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Doing Justice to the Classics

“Western Civilization” means Classics…and White Supremacy

Earlier this month Iowa congressional representative Steve King, known for his xenophobiasupport for white supremacy, and long history of promoting racist politics, was quoted by The New York Times asking “white nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?” No one has defended King for asking this about “white nationalist” or “white supremacist,” but Texas congressional representative Louie Gohmert said that it’s “a fair question” to ask “when did Western civilization become a negative?” and South Carolina Senator Tim Scott said “I am unsure who is offended by the term ‘Western civilization’ on its own.” If Scott were to look into it, he would find many different people, including classical scholars arguing that “Western civilization” is coded language for white supremacy, even in response to King’s latest remarks. But it’s important to keep reiterating the case. Just this month a member of the professional association for classical scholars prefaced a racist attack on a scholar of color by insisting on the need for classical scholars to protect Western civilization. And we need to reiterate not only that “Western civilization” refers to a racist ideology, but that those who use it as King does are referring to Greco-Roman antiquity.

King did not explicitly mention Classical antiquity but it seems likely he had it in mind. Most of the coverage of King’s comments have focused on the quote given above, but King said more than this. He also said: “Why did I sit in classes teaching me about the merits of our history and our civilization?” He’s probably not referring to courses he took for his Math and Biology majors. Much more likely he means courses he took on ancient Greek and Roman history and literature.

The white supremacist site American Renaissance certainly thinks that’s what King was talking about. It covered his comments in an article entitled “Western Civilization is White Civilization.” The only period of history discussed in this article is ancient Greco-Roman history. This is the same site that Pharos has documented perpetuating the claim that ancient Greeks were the descendants of “Nordic” invaders.

It’s time for classical scholars to recognize that "Western civilization" is a racist dog whistle

Why is the nexus of “Western civilization,” Classical antiquity, and white nationalist politics so clear to the editors of American Renaissance and not to Senator Scott, or, it seems, some professional scholars of Classics? It’s because the racists are tuned into that language in a way that the rest of us aren’t, or haven’t been. In January 2018 reporter Megyn Kelly interviewed Christian Picciolini, who was a member of the Hammerskins white supremacist group and later left the movement to found the anti-hatred organization Life After HatePicciolini told Kelly that when white supremacists hear news reports about “globalism” or “the liberal media” they understand these to be coded references to “the global Jewish conspiracy” and “the Jewish media.” It’s time for classical scholars to recognize that “Western civilization” is a similar dog whistle. We may think it means everything good about the classical past but to many people — including some, if you’re a teacher, that may be in your class — it means a justification for racist politics and the “defense” of a white ethno-state.

And indeed, it’s not hard to find sites that mix together the language of “Western civilization” with white supremacy and other forms of hatred. You just need to look. Last year Pharos documented a site arguing that the study of Greek and Latin are “a key to the renewal of Western civilization.” It may seem nice to see a site promoting an area of classical studies whose future is uncertain, until you realize that the site also promotes racism and homophobia.

Other examples from sites Pharos has documented:

Pharos contributor Rebecca Futo Kennedy has written that teachers of Classics “embolden those who would use it as justification for present racism and misogyny” when they “ignore, downplay, or fail to call out…the ancient world’s darker propensities” toward misogyny, racism, or xenophobia. Steve King all but stated that his teachers emboldened him in this way. And this isn’t just something that could happen in decades past: a university in Australia has announced it is creating a degree in “Western civilisation” to allow students to “engage directly with great literary, artistic and intellectual works that are cornerstones of Western civilisation.”

To anyone who wishes for a more just assessment of the past and dreams of a more equitable society, it’s pretty clear that, in the words of one critic of the new degree, “The concept of ‘Western civilisation’ is past its use-by date in university humanities departments.” Think about whether you’re using this or related language and think about whether it’s accomplishing what you want it to.

We’ve linked above to archived versions of the hate sites we’re documenting to avoid generating traffic and advertising revenue for them.

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