A Reply to Maximus Planudes’ Critique

Some time after I published a piece on white supremacism and Classics, someone going by the name Maximus Planudes posted a response on these pages. I posted a longish comment in reply. This has now been removed, apparently by M.P., who also blocked me from seeing or commenting on any of his posts, and also added a comment calling me ‘a right-wing troll’ and implying that I’m a Fascist. (This comment was still there under his piece the last time I checked). I am re-posting my original comment on M.P.’s piece here. Comments are of course welcome, whatever side of the argument you find yourself on.

Thanks, Maxime, for this largely civil engagement with some of my arguments. I say ‘largely,’ because you do raise doubts about my motives at a couple of points (unprofitably, to my mind): first, right at the beginning, when you raise the possibility that my misunderstanding of Kennedy’s position is deliberate; and then right at the end, when you imply I’m not serious about understanding whether the field is indeed complicit in ‘systems of whiteness.’ Oh, also: I’m sorry one of the links didn’t work, but I don’t think that really tells us anything about the validity of the arguments in the rest of the piece.

My piece engaged mainly with a line of argument that struck me as especially prominent in the work of Drs. Kennedy and Zuckerberg on this topic. This is the argument, ‘White supremacists sometimes draw on classical material; therefore the field of Classics is complicit in white supremacism.’ Both of the Eidolon pieces (by Kennedy and Zuckerberg) that I linked to a the start of my article pursue this line of thinking. The main aim of my piece was to point out that this argument is invalid.

I don’t think Kennedy and Zuckerberg make clear that they’re using the term ‘white supremacism’ in an esoteric sense in those pieces. In fact, their frequent references in these pieces to what the average person would instantly recognize as a white supremacist (Nazis and neo-Nazis, etc.), rather suggest that they are using the term in its ordinary sense.

And, of course, what establishes the meaning of a word in a natural language is how it’s used. Dictionary-makers know this, and so their definitions tend to reflect popular usage, at least at the time they’re written. Kennedy and Zuckerberg may want to use the term ‘white supremacism’ in a different sense (at least, when it suits them), but if so, they should make clear they’re doing that. The other alternative is to use a different term for what they have in mind.

The problem with not doing so is that it gives people the impression that Classics might be complicit in white supremacism in the ordinary sense that I’ve outlined. When challenged, of course, Kennedy and Zuckerberg can then retreat to a more moderate claim: ‘What we meant was that there are more white people in our field [and so on], not that there are professional classicists who consciously believe white people are naturally superior!’

But most people will simply understand the word ‘white supremacism’ in the ordinary way. That exposes a lot of classicists to moral opprobrium they haven’t deserved, and might give the impression to outsiders (including ethnic minorities) that Classics is a field with open, conscious racists in it, and that it’s therefore not a field to get into or engage with. That would be a pity.

So, I’m not trying to control the terms of the discussion, just trying to evaluate the claims made by others using the terms they’ve used, taking those terms in their ordinary-accepted senses (i.e. taking them to mean what they actually mean). You argue that the fact ‘explicitly sexist remarks are relatively infrequent in academic discussions does not mean that patriarchy is dead, that sexism does not exist’ and that ‘antisemitism has not died because you have a Jewish friend.’ Both of these claims strike me as true. But, especially with such a serious topic, it’s worth being very careful about which precise claims are supported by evidence and which aren’t.

If Kennedy and Zuckerberg had said, ‘There may be a problem with implicit bias in hiring in Classics’ I would have said, ‘There may well be; let’s look at the data and control for a number of variables, in a way that permits us to get to the bottom of this important issue.’ But if the claim is ‘The field is complicit in white supremacism’ and the main argument is ‘Because white supremacists draw on classical themes,’ I think the correct reaction is to point out that the argument doesn’t come close to making that very strong conclusion seem a necessary one.

This is the way in which I think your piece does move the conversation forward in a helpful way. It does so by shifting the ground of contention away from the argument about alt-right use of classical themes towards larger questions about structural inequalities in the field. I think that’s very much a question that’s worth thinking about, though it’s also a very charged and complex one, one where it’s especially important to be scrupulous about methodology and careful that the claims we make can be substantiated.

So, I take this piece as a good sign that we might now be able to move on from the obviously invalid argument about the alt-right’s use of classical themes to a more productive discussion about the extent of prejudice of various sorts in the field. Hopefully Kennedy and Zuckerberg will now be led to try to find stronger arguments to fit to their claims; to moderate their extreme claims to softer claims that they might actually be able to substantiate; or some combination of both. I’m grateful to you for helping push the debate forward in this way.

P.S. Two final points:

You say that I’m ‘denying the lived experience of people of color.’ Where do I do that?

You also say that ‘the only evidence that will convince‘ me ‘is enough instances of explicit racism.’ That is indeed the only evidence that will convince me that Classics has a problem with ‘white supremacism,’ because the term ‘white supremacism’ involves conscious racism. Strong claims require strong evidence; if the claim were more moderate, I’d obviously be satisifed with less evidence, or evidence of a different sort.

P.P.S. Thanks for the reading you recommended. I’ll put in on my list. Since you’ve suggested something, perhaps I could too. In this talk, around the 14-minute mark, Bret Weinstein explains very clearly the risks I think attend terms like ‘white supremacism’: that is, it’s too easy to say ‘I didn’t mean you were consciously racist!’ if people object — but then to have the ordinary sense of the term stain your interlocutor’s reputation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bz0oxIZ3xIg

Senior Lecturer in Classics, Victoria University of Wellington. Ancient democracy, classical liberalism, Old Comedy.