10 Jul Episode 82: ‘Western Civilization’ and White Supremacy: The Right-Wing Co-option of Antiquity
Citations Needed | July 10, 2019 | Transcript
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Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
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Nima: “Western civilization.” It’s a term that’s been a staple of the American right for centuries, but as of late it’s having a major resurgence. This renewed obsession with defending so-called “western civilization” is now a very hot product.
Adam: Both the traditional and so-called alt right ground their worldview in a fictional moral arch of the “west” that bends towards equity, science and increased standards of living. Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly host a cruise ship that quote “explores the roots of civilization”, right-wing media personality Ben Shapiro argues the foundation of Western civilization were born in Jerusalem and Athens as quote “twin notions” of a Judeo-Christian moral framework and Greek natural law reasoning.
Nima: Using a historical lens by which to view, analyze and analogize current circumstances is human nature. Learning from the past and applying those lessons to the present is a good thing. But in pop political discourse, the classics have been misused and abused to promote an origin story that never was — a white Greco-Roman world birthing our noble so-called “Judeo-Christian” American empire that glosses over a history of exploitation, imperialism, slavery and conquest.
Adam: On today’s episode, we’re going to explore the right-wing obsession with the ancient world, it’s influence on neoconservative empire-building and alt-right white nationalism alike, and how our common cultural understanding of the ancient world has been perpetually whitewashed to promote a clash of civilizations narrative and racist eugenics pseudoscience.
Nima: We’ll be joined today by two guests. The first is Dr. Sarah E. Bond, Associate Professor of History at the University of Iowa. She is the author of the book Trade and Taboo: Disreputable Professions in the Roman Mediterranean, a frequent contributor to Hyperallergic and principal investigator at Women in Ancient History.
Sarah E. Bond: This idea that civilizations inherit and then rise and fall from each other, that’s something we’ve created within history classes. For instance, the Empire of Rome continues to exist during the rise and fall of many other empires at the time, so it’s not as though there’s only room for one great empire in the west and then it rises and falls and then connects until the American empire.
Nima: We’ll also speak with Dr. Cord Whitaker, Associate Professor at Wellesley College, where he teaches on Medieval English literature and the history of race. He is the author of Black Metaphors: How Modern Racism Emerged from Medieval Race-Thinking, which will be published later this year.
Cord Whitaker: When you say the “Middle Ages” it does not conjure images of Medieval Africa. It conjures images of castles and princesses and kings and queens and princes who are all white and largely blonde and blue-eyed. This was all part and parcel of a very, very precise, very well thought out and quite hegemonic colonial program.
Adam: There’s been an uptick in our notions of what it is to defend the west. The idea of the West as under siege. It’s been an undercurrent of conservative thinking for a long time, but just to give you a sort of sampling of recent articles, we’re going to read some. Joe Lonsdale in The Economist wrote, “Western civilisation is an idea worth defending — and reapplying” where we sort of tried to go make a woke version of western chauvinism. Richard Finger at Huffington Post wrote, “In Defense of Western Civilization.” Right-wing think tank American Enterprise Institute, has a specific tag on its website for “Western civilization” where they go on and on about how we need to defend the liberal order, but while complaining about how liberalism erodes the liberal order because they have various meanings of that, but they are constantly worried about the kind of erosion of stature of the West.
Nima: Jonah Goldberg in The National Review in July 2017 wrote, “In Defense of Western Civilization,” and wrote about “What makes the West unique is not that we had slavery, but that we put an end to it because it was not compatible with our values.” Wow. Galaxy brain.
Adam: Yeah. If I stopped cheating on my wife, I get credit. That shows how morally superior I am.
Nima: Also in The National Review from March of this year, good ol’ Ben Shapiro wrote an article called “How the West Changed the World for the Better.” Quillette, an alt-center publication, is uniquely obsessed with this idea of defending Western civilization. “Is Western Civilization a Thing?” was the headline of one January 2019 article. Just four days later they then published quote, “Is Western Civilization Uniquely Bad?” So yeah, they’re really into that. Over at NPR’s Cosmos and Culture vertical, Adam Frank wrote an article called “To Defend Western Civilization, Start With Science.”
