarah Bond and the response to one of my Eidolon articles. The answer to the question, of course, is that people are racist and want antiquity to match their white wonderland view of it. It doesn't. Get over it.

Honorable Mentions

1. Ethnicity in Herodotus--the Honest Entry (every scholar gets frustrated with their subject from time to time)


Well, it seems that this is the year when it is finally not only OK to talk about race and ethnicity in Classical antiquity, but it is actually of interest to the general public (my articles on the topic over at Eidolon were apparently very popular, both making the Eidolon top 12 for 2017). Why might that be?

White Supremacy in the White House, Charlottesville, Nazis. Also, everyone is confused about what "whiteness" is. Western Civilization is FAILING (according to David Brooks). We all know race is a constructed category (even those in denial), but one with a lot of power. And, we seem to finally be ready to come to grips a bit more with Classics' complicity in US racism. 

I'll be writing more on this in the new year as I work on a book and some articles on the topic, especially on its ties to scientific racism, but I'll also do a bit more on women/gender/sexuality since I'm teaching it next term and I get a lot of inspiration from my students. Will I ever write about anything else? Probably. I just haven't gotten there yet.

All in all, this has been a good year for the blog. It's the year I actually started using it and, it turns out, I actually have some things to say...

Classically White Supremacy--The American Dream of a White City

Sarah Bond has written on the issue of the fetishization of whiteness in the history of art with respect to ancient sculpture. Her discussion centers on the influential work of  Johann Joachim Winckelmann and his monumental Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums (1764). Museums and expensive art books were one way Winckelmann's theories were popularized in the 18th and 19th centuries, at least in Europe, where there were large, "encyclopedic" museums developing (the British Museum, the Louvre, etc) with increasing numbers of marble sculptures. In the US, however, museums were not prevalent in the 19th or early 20th centuries and were still limited to places like Boston and New York. And yet, it is in the United States that this fetishization of classical whiteness seems to have become especially prevalent in popular culture. The question I want to examine here is how. And my suggestion for an answer is that the  1893 Chicago World's Fair, aka the Columbian Exposition, and the White City catapulted classical whiteness as ideal into the consciousness of Americans, and its impact has yet to fade. This is not a complete guide or exploration of the connections forged at this fair between Classics and white supremacy, but merely an attempt at a beginning.

Recently my class discussed the  Fair. That this fair (and those that followed), the forerunners of Disney Parks and Coney Island, were designed to popularize white supremacy came as a bit of a shock to them. It is probably a bit of a shock to many people. But the creators of the fairs--the masters of industry, the banks, the federal and state governments, university academics and museum officials--didn't hide this fact. Documents written by the designers of the fair were open that the fair was for white Americans to see their place at the top of a racial hierarchy, and for non-whites to remember their subordinate place (there are some awesome anecdotes about this--ask me sometime).

The goal of the Fair designers was to create a utopic vision of America that intertwined the idea of technological progress to imperialist and colonial racial hierarchies to divine will--to merge Christian morality with evolution and industrialization as a new form of American patriotism, to "heal" the country after the horrors of the Civil War with a new "American" brand of patriotism--a national holiday was proposed (Columbus Day) so people could attend the Fair's dedication and the Pledge of Allegiance made its public debut as part of the ceremony. The utopia and the unified America the Fair constructed, however, was an explicitly white one inspired by the classical past. The White City (the Fair proper) was constructed as:
"a little ideal world, a realization of Utopia...[foreshadowing] some far away time when the earth should be as pure, as beautiful, and as joyous as the White City itself" (Chicago Tribune Nov. 1, 1893 quoted in Rydell 1984. All the World's a Fair. U of Chicago Press). 
The position of non-whites was outside that utopia on the Midway Plaisance.

The construction and appearance of the White City was a homage to the Classical past in form, content, and ideology. The decision to build the White City along a stretch of marshy land along the shore of Lake Michigan reflected a confidence in the engineering and technology of the builders--Vitruvius himself would have been done proud by the feat. The designs for the building were neo-Classical and, although not marble (they weren't intended to be permanent), they were faced with plaster and painted white to reflect the whiteness of Parian marble.

Of course, how white were the buildings of Athens that coloration of the White City was intended to reflect? Pretty white (except for all the color!)--the Expo buildings lacked the painted friezes and other elements of their inspirations in Athens. More importantly, though, were the sculptures everywhere throughout the White City. It's one thing to surround oneself with white building, quite another to do so with monumentally sized white sculptures intended to reflect ideal beauty.

Each of the sculptures was commissioned for the Fair and showed clear Classical referencing. Even those sculptures that were not allegories or mythical (such as that of Agriculture right or the Statue of the Republic, also below) were intended to Classicize those they represented and elevate them to the level of the Classical past. Farmers, in particular, the "Average American" at whom the Fair's morality lessons were directly aimed--the "plain, sturdy, self-reliant, ambitious man" appeared in Classically monumental form.

This White City and its idealized America was set in direct contrast to the Midway Plaisance where the different peoples of the world were put on display as entertainment and morality lessons. Just a few images demonstrate the contrast intended between the power, beauty, and technological advancement of "white" America and the darker skinned "savages" both within the US and without.

The geography of the fairgrounds was designed to show the difference between the world of the white race and the world of those "lesser races." The contrast was not lost on fairgoers (and they discussed it in Classical terms):
"That Midway is just a representation of matter, and this great White City is an emblem of mind. In the Midway it's some dirty and all barbaric. It deafens you with noise; the worst folks in there are avaricious and bad; and the best are just children in their ignorance, and when you're bewildered with the smells and sounds and sights, always changin' like one o' these kaleidoscopes, and when you out that mile-long babel where you've been elbowed and cheated, you pass under a bridge--and all of a sudden you are in a great, beautiful silence. The angels on the Woman's Buildin' smile down and bless you, and you know that in what seems like one step you've passed out o' darkness and into light." (from the novel Sweet Clover, quoted in Rydell)
From the Nuremberg Chronicle.
The parade of "types" of peoples was meant to entertain and resembled more Pliny's peoples at the edges of the world than an accurate map of the world--stereotypes and exoticisms were emphasized in the name of entertainment.

How much of the theory of the expo, and not just the visuals, was also an explicit attempt to harness the wisdom of the classical past to white supremacy? The Congress on evolution on the "Intellectual and Moral Exposition of the Progress of Mankind" gave academic and scientific weight to the representation of the non-white peoples on the Midway.

