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Robespierre’s road

Calls for social justice are sometimes just ruinous calls for payback

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What could be more genteel than a meeting of academic classicists? Imagine scholars in tweed jackets subtly correcting each other’s Greek as they compare translations of Thucydides and debate the political implications of Sappho. The expectations of Mary Frances Williams, an independent (i.e., not attached to a university) classics scholar, were not so clichéd. Still, she had no idea when she registered for the 2019 Annual Meeting of the Society for Classical Studies (SCS) what a wild ride it would be.

Shortly after a workshop called “The Future of Classics” began, she was surprised that no panel members offered scholarly papers. Instead they launched into an academic gripe session. The first speaker, after complaining about “manels” (all-male panels) at academic conferences, called out a highly respected 19th-century American philologist for his racist editorials published in the Richmond Dispatch 150 years ago. Another panelist proposed a new vision for classical studies that downplayed mastery in Latin and Greek. Still another made the case for “citational justice” in journals and tomes: discarding footnote references to dead white (or even live white) scholars in favor of women and minorities.

The panel discussion wrapped up with Dan-el Padilla Peralta of Princeton, whose major theme was racial and gender disparity in the field and how it called for “reparative epistemic justice.” White men must surrender “the privilege they have of seeing their words printed and disseminated,” i.e., stop submitting articles for publication in academic journals. Since the standard practice is to submit papers anonymously for consideration by anonymous peers, Padilla was suggesting that an author’s race, sex, and gender preference should be stated up front as the most important criteria of value.

When open discussion began, Williams stepped up to make four prewritten points about classics as an academic discipline (rather than a battleground for equality). She had barely got the words “foundation of Western civilization” out when an audience member tried to take her mike away. Shortly after that, a spat with Padilla went sideways when she said she hoped he had achieved his position at Princeton through his merit, not his color. That unfortunate remark not only got her kicked out of the room, but slammed in the SCS newsletter and fired from her assistant-editor job with the Association of Ancient Historians. Justice?

The dissolution of the academy into intersectional turf wars is already an old story. But Williams’ sad tale points to something beyond that. She notes that “diversity” was scarcely mentioned on the panel, much less teaching, or students, or improving academic standards. “The panel wasn’t really about any of that, or even ultimately about race, but rather about how to destroy classics.”

Dan-el Padilla Peralta

Dan-el Padilla Peralta Richard Drew/AP

“Social justice” isn’t always about justice, either. It’s about payback. Dan-el Padilla’s proposal to bar white males from publication is just a small-niche example of a culturewide trend. When a social-justice warrior reads the classics, writes professor Mark Bauerleine, “it’s with a generalized resentment toward the past, which he sees as fraught with social injustice.” Outside the university, actress Anne Hathaway summed up the sentiment last fall when she received an award from the Human Rights Campaign. Her acceptance speech excoriated “white superiority” with a battle cry: “Let’s tear this world apart and build a better one.”

If historical periods could be open for tours, it would be instructive to visit the French Revolution, the modern world’s first social justice movement. It began with cries for “equality” and ended up slaughtering not just aristocrats but hundreds of thousands of peasants, especially in the provinces where citizens still respected their church. “Tearing the world apart” was the aim and revenge was the fuel. What remained was not a better world but a ruin.

Better worlds are built on the best traditions—not just classics, but also law and gospel. Much of what calls itself social justice would stamp “white privilege” on the heritage of the West and burn it to the ground. Psalm 11:3 asks, "If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?" What they’ve always done: Look up, because their foundation is indestructible.

Janie B. Cheaney Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD's annual Children's Book of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.


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