Adam: Early this year Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly announced a quote “cruise through history” and the pitch goes something like this: “Our faith, freedom, and values are under attack!” And the best way to fight back against this attack is to take a cruise ship through Greece, Italy, Croatia, and of course Israel, which they, again, kind of retcon in there. It’s part of the same culture. In the spring. Tickets are $5,000 a person. You have to listen to this pitch. It’s pretty great and by great I mean terrible.
Glenn Beck: Want to give the gift that keeps on giving. Such a little thing, just a little envelope, no wrapping required. Yes, it is a passport and a passport can take you many, many places. Can take you to the beach where you learn nothing but you get a lot of sun and that’s great for some times. Right now our foundations, of our faith, of our freedom, of human progress are all under attack. I want to give you the opportunity to share your beliefs and the things you hold dearly with the ones you love. Yes, you could go to Disney and spend a buttload of money and stand in line the entire time with screaming kids. Sure. That’s fun. Or you could have our first ever cruise through history. You’re invited. You are going to sail the Mediterranean on the incredible Costa Luminosa out of Venice, Italy. There are four different options, but in a nutshell, we’re going to begin in Milan or Venice and then sail on the eastern Mediterranean visiting Croatia, Greece and Israel. That is where you’re going to walk, where Jesus walked, and the prophets walked in the Holy Land.
Adam: So this is a very common idea that there’s this joint Judeo-Christian heritage. As the academics are saying these days, we’ll problematize that later. Jordan Peterson does this too.
Jordan Peterson: People are afraid to say them. Here’s the first one: the fundamental assumptions of western civilization are valid. How about that? You know, it’s not (audience applause) you think it’s an accident? Oh, here’s how you find out. Which countries do people want to move away from? Hey, not ours. Which countries do people want to move to? Ours. Guess what? They work better and it’s not because we went around stealing everything we could get hands on. It’s because we got certain fundamental assumptions right. Thank god for that. After thousands and thousands of years of trying and because of that, we’ve managed to establish a set of civilizations that are shining lights in the world. You know, now you can be pretty damn filthy and still be a shining light in this world, right? Because if you look around the world at the state of governance in most places, it’s like the most pathological, corrupt and vicious thugs rule. And to stand out as an illuminated light against that background isn’t so difficult, but nonetheless, you know, we’re as good as it’s got and unless we can come up with something better, we should be very careful about messing around with that. So why don’t we start with the assumption that we’re doing something right.
Adam: So America and the West in general, in Europe, they don’t become rich off extracting resources from the Global South for centuries and, and building a society based on free labor. They’re rich because they have values.
Nima: Right. Clearly. It’s the same thing Bill Maher does.
Bill Maher: But you have to understand, you have to embrace the values of Western civilization aren’t just different, they’re better. I know a whole generation has been raised on the notion of multiculturalism, that all civilizations are just different. No, not always. Sometimes things are better. Rule of law is better than autocracy and theocracy. Equality of the sexes, better. Protection of minorities, better. Free speech, better. Free elections, better. Free appliances with larger purchases, better!
Adam: And you see high profile white nationalists like Steve King also frame their white nationalism as a defense of the quote unquote “West.”
Steve King: I mean I’d ask you to go back through history and figure out where are these contributions that have been made by these other categories of people that you’re talking about, where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?
Chris Hayes: Than white people?
Steve King: Than Western civilization itself, that’s rooted in Western Europe, Eastern Europe and the United States of America and every place where Christianity settled the world. That’s all of Western civilization flourishing.
April Ryan: What about Africa? What about Asia?
(Panelists Steve King, Charles Pierce and April Ryan speak over each other inaudibly.)
Chris Hayes: We’re not going to argue the history of Western civilization.
April Ryan: Let’s argue the history of this country, okay?
Chris Hayes: Let me know for the record that if you’re looking at the ledger of Western civilization, for every flourishing democracy, you’ve got Hitler and Stalin as well. So, there’s a lot on both sides.
