"Calling Your Students 'Terrorists' is not 'Brave'" and Other Things One Should Not Need to Tell a Colleague

It is never surprising (sadly) when a member of the discipline of Greek and Roman studies outs themselves fully as a willing participant in and peddler of traditional White supremacist ideas. It is even less surprising when the person doing it is a member of the Heterodox Academy. And when they (of course) publish their screed in Q***ette, we come full circle. No one should be shocked. But everyone should be (in the words of one former student in the department of said Classicist) "appalled." And, of course, it is always disappointing in the extreme when we see people who have made their careers on being insightful and smart readers write things that are so full of common errors and ignorance. It always makes us question how very insightful and smart as readers they ever really were. 


The most recent installment in the annals of Classicist Gone White Supremacist is Prof. J. Katz (Princeton) "A Declaration of Independence by a Princeton Professor," a response by Katz to a letter written and signed by hundreds of his colleague at Princeton and published as an Open Letter. And it is all the more appalling because it, as these things often do, presents itself as a work of reasoned thought and correction instead of the ignorant, shallow, and racist opinion piece it actually is. This post is a response to it, co-authored by myself and Maximus Planudes. We write this response for a few reasons. The first is that Katz just has some things wrong, specifically about the history of the US generally and of academic research and knowledge in the last 60 years. He should be corrected. 


Secondly, because he is in a position of power and authority and situated in the heart of the prestige economy of Classics and academia in general. He has had the ability and continues to have the ability to cause harm to many within the field and on his campus--no one who ever speaks of their students as "terrorists" (see below for further discussion) should be allowed in ANY classroom, let alone working in "Freshman Seminars in the Residential Colleges" and "Teacher Preparation," as he lists on his faculty page. We may not have much real power and authority (and will surely never be Fellows at All Souls, as he was), and we do not have nearly the auctoritas and prestige of Prof. Katz, but we have a platform and those of us who have these should speak out when and where we can. 


We must recognize that Katz is positioning himself as a "voice of reason" and "neutral" arbiter and only deems those things that can be fit into the "colorblind" category as appropriate responses. His op-ed is a textbook case of colorblind racism wrapped up in smugness, self-righteousness, and historical inaccuracies being deployed to neutralize any race-conscious anti-racist reparative action. On the other hand, we are cognizant that this is not a fair and balanced response to his response. But, it is neither bullying nor a call for firing nor cancellation. We are merely engaging in robust debate with some occasional snide commentary.


Just be warned: We are not linking to it. You have to do that search yourself. We hate driving traffic to drivel, but feel the op-ed must be addressed.


See also now, this somewhat different response to Katz by Vanessa Stoval.


***

Let's start at the beginning.

"whom were considered heroes just a few minutes ago": Our colleague opens his piece with what he likely views as a clever comment on "cancel culture". What he misunderstands is that there exist decades (not minutes) of scholarship on these numerous "Founding Fathers," scholarship that questions and, indeed, dismantles their status as "national heroes." For example:


This is the opening of William Freehling's 1972 "The Founding Fathers and Slavery." 1972.  Freehling is, of course, pushing against the negative views of the Founders (specifically Jefferson)--which Katz himself likely agrees with--, but we cite this only to point out that this "cancellation" has been happening for over half a century. That it is only gaining any traction outside of academic circles now is a measure of how powerful our White supremacist institutions are. Katz either does not know that this debate has been around since his birth or is just trying to be cute and failing. 


"In Princeton, New Jersey on July 4th, 2020": Although the Faculty Letter only made the slightest allusion to the Declaration of Independence (it was released on July 4), Katz makes it the conceit motivating his piece, with some confusing consequences. His only comparison does not make much sense. He appears to be aiming at wit with his notion of capitalization (united States vs United States), but the Faculty Letter nowhere says United States. (Incidentally, the Declaration uses 18C conventions of capitalization and the articles of confederacy did capitalize United).  

None of this, of course, addresses the quoted first sentence of the Faculty Letter.: “Anti-Blackness is foundational to America.” It’s worth taking the claim seriously, something Katz seems unable to bring himself to do. Let’s hear from the man once referred to by historians as “the first professional racist in American history,” John H. Van Evrie. Evrie was well known as a popularizer of scientific racism and had a great deal of influence on politicians in his lifetime. He was the author and editor of a weekly magazine called the Weekly Day Book, with its publication masthead “White Men Must Rule America."  He was a slavery apologist who often put slave and slavery in quotation marks because he did not consider the condition of enslavement to be forced, but was simply the natural order of things. In particular, we find his 1867 book White Supremacy and Negro Subordination, or Negroes, A Subordinate Race and Slavery Its Normal Condition helpful to make our point. 


