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Some people, Hanink says, “feel threatened” by her critique, which they see as “an attack not only on Western civilization but on the United States’s putative leading role in it.” They fear “that a de-privileging of Greco-Roman antiquity will lead to the decentering of certain identity categories: American, Western, white, male.”
Feeling threatened could seem like a reasonable reaction to people who say they want to burn your whole field down. But are these really the only possible reasons anyone would question Hanink’s analysis? The fact that the radical take on classics that Hanink espouses has been criticized by scholars who aren’t white, male, or American might suggest that it is, in fact, possible to disagree with her without being a caricature of a Trump supporter.
In any case, speculation about people’s motives takes us away from the actual arguments about the topic at hand, namely, whether or not the academic field of classics is, as Hanink states, “both a product of and longtime accomplice in violent societal structures, including white supremacy, colonialism, classism, and misogyny.”
Concrete proposals and a proper debate would be more helpful than overheated rhetoric.
Hanink doesn’t so much misunderstand the arguments on the other side as miss them completely. She declares that recent work “has shown, incontrovertibly, how ideas about ancient Greece and Rome have been used to authorize racist and other exclusionary practices and narratives.” But as skeptics have pointed out several times now, ideas about ancient Greece and Rome have been used to authorize pretty much any project you could think of, from communism and fascism to feminism and liberal democracy.
Can the academic field of classics really be held responsible for all of these uses of the Greco-Roman past? As more than one critic has noted, claiming that institutional classics is “complicit” for the way extremists talk about the ancient world makes very little sense. Is Islam “complicit” in terrorism because Islamists sometimes draw on the Quran?
In fact, the notion of a Western tradition long pre-dates that. And even if the exact term “Western civilization” was only invented after World War I, that wouldn’t compel the conclusion that a Western cultural tradition never existed.
Hanink cites Kwame Anthony Appiah’s argument that there was no Western “essence” or “golden nugget” that has been “passed from hand to hand” through the centuries. But you don’t need to believe that there was to think that Western civilization was a thing.
What we’re referring to when we talk about Western civilization may be, instead, a cluster of ideas and customs that, though they were never completely cut off from the rest of the world, nevertheless formed a recognizably distinct part of global cultural history.
It’s in that sense that cultural traditions have an existence. Sometimes they can even stretch back into ancient times, something Hanink, who talks about modern Greece and China as “nations with ancient pedigrees,” seems to recognize.
If that’s right, it’s hard to see why we shouldn’t speak of Greece and Rome as the foundations of Western civilization. After all, despite recent suggestions that this idea was largely invented during the Enlightenment, Greek and Roman culture exerted a strong and continuous influence on Western culture, from the middle ages through the Renaissance to today.
Classicists, Hanink concludes, “are the last ones who should fear ruins.” It’s a haunting image, especially for those of us who work in universities that lack Brown’s $5-billion endowment. Hanink might reply that what she’s really asking for is reform rather than wholesale destruction. If that’s the case, why not drop the apocalyptic language?
Any healthy academic field should be open to critiques (as well as defenses) of its practices and assumptions. But concrete proposals and a proper debate would surely be more helpful than the kind of overheated rhetoric on show in Hanink’s piece. And if a proper debate does ever take place, it would be nice if those who took part in it could make some effort to engage with the arguments on the other side.