Nima: You can see this idea of a foundational Western civilization that is just trying to be held onto and yet has this centuries — millennia — old roots in the oldest world, not just the old world of Europe, but in this conception, the oldest world, the ancient world, the Hellenistic Age, all the way through Roman and then Byzantine and then, you know, all the way up through the Middle Ages into the Renaissance and Enlightenment and beyond. That this is seen as one trajectory of a white race that has spread progress and prosperity throughout the world. And so it’s this idea as the classical world as this origin story that has taken hold in the right-wing imagination for so long. And we see it not only in our pop culture but also in our media. Now I do have to make a confession here. I was a Classics major in college. I actually have a degree in Classical Civilizations, which I have to tell you, it is an incredibly useful degree for a 20-year fasttrack to becoming, like, a Lefty podcast host. Really works out, it’s super useful. So my interest in this actually runs pretty deep. The idea that this classical world and the art, poetry, architecture, literature, philosophy, etcetera, has been so appropriated and exploited for the most racist and oppressive means is something that I think is really important to investigate. You see this actually before the kind of newest rise of white nationalism, you saw this really take hold in neoconservative circles. Historian Donald Kagan, best known for his multi-volume history of the Peloponnesian War, which was a war between the Greek city-states Athens and Sparta, he came to prominence by being one of the founding fathers of neoconservatism. In May 2013, he told the Chronicle of Higher Education this: “The world has been more shaped by the experience of the West than by any other. And therefore the products of Western civilization are of broader consequence and significance than those of other great civilizations.”
Adam: Sorry guys, you lose, which again is very convenient. I feel like, so this is where you see this kind of emerging eraser of, of antisemitism, which is, so Ben Shapiro who published a book in March of this year called, “The Right Side of History: How Reason and Moral Purpose Made the West Great.”
Nima: Oh, what a relief.
Adam: Yeah. I read large chunks of it unfortunately as well as a brilliant criticism in Current Affairs by Daniel Walden, which you should read, but basically there’s this framework of Judeo-Christian, which is something the right uses all the time — Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly — Judeo-Christian values. It’s a way you signal white supremacy, white nationalism, frankly while saying, ‘okay, Jews are permitted to come into the club.’ It’s sort of what we call white nationalism-plus.
Nima: As long as they’re extremely pro-Israel, mind you.
Adam: And you can track this even with, you know, Ben Shapiro got his start at Breitbart. Breitbart was where he got his major start. He was an editor there. He was a writer there. But the second Breitbart began to take its white nationalism to the next level, which is to say that it went after trans people, gay people, Muslims, black people. And then there was about, you know, the a hundred groups on that list that they stigmatized and criticized. But then the second Steve Bannon runs it, then there’s flirtation with antisemitism vis-a-vis, you know, Soros and all that kind of stuff. Then suddenly he’s indignant and quits. Once the list goes from 100 to 101, he wants no part of it. So Ben Shapiro paints this kind of non-existent alliance between Christian Europe, Western Europe, and Jews as somehow not hostels as a part of the same continuum. And the term Judeo-Christian traditionally in the 19th and 18th century meant crypto-Jews who posed as Christians to prevent being killed or discriminated against. Then in the late, mid-thirties it emerged again as a term that was employed by Jews to prevent being subject to antisemitism, which was raging throughout the quote unquote “West” to basically say like, hey guys, we’re white, we’re on your team. ‘We’re part of a Judeo-Christian.’ So the first mention in The New York Times is in 1941, the first mention of a major publication according to newspapers.com is 1933 where really this term is used an earnest by Jewish leaders to say like, ‘Guys, we’re on your side: Judeo-Christian.’ And so it really explodes after that, it explodes in the forties and fifties as a concept and it was a survival term done in earnest to prevent the emerging Nazi-ism in the United States, the kind of limber crowd, from using religion, especially Catholicism, as Father Coughlin was doing to target Jews and say, ‘no, we’re part of the same club,’ but there isn’t a ton of organic, pro-Jewish sentiment in Christiandom at all. And of course, Europeans perfected antisemitism. It turned it into a machine that came to its logical conclusion during the Holocaust in the 1940s and so glossing over the antisemitism of white nationalism and the concept of the west is something scholars have done recently for geopolitical reasons, namely that they have a shared interest against what they perceive as being Islam or Islamic terrorism, right? That we have a sort of mutual enemy. And so there’s this kind of, Faustian bargain between evangelicals, sort of secular imperialists and Jews who for purposes of survival, decided to hitch their wagon to this idea of westerness and whiteness in a way that’s incredibly ahistorical and very problematic.
