Identity Politics

From my friend Lachlan Mead, a report from the Institute of Public Affairs, a think tank based in Melbourne, Australia, entitled The Rise of Identity Politics: An Audit of History Teaching at Australian Universities in 2017. A choice excerpt, with which I happen to agree:

The teaching of history in Australian universities has become a bastion of the cultural theory of Identity Politics, whereby people are divided by their class, race, gender and their individuality is denied. Students studying history in Australia are at risk of finishing their degrees with a distorted view of the world in which the past is viewed as a contest between the oppressors and the oppressed.

As Brendan O’Neill commented, ‘ Western Campuses in particular have become hotbeds of identity politics, or what is sometimes referred to as the ‘identitarian left’ which now defines itself, and engages with others, through the prism of identity rather than on the basis of ideas…’

There is a direct correlation between the recent rise of the ‘snowflake’ generation, a neologism used to describe young adults of the twenty-first century as being less resistant and more inclined to taking offence and being offended. These ‘coddled students’, encouraged by both university administrators and academics are eager to restrict freedom of speech and freedom of academic enquiry through mechanisms such as ‘trigger warnings’ and ‘safe spaces’ on campus. Jonathan Haidt, Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University, calls this phenomenon ‘the purification of the universities.’

But there’s hope! Click on the link to read about the IPA’s Foundations of Western Civilization Program.

Two Links

I wanted to share these before I left:

1. The British Parliament has advertised for a new Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod. My friend Hannes Kleineke sketches the history of this office:

To most people taking an interest in the work and procedures of the British Parliament, the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod (or ‘Black Rod’ as he is known in popular parlance) is an immediately recognisable figure from the part he plays in the ceremonial surrounding the annual State Opening. The ceremonial is, however, only a small part of the duties of the modern ‘Black Rod’, who has overall administrative charge of much of the palace of Westminster.

This was no forgone conclusion: the office of Black Rod was originally that of usher to the King of England’s principal order of chivalry, the Order of the Garter, and for several centuries had no direct connection with Parliament. The Parliament Chamber, that is, in modern understanding, the House of Lords, was instead in the care of a different officer, the usher (or porter) of the Parliament Chamber. While the usher controlled access, and was thus able to command fees from intending suitors, his office also had a less glamorous side. The usher’s responsibilities included the preparation of the Parliament chamber and the maintenance of its furnishings, down to the provision of mundane items such as ‘canvas, corde, hamer, nailes, cordes, crochetes, worstede and other thinges’, as the account of John Frampton and William Welles, ushers in 1470, shows. The ushers had to think ahead, particularly when Parliament met away from Westminster: the items provided by Richard Baron and Simon Edward for the meeting of Parliament at Leicester in April 1450 included ‘a chair for the King to sit in’.

More at the link.

2. Moira Lavelle interviews the great Mary Lefkowitz (hat tip: Alex Lesk). My favorite bit:

Q: Some would say you are best known for your book Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth As History, arguing against the idea that all classical civilization started in Egypt. This is a bit of a departure from your other scholarship. How did this change the course of your academic career

A: In a way it isn’t a departure from my other scholarship. I’ve always been interested in how people get things wrong, so it wasn’t totally a detour. Though it was a detour to learn a lot about Egypt and Afrocentrism, which is a concept white people can zoom along and never know about.

In the ’90s Afrocentrism had this moment. There were linguistic efforts to show that Egyptian was the same as other African languages which it’s not. But Martin Bernal’s work had a moment of chic among people who didn’t know much about archaeology and Ancient  Egyptian history— there was this idea that ‘isn’t it wonderful, now classics can be so relevant, we can be connected to African civilization’. Not that I have any objection of classics being connected to anything. If we ever discover a large body of Egyptian philosophy very similar to Artistotle and Plato, that would be just fine with me. I just don’t think we will. The Egyptian philosophy of that time was very metaphysical, very hard to understand for us.