It seems (based on his later comment that anyone who believes this will teach the 1619 project as dogma) that Katz considers the statement obviously false. But! The man who helped popularize scientific racism and spent decades providing politicians with support for, first, Black enslavement and, then, Jim Crow begs to differ! Let’s see what Evrie tells us about what most “right-thinking” Americans thought about the foundations of America back in 1867. After explaining how climate meant that most Black enslaved people were eventually settled in the southern part of the US, he explains how it was that in Virginia in particular (home, of course, to Thomas Jefferson), the close proximity of a large Black population is what led these once English aristocrats to turn away from their love of monarchy and embrace “new ideas” of governance. 


Further, after another lengthy proof of his point, he declares that the men of Virginia had no choice but to adapt their institutions around the “unalterable fact” of Black natural inferiority:



With a result, of course, that these once English aristocrats became the staunch promoters of democracy and liberty for white men, as exemplified in the “great revolutionary moment of 1776”:


Although Katz seems to think that it makes absolutely no sense for anyone to think that anti-Blackness was a foundational value in America, it seems that there are, in fact, many people historically who have not only thought this was so but embraced it and promoted it widely and used it as evidence for the continued enslavement of Black Americans and then, after Emancipation, for the institution of Jim Crow. Perhaps his inability to realize this self-evident truth is because we as a society have been told repeatedly by those embracing colorblind ideologies that racism is over because we elected a Black president.


The attempt at wit, though, seems designed only to set up his second anxiety about capitalization: how can Black be capitalized but white not (perhaps a reference recent press decisions to capitalize B in Black)?  This bit is disturbing. He is either ignorant of or pretending to be ignorant of decades worth of scholarship on Whiteness (even though he was a colleague of Nell Irvin Painter)--such claims to ignorance by respected scholars are always baffling. The capitalization of a letter designates the category as a recognized, constructed, non-natural racialized status. To leave “white” lower case pretends that Whiteness is an unraced norm or default. It is one of the ways that Whiteness maintains its invisibility. This is one reason why there was push back for not capitalizing both terms.


But, that is not really what we think his point is. The way this is worded (and here we are practicing philology again!), it is almost as if he thinks of himself as White and cannot accept that he should be subordinated to Black by not getting his own capital letter. 

“This moral erosion has made it quite impossible for those who  think of themselves as white in this country to have any moral authority at all—privately, or publicly.” (Baldwin, On being white and other lies).

***


"I am friends with many people who signed the Princeton letter":  Can't fault him for optimism! 

***

While the Faculty letter makes no explicit reference to the Declaration, Katz titles his essay a Declaration of Independence. This choice raises a few questions. Does Katz believe that his declaration is indeed a comparable document? At some point, a healthy regard for oneself slips into arrogance. What truths does Katz believe are self-evident?  One more question for those on the job market: he references part of the opening, “When in the course of human events,” but does not complete the sentence. Instead, he complains about the youths these days, whinging that every American child no longer knows the whole sentence. 



What is the whole “long and elegant sentence”? 

"When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation" (Actual Declaration of Independence).

Holy Cow! Is Katz leaving Princeton!? Does he have a job at Ramsey Center for Western Civilization!?  Who knows. It is clear, however, that Katz is a fan of the Declaration. Let us imagine the Katz' family festive fourth of July table. We are told that they read the stirring prose of the Declaration. Surely, they follow it with the powerful and equally moving short speech by Fredrick Douglas. They then, surely, discuss at length Prof. Danielle Allen's important "Our Declaration." Yeah, that surely must be how it goes. 


These plausible imaginings aside, there are numerous additional elements of this letter that one could address. This response is already long; we will restrict ourselves to just a few more of the most egregious. 


For example, in listing the possible reasons many Princeton professors signed the letter, Katz tells us that the last is the largest category.

"(4) They agree with some of the demands and felt it was good to act as “allies” and bring up the numbers even though they do not assent to everything themselves.


I imagine that the majority fall into this last category. Indeed, plenty of ideas in the letter are ones I support."

Reading this, We wondered what separated Katz from category 4. He agrees with some of the demands without assenting to everything. In such a document, one can reasonably sign in that situation. Perhaps, the self-revealing scare quotes around allies resolve the question. Katz perhaps worries that someone might believe him an ally. He need not worry.  


Katz does not support the Faculty Letter, his declaration implies, because he worries that “dozens” of the proposals will lead to a campus “civil war” and undermine the public’s confidence in higher education. Katz is given to reckless exaggeration. We doubt he could find 24 objectionable proposals (there are 43 in total), let alone one that would lead to civil war. In fact, he cites nearly as many proposals that he agrees with as those he dislikes. But let’s explore some of what will bring on Princeton’s “civil war.”


What of the specific proposals that bother him? Let’s start from the clearest statement in the entire letter of his devotion to White innocence and colorblindness: “It boggles my mind that anyone would advocate giving people...extra perks for no other reason other than their pigmentation.” This one is a doozy. Firstly, because it suggests just how ignorant (willfully or accidentally) he is of the history of anti-Black racism in America and how it has functioned since the Civil Rights movement (we would recommend Bonilla-Silva Racism without Racists, but Katz doesn’t seem much interested in scholarship written on race in the last 5 or 6 decades). It is especially clear that he does not recognize how much his own skin color provides him with advantages. More distressing, however, is how he seems to understand it as a matter of pigmentation. One of the most obvious and enduring aspects of Whiteness is its position as the absence of color, which, again, identifies Whiteness as normal and everything else as deviant.