The director of the government anthropology displays, Otis Tufton Mason, was himself immersed in ancient ideas on human diversity and embedded it into the fair.*
"The Chicago Exposition furnishes an excellent opportunity for testing the question--how far language coordinated itself with industries and activities as a mark of kinship and race, and how far climate and the resources of the earth control the arts and industries of mankind in the sphere of language and race." Otis Mason, Smithsonian Anthropologist and Coordinator for US Govt. Anthropology display at Chicago 1893
The ancient theory of environmental determinism (most explicitly discussed in the Hippocratic Airs, Waters, Places and in Bk 6 of Vitruvius' de Architectura) linked climate, geography, and topography to human cultural and physiological differences. Otis Mason was a strong proponent of the theory and linked it explicitly to technological advancement, particularly the ability of a culture to use technology to overcome limitations of environment. The thrust of his scholarship and his Smithsonian and World's Fair displays underscored this link, heavily influenced by his Classical education (he was, in fact, a Classics teacher before turning to Native American studies).

But the goal of the fair was to popularize these theories, particularly the race theories upon which white supremacy was founded and supported. And popularize these ideas, it did. Commentary on the Fair in Puck espoused a less "scientific" type of environmental determinism that shows how the science of the Smithsonian and university anthropologists would translate outside of academic circles:

Puck's illustration to mark the day set aside at the fair for African-Americans is particularly obvious:

The connection between the Classical past and the white guests was emphasized, particularly emphasizing the patriotism and Americanness of both classicism and whiteness:

The anthropological hierarchy of white America over all other races of the world was not subtle in the least:

The combination of the Classical past in imagery and idea with the technological innovation and patriotism expressed in the fair had the aim of creating a unified white America and recruit them on a journey to a great white utopia--a utopia that "average" Americans could be a part of. The impact of the fair's Classical architecture was decades of architectural mimicry in cities throughout the country. The equation of Classical antiquity with America and with "civilization" was a lasting memory.
"May we not hope that the lessons learned here, transmitted to the future, will be potent forces long after the multitudes which throng these aisles have all measured their span and faded away?" (Potter Palmer, 12 Oct. 1892, at the public dedication of the Fair).
Palmer's wish came true. The 1893 Chicago World's Fair forged an indelible bond between Classics and white supremacy that we are only now starting the shake loose over 100 years later.


For a fuller picture of the extent of Classical imagery used in the Fair, see the Rand McNally & Co. Handbook of the World's Columbian Exposition (1893), especially the sections describing the Midway, and the documentary Expo (narrated by Gene Wilder).

For those interested in the extent to which ancient theories of environmental determinism permeated the Smithsonian, see Brill's Companion to Classics and Early Anthropology, ed. by Emily Varto and scheduled for release in 2018. Among other relevant chapters in the volume, I have one on Mason and the relationship between his classical education and anthropological theories.

His Western Civilization is not My Western Civilization

The Parthenon in Athens. Often viewed as a symbol of
"Western civilization," it shows up in lots of articles on the
"demise of western civilization."
I read something stupid on the internet today. I know--I should just stop reading the internet. But this was an article that had the potential to not be stupid--its an article in Politico by Mark Bauerlein on "This Is What It’s Like to Be the Only Trump Fan at Thanksgiving Dinner" [note: all quotations that follow are from the article unless otherwise noted]. I was kind of hoping that it would be a serious rumination on what it means to have supported and continue to support a man who has already done so much harm to so many people in our society and only promises more (yes, I've laid my politics bare here--sorry, not sorry). And you get a little of this. Bauerlein recognizes that there are real grounds for some of us (including his mother) to dislike the president as a person:
Any career woman, especially a single one, who entered the workforce in 1970 is never, ever going to look at Donald Trump as anything but a sexist bully. She remembers too many ill-mannered bosses and co-workers, condescending males who, when they didn’t hit on her, dismissed or exploited her. My mother made a go of it and put up with a lot. Those humiliations don’t fade.
And yet, beside that lifetime of humiliation his mother and countless other women, people of color, LGBT, and people with disabilities continue to face in the workplace and the world, he places "Western civilization" and its apparent demise. Specifically, he points to "identity politics" and his graduate school experience during the 1980s at UCLA. The paragraph is worth quoting in full for its absurdity:
When I first saw identity politics at work, I was a graduate student in English at UCLA in the 1980s. These were the years when the heritage of genius and beauty was recast as a bunch of Dead White Males. Western civilization slipped from a lineage of reason and talent, free inquiry and unsuppressed creativity, into “Eurocentrism,” one group’s advance at the expense of others, women and people of color. Art for art’s sake gave way to art for politics’ sake, for identity’s sake. I spent my 20s in a grimy room reading Dante, Wordsworth and Nietzsche—only to find when I went to campus that my intellectual giants had become objects of suspicion and derision.
This trauma clearly ran deep (deeper than his concern for systemic sexism and racism, apparently)! And so, when Bauerlein heard Trump's Warsaw speech, "and unapologetically hailed Western civilization, I felt a 30-year discouragement lift ever so slightly."

But, of course, he had to have voted for president before that speech, which makes his use of saving "western civilization" as a reason for supporting DT a bit disingenuous. There was a lot about what DT said before the election that clearly appealed to this nostalgia and discouragement, however, and it wasn't an "unapologetic defense of Western Civilization". Unless by "Western Civilization," Bauerlein means racism, sexism, threats, walls, and anti-intellectualism-i.e. Eurocentric men without talent or reason, seeking to limit and having disdain for free inquiry, hoping to suppress creativity, and do so to advance one group--ELITE WHITE MEN. The idea that DT freed Bauerlein to unapologetically read Dante, Wordsworth, and Nietzsche again (like DT has read them) is absurd.

Most images of Augustine of Hippo recast him as
"white" European, but he was from north Africa and
his family "Berbers," a group whose skin color was
unknown and likely mixed. The Roman playwright
Terence was also likely African and not "white."
DT's unapologetic defense during the election campaign was a defense of being a powerful white man "who likes walls, guns and threats." His threatening of immigrants and muslims, his dismissal and mocking of women he sexually harassed, his disregard for any "intellectual giants" or "heritage of genius and beauty"--these are the things that Bauerlein seems to have found appealing about Trump. The Western Civilization of DT is not a pleasant place for women, people of color, LGBT or many others--it is by white men, for white men. Here's a quote from a foundational text that underscores his idea of Western civilization:
"Numerous attempts have been made to establish the intellectual equality of the dark races with the white;and the history  of the past has been ransacked for examples, but they are nowhere to be found. Can anyone call the name of a full-blooded Negro who has ever written  a page worthy of being remembered?"
Sound familiar? That is from 1849 by well-known justifiers of slavery Nott and Gliddon. But it might as well have been Rep. Steve King from earlier this year:
"I’d ask you to go back through history and figure out,” King said, “where are these contributions that have been made by these other categories of people that you’re talking about, where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?”"
Images of, for, and maybe even by women abounded
in antiquity. They have not traditionally been
taught as part of "western civilization."
Or, as ancient historian Donald Kagan said in 2013:
that "the world has been more shaped by the experience of the West than by any other, and therefore the products of Western civilization are of broader consequence and significance than those of other great civilizations."
If Bauerlein wonders why people treat the construct of "Western civilization" as limited to and invested in the power of only white men, there it is! Who is excluded? Anyone who isn't of European descent, apparently.

