Why Classicists Should Stay Out of the Alt-Right Propaganda Dilemma

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Is political propaganda worth responding to? Is it possible for a community to make a collective statement? Can you counter a political statement without being automatically labelled the opposition? (Google Books)

By Cristian Mancilla

Harriet Fertik, an Assistant Professor of Classics at the University of New Hampshire, is calling out the Classics community and urging them to respond to the use of classical imagery by alt-right and nationalist propaganda in the US.

She’s doing so to avoid damaging the image of the Classics as a field of academia, or the possibility of losing support and interest in Classics — a goal set by Eric Adler, an Associate Professor of Classics at the University of Maryland, through a “big tent proposal.” He presents the idea in his book,”Classics, the Culture Wars, and Beyond,” reviewed by Fertik. While Adler recommends classicists not engage in any discussion “on topics outside their purview,” Fertik believes political propaganda to be dangerous enough as to deserve an answer.

She might be right, I think, given that she herself discusses Adler’s book. Classicists have stayed out of the debate on the Classics themselves over the last 30 years while the field becomes increasingly smaller compared to the rest of academia. Given this situation, it seems rational to change strategies and speak up.

There are, however, some considerations that should be taken into account and that I will consider here.

First, is political propaganda worth responding to? Is it possible for a community to make a collective statement? Can you counter a political statement without being automatically labelled the opposition? These questions came spontaneously to my mind while reading Fertik’s review on Adler.

Political propaganda oversimplifies ideas in order to reach as wide an audience as possible. We have witnessed this process time and again throughout history — famously in the adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, as well as the establishment of universal education. Both processes meant spreading a phenomenon at the cost of dramatically lowering the essential strength or quality of it.

The establishment of universal education in particular marked the beginning of the decline of classical studies, as not only the Graeco-Roman works of literature had to make room for newer authors, but Latin and ancient Greek also had to step aside for French and German. Paradoxically, Justus Lobeck, a German classicist hired by the government to work as a scholar at the University of Chile, opposed the alienation of Latin and ancient Greek from high school curriculums.

The paradox here is that, while the Chilean government imported many German scholars to improve academia — resulting in the ‘germanization’ of Chilean scholarship — one of these German professors defended the teaching of Latin and ancient Greek when some of his Chilean counterparts intended to replace them with French or German.

Because of its light nature, most political propaganda is quickly forgotten. But even the propaganda that sticks in your memory (“I like Ike,” for example) lacks conceptual weight and, therefore, poses no threat to academia. This same lightness makes political propaganda harmless and the attempts to control it, pointless—just like trying to silence a spoiled child. Who, anyway, could this propaganda affect? Not someone who has a real interest in the Classics. In the worst scenario, political propaganda could attract weird people, but that’s already happening. Responding to political propaganda doesn’t seem worth it when considering its transcendence, which is almost non-existent.

Besides, the ‘big tent’ proposed by Adler doesn’t actually exist — otherwise, he wouldn’t propose it. It’s hard to come to terms with any set of people who are not linked through the affair that inspires a response, not to mention the difficulty of stating how valid a collective decision might be. Apart from this, the community that Fertik addresses is composed of scholars who don’t hold a consistent opinion. It’s certainly possible to identify a certain number of members of this community and to write down a list of them, but this doesn’t make the community exist in the manner that is required for it to take a stand on an issue like political propaganda portraying classical statues.

As far as the ‘big tent’ proposed by Adler has not been established, calling out to set forth a collective answer on anything won’t have any effect in either academia or the rest of the world. Adler wouldn’t include political statements within the scope of his ‘big tent’ and Fertik steps on this position to assert that “the ‘big tent’ model does not give us the tools to address (alt-right and nationalist groups).” This lead to my conclusion that she actually wants a ‘big tent,’ but one that holds a political position, even though this position might only exist in order to oppose these groups appropriating the heritage of Classicism.

On the other hand, issuing a statement about a political topic immediately gives the community the appearance of either agreeing or disagreeing with those who made the answered assertion. In the case Fertik mentions, classicists would be labelled as liberals or even socialists, despite their focus on the use of ancient sculptures as part of political propaganda. Not everyone wants to be called a socialist, by the way. Not me at least.

I do agree with Fertik with regards to the importance of having an opinion, though not as a community, but as individuals. Classicists are not taking part in debates about their field. I have myself checked out this phenomenon in Chile when someone complains about the death of classical studies in the region — there’s no-one arguing with them. Instead, the facts are in front of us performing this death. I’m not so pessimistic, though, as I see the Classics have reached a point they’re not falling from.

During the last 20 years or so, the Centre for Classical Studies (UMCE) and the Centre for Greek Studies (University of Chile), the only two academic institutions that offer degrees for the Classics in Chile, have enrolled about 10 to 20 students each every year. While that may be, Fertik is right to assert that classicists should be widely involved in public debates and not just in those pertaining to their field, as Adler recommends. But a piece of political propaganda does not seem worth it and, besides, I see no need to have a shared opinion about anything among classicists. Indeed, we cannot be expected to act as a collective on matters that are not part of our expertise.

Ultimately, I think attempting to pull of a unification of classicists’ opinion seems more dangerous to me than the use of classical symbols in political propaganda, so I hope the ‘big tent’ never becomes a reality. Instead, we should engage in public debate without the urge of acting as a flock of sheep, but as the human individuals we all are.

Cristian Mancilla received an MPhil from the Australian National University. He currently lives in La Florida, Chile. 

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