Then there is the principle of White neutrality: anyone who thinks that anti-Blackness is foundational would “teach the 1619 project as dogma.” Controversy over the 1619 project aside, this is an almost explicit statement that Katz does not trust his Black colleagues or anyone who signed that letter (if they are one of the “believers'') to be balanced and neutral in their teaching of US History. While he, on the other hand, of course, recognizes that slavery and race had something to do with America (just not much). This is why we are certain that he read Douglas and discussed Allen at his festive 4th of July table--because he is balanced and reasonable. This is no different from Black journalists who were barred by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from reporting on the George Floyd/Black Lives Matters protests since they (but not White colleagues) were deemed unable to do so without bias. This statement by Katz makes it clear that he does not think anti-Black racism has shaped American society. And, honestly, for people who believe this, there is no evidence that will ever be enough evidence to convince them otherwise. This type of belief in the face of overwhelming evidence is the actual dogma. 


What follows next is probably the most egregious misrepresentation in the entire op-ed:

This student organization is NOT listed as a known terrorist organization. We checked. This statement, one of his numerous exaggerations in the op-ed, presents a claim so misleading that it borders on hate speech itself (by legal definition). We are not at Princeton and have no first-hand evidence about this group. Katz says that they made people who disagreed with them “miserable” and that he watched something on Instagram, something that he classified “as one of the most evil things he has seen.” We are guessing he has not watched any videos of the numerous Black Americans killed by police. Regardless, it is still not terrorism. It sounds more like a dog whistle to those who believe that anyone advocating for Black lives is a terrorist. We hope he didn't mean it that way. 


The last in the list worth addressing is the call for a committee. Even Katz agrees that racist behaviors and incidents require disciplinary actions. The more troubling is faculty oversight of research and publications. This is a place where we also would want to be careful and we think that the letter writers themselves recognize the dangers.


Katz asks rhetorically whether there is anyone who “doesn’t believe that this committee would be a star chamber with a low bar for cancellation, punishment, suspension, even dismissal?” We don't believe it nor, seemingly, do those who signed the letter. Katz’s discussion is alarmist, but let’s look at the actual proposal from the Faculty Letter:  

"Constitute a committee composed entirely of faculty that would oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty, following a protocol for grievance and appeal to be spelled out in Rules and Procedures of the Faculty. Guidelines on what counts as racist behavior, incidents, research, and publication will be authored by a faculty committee for incorporation into the same set of rules and procedures."

This is academic bureaucracy, as familiar to Katz as to any faculty member. They want a group of faculty to create a document that sets out guidelines for what counts as racist actions on campus. Such a document would be crafted by Princeton faculty and have to pass, we imagine, a full faculty vote. There would then be a faculty only committee to oversee the enforcement of those rules, including a process for appeal. The devil will, of course, be in the details, but an arbitrary star chamber is not envisioned. And we want to add a dose of realism to hysterical academic handwringing. From our experience, any document that makes it through a full faculty vote will be so watered down that it will hardly be anti-racist anymore. 


And, let’s also be clear--there already are committees and people who police research and scholarship. Sometimes it happens in peer review, sometimes at the tenure and promotion committee table. Sometimes it happens in conversations where we are told that x topic (insert something involving race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, reception) is not an “appropriate” topic for a “real scholar”. We all know it happens. Katz’s alarmism is perhaps addressed to people who carry on what can be understood as research with explicitly racist goals (race and IQ studies, for example--a favorite topic at Q***ette). We will never know.


In the end, the Faculty Letter is clear that it is offering “principled steps” that require “faculty endorsement and input.” The letter expresses the desire for discussions of its content.  Did Katz speak with any of the signatories, many who were(?) his “friends”, about his concerns?  Why did he publish this? In contrast to the Letter writers, his goal is unclear, unless it is just an anti-woke, self-aggrandizing, virtue signal to his colleagues over at the Heterodox Academy. We hope not.



Power & Authority: Who has it? How do we use it? (Or, Navel gazing)

Over the last week, I have been involved in a couple of discussions on Twitter and email where (I must admit it, although I know it will shock my regular audience) I was arguing about institutional power structures. In both cases, people seemed to want to deflect the discussions from the level of institutions to individuals. In one case, it was suggested that I was not using my power enough/correctly? and anyway, as a person with “power,” I could not critique institutional structures. In the other, I was supposedly abusing my “power” by “citationsplaining.” This charge (is this a thing now? or a hapaxlegomenon?), I believe, means citing a work of relevant scholarship in discussion to someone who already knows it. And since we all know all the relevant bibliography already (of course), citation is no longer necessary. 