But, there is so much more in the classical past and other texts and arts that are viewed as its foundation of western civilization that the gatekeepers (the Dead White Men and their minions) have suppressed. The Western civilization of DT, and Steve King, and, apparently, of Mark Bauerlein, is one that creates hierarchies that place the words and actions of European, elite men at the top while those of others (women, non-whites) are excluded, hidden, dismissed, derided, ignored. (much like those career women Bauerlein of the 1970s and 1980s sympathizes with). According to Hanson and Heath in Who Killed Homer, to include the vastness that is the ancient Mediterranean is to kill classics.

This is what the culture wars started and what many of us who are its children continue to do--we examine the concept and content of Western civilization and don't shy away from its unpleasantness. It is at the core of why we study it. We want to broaden what civilizations are deemed worthy of study, to break down the hierarchies that pretend that only the words of "Dead White Men" are worth study. In fact, part of my goal is to show how it isn't just Dead White Men who make up the foundations of our culture. Those voices--because of who they were, because of their identities as not powerful 'white identified men--have historically been excluded from the canon. We want to let them in. It doesn't destroy western civilization, it destroys a simulacrum of civilization that poses as all of what our culture contains. We expand the idea to be more inclusive while acknowledging that it isn't the only culture worth study and that it isn't necessarily inherently valuable.

The identity politics Bauerlein bemoans are the very politics that made these truths evident and for many of us actually made European (and, for me, Classical) civilization worth exploring--because we didn't have to pretend those exclusions and prejudices and horrors didn't exist. The culture wars invited in those of us against whom this vision of Western civilization was wielded as a weapon. And what many of us found was a world below the surface, a suppressed world, that was not about "guns, walls, and threats" dressed up in the guise of "genius and beauty" but a world of actual beauty, of diversity, exploration, experimentation, reflection, and, yes, war, and politics, and prejudice, and violence, and sexism. The critical approaches the culture wars brought to these issues allows for examination of how those -isms form. It allows for the exploration of identities and how they are formed. It opens up alternatives even to the exclusions, to the "walls, guns, and threats" that have underscored the "western civilization" of rich white men historically in the US.

Tomb of an immigrant family to Athens. They
lived in Piraeus, the port of ancient Athens.
I, too, went to a California university during the culture wars (UCSD) and I had a required first year course on the breakdown of western values! I became a classicists despite this! In fact, I chose to study (and make a career out of) the “intellectual giants” Bauerlein worshipped and seems to have felt he was shamed over liking because we were allowed to question them and look at them with new eyes and different perspectives. Because we weren't asked to simply worship them. Because we were allowed to see who was excluded and to discuss why there exclusions happen, why being included in identity matters and why identities are such fragile, fractured, and necessary things. It's why I teach and write about identity in the ancient world today.

The very questioning Bauerlein says he saw as a rejection of western civilization and tradition, many of us saw as invitations to participate in the very texts and cultures that had been used to exclude us. What I saw in college during the culture wars wasn’t a Greece and Rome that belonged to old white men, but an invitation to look beyond that construct and see more. And instead of 30 years of discouragement, I and many others have devoted those same years to pursuing the study of these texts and the questions they raise more deeply. If an elite white man felt that the presence of a first gen woman in the conversation was destroying civilization, if he viewed the questions of black men or hispanic women on where they fit in that narrative as a demise, then clearly it is a civilization worth destroying.

Women Gazing upon Sexualized Boys

As the accusations against men in power continue to pour out, I've been compelled to consider the complicity of women in silencing or ignoring boys and men who have also been assaulted by these men. In some instances, it is the singular focus on girls and women in advocacy. While there is so much I agree with in Laurie Penny's "The Unforgiving Minute", it ignores the role of men coming forward about their trauma as part of and important for this moment.

In other instances, the silencing occurs as anger at a supposition that when boys are the objects of assault, the media and general public are far quicker to condemn.  For example, Kevin Spacey's fall from grace has been fast and hard and came after only a handful of accusations, while it took over 90 accusations and decades of people knowing about it to take down Harvey Weinstein, more that 16 women accused our current president with no impact and Roy Moore has plenty of defenders because 14 year old girls are too often considered appropriate targets for men's sexual desire--in ancient and modern times. And now, George Takei, everyone's favorite former Star Trekker, has been accused of assaulting a young man (not underage)--let's see how this one plays out.

I've read quite a few Twitter posts in this vein--that abuse/harassment of boys and young men is taking more seriously--and it makes me sad. Boys and young men who are sexually abused or harassed also have long term impacts. Our collective anger should include boys and young men who have also been victims of men in power. Because there is still something to be said for how much we minimize the amount of sexual assault boys are subjected to, especially when the perpetrator is an adult woman. Let's not forget how many boys it took speaking out to even start a conversation about priests and the Catholic Church.

All of this has gotten me thinking about the sexualization of boys (young boys) in ancient vase paintings and the ways that women are sometimes positioned as viewers of their sexualization. We have many vases from antiquity, particularly from between approximately 525-475 BCE, that show boys being pursued and fondled by men. Sometimes these boys are slaves (whom we would expect to be sexually exploited by owners regardless of sex or gender), other times not. I m not going to go into details here on ancient pederasty, which you can read about here (and here is specifically in Athens). Instead, I want to focus on vase images in which women are represented as viewers of pederastic acts.

Munich 2421. Screenshot of CVA entry @ Beazley Archive.

A particularly interesting one of these vases is in Munich (Munich 2421). Here is a link to the full set of images from the Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum. This is what we call a kalos vase--a vase given as a gift that has the word "kalos" ("beautiful") inscribed upon it. It is usually (so people suspect) a gift for  a boy from his older pursuers. The lower register of the vase (pictured) shows older men admiring the kalos Euthymides.