The other thing that threw me about Bernal’s work was he would always throw in false etymologies of words or places. He argued the word Parthenon came from Egyptian, Pr thn meaning ‘house of crystal’.  But the Parthenon has no crystal in it. It doesn’t make any sense on any etymological level. What etymologists have come up with is a very good list of loan words from Egyptian into Greek from even the 8th century, but these are just occasional loan words. Bernal didn’t know all that, and he just made up etymologies. And so few classicists even knew about linguistics that they believed the stuff.

The reason I got into the whole thing was I was asked to do a review by the New Republic and there was the concept of Afrocentrism, and I had known nothing about it. I remember writing this review and thinking maybe this was the most important thing I’d ever done. There was a whole mythology there that wasn’t recognized as mythology. It’s very interesting in it’s own right as way of gaining a kind of foundation myth. Just like in the early stages of the women’s liberation movement the Goddess Cult idea was very popular. But to say there was a matriarchy in classical religion to begin with is just false.

More at the link.

Hiatus

Probably no posts for the next month or so, as I will be traveling in the Middle East. I should have some material to blog about upon my return!

Lachlan Macquarie

From the antipodean ABC, courtesy my friend Lachlan Mead, an article assessing the George Washington of Australia:

Fact check: Was Lachlan Macquarie a mass murderer who ordered the genocide of Indigenous people?

The claim

Lachlan Macquarie, governor of NSW from 1810 to 1821, is often remembered by history as a man of the enlightenment who brought civilisation to the colony.

Indeed, the plaque attached to his monument in Sydney’s Hyde Park reads: “He was a perfect gentleman, a Christian and supreme legislator of the human heart.”

But late last month Bronwyn Carlson, head of Indigenous Studies at Macquarie University, challenged this during an ABC RN Breakfast interview.

Asked if she would be satisfied with a different or additional plaque, Professor Carlson said: “Would people be satisfied to say this: ‘Here stands a mass murderer who ordered the genocide of Indigenous people’?”

Is this characterisation of Macquarie accurate? Did Macquarie commit mass murder? Did he order genocide? RMIT ABC Fact Check delves into a fraught and controversial part of our history.

The verdict

The issue is not cut and dried.

In April 1816, Macquarie ordered soldiers under his command to kill or capture any Aboriginal people they encountered during a military operation aimed at creating a sense of “terror”.

At least 14 men, women and children were brutally killed, some shot, others driven over a cliff.

Although Macquarie’s orders included an instruction to punish the guilty with as little injury to the innocent as possible, archival evidence shows he knew innocent people could be killed.

In addition, Macquarie explicitly instructed his soldiers to offer those Aboriginal groups encountered an opportunity to surrender, and to open fire only after meeting “resistance”.

These instructions appear to have been ignored. Historical records suggest the soldiers offered no opportunity to surrender, opening fire on a group of people ambushed at night and who were fleeing in terror.

Macquarie appears to have glossed over this failure in the weeks following the massacre, telling his superior back in England that his men acted “perfectly in Conformity to the instructions I had furnished them”, and claiming the soldiers had indeed encountered resistance before opening fire.

Macquarie was ultimately responsible for his men. By today’s standards, his actions — and lack of action in not bringing soldiers who disobeyed his instructions to account — would, as a minimum, likely be regarded as a war crime involving a disproportionate response that led to a significant loss of life.

And, depending on the definition, the incident might also be described as “mass murder”, perhaps akin to recent military massacres in which innocent civilians attempting to flee were killed.

The issue of whether or not the actions amount to genocide is a complex one. A legal definition of genocide did not exist until after World War II. It is questionable whether this can be applied retrospectively to Macquarie’s actions, which took place some 130 years before the UN General Assembly made genocide a crime under international law.

Furthermore, it seems unlikely that Macquarie set about deliberately to “destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”, as per the UN definition, however misguided and destructive some of his Indigenous policies might have been. It is, therefore, problematic to suggest that Macquarie, as an individual, was guilty of ordering genocide.