Leaving aside the otherwise interesting discussion of the “citaitionsplaining,” I want to talk about my power. In the contexts of these discussions, I would assert that I do not have power; what I have is a certain kind of authority. There is an important and meaningful distinction between power and types of authority that is worth thinking about, especially for those who: 
  1. do scholarship on marginalized groups or concepts like race, gender, class, etc in antiquity, 
  2. are concerned about the connections between classics as a discipline and white supremacism/colonialism/imperialism, 
  3. participate in service in the field around issues of marginalization, discrimination, etc, and 
  4. may be part of various groups that face discrimination/bias/harm and marginalization. 
It's interesting to me, of course, because this interplay between power and authority informs so much of my research. But it also seems to be a big part of social media and scholarship and...just human interaction generally.


Let's start with the obvious: I read way too much Foucault and Edward Said in the 1990s (thanks, Erik and Victoria!) and it has shaped my understanding of power--what it is and how it operates. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on feminist perspectives of power provides a very useful starting point.

Power seems to have lots of possible definitions and permutations, but really, for our purposes here, Foucault’s idea of “power over” is what we mean. i.e. Power is the ability to get others to do what you want (imperium). In order to effect power, one has to have authority, but having authority (auctoritas) doesn’t mean one has power.
Max Weber provides a good framing to get an explanation for authority. Weber divided authority between "traditional," "charismatic," and "legal-rational." "Traditional", Weber argues, comes from longstanding custom, like patriarchy--we don’t have to continue to organize societies around masculine power, but we do because “that’s how it’s always been done.”

Another type of “traditional” authority might be tenure. So, at my home institution, I have certain protections that come with having gotten (after 6 years on the job market) a certain type of job that after jumping through hoops for another 6 years enables me to write, teach, and participate in campus governance without fear of losing my job. I can be critical of the institution, how it is run; I can teach controversial topics; I can write about the ties of my discipline to white supremacism. The tenure system is a vestige of what used to be “the way things are done.” In some places, it still is a form of “traditional” authority, but not in others.
As a tenured faculty member, I also have institutional power because at my college, faculty are part of the governance structure, which means I also have “legal-rational” authority. "Legal-rational" authority inheres in the office--"the office of the President", for example. Regardless of who the individual is, the institutional position or affiliation that individual has (i.e. tenure) grants them authority to wield the power of that institution in certain circumstances (like when on a committee) and expects a certain level of deference. This kind of authority can also function outside of one’s home institution. It does so in a couple of ways. One example is the prestige economy of institutions, Another is scholarly reputation based on peer reviewed publication (one of the ways you can get tenure). This is a kind of authority I have because I have published well-respected, well-reviewed, and cited books and articles that can borrow the prestige and power of the presses they are published with and the other scholars who review them. I can exercise this authority through citing others, editing volumes and inviting others to participate and reviewing books/manuscripts/articles. I can benefit from the power that attaches to this sort of legal-rational authority by getting speaking invitations and making decisions about whose work is and isn’t ready to be published. Another example of legal-rational authority comes from affiliation with and participation in professional organizations. I was once the co-chair of the Women’s Classical Caucus. At that time, I was asked for my opinion on lots of things and invited to various committee meetings, included on too many email chains to count, and had the ability to help shape institutional policy and practice. But that sort of power goes with the position, not with the person. Once I stopped serving on that committee, I stopped being included on those email threads (phew!), stopped having any power to shape policy and practice. Not having that (or any) affiliations outside of my home campus now means that I do not have legal-rational authority outside of my campus because any authority I had was only by association or affiliation with external authorities. And it isn’t my thing (nor am I properly situated in the prestige economy) to use affiliation anyway to gain other forms of institutional power and legal-rational authority.
What that leaves me with is (and do not laugh) "charismatic" authority. This type of authority derives from an individual's personality. For me, it is my public work and Twitter persona that gives me this type of authority. To have “charismatic” authority doesn’t mean I am particularly likeable--let’s be honest, I am very easy to dislike. The very things upon which any authority I have is based--aggression, willingness to question the status quo, and excessive honesty—are the same things that undermine me. But this is all I’ve got. How did I get it? From Twitter and my blog, mostly. But, of course, it is just a blog. Anyone with an internet connection can have one. It doesn’t have any institutional backing to give it something resembling the type of legal-rational authority that can come from writing on a press. A blog platformed on and affiliated with institutional entities like Discover Channel or Forbes or Eidolon or TLS gets authority from those platforms. My blog (which doesn’t even use Wordpress!) has its authority only from the person writing it, who does have the scholarly credentials to write a respectable blog, but has to have some sort of charismatic authority in order for people to care enough to read it. It is all rather complicated, isn’t it? I do not really have any power--not the kind of power that some people seem to think I have. I can blog about these recent incidents, of course, as obnoxious as that is (an occupational hazard for those with charismatic authority). But, I can’t make anyone do what I want them to do. I can’t make people with platforms center the needs and voices of secondary and undergrad-only teachers instead of almost always centering people from PhD granting institutions as if their opinions are the only ones that matter and their perspectives somehow universal. Because it certainly isn't the case that saying "I am aware that I am privileged" is enough to erase that privilege when it is still the loudest voice in the room. I also can’t make organizations change their policies or practices by tweeting or blogging about it or participating in an email discussion. Nor can I negatively impact someone’s career or status by throwing a citation into an email to support my position in the discussion. In fact, throwing out citations is a way to shore up my lack of power within an institutionally recognized form of authority. I do not feel confident resting the argument upon my own expertise, so I summon someone else’s. A major limitation of charismatic authority is that it is singularly dependent upon the good will of others to exist and can't rely on platforms or institutions. It can disappear just as quickly as it appears. But, this extra-institutional, unaffiliated sort of power is actually easier to use while maintaining my principles (a benefit also of tenure). I don’t have to compromise in order to effect some sort of political agreement in policy (I am not part of those conversations). Nor am I ever tempted to try to use my affiliations with institutional forms of power to personal benefit (can't abuse what you don’t have!). The only way I can maintain any semblance of authority is by adhering to the principles that people found worth investing with authority to begin with. Otherwise, we could see #cancelKennedy trending. I think about this fairly regularly, because one of the ways that institutional and traditional authorities are maintained is by not questioning the status quo. It is by investing in “neutral” or “blind” practices and policies. Charismatic authority, while the most precarious and even dangerous, can actually move conversations by questioning the other forms of authority. But it does so usually at the cost of alienating those invested in or embedded within those other types of authority. And maintaining it without sacrificing one’s principles usually means having to not care if you lose it. When people say I have “power,” they are referring to this unmoored, unaffiliated, and unstable kind of authority. If people want to grant me this kind of authority, sure, ok. Just best to lower your expectations about what someone can (and cannot) actually do with it.




