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.

Ethnicity in Herodotus--The Honest Entry

I keep wanting to finish my post on the use of the Dorian invasion myth as a way of claiming ancient Greece for northern Europeans and (now) whiteness, but I am having a hard time getting to it since I have to write this entry for the Herodotus Encyclopedia on ethnicity and it is killing me. So, I have decided to use this blog post to write out what I would say to Herodotus if I did not have to write a neutral representation of Herodotus' writings or the 40-some years of scholarship that is expected of an encyclopedia entry. 


Damnit, Herodotus. Can you please decide what it is you think you are doing with all these ethnographic passages? If, as Hartog suggests, you are doing it in order to get your Greek readers to reflect upon their shared identity as Greeks, can't you be clearer on that and just say Greeks are Greeks because x, y, and z? Instead we get something like "Egyptians aren't like us in these ways and they are like us in these ways, so that means that these are the categories that matter at this moment in my story in defining who we are as Greeks--we don't speak an Egyptian language, we don't worship half animal gods, and we pee in private instead of outside...oh, and we don't usually let our wives do all the shopping--how silly is that!". So--language and customs seem to matter most. So say many a scholar, like Dihle, Hall, van Wees, and Jones.

But this one time in Book 8 (you know, at almost the end!), you have characters (very important ones, at that) give a magical list that says that what makes Greeks Greeks. The Athenians tell the Spartans that of course they won't betray them and side with the Persians after all (you know, like the other hundreds of Greek poleis who did, like the Thebans and all the Ionians) because we share: blood (homaimos), language, institutions of worship, and cultural character (ethos). I get that the shared blood thing works for Athenians and Spartans who are both pretty exclusive societies when it comes to intermarriage and stuff, but that means they don't intermarry with each other either! How mythical is this blood? And the other stuff? Did you mean it? Because if you did, can you tell me what you mean by ethos? Is this cultural? Inborn? How is it determined? Is it a Greek thing?

And what about shared descent with non-Greeks? Are Greeks and Egyptians intermarrying? Do they come from the same geographic space originally? Gruen tells us that we should ignore everything Herodotus tells us when trying to figure out what does and does not constitute ethnicity in Herodotus (or anywhere else in our Greek sources) because everyone knows that it is only blood that matters and that ethnicity in antiquity meant blood--culture, customs, language? None of that is a concern. But if this is the case WHY, HERODOTUS, DID YOU SPEND SO MUCH TIME TALKING ABOUT ALL THAT STUFF!? PAGES AND PAGES?! And why don't you just say that in the beginning?! Instead, you do all this stuff about barbarians and women-knapping.

Speaking of barbarians--is it a linguistic category? Or is it a cultural thing? Is it something you can stop being? Can you become one or are you born that way? Hartog and Lloyd and Rossellini and Said (both of them) and the other Hall don't all agree, but seem to make a really big deal out of it. Oh, and so do pretty much all the scholars writing between 1989 and, like, 2015. Is barbarian like your "42"--the answer to life the universe and everything?

Both J. Hall and Thomas suggest what you really emphasize is nomoi and origin myths. I get the origin myth thing. You tell us a lot of those and, if we believe you, everyone is related (usually thanks to Herakles or his daddy)--one big human happy family with some cultural differences. How they got those differences you don't say--though, let's recall your awesome (wrong) theory that Ethiopians and Indians are black because they have black semen. This is an easily testable hypothesis, dude. Get it together.

Sometimes you give me the impression that you think climate and geography are the creators of ethnic difference (soft lands breed soft people, anyone?), but then maybe custom is king? At this point, I have no clue what ethnicity is in your book filled with descriptions of peoples and cultures. You tell a good story, but you are wearing me out. 

How We Teach Matters

I've written an article over at Eidolon on "Why I Teach About Race and Ethnicity in the Classical World."  It is something of a follow-up to "We Condone It By Our Silence" and, though I wrote it over a month or so ago, addresses some of the issues that have recently surfaced in the Reed college debate (linked in the article) and also "#ClassicsSoWhite" by Hilary Lehmann over at the Classics and Social Justice blog.

At the end of her article, she stresses that the field needs to take seriously the effort to de-colonize it. And she is right. You can still love and want to study classical literature and history while recognizing and not loving or supporting the ideas of "western civilization" and the "Canon"and the other myriad uses to which the Classical past has been put in support of racism, and sexism, and classism. Teaching about race and ethnicity in Classical antiquity is one way to start.

I will leave you to read the article itself. 