Nima: White nationalists like Steve Bannon, for example, who have wielded tremendous power, will not only use this Judeo-Christian framework, but also really tether it to what they see as coming before, right? So Bannon is a noted enthusiastic of the fifth century BCE, Athenian historian Thucydides, whose history of the Peloponnesian war is read in military schools, and certainly classics classes, as I can attest, but other than maybe like Sun Tzu’s Art of War, there are like few ancient tomes that get so much chest-thumping, tough guy attention then this history written by Thucydides. General McMaster, General Mattis, all, you know, reference Thucydides and the kind of military tactical history that is written about and also what it speaks to regarding the two city states that are at war, Athens and Sparta. One being seen as almost effete — too democratic, too artistic — and the other being super macho, military trained Sparta — rule of law, slave state effectively, that trafficked in eugenics. And so it’s the kind of butting up against those two cultures, which is seen as this metaphor in many ways. Bannon has seen himself as being like a descendant of Sparta in many ways. He talks about Sparta a lot. How Sparta defeated Athens. But on the other side, you then see historians like Victor Davis Hanson, who’s another kind of neocon founding father, who points to Thucydides and sees the United States as Athens against this nebulous barbaric Sparta in say Iraq. He used that analogy in the run up to the invasion of Iraq, basically saying, you know, that to defend the democratic Athens of the United States, we need to destroy the Sparta of the east effectively, which is actually terrible history because Sparta won the Peloponnesian War. So it doesn’t even fucking make sense. But you can see how these ancient texts are then used to bolster whatever ideology needs to be supported as having this long trajectory of not only intellect, but also a foundational civilizational myth.
Adam: Well, right, this is why modern whiteness is defined, and the “West” quote unquote is defined by its relationship with the east, right? It’s sort of defined by its relationship with the Orient and it has tremendous purchase in contemporary times because of a war on terror and perma-wars in the Middle East that this clash of civilizations is not something we deliberately do, but it’s something invariable and this is just one recent iteration of a centuries long battle to defend, um, whiteness and to defend the West, such that it is.
Nima: To discuss this more, we’re now going to be joined by Dr. Sarah E. Bond, Associate Professor of History at the University of Iowa. She is author of the book Trade and Taboo: Disreputable Professions in the Roman Mediterranean, a frequent contributor to Hyperallergic and principal investigator at Women in Ancient History. Professor Bond will join us in just a moment. Stay with us.
Nima: We are joined now by Dr. Sarah E. Bond. Sarah, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Sarah E. Bond: Thank you for having me.
Adam: At the top of the show we broke down how there’s been this resurgence in the past few years, it’s always been there, but it’s kind of coming back now, from the likes of Ben Shapiro, Jordan Peterson, Glenn Beck about the idea of protecting and defending the quote unquote “west.” It’s generally assumed that, it’s viewed as this continuum from Ancient Greece to Rome to the Renaissance to the Enlightenment and sometimes they’ll throw in Jerusalem there to kind of give it this Judeo-Christian flavor — whatever that means exactly — to our current culture of the west that is viewed as sort of prima facie superior, based on its wealth and technology. And this is sort of generally understood to be the United States and Eastern Europe and effectively Australia and New Zealand will get thrown in there as well, which is really just kind of shorthand for white majority or sort of settler colonial outside of Europe. Can you talk to us about the appeal of this continuum that kind of traces it from Ancient Greece to the modern and can you tell us how much historic fidelity this vision of the quote unquote “west” really has?