Correcting Nonsense about the Ancient Greco-Roman Past

It has been about 2.5 years since I first wrote "Why I Teach About Race and Ethnicity in the Classical World" for Eidolon.  The impetus for it was Donna Zuckerberg's article "How to Be a Good Classicist under a Bad Emperor," which called on classicists to teach more about the diversity of the ancient world. Like my colleagues Sydnor Roy, Denise McCoskey and Shelly Haley and others, I've been teaching iterations of this class for a long time. And, so I thought I would make a statement on why in order to encourage others to do it to. Also, of course, because teaching a class like this can be hard, Syd and I decided to make it easier on ourselves back in 2010 and publish the sourcebook in 2013--Race and Ethnicity in the Classical World: An Anthology of Sources. It isn't perfect and needs a second edition one of these days to add inscriptions, papyri, early Christian texts, focused material on immigration and enslavement. There is so much material on this topic from antiquity that it really is a life's work to track it all down. I've been gathering other people's syllabi for about two years now in order to make them available to others and to learn from how others teach their versions. And, because there is always more to learn, I am constantly changing my own syllabus.  

What follows is a reflection on the latest iteration of the class with student responses that functions as something of a revision of my Eidolon article and also as a response of sorts to the dangerous view of identity in antiquity and its modern appropriations represented in a recent review of books (screenshot of the opening paragraph--I am not linking to the site):


One of the goals of teaching race and ethnicity in the ancient world (as part of our larger courses and in stand alone classes) is to help disabuse people of these types of unserious and inaccurate positions. It is also to give students tools to identify and understand how such views are racist, orientalist, white supremacist and promote inaccuracies about both antiquity and the modern world in the service of ideology. Our success in the classroom can have impact down the road in making these sort of bad history takes less useful or common. So, here we go... 

**All materials from students used with permission.** 

I can only imagine that the true final project would have coalesced all of these aspects into one final performance on what we have learned throughout this semester. That is also what is so sad and disappointing about this semester, we never got to do everything that the course got to offer. I realize that it must be disappointing to have a plan for a semester and have it totally upended from some freak pandemic. Regardless, I really enjoyed the class and thought of it to be one of the more meaningful courses I have taken throughout my college experience so far. ~student comment
Let's start from reality. This class was not the class I intended it to be when the semester started. I had spent a lot of time this past year thinking about how I wanted to change the class based on the current cultural moment, on responses from the previous iteration, and based on my own shifting interests. So, I changed reading structure--instead of using scholarship on specific passages and text along with the ancient texts and then tagging on the reception of these ideas to the last 3-4 weeks of the term, I integrated the reception throughout and ordered Ibram X. Kendi's Stamped from the Beginning as the textbook we would read along side of the ancient sources. You can see that version of the syllabus (the one I gave out at the beginning of the term) here. I also planned a panel of classicists who work on various aspects of Classics Africana (or Black Classicisms) to come to campus and help us integrate the ancient material with the Kendi and with an exhibition at the Denison Museum called "Say it Loud". It included a performance of the Hype4Homer project. So awesome.  The panel happened, but 3 days later campus shut down. 

