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.