However, it can be argued that the impact of the wider conflict between Aboriginal people and Europeans (whether soldiers or vigilante settlers), combined with a range of other factors — the loss of land and food sources, the spread of disease, the removal of children, and alcohol abuse, for example — contributed to the large-scale loss of life and culture that resembled genocide.

Experts contacted by Fact Check acknowledged the nuance in the arguments, but differed in their interpretations of Macquarie’s actions and his culpability or otherwise.

Read the whole thing.

“Filial Correction”

From the National Catholic Register (via Instapundit), notice of a letter sent to Pope Francis last month, offering a “Filial Correction Concerning the Propagation of Heresies,” from 62 Catholic notables. The article claims that the last such correction was given to Pope John XXII in 1333. Correctio Filialis comes in three main parts:

In the first part, the signatories explain why, as believing and practising Catholics, they have the right and duty to issue such a correction to the supreme pontiff. Church law itself requires that competent persons not remain silent when the pastors of the Church are misleading the flock. This involves no conflict with the Catholic dogma of papal infallibility, since the Church teaches that a pope must meet strict criteria before his utterances can be considered infallible. Pope Francis has not met these criteria. He has not declared these heretical positions to be definitive teachings of the Church, or stated that Catholics must believe them with the assent of faith. The Church teaches no pope can claim that God has revealed some new truth to him, which it would be obligatory for Catholics to believe.

The second part of the letter is the essential one, since it contains the ‘Correction’ properly speaking. It lists the passages of Amoris laetitia in which heretical positions are insinuated or encouraged, and then it lists words, deeds, and omissions of Pope Francis which make it clear beyond reasonable doubt that he wishes Catholics to interpret these passages in a way that is, in fact, heretical. In particular, the pope has directly or indirectly countenanced the beliefs that obedience to God’s Law can be impossible or undesirable, and that the Church should sometimes accept adultery as compatible with being a practising Catholic.

The final part, called ‘Elucidation’, discusses two causes of this unique crisis. One cause is ‘Modernism’. Theologically speaking, Modernism is the belief that God has not delivered definite truths to the Church, which she must continue to teach in exactly the same sense until the end of time. Modernists hold that God communicates to mankind only experiences, which human beings can reflect on, so as to make various statements about God, life and religion; but such statements are only provisional, never fixed dogmas. Modernism was condemned by Pope St Pius X at the start of the 20th century, but it revived in the middle of the century. The great and continuing confusion caused in the Catholic Church by Modernism obliges the signatories to describe the true meaning of ‘faith’, ‘heresy’, ‘revelation’, and ‘magisterium’.

I would really hate to hear what they think of postmodernism! I love how the article describes Martin Luther as a “heresiarch.”

By the way, to help celebrate the five hundredth anniversary of the composition of the 95 theses next month, PBS premiered “Martin Luther: The Idea that Changed the World” last week. I believe you can still see it on the PBS website. It was sponsored by Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, so you won’t hear him described in such terms.

Luther’s Handwriting

An exciting discovery at Emory, just in time for the five hundredth anniversary of the publication of Luther’s 95 Theses:

A three line inscription on the title page of a 1520 pamphlet from the Richard C. Kessler Reformation Collection was recently identified by the German Church Historian Ulrich Bubenheimer as being in the hand of Martin Luther himself!

The author of the pamphlet–a fictitious dialogue critical of Pope Leo X’s bull that threatened Martin Luther with excommunication–was previously unknown. However, Luther’s gift inscription to Wolfgang Wolprecht, Prior of the Augustinian monastery in Nuremberg, allows us to conclude that it was composed by Johannes Petzensteiner (1487-1554), a fellow Augustinian who had come to Wittenberg from Nuremberg to serve as lector.

The inscription reads idest p.[atris] lectoris / Betzensteynn / priori Volfgango Volprechto N[urenbergensi] (= This is Pater Lector Betzensteynn, for Prior Wolfgang Wolprecht of Nuremberg) and follows the printed line Excusum, impensis & opera Iohannis Coticulae. The Latin coticula means whetstone (German Wetzstein), which becomes Betzstein or Petztstein in some German dialects and thus came to serve as a pseudonym for Johannes Petzenstein, who was later one of Luther’s two travel companions (with Nikolaus Amsdorff) on his return to Wittenberg from the Diet of Worms.