This particular image of the boy Euthymides is rather tame considering images on these vases often show the young man/boy being fondled by the older man, as pictured above and below.

What has stuck some scholars as unusual in this vase, however, is that the vase includes a group of women on the upper register relaxing like male symposiasts and playing the game kottabos with the inscription "I cast for you, beautiful Euthymides."
Munich 2421. Also screenshot from CVA entry @ Beazley Archive.
These women are most frequently said to be prostitutes of a certain type--a "hetaira" or "courtesan." I've argued in print, however, that these women should actually be viewed as of like status to the men admiring the boy in the lower register (Kennedy 2013, 71). Thus, we see elite men and women both offering their approval and registering their desire for the "beautiful" young man. In other words, the women are complicit in the sexualization of the young man/boy.

Bottoms up! Interior bottom (tondo) of a drinking cup.
Sympotic vases often represent sexualized scenes with women (women who are almost universally deemed to have been prostitutes by scholars). These women (not just in the vase pictures, but universally) are called prostitutes because of supposed hard and fast rules about women at these drinking parties--the only women who should have been there, according to some of our Athenian sources (and later, Roman era sources looking back at Classical Athens) would have been paid sexual labor, or at least, they must be fully sexualized women. The images are imaginary, however--they are not mirrors for real life--so calling the women in them 'prostitutes' is kind of a signal of what we mean when we equate women with sex. It also makes it less uncomfortable if the women who are sharing the sexualized gaze directed at these boys are 'women of ill repute' and not 'respectable' women.

Bottoms up! Interior bottom (tondo) of a drinking cup.
The young men and boys, however, are not considered male prostitutes when they appear in these vases (though certainly male prostitutes existed in Classical Athens). Instead, they are considered the proper objects of male affection, sexualized young men and boys to be admired and fondled and pursued by important men. Given gifts, they were expected to concede to their much older lovers. When they grew older, it was assumed they would participate in the same game, this time as the 'lovers' instead of as the 'beloved.'

The images of women gazing upon and approving these relationships and the desirability of boys suggested in the image above from Munich 2421 is made real in the fact that the cups that both male and female symposiasts drank from contained images of boys being pursued and fondled by men. What is only implied on the exterior of the kalos vase pictured (where our boy is fully clothed), is made clear in the round images painted at the bottom of the cup--finish your wine and you get to see the sexual fantasy of capturing your kalos boy.

Men and women both drank from those cups. Women, too, gazed upon the sexualized boys. Did they approve of and maybe share the pleasure of the sexual pursuit of boys as the fictional Munich 2421 women did? Or did they gaze uncomfortably at the image and stay silent? Were they just happy the image at the bottom wasn't of yet another naked women? Or can we dismiss what the drinkers of that wine might have thought at all because they weren't 'respectable' women, after all? Of course their gaze was corrupt and corrupting...

But let's assume that some of the viewers of these images were 'respectable' women--wives, daughters, mothers. Since most girls were married at around ages 13-16 to men who were usually around 30 (an ancient practice we should not think is ok to follow), this meant entire societies where girls were being sexualized and subjected to sex with much older men as 'just how things are.' It isn't hard to see why a 'few boys' being sexualized and pursued and groomed and fondled might not register outrage by women. Or why women might feel like protections for boys were greater than for girls. But were there?

Ancient Athenian pederasty is often discussed as a 'mentoring' relationship or as a 'social institution' that had rules. Marriage had rules, too. 'Rules' don't make it any less exploitative and abusive when the rules themselves are designed to maximize the pleasure and power of the older man and diminish the safety, power, and pleasure of the young woman or young man.

All of this is to say that I don't believe that the wheels of public condemnation or justice move any more swiftly when the sexually abused is male instead of female. The silence around the sexual abuse and exploitation of young adults is damaging for everyone and is perpetuated because those in power feel, it seems, Zeus-like in their abilities to sexually harass, abuse, and exploit anyone and everyone. As women, we have endured millennia of silencing, abuse, harassment, and exploitation. And many feel that we in a historic moment when maybe, just maybe, we will now be believed and won't need to stay silent for fear of retaliation or shame. But let's not forget who the perpetrators are. Let's not help those perpetrators silence their other victims just because they happen to not be women.

Ancient Texts/Modern Practices: Girls as Targets of Adult Sexual Desire

Leda and Zeus as swan (Arch. Mus. of Dion)
As many readers now know, Alabama Republican candidate for the US Senate Roy Moore has been accused by multiple teenagers (one as young as 14 at the time) of initiating sexual encounters or relationships with them. Numerous conservative commentators (like Hannity) and politicians have defended his behavior. One of the--I'll just say it--creepiest and infuriating defenses came from an Alabama colleague, Alabama State Auditor Jim Zeigler, who said:
“Take the Bible—Zachariah and Elizabeth, for instance. Zachariah was extremely old to marry Elizabeth and they became the parents of John the Baptist... Also take Joseph and Mary. Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus.”
He went on to point out that it "wasn't immoral or illegal" just a bit "unusual." Setting aside the fact that Elizabeth was actually old--this is why her child is a miracle!--there are other issues with Zeigler's statement. Illegal? Well, yes. Age of consent in Alabama in 1979 (when the event occurred) was 16. Moore's actions would have constituted sexual abuse in the 2nd degree. Immoral? The reason why modern societies set the age of consent higher now than has been the case in the past is, for starters, because we now understand that young adults and teens have not fully developed mentally.

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, teen brains have not fully matured and, as a result, they are prone to "act on impulse misread or misinterpret social cues and emotions, get into accidents of all kinds, get involved in fights, and engage in dangerous or risky behavior." They are also less likely to "think before they act, pause to consider the consequences of their actions, and change their dangerous or inappropriate behaviors."

With this knowledge, it helps us to understand that when older people (frequently men, but not always) convince or coerce young adults and teens into sexual acts, it is often because they are taking advantage of teens' underdeveloped decision making and tendency towards risk. Further, teens tend to respond more emotionally than logically--and fear can be a big emotional motivator when confronted by someone you've been taught to respect or listen to. Taking advantage of teens is, indeed, predatory and immoral.

But this is NOT the point of my blog post. The point of my blog post is to look at what happens when people tie their view of when a girl is sexually available to examples in 2000+ year old texts. This is something that a number of religious leaders have pointed out is not good:
"Even those who followed ancient marriage customs, which we would not follow today, knew the difference between molesting and marriage."
And, then, of course, there is the fact that Luke (1:26-38) and Matthew (1:18-26) both make clear that Joseph was the father of Jesus in name only and, Matthew 1:26 says that Joseph refrained from any sexual relations with his wife until after the birth.