Obviously, the move to online teaching required some modifications to my syllabus. This involved reducing the length of readings, adding more visual content and restructuring the assignments. The revised syllabus for the last few weeks can be found here. What isn't visible on the new schedule is the targeted discussion questions on our Learning management System and the memes and audio recordings I asked students to do. The final project was originally for them to write an essay on the intersections between ancient and modern ideas of race and ethnicity and present it in a multimedia format (a program called Shorthand). Obviously, that was going to be rough, so instead I asked them to write a reflection of what they learned in the class and would take away with them to wherever they go in the future. For many students, this was and will be their only Classics course, so I was curious.


The plan for the semester was to integrate the discussion of modern receptions, adaptations, evolutions from, and uses of ancient ideas about race and ethnicity throughout, to help student see more jarringly the way ancient ideas moved into and were used in modern race constructs. Reading Tacitus' Germania and seeing the Nazi use of it at the same time is more impactful than reading it and then looking at Nazi receptions 4 weeks later.  Doing so, however, required that we begin the class with very clear definitions of what race and ethnicity are (or how we would use these terms in class). Students were very clear that the didn't have a definition of either (some had never really thought about ethnicity, for example), but knew that "race is a social construct"--whatever that meant. 
"The fact that race was introduced as “the institutionalization of prejudice and oppressions based on moving signifiers for human difference” because we need a different way to approach it when looking at it in ancient times really made sense. While we look at race as color and appearance now, color was used in a lot of different ways back then...For reasons like these it’s much more productive to view race as a technology that structures human interactions and manifests within institutions. The categorizations of race ideas found in Kendi—segregationist, assimilationist, and anti-racist—were also really significant, specifying two conflicting kinds of racism. But the argument from Kendi that resonated with me most was that racist ideas, hate, and ignorance stem from racial discrimination and policies instead of the other way around. This makes so much sense as I notice selfish motives, primarily money and status, being the actual causes of discriminatory policies not only throughout this class but throughout a lot of material from my other classes..."  ~student comment
"I remember the definitions we discussed on the first day and how we subsequently applied them to the ancient Greek sources dealing with origin myths. Based on these primary sources, I could see that today’s ethnic and racial classifications didn’t fit onto the ancient world as many people would think they did. The rubber really hit the road, so to speak, when comparing the identity discourses within the ancient sources to those that Kendi wrote about. It was clear that ideas of race and ethnicity from the late modern period, give or take, simultaneously incorporated ancient views and departed from them. The kernel of blackness in ancient descriptions of North African populations became exaggerated as the focal point for modern racist ideologies. Through this example and others, I could see that speaking of race and ethnicity in an ancient context requires an appreciation of these different paradigms." ~student comment
We started class with our working definitions and these would be the definitions we would use throughout the term. Importantly, I wanted them to understand that the terms 'race' and 'ethnicity' are not interchangeable, that theories like environmental determinism are not 'racial theories' unless that can be manifested in things like laws or political institutions and then form the basis for oppression (like the Athenian metic system or Spartan helots). As Kendi argues (rightly) racist policy creates racist ideas. By using Kendi and weaving him in throughout the course, student could see how ancient ideas came to be foundational to modern racist ideas. 




I think the class was successful in part because we had clear terms for engagement, I was very clear about why we needed to read the ancient and the modern together--in order to know how the modern world has (mis)used the ancient, they need to be laid side by side. It is unfair to ask students to infer connections that are often so embedded as 'reality' for them--prejudices, assumptions, 'nature'--without some sort of guidance or framework.  

This brings me to the silly book review screenshot above--the idea that a war in antiquity could be somehow the pivotal moment in the history of some imaginary 'western' world identity. So, what did my students learn this term? 
"In fact, just recently I was able to enlighten my younger sisters on where race came from while they were participating in a heated debate considering whether black people could be racist to whites. I overheard the conversation and put what I have learned in this course to the test. After conversing with my sisters I was proud of what I was able to accomplish and realized that this information will give me a step up when entering the workforce. Although preconceived notions and racist ideas may not always be on display, they are in the minds of the people around us and as a black man I am forced to think about that everyday." ~student comment
"I learned quite a bit in this class, especially about how residual some ideas are. I was shocked to read some passages about certain ethnic groups that could still be written today, and how destructive a mindset they could be. It was quite interesting to “track” these assumptions about people from their beginning in ancient times to the present, and see their true origins. My favorite class period was the one focused on the census, and tracking the evolution of racial categories from its inception in the early 1800s. Race has always been one of the biggest issues in America, and the world, so seeing how our ideas of who is who has changed, and how the need to categorize people definitively is so ingrained." ~student comment
"While I understood that racism built on foundations laid in the past centuries (or millennia) before taking this class, the examples I encountered highlighted its presence for me. Linking the caricatures of black people provided by everything from minstrel shows to Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben products today to ancient (and sometimes fantastical) descriptions of specific African groups were helpful in this respect. Another aspect of this is the white European self-identification with ancient Greeks and Romans. 23andme and other such testing services seemed harmless to me a year ago. Even cool - using science to peer into your past. That’s part of their image used to market the product, of course. But based on this class and the various related lectures I attended, I can now see how easily they can be used to affirm a subjective image of someone’s identity." ~student comment
"This class also helped bring attention to the ways in which we as a culture glorify Greece and Rome a lot. It’s really important that we ask, “What is it about us that makes us want a group to be homogenous?” when countries not only today but since ancient times have actually been mixed entities with all different kinds of people within. The fact that being Greek can’t be seen just as being from the nation-state of Greece since they were essentially spread across the span of about three continents was something I’ve never thought about before." ~student comment
"The most important part of this class that I will carry with me is the connection between ancient viewpoints and the foundational beliefs of the United States. To think the education system of the United States was very recently based in ancient Latin and Greek. The reading of ancient philosophers was basic, foundational knowledge necessary to enter into a university. I know now that many of these texts also contain racist, classist, and sexist ideas. The fascination with classicism in the United States ties to our “founding fathers’” creation of a system of government that inherently benefitted straight, white men from the beginning. The mythos that the ancient Greek and Roman empires were white or even racially homogenized only contributes to the place these texts hold in white supremacy." ~student comment
The comments are like this from almost every student. They also say that they learned how to be better critical readers, to question their own assumptions and potential biases, and feel more confident analyzing primary materials. These are all things that are so important in the world we live in today. I am pretty sure all of my students would read that review and give it the big eye roll and F-you it deserves. 