We are delighted with this new discovery and with Prof. Bubenheimer’s verification. As Kessler Scholars Advisory Committee member Tim Wengert noted, “Over the course of his career, Prof. Bubenheimer has proved himself to be the premier expert in identifying Luther’s handwriting, having spent his entire career uncovering hitherto unknown inscriptions by Luther. In this particular case, his reconstruction is spot on and helps to show the way other fellow Augustinians supported Luther in the early stages of the Reformation.”

Images at the link.

“College Misery”

I discovered this evening a blog entitled College Misery, which ran from 2010 to 2016. I was unaware of it at the time. I am not endorsing everything on it, but I did admire a story told by one of the bloggers, Henchminion, in a post from 2011:

Back in 2005 I did an evil, evil thing. Discovering the proliferation of websites where student plagiarists could copy essays, I wrote a Trojan horse paper about the Magna Carta and seeded it on a few plagiarism sites. The essay is basically wrong from beginning to end. Amongst other silliness, it claims that King John’s titles included Duke of Hazzard, and observes that “peasants were reduced to eating burage and socage.” It also invents a fictitious war against Flanders Fland (a region on the coast of Luxembourg) and cites such scholarly tomes as Bollock and Maidenhead’s classic Interminable History of the English Law.

Every once in awhile, I google a few phrases from the paper to see how it’s gettting along in the wild. Over the years, the two seed essays I planted have spawned a dozen or so Google hits at various disreputable sites. Sometimes they even want you to pay to see the whole text. However, for years I had no idea if any student had actually handed the thing in.

Until tonight.

Oh my, oh my. The wording has been changed somewhat and some of the jokes were excised, but that’s my essay there. Ranulf de Glanville has been changed from the Sheriff of Nottingham to “a mercenary of John,” which totally wrecks the reference to Alan Rickman in the bibliography. (The student is probably too young to have seen that movie.) But since he’s not Canadian, the bit about the notwithstanding clause sailed right past him.

He quotes the words “Discipulus tuus hunc tractatum non scripsit” in caps lock, but the professor for the course was an Americanist, so maybe he didn’t get it? Did the paper pass? The student seems to have managed to graduate. Apparently he even minored in Latin!

The Latin reads “Your student did not write this essay.” Burgage and socage are forms of land tenure. Pollock and Maitland wrote The History of English Law (it comprises only two volumes; it is not “interminable”). I especially appreciated her reference, in the full body of the text, to the “climactic battle in the forest of Runnymede, near the village of Bloor West.” Runnymede (“swampy meadow”) was indeed where the barons forced Magna Carta on King John; it is also the name of a Toronto neighborhood and subway station on the Bloor-Danforth line, thus the reference to Bloor West, which took me back. Her reference to the idea that Magna Carta “can only be rewritten if the changes are agreed to by the House of Commons, the monarch, and seven out of the ten shires representing fifty percent plus one of the population” is in fact an amendment formula proposed for the Canadian Constitution in 1987 (the Meech Lake Accord).

I don’t think that seeding this essay was an “evil, evil thing.” I think that it is laudatory. If you purchase an essay and submit it as your own work, you deserve everything you get. Just as circulating counterfeit currency destabilizes a country’s economy, so also do Trojan Horse essays undermine the economy of paper mills, which can only be a good thing. In fact, I think I might try composing one of these some time.

The Symbolic Middle Ages

According to Dorothy Kim, assistant professor of English at Vassar:

Today, medievalists have to understand that the public and our students will see us as potential white supremacists or white supremacist sympathizers because we are medievalists. The medieval western European Christian past is being weaponized by white supremacist/white nationalist/KKK/nazi extremist groups who also frequently happen to be college students… What are you doing, medievalists, in your classrooms? Because you are the authorities teaching medieval subjects in the classroom, you are, in fact, ideological arms dealers. So, are you going to be apathetic weapons dealers not caring how your material and tools will be used? Do you care who your buyers are in the classroom? Choose a side.