The ridiculousness of Zeigler's claim is clear. But what isn't clear is that there are many many people in the world who think that there is actually nothing wrong with a 30 year old man and a 14 year old girl, not just biblical literalists like Zeigler. And this is in part because our ancient texts--biblical and classical alike--are awash with representations of powerful men preying on and impregnating young women and our modern moral structure is, in large part, shaped by ancient texts.

In antiquity, it was common for girls to marry either shortly before or shortly after they began menstruating (though places like Sparta are said to have waited until girls were closer to 18). Men, on the other hand, didn't typically marry in many ancient societies until they were of full political or military age. This age in places like Athens or Sparta would be anywhere between 25-30. So, it was not unusual to have a 30 year old married to a 14 or 15 year old. We even hear of marriages taking place with girls as young as 7-10 (particularly in Rome), though the marriages weren't supposed to be consummated until the girl had reached puberty. The conditions in antiquity (e.g. high infant mortality, danger of pregnancy, short average lifespan, patriarchal views of women’s roles) encouraged girls to marry and start giving birth young.  These conditions are no longer valid, or should not be.

Outside of practice, ancient stories abound about sexual desire and sexual assault of girls outside of marriage contexts or in adultery. Sure, when Hades kidnapped Persephone and took her to the underworld, he did so to marry her and with her father Zeus' consent. It did not make her kidnapping any less violent. In fact, Zeus was one of the great perpetrators of forcing himself on girls and young women, not bothering to control his own sexual appetites , frequently leaving them pregnant (or worse): Europa, Io, Semele, Danae, Leda (pictured above with Zeus as a swan)...I could go on. And his sons Apollo and Herakles followed his lead. As have so many men in the modern world who, raised on the Bible and the Classics--the "pillars" of "western civilization"--who found models, justifications, and excuses for their own sexualization of girls and their taking advantage of their power and authority to act on their desires.

Picasso Rape of the Sabine Women 1962.
Consider the "Rape of the Sabine Women," part of the foundation story of Rome. As the story goes, the Romans, unable to get marriage agreements with nearby towns, planned a festival to which they invited the neighboring Sabines, who brought their wives, daughters, etc. The Romans (all men at this point), on a signal, seized all of the unmarried girls and sent their families packing. They then forced them to become their wives. These new wives, pregnant with or already having given birth to their rapists children, are credited then with uniting Rome and the Sabines by stopping the war that ensued after the mass rape. But these "women" are not "women". They are unmarried girls--likely 14-15 year olds.

It isn't just the Greek gods and heroes or Romans who can be mustered up to sanction this behavior and attitudes that girls are "ripe" for plucking. Zeigler points to Joseph. But, not to be entirely sacrilegious here, as one commenter on the Washington Post article reminds us:
"In Christian tradition, Joseph was not Jesus's father, though, in fairness, God was also much older than Mary."
The fact that a 14 year old Mary is pregnant by a Holy Spirit entering into her while she slept (or in a vision) and that this is celebrated as a good thing doesn't inspire confidence in the morality of the bible as a guide to the modern world anymore than Zeus' proclivity for raping girls in Greek mythology does or Rome founding itself on the rape of neighbor girls. While Mary's impregnation was an act of divine will, so was the impregnation of Io and of Semele and of Europa and Danae by Zeus. The motif of the unmarried girl made pregnant through the divine is an old and widespread one. Why should we be surprised that it persists today? Especially since in some conservative Christian circles, underage/early marriage is a norm. The Quiverfull movement is particularly well-know for it.

In a recent study, it was found that more than 200,000 children were married in the US since 2002. Girls (and some boys) as young as 10 and 11 being married to men in their 20s and 30s through legal loopholes that allowed the bypassing of age of consent laws. In a case in Alabama, a 14 year old married a 74 year old. The numbers (and actual statements by Moore's supporters) suggest that there are large numbers of people in our country who do not think that Roy Moore did anything wrong or out of the usual. And why should they, when they use 2000+ year old texts, removed from their historical contexts, as their guide? And when it is consistently argued that these ancient texts are the foundations for modern morality? And when any type of pregnancy, even one resulting from incest or rape, is called a "gift from god"? (here's another such story for funsies from Sept).

There are many many things in ancient Mediterranean texts that are good and useful, but using them as guides for marriage and the treatment of girls and women isn't one of them.

Talking about Diversity Across Time and Space

A lot has happened since my last blog post including another round of commentary by N. Taleb and others of like mind on the ethnic/racial composition of north Africa (and Roman Britain) in classical antiquity. The commentary was directed at classicist Mary Beard, whom they have accused repeatedly of being racist.

Beard herself has asked a question that I think needs answering, or at least pondering:

because it is possible, as John Ma noted, to see how accusing her of racism within the context of British colonialist history in north Africa and the Near/Middle East might not be so crazy. It is odd, however, within the context of a debate over ancient diversity to those who study it.

I think the roots of the problem--namely, how it is possible for someone who is trying to show the racial and ethnic diversity of the ancient world to be accused of being racist for doing so--are 1. that the modern and ancient worlds constructed identities differently, 2. that there are different modern groups of peoples who lay claim to identities based on descent (real or imagined) from specific ancient groups, which results in 3. those people who identify through descent with an ancient identity feeling like they are being pushed out of or excluded from a modern identity when classicists and ancient historians point out that the ancient version is not the same as the modern one.

In other words, at dispute are the differences in what "diversity" means in ancient vs. modern contexts.

What diversity means in a modern context is governed by the realities of whiteness and the fact that 'diversity' for many white-identifying people = 'people of color', i.e. 'non-white diversity'. To wit, here is one such manifestation of this confusion:
Diversity = 'sub-saharan' = 'black' = something I addressed in the last blog on colorlines in ancient north Africa and the inaccurate assumptions that north Africa is and was historically 'whites only'.

But, it is also true that mentioning 'white ethnicity' (what one would call talking about Germans, Spaniards, Scyths, and Persians as 'diverse') is frequently viewed as a way to avoid hiring, engaging, or otherwise acknowledging the structural biases against people of color in our society. This puts many a classicist in a bind when talking about a diverse ancient world because there was, for all intents and purposes, no 'whiteness' in antiquity and so any diversity we talk about avoids distinctions between 'white people' and 'people of color' and focuses instead of the breadth of peoples from Europe, Africa, and Asia who interacted and lived together and even shared citizenship in the Hellenistic and Roman periods. This puts us in direct conflict with the contemporary discourse of race/ethnicity and diversity since many of the people who fall under the category of 'diverse' in antiquity count, in some (but not all) contexts, as 'white' in the modern world.