But, it isn't just how we talk about readings and videos and whatnot. Who we give voice to for our classes matters. Bringing in Kendi changed the dynamics of the class and made students, especially the white students, confront some realities they didn't necessarily know or think mattered to them. Also, the panel I organized with my colleague Omedi Ochieng in Communication had more impact on some students than the entire rest of the class:
"This experience also had a big impact on me because, as a woman of color, it really meant a lot to me to see other people of color be passionate about and accumulate success in the classics field; it reaffirmed a message that Dr. Goldman gave the first day of my “Classical Drama” course, that the classics is not just for old, white men. I will always remember this experience for both personal and academic reasons..." ~student comment
After loving the classics for years and being told by their parents that they couldn't be a classics major, and feeling unsure why they even loved classics, to have this student say this meant more than anything else.

 
Classics really can be a classics for all, if we are willing to let go of its ties to whiteness and power, be open to the world beyond the canon, and invest efforts in "non-traditional" courses in translation that can reach more students and can really be transformative for them. None of the quotations in this post are from a classics major--80% of the student had never even taken a classics course before. And yet, it meant something to them and will change the way they engage with the world around them and how the classical appears in it. Teaching this class over the years, and this year most of all, has been transformative for me in so many ways, because it meant something to nearly every student in the class who took the journey with me.

Being "American", Sophocles' Intentions, and the Debates over "Western Civ"

I have this day been having two separate conversations on Twitter that actually revolve upon the same thing. The first was a convo with a colleague on authorial intent and Greek tragedy, inspired by last night's reading of Sophocles' Oedipus by Theatre of War. The second was a query from Shadi Bartsch on mask wearing:

While my first response was flippant (as were all the other commenters), there is, in fact, a very serious answer to this and it intersects with the way we attribute genius to individuals and meaning to plays written by men like Sophocles and also, whether people realize it or not, is at the heart of the "Why we MUST revere/teach/worship Western Civ" industry.

So, what are the connections? Let's start with the answer to Shadi's query.

After my initial flippant remark ("For their purposes, American = a$$hole fascist white person."), she followed up with:


The answer, of course, is yes. One can still be an asshole without being a fascist. But, there is a particular strand of asshole that positions itself as "American". And that has its root in the notions of American exceptionalism, the American Dream™, Manifest Destiny™, bootstrapping mythologies, the myth of the American West and "rugged individualism". There are so many names for it that we have been bombarded with in our school textbooks, in TV commercials (especially for trucks). It is at the heart of Libertarianism and Randianism. At its core is the idea that what makes the US "great" is that we are all out for ourselves. That rampant and unchecked individualism and unfettered competition (CAPITALISM!) is what makes individuals exceptional and so a country full of exceptional people will, of course, be exceptional!

But, as we know, there is no such world as a world where everyone is exceptional. Instead, we end up in a world where some people are "more valuable" than others because they are exceptional while others aren't. This is an idea core to social Darwinism and eugenics (and NOT democracy), but which we used to not say out loud.  Oh, how the times have (un)changed!


So, the exceptional people have more value --they are the JOB CREATORS who just happened to have fired or laid off something like 20 million people in the month of April in order to meet quarterly stock targets. They are the ones pushing to force the 'less valuable' people back to low wage unessential work in order to get their money back even while the US government has literally handed them billions of dollars to cover losses and keep them afloat. This is the reality of American exceptionalism and "I got mine" rugged individualism, but the mythologies that surround it and which MUST BE DEFENDED from the likes of universal healthcare, support for public education, and public health policies that don't involve eugenic-style selection of the type Janet there thinks is normal, has brought those who are most harmed by these myths to become its defenders. And they defend it by rejecting vaccinations and masks in public.