You really have no excuse to address whether your medieval studies is a white supremacist medieval studies or not. You also do not have a choice in whether you are part of this debate because the debate is already prevalent and public. Our students are watching and will make judgements and calls on what side you are really on. I suggest overt signaling of how you are not a white supremacist and how your medieval studies is one that does not uphold white supremacy. Neutrality is not optional.

OK, I’ll choose a side, and that side is a firm stand against this sort of twaddle. I really hate moral bullying – “If it’s important to me, then it needs to be important to you! You’re not allowed not to care – if you deny the problem, you’re part of the problem!”

But maybe the only “problem” is your own warped perception of reality?

Apparently the “alt-right,” whatever that is, takes inspiration from the Middle Ages (and from the Classics too). They like the idea of Crusaders cracking Muslim skulls, and they also like to contemplate a Europe before the advent of mass non-European and non-Christian immigration. But how many people are we actually talking about here? And how big of a problem is this, really? People can idealize any era of history that they want, for whatever reason they want. We always feel sad when other people don’t share our enthusiasm for our subject – well, here are people who love the Middle Ages! How about harnessing that enthusiasm and nudging it towards the academic consensus – on the off chance that one of these types should actually appear in our classrooms? It’s really no different from how one treats students who idealize ancient Egypt, Native Americans, the Caliphate, matriarchal prehistory, or pseudo-history of the Da Vinci Code variety. You accept the students where they are, and gently explain that their vision of the past might not be entirely accurate – and you make sure to explain that whatever happened in the past doesn’t necessarily make for good policy today.

I really don’t believe that “the public and our students will see us as potential white supremacists or white supremacist sympathizers because we are medievalists.” I think that most ordinary Americans are fully capable of distinguishing between professors of medieval studies and young men dressing up as Knights Templar. It would not occur to them to think that we are endorsing the Charlottesville rally, any more than we are endorsing Knight Transportation or King Arthur Flour (or, for that matter, that the classics department is endorsing the Atlanta Gladiators or the American Legion). To suggest that they can’t is condescending and rude, and more than a little self-dramatizing. In fact, I would say that Prof. Kim’s post is an example of Joseph Epstein‘s observation that much in current academic life is “either boring or crazy,” and for whom publishing an article about it was like “opening the blinds to reveal the baboons at play, as if to say, ‘Betcha didn’t think their behinds were quite so purple as that.'” Most people roll their eyes at the sheer craziness of much academic dispute, and shed no tears when politicians cut our funding.

So let me turn Prof. Kim’s invitation on its head: what have you done, medievalist, to combat this craziness? What have you done to prove to Middle America that your discipline and profession deserve to be taken seriously?

Jews in Antiquity

I find it interesting that in all of the Histories of Herodotus, there is no overt mention of Jews or Judaism. Herodotus describes the Persian conquest of Babylon (539 BC), an event of great significance in Jewish history, but there is no notice that the Jews were ever in captivity there, or that Cyrus allowed them to return to Jerusalem. In all of Herodotus’s anthropological investigation of the various peoples of the world in the fifth century BC, there is no notice of the Jews at all (unless they are the “Palestinian Syrians” who supplied some ships for Xerxes’s invasion of Greece in 7:89). Come to think of it, there is no mention of the Jews in Arrian’s Anabasis of Alexander (second century AD), even though Alexander (d. 323 BC) had besieged the Phoenician city of Tyre, and then headed down to Egypt to found Alexandria (and to receive word that he was divine at the oasis of Siwa).

This is strange considering how influential the Jews were later to become. Judaea was the trouble spot for the Romans. I suppose that the Jews had largely settled around Jerusalem (elevation: 750 m), while the road to Egypt passed along the coast – i.e. it was easy for people ignore the Jews in the 5th and 4th centuries BC.