When classicists/ancient historians/archaeologists say that the ancient world was diverse, we are not talking about how many 'people of color' (in contemporary terms) were Roman citizens or lived in ancient Antioch--we aren't talking about a distinction between 'white' people and not. Rather, we are talking about diversity from the perspective of how the ancient Greeks and Romans considered ideas of foreignness in their multi-cultural, multi-ethnic environments--Gauls, Germans, Greeks, Persians, Egyptians, Ethiopians (both semitic Ethiopians and not), Libyans, Scyths, Indians, Jews, Arabians, Spaniards, etc. were all 'foreign'.

The ancient Greeks and Romans did not have a category of 'whiteness' that equates with ours and, when they did use whiteness as an attribute of groups of people, it normally was associated with marginalized groups like women, people with certain diseases, and groups of peoples who lived at the far edges of the north. Most Greeks and Romans in antiquity who 'mattered' (i.e. men) would likely consider being called 'white' an insult. Reminding a Roman citizen originally from Dacia (modern Romania) of such marginal status would have been to highlight their borrowed Romanness.

So, this is a big cause of confusion--diversity in antiquity is not marked by the same 'color' categories that modern ones are. But the modern world is marked by its adherence to color concepts as definers for in and out groups. And 'whiteness' has demarcated the 'in crowd' since, roughly, the 17th century. And while it began as a way to distinguish 'Anglo-Saxons'--the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant--from African slaves, the 'Orient' or colonized peoples--by the mid-20th century, previously excluded groups like southern and eastern Europeans, some north Africans, Jews, Arabs, and other light-skinned peoples in the near and middle eastern portions of Asia were all incorporated in the legal category of 'white', at least in the US Census.

As a result, 'whiteness' has become an overarching category in the modern world that encapsulates numerous distinctive cultures and peoples who, in the United States, at least, frequently consider themselves or are treated in everyday life as 'people of color,' but who are 'white' in the government census and, at times, in their self-identification. This leads to some confusion when some members of a group consider themselves 'white' while others do not. This is further compounded by the fact that the division is not actually one of skin tone (i.e. "color") but of religion--Christian = white, Muslin = color. This can be traced, in part, to the use of the term 'Christendom' as an identity marker in opposition to Islam (most frequently linked to the Crusades, but the term persists).

And if we add the additional layer of colonialism (and the recent discourse surrounding the Greek/Italian/Portuguese/Spanish debt issues) into the mix, particularly with the UK and northern European countries that used classical antiquity as a gatekeeper in their colonialist endeavors, we have a recipe for accusations of racism when one engages with people who identify themselves as 'white' (and who have been included in 'whiteness' for the last 50-100 years) and, who also view themselves as direct, genetic descendants of the ancient peoples from those regions who were categorized as 'foreign' by Greeks and Romans and whose presence in Greek and Roman societies are marks of diversity. They perceive the attempts by UK or white US scholars to once again restrict the classical Greeks and Romans to the property of 'Anglo-Saxon' peoples.

John Ma suggested (rightly) to me in a Twitter conversation that this colonialist backlash is real. And this colonialist backlash, particularly involving Greece (treated by their northern European neighbors for centuries as lesser than), north Africa, and the near/middle east of Asia, is percolating to the surface in the discussions of diversity in Roman Britain, in particular. So that when scholars from colonizing countries talk of peoples in the former colonized nations as 'diversity', i.e. not white, it is as if they are kicking them out of the privileges that whiteness provides and being recolonized. Their own claims to whiteness, however, seem to at times manifest in anti-black or anti-Arab sentiments. As Ma also commented:

The pushback sometimes manifests in ways that mirror the racism they are claiming to be experiencing.

The issue, therefore, seems to rest on a fundamental difference between ancient and modern ways of constructing identity--there is no whiteness in antiquity that defines cultural collectives (other than women) nor do blackness or browness or yellowness or redness constitute valid categories of peoples. There are no black or white races in antiquity nor any color in between or outside. So, when we talk about diversity in antiquity, we are talking about it with different measures. And, importantly, we are talking about it from the perspective of ancient Greeks and Romans themselves. Our modern categories do not hold. But, we need to be careful to articulate why and where the differences are because the reality of colonialism and classics' historical role in supporting it is not dead and in the past. And maybe, just maybe, Twitter's character limits and threading don't provide the best venue for doing that.

Colorlines in Classical North Africa

Last week, my Ancient Identities class discussed texts on ancient north Africa--Libya, Carthage, and Numidia. In the texts, one of the things that the students discovered is that north Africa seems to have a lot of different types of peoples living in it and that no one seemed to be all that interested in what color they were, though we know that these people were not all of the same skin tone. At one point in his description of Libya, Herodotus (4.197) tells us that the native populations of the continent were Ethiopians and Libyans (which included Marusians, aka Mauri, among others) and that the Phoenicians and Greeks were immigrants.

Typically, we read that Ethiopian is the term that the ancients used to refer to people with dark skin tones, those we would call black, and that these are often also referred to as sub-Saharan Africans. In a recent blog article, Dr. Caitlin Green sums up earlier scholarship and attempts to make sense of their arguments that the increase in 'sub-Saharan,' i.e. black Africans, in the Mediterranean in the Roman period by suggesting it was possibly a result of the slave trade by the Garamantes--she herself uses 'sub-Saharan' is quotes to indicate the inaccuracy of the term. Herodotus, however, clearly places black Africans in northwest and north central Africa and not as slaves but as indigenous and early. And according to Herodotus, they are living north of the Sahara, since the Sahara beyond its edges merges into the uninhabitable zone and then Ocean. He states that they live "south" of the Libyans, but "south" for Herodotus is still north of or in the Sahara.

As far as Herodotus and others well into the Roman period were concerned, 'sub-Saharan' either didn't exist or it was an uninhabitable zone in between them and the Antichthones, 'opposite-land' (as Pomponius Mela calls the mystical southern continent).  Strabo, too, writing in the the 1st century BCE-CE, writes of groups of black Africans living in north western Africa--the Pharusians and Nigritae, whom he places near the 'western Ethiopians' (17.3.7). How do we know they are likely black? Because they are said to be like the Ethiopians and the Pharusians, in particularly, are linked to southern Indians, whom many ancient authors think either were immigrants from Africa or migrated to Africa. The Mauri (later Moors) are also located in northwest Africa, but Mauri, like Berber, is not necessarily a clear term that associates with skin tone in antiquity--evidence links them more to geography and nomadic lifestyle and when skin colors are mentioned, they range from light to dark.