What does Sophocles and authorial intention have to do with any of this?

A colleague (Latin teacher and medievalist by training) had a little back and forth with myself and A. Pistone over whether asking the question "Why did Sophocles write this" functions or matters. Here is the beginning of the convo for context:


There is a difference, of course between pondering what the author of any work might have intended (we obviously intend to convey things when we create) and THE intent of the author as embodying the meaning of the work--Greg is really advocating for the former and this is a totally useful and valid conversation to have, but many people (I will not name names. I will not name names) mean the latter. There is still in classics a strong tendency to treat performance texts as written texts, to ignore the dialogic and oral nature of those texts. Looking for the singular perspective of the author (who may not even be fully responsible for the text as it has come down to us) in the case of performative texts that are, by their genre, defined by their audiences, ignores the nature of the work. But, tragedy, and Sophocles in particular tends to get trapped in "GREAT MAN CLASSICS" in ways that do this. And it was this, not Greg's point, that Amy and I reacted against. He is not the bad guy.

With Sophocles and Oedipus Tyrannos especially there is an idea that the play embodies universal truths. But those truths aren't ones that different peoples at different times and in different contexts are expected to find. No, indeed. These universal truths are really a singular TRUTH that emerges from the intent of a singular genius, Sophocles. And it is for us to both find that truth and to revere the exceptional man who produced them. And if we do not find that Truth, it is because we are incapable of it--we must be a too poor, too not white, too not a man to be able to see the genius' truth. And all those works of scholarship that propose to read Sophocles through feminist or class or other lenses are "revisionist" in a bad way and are denying Truth.

It shouldn't be controversial when someone like me says that texts have meanings that are produced despite authorial intention and at the point of reception and that this means any text can have a variety of interpretations and even 'truths'. It's what actually makes works like tragedy so appealing--because they can be accessed in different spaces and times to produce meaning while still carrying in them all the past meanings that others gained from them. It should not be controversial to say that every text contains truths and not Truth. And, yet, this brings us to our third intersection.

The emphasis on authorial genius and Truth is no different from and a product of the same myths of Manifest Destiny, American Exceptionalism, and the American Dream. And these are foundational to the Western Civilization narrative and so MUST BE DEFENDED.


John Gast "American Progress" 1872

Classics has been at the heart of the American Exceptionalism story since its beginning, but it was in the 19th century, as the "American West" was conquered, indigenous peoples eradicated or removed, and when the Lost Cause myth started us down the road to Jim Crow that things got super entrenched. I've written about this numerous times on the blog (example), there are articles on the way Latin textbooks have been used to perpetuate the ideas of the Happy Slave, etc. The above painting is a beautiful example of the ways "America" (which became especially in the Plato to Nato era the beacon of the "West") has been dressed up by the Classical. And university education and the Western Civilization curriculum have been integral to forging a shared White, elite identity for those who view revering of the canon and the "Great Men" within it is a cornerstone of the Western Civilization narrative. This thread by Dani Bostick on the most recent entry into the "Why We Must Teach Western Civ" catalogue (shockingly, from the National Review *insert sarcastic expression*) pretty much hits a BINGO on what we can come to expect from such articles. But, some people may be unaware of how this elitist argument is part and parcel of the Libertarianism that been intentionally trickled down into the "Everyman Real American" ethos--the one time trickle down has really seemed to work!

The narrative of American exceptionalism is premised on the Frontier Thesis, which argued that it was the westward expansion that forged American identity and which, unsurprisingly, was originally explicated in a speech in Chicago in 1893 at the American Historical Association meeting--coinciding with the World's Columbian Expo. This thesis is, in many ways, encapsulates the way this myth roots the Libertarian ethos at America's imperialist, capitalist core. In decades of cowboy films, textbooks called "The American Experience", and all of us playing Oregon Trail, this idea that America was about our rugged individualism, about pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, and about how we all could, if we worked really hard, own our own 40 acres and a mule or strike gold (or black gold even) has been burned into us. And it means, essentially, that our freedom, American Freedom™ is about being free to do what we want--even at the expense of others (and ourselves). As Ibram X Kendi put it in a recent Atlantic article "We're Still Living and Dying in a Slaveholder's Republic":


The freedom to do, not the freedom of others to be free from harm--that is supposedly the American way. That is where the singular genius, the competitive individualism, the search the Truth and not truths takes us. And where it comes from. This is at the heart of the Western Civilization narrative. It is the heart of the White definition of American. It is why the same people who will tell us that only Sophocles' intentions matter are the same people who want to rush to open businesses, deny care or relief for those most harmed by their actions, and refuse to wear masks to protect both themselves and others from harm. It's a most undemocratic way to express one's freedom, but somehow those of us who care about others get to be "unAmerican".