Immigrants and Cruelty

Tomb of Eirene from the city of Byzantium, buried in
Piraeus, Athens. Her name is recorded in both Greek
and Phoenician script. 4th century BCE.
Photo by Rebecca Kennedy. 
There are days when my scholarship and teaching resonate with the modern world more than others. Today is one such day. Yesterday, Pres. Trump rescinded the executive order known as DACA, passed in 2012 to protect so-called "Dreamers," non-citizen residents of the US who were brought here as children and who have lived their entire lives here. DACA created a pathway for them to get work permits, legal identification, attend college, and generally participate in everyday life without fear of deportation to places they have never known. DACA isn't perfect--they had to register and re-register every 2 years. And it was only a deferment of possible deportation.

Although there is some talk of Congress acting to pass legislation that will replace the executive order, history suggests to me that there are enough members of Congress for whom the cruelty of deporting these individuals is "just business" that no law will come. AG Jeff Sessions seemed particularly pleased at the announcement. Because sometimes, let's be clear, what is morally right and what is legal are not the same thing; sometimes what is legal is morally reprehensible. This is especially the case when it comes to treatment of immigrants in democratic societies.

In my Eidolon article, "We Condone It by Our Silence," I laid out some of the laws Classical Athens had in place for treatment of immigrants. Its strict citizenship policy and its requirements that resident immigrants (known as metics) register every year with the city and pay an immigrant tax are well documented. The registration policy is actually quite similar to DACA, except that it was the universal policy for immigrants as there was no differentiation between "legal" and "illegal"immigrating, only a failure to register once you did. And failure to register meant sale into slavery--the "deportation" of the ancient world. It didn't matter how long you lived in Athens, even if you were born there and your grandparents were born there--you could rarely become a citizen. To register, you had to have a sponsor. The sponsor had to be a citizen (male, over the age of 30). If you were a man or a family immigrating, you paid 12 obols a year. If you were a single woman, you paid 6. I wrote a book on the women who fall into this latter category, and it is those women I am thinking about today.

We don't know a lot of women from Classical Athens--they weren't permitted to participate in politics and when they appear in court cases or histories, they are often left unnamed. We do see some of the names of metic women, though, in courtroom speeches. They are often being maligned or mistreated. We also see their names on tombstones, where we know they were immigrants because they recorded their city of origin. These women's lives often go unrecognized in our histories or, when they are mentioned, they are discussed as if the slanders of their male citizen attackers are truth. What I want to do in the rest of this post is simply describe a few of their experiences. Like the hundreds of thousands of immigrants in this country whose lives are being upended by the DACA decision, that these women were real people with real lives is too often forgotten or ignored.

Zobia: An immigrant woman in Athens, who had the misfortune of being involved with a citizen man named Aristogeiton. She lent him a cloak and some money one day and upon request for repayment, he seized her and dragged her to the court, seeking to denounce her as an unregistered immigrant. Lucky for her, the tax collector vouched for her as did her sponsor and denied Aristogeiton a chance to make money from selling her into slavery.

Aristogeiton's non-citizen sister: We don't know her name, but we are told a court case against him that he denounced her as an unregistered metic and sold her into slavery. Their brother may have intervened, but we don't know the outcome.

Theoris: Theoris was a n immigrant from Lemnos who seems to have made a living selling medicines and love charms. She got involved with Aristogeiton, who got caught selling fake epilepsy cures, and he offered up Theoris as to blame and as a witch. She and her entire family (including children) were executed for witchcraft.

The Nurse: In a speech attributed to Demosthenes (Against Evergus and Mnesibulus), we learn of an old former nanny, who had once been the speaker's family slave. We don't know her name, but we know how she died. The speaker's father freed her and she married and lived in Athens. After the death of her husband, in her old age, she returned to live with speaker, whom she had cared for when he was a child. In a dispute over a debt, the nurse was attacked by men attempting to rob the home. She was injured and died a few days later. The speaker was distraught, not just because she died, but because there was nothing he could do to punish the men who killed her. She wasn't his slave anymore and she wasn't his relative, so, according to the laws, she had noone to prosecute for her murder. Her death, the death of a former slave and metic, was not considered valuable enough in law to hold anyone accountable.

I am reminded of these immigrant women and more in Athens when I read of women dropping charges of domestic abuse for fear of deportation. Or women being granted sanctuary in a churches to avoid being deported and separated from her citizen children. The callousness of those who support the end of DACA, who will never be impacted by it personally, who say "just deport the whole family."  The idea that these women, because they were "immigrants," were somehow worth less than others, makes me angry. It should make us angry to see it still happening now.

All the talk of progress and here we are where the Athenians were 2500 years ago, treating some people as if they are as much cattle. What did they do to deserve this treatment? This disregard? What makes our nation so frightened of them? Or our land so limited and small or poor that we can't possibly house them? Aristogeiton preyed on these women because he could, because he clearly kept getting away with it. The court cases where these crimes are listed are not about those crimes, but about other offences against citizen men. The men who killed the nurse also got away with it. Immoral men still get away with hateful acts especially when they prey on non-citizens, those deemed somehow less worthy of human status. And I'm angry. And sad.