In other words, there were black Africans living north of and in the Sahara in antiquity. Herodotus never mentions their skin tone as warranting discussion, likely because he had placed them in the torrid zone on the map and environment dictated they would be dark skinned. The Phoenicians and Greeks came there with their lighter brown skin, more northern Libyans were environmentally browner than Greeks and Phoenicians, but lighter than the Ethiopians and others.

Why do I care about this? Well, for a number of reasons. The first one is that I have frequently been told that individuals like Augustine of Hippo, whose father was a Berber, could not possibly have been black African. And because whenever the issue of blackness in northern African spaces is discussed, there is pushback (especially concerning Egypt) even though we have ample visual and literary evidence that north Africa and West Africa in antiquity were not singular in skin tone. But there is an investment in trying to keep it as 'white' as possible. I often recall to mind that, as the Roman historian Sallust reminds us, many ancients thought Africa was part of Europe (BJ 17.3). I'm sure many an anti-black African ignores or does't know this.

The other reason is because my class starts on ancient texts on Ethiopia tomorrow and I asked them to read an article by a Late Antiquity/Early Medieval religion scholar ("Racism, Color Symbolism, and Color Prejudice" by David Goldenberg) who argues that there was clear color prejudice in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds in contrast to Frank Snowden's contention that antiquity was "Before Color Prejudice." Of course, all scholars pretty much see the problematics of Snowden's arguments, but Goldenberg's are also problematic. The first is that he has to hunt through about 4-5 definitions of racism (or, Ben Isaac's proto-racisms) before he lands on one that fits his needs. Second, he, like Snowden, basically finds evidence by looking for texts on Ethiopians or where 'blackness' is a specific point of discussion.

Many of the texts on Ethiopians are non-derogatory--they are praised and admired for various reasons. The texts on blackness, however, tend to carry negative connotations--it is clear that characters in Juvenal and Petronius, at least, do not find the physiology of black Africans attractive. They don't find people who are pale (i.e. anyone from northern Europe) attractive either. Their own somatic norm--a light brown--is preferred aesthetically. What Goldenberg and others miss, however, are all the texts that discuss people who are clearly black without ever mentioning their color at all. If you include those texts in the discussion and unskew the evidence, the number of ancient Greek and Roman texts that make clearly negative statements that see black skin as denoting both physical and mental or moral defectiveness is surprisingly small. It exists, but not as the norm.

We see clear racism (or proto-racism) in our ancient texts, but it is distinctively different, as Goldenberg states, from anti-black racism as it exists today and has existed for centuries. He isn't necessarily on point about the obviousness of color prejudice in Greek sources (he has a point that Juvenal clearly doesn't like dark skin, but Juvenal hates on everyone). What Goldenberg is really valuable for, though, is tracing the negative connotations of the color black--from associations with death, ill-omen, and evil--and its transference to people. Perhaps unsurprisingly to some and surprisingly to others, it is in the early Christian (really starting in Origen) and patristic literature that we see the prejudice against blackness truly become a 'thing.' As Goldenberg writes:
"The innovation of Christianity was not in the essential nature of the association of black and evil. It was, rather, in the degree of application of the association. In the church fathers, the theme of Ethiopian blackness became a crucial component of the Christian focus on the battle between good and evil, which pervades patristic writing."
Ethiopians in Christian writings are even associated with devils and demons. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the conversion of black slaves in the southern United States was resisted by many slave owners--not only might it mean that these slaves would need to be treated as their neighbors in God's eyes, but also that, legally, it might mean they would need to be freed. Many a colonial legislature passed laws declaring that Christianity didn't fundamentally change the nature or soul of the black slaves. If blackness is evil, the logic goes, then how could black peoples become otherwise without changing skin color? Christianity has this notion embedded from its early(though not earliest) phases.

The question of when black skin color became a target of group prejudice is one that my students come back to again and again and I am sure it will come up this week as we read texts about and look at representations of ancient Ethiopians through Greek and Roman eyes. Not everyone agrees on how neutral the descriptions are--there are scholars who argue that Herodotus was clearly prejudiced against the blackness--but he doesn't even bother to remark on blackness on many occasions when discussing peoples who are most definitely balck and his assumption that Indian and Ethiopian semen must be black (3.101.2; an easily refutable hypothesis that Aristotle bluntly refutes at Hist. Anim. 523a17-8) may be more an attempt to understand how it is that Indians and Ethiopians gave birth to dark skinned children even when outside of the heat of their native territories--the heat was thought to burn the skin (or the semen) thus making people darker.

I can't say exactly how any of the ancients understood skin color as an environmentally, and yet heritable trait precisely; they are clearly puzzled themselves. What we can say, however, is that black Africans lived throughout the continent as it was known to the ancient Greeks and Romans, including in Egypt and western and central Libya at least as early as the 5th century BCE. Their territories skirted on the Sahara or they were thought to have lived as Nomads within it; in other words, they weren't strictly 'sub-Saharan.' But, is prejudice against blackness coincident with their appearance in the historical imagination of the Greeks and Romans? I would argue no. And the racist desires of some people to keep them out of north Africa altogether in Classical antiquity should not make us overlook the fact that they were there, not as merchants, not as slaves, but as indigenous, permanent residents according to our Greek and Roman sources.

Crises of Culture and the Anxiety of the Powerful

We were, you know, foreigners in our own city, wandering lost like strangers and it was your books that led us back home, as it were.  As a result we were able to recognize who and where we were.  It was you who revealed the age of our country, the historical chronology, religious and priestly rules, civil and military customs, the location of districts and regions, in sum the causes, duties, types, and names of every human and divine matter.  At the same time, you shone a bright light on the history of our poets and in general on Latin writers and Latin language (Cicero, Academica Posteriora 1.9).   
Cicero, writing in the 1st century BCE, is discussing the situation that he and many other Romans found themselves in during the Late Republic and here praises the antiquarian Varro, who, seeing that much that was Rome's own history had been lost to the shadows of time, began researching his own people and culture. Cicero brings up Varro while he himself was attempting to forge a new philosophical vocabulary, one that was Roman and not, as most literature, cultural terms, and genres had been for centuries, Greek. It was nothing new--Cato the Elder, a notorious crank, had complained incessantly for years about the corrupting influence of Greece on Rome.

The Romans had conquered the Greeks, but, as Horace once wrote Graecia capta ferum uictorem cepit et artes intulit agresti Latio (Captured Greece captured her fierce conqueror and bore her arts to rustic Latium, Ep, 2.156-7). Greek poetry, drama, history, philosophy, oratory, even language would dominate the Roman educated classes and popular entertainments alike. There was hardly an art the Romans had that was not first Greek (except satire, of course). Not entirely true, of course, but many a Roman felt this way nonetheless.

What it was, of course, was simple anxiety--the kind of anxiety that happens when people who are used to being in their comfort zone or used to being in control suddenly feel like they are out of their element or out of control. It is an anxiety felt by those who are used to swimming in the pool themselves and are suddenly asked to share it. And maybe the people coming in want to float around and play instead of swimming laps. Did the Romans truly no longer know what it meant to be Roman? Were they truly feeling like "foreigners in our own city"? Or was it simply that the sea of people they gazed out upon no longer was 80% "Roman," but maybe more like 65%?

One of the stumbling blocks in many a conversation about white privilege and issues of racial justice and equality is often the fact that people who have privileges don't feel like they do. Or rather, they don't recognize (or don't want to recognize) that at least some of what they have isn't earned, but given. And that others won't ever have those givens regardless of their work ethic or genius because our world really isn't a meritocracy. But meritocracy is one of the fundamental bedrocks of democracy, we are told. We have, we are told, the freedom to pursue our dreams, the freedom to speak our truths, the freedom to achieve--if only we have the ability and drive. And yet, as this weekend's discussion around NFL players taking knees at games during the national anthem in protest of police violence against certain of our citizens show, those freedoms aren't evenly distributed or recognized--no matter how good some people are, the system is stacked against them. There are entire segments of the US population who have never been granted the full rights their citizenship is supposed to provide. For the most part, these are people of color in the US, and the darker the color of your skin, the more the system is designed to keep you down--and out.

Like Cicero and Varro and the curmudgeon Cato the Elder before them, the Romans felt the weight of foreign cultures weighing on them and overshadowing their own. But what did they expect when they decided to leave their land and invade and conquer those of others? When they decided to ship in slaves from all over the known world--from Asia as far away as India, from Africa as far south as Ethiopia, from Europe as far away as the Russian Steppe? But it was the Greeks whose culture weighed heaviest on them. It was Greek culture that they both admired and embraced and feared was destroying their own.

We might think similarly about the "others" who live among us--African-Americans, whose ancestors were brought to the Americas by force in slave ships, and Latinx-Americans, whose ancestors lived in much of the western US long before white, Europeans came to the continent and claimed it as their own. Why is it that we "white folks" are more than happy enjoy the fruits of the creativity and hard work and dedication of our non-white neighbors and fellow citizens, appropriating their cultural achievements while giving them little to no credit for actually achieving them while doing everything in our power to keep from them the freedoms and protections that are supposed to accompany being a US citizen? Because American identity was built upon, first, open racism and white supremacy, and later, upon its "user friendly" and banal front man, that mythical creature called "Western Civilization." And Western Civilization is, for all its high-flown language of freedom and equality and community, really about being of European descent, Christian, and, for better or worse, preferably, a man.  And Western Civilization, if you didn't know, is in CRISIS.

David Brooks, the New York Time columnist now mostly known for Panini-Gate, has been moaning for going on 20 years now about the "Crisis of Western Civilization," which he claims is destroying our identity. How it forms our identity is an interesting question. For the most part, this identity is supposedly shaped through the study of the foundations of Western Civ--the Classics. This education yields, he claims, a shared set of cultural values and a vocabulary for shared dialogue:
This Western civ narrative came with certain values — about the importance of reasoned discourse, the importance of property rights, the need for a public square that was religiously informed but not theocratically dominated. It set a standard for what great statesmanship looked like. It gave diverse people a sense of shared mission and a common vocabulary, set a framework within which political argument could happen and most important provided a set of common goals.
Are these really shared values? Do we really allow everyone in our society to participate in them? Should we expect them to in order to be called Americans? What religion should inform our public square?  Whose property matters more? When does "reasoned discourse" only serve to cover the violence of the powerful? What happens when the only way "diverse people" can participate in the "shared mission" is if they give up who they are, where they come from, and the basic rights they deserve and share that mission as subordinates and lesser than?

There is a fundamental problem with a society built upon a construct premised on the oppression of others--and with a society that is afraid to admit this oppression for fear that only that oppression is what holds the society together. As Brooks again bemoans, over the last few decades, this shared culture has broken down and "Now many students, if they encounter it, are taught that Western Civilization is a history of oppression." Good. The truth matters. And should, we are told, set us free. But is even this truth enough? Reed College, one of the schools that still requires a "Western Civ" foundation course, finds itself hard pressed to defend the course (that includes Homer, Plato, Gilgamesh, and the Hebrew Bible) against students who feel that the civilization that rests upon these texts, and so the texts themselves, excludes and oppresses them--just as Brooks feared. Are these students wrong to oppose a set of texts that have traditionally been used to forge white identity and to exclude them, that incorporate and assimilate the cultures of Egypt and Mesopotamia and Jews to make the class diverse, while the dominant white culture rejects their modern counterparts and to feel like being forced to study them reenacts the violence that led to the establishment of whiteness? I don't have an answer for it, but Brooks' crisis and the crisis we keep hearing about in conservative writings seems to me like cultural anxiety--the expression of the powerful resisting the need to share that power.

Today, I read with my students about Cicero's concerns for Rome's lost identity. We also read Plutarch writing of Alexander the Great's Macedonian companions' anxiety as he slowly sought to merge his two worlds--the Macedonian/Greek practices he had been raised in and the customs of the myriad cultures he conquered when he led his troops into Asia all the way to the Indus River. The more Alexander assimilated himself to Persia--to its clothing, its people, its land--the more they resented it and felt he was betraying them. Some (like his companion Cleitus) grew so angry they threatened to kill him. Again, cultural anxiety, the fears of the powerful that they might need to give a little up in order for others to have a fair share. The Macedonians invaded the Asian continent. They destroyed the Persian empire and the world the peoples they encountered knew. And yet they were the ones who felt anxiety when Alexander decided to adopt some of the culture of the conquered. They even grew violent.

What does it say about us when we look at the world today and see the silent protests of our fellow Americans against the continued and brutal violence perpetrated against them and people think that these protests are more destructive of our communities and our identity than the violence itself? There is a crisis of values in Western Civ, but it isn't a crisis like the one Brooks and Steve King, and Pres. Trump think. The crisis is our acceptance of violence against others in the name of a false ideal, a crisis of privileging our white comfort and privilege and desire for conflict free spectacle over the lives of others.