Sarah E. Bond: Well, I think that the idea of the west has always existed in juxtaposition to the east, but it has not always been associated with antiquity and with the idea that there is a linear narrative that stretches say from Greece to Rome and then to the Middle Ages and then to the Renaissance and forward. That was something that was very much created, this continuity, in particularly the 19th century when we began to see citations of “western civilization.” So ideas of “the west” as juxtaposed to “the east” had existed for a long time, but particularly in the mid 19th century we start seeing the use of the phrase western civilization for the first time. And this is when we’re starting to see ideas of western civilization being a narrative that particularly white men in the South, but elsewhere in the United States as well, begin to latch onto in order to understand their roots. But it really doesn’t come to the fore until we get to World War I and there begin to be more and more courses that are taught called “The West” or “Western Civilization,” which essentially create a narrative through education from Ancient Greece all the way through to modern America. This creation of a false construct of progress and linear history and a kind of manifest destiny that really encouraged, particularly men in the United States, to fight in World War I to defend their European brethren. So this was a big part of constructing this narrative was particularly in the mid 19th all the way to the early 20th centuries. So no, I don’t think that it existed over time and space. I think that you get the first mention of, for instance, the Middle Ages by Petrarch, who was a humanist in the Renaissance, and he creates this idea that there was an ancient kind of golden age and then the middle age and then the age he was living in, which we would later call the Renaissance. And there’s certainly a lot of inheritance of culture within Western Europe. But this idea that civilizations inherit and then rise and fall from each other, that’s something we’ve created within history classes. For instance, the Empire of Rome continues to exist during the rise and fall of many other empires at the time, so it’s not as though there’s only room for one great empire in the west and then it rises and falls and then connects until the American empire.
Nima: Coupled with that there’s this idea of western civilization as tethered totally to the idea of I think whiteness and the connected idea that Ancient Athens, the Athens of like Paraclese and Plato or the Rome of Cesar and Cicero were white societies. Can you talk about the truth of the demographic diversity of the ancient Mediterranean world?
Sarah E. Bond: A lot of our ideas about why it is so white is because most of the movies that we grew up with within the early 20th century and then mid 20th century like the sword and sandal movies like Ben Hur and Spartacus were mostly played by mostly white British people. The reality of the Mediterranean is that there were Syrians, there were thousands and thousands of people within the area of Egypt and the area that we call um, North Africa, Mauritania, all the way to the straits of Gibraltar. It included parts of modern day Ethiopia. And there were even African emperors like Septimius Severus, who was married to a woman who was of Syrian origin. So the reality would have been that there were lots and lots of different skin tones. There were many Romans that look like modern Italians. But as anybody who goes to Italy knows, there’s a huge gradient in skin tone between Sicilians all the way up to the Milanese who are in northern Italy. So there would have been lots and lots of different skin tones and not an idea of white people. It’s not as though people in antiquity, the writers in antiquity didn’t refer to skin color. They absolutely did. But there was no idea of whiteness or white people as a monolithic race because race had not yet been invented as a constructed social category.
Adam: I, for one, will always view the ancient Israelites as Edward G. Robinson myself.
Sarah E. Bond: (Laughs.)
Adam: Very historically accurate.
Nima: “Where’s your Moses now, see?”
Adam: Let’s talk about your, um, there’s a bit of a controversy a bit ago when you wrote about how our perception of the neon white marble statues of Greece and Rome is not accurate, that the classical art was actually awash with color. It’s just the paint had faded over centuries. Now, to what extent does this sort of stark whiteness go beyond just metaphor, but it actually, it talks about an actual eraser of color that has in fact informed our notions of the west and can you talk about that and what the outrage and the push back from the right-wing was? It seems like you sort of touched a nerve in that you complicated something that was for a lot of people in a neat little cubby and a sort of solved sense of whiteness. Can you talk about what your general point was there and how the backlash ensued?
Sarah E. Bond: Well, I think that a big part of it is that when you have a color palette that looks like a binary, that you internalize that binary into white and black. And so having mostly white statues that are presented within museums, particularly in the United States, but also within Europe, as the ideals of beauty and not really seeing a lot of the paint that is left on some of these sculptures and not having the general public know a lot about this word, which is called polychrome, which just means painted or something that has color on it. Academics and ancient historians, when I first wrote my article, it was essentially underlining the amazing work of Nell Irvin Painter, who was a historian at Princeton for many years who wrote a history of white people and she pointed out a lot of really wonderful things about the fact that when white people look at sculpture, but also when people of color look at sculpture, what is celebrated as beauty is this white marble. And what we know is that most of this white marble was painted including bronzes that were also used for sculpture as well. And so this false binary, this idea of whiteness gets projected onto all of the people of antiquity and you see video games that just have white people in the ancient Mediterranean and you have movies like Spartacus or HBO’s Rome, which has pretty much all white people, and so people of color don’t see themselves in the ancient Mediterranean. And what I was trying to do with that article was simply to point out that classics is mostly filled with white people. We’re about 98 percent white at the tenured professor level. And so I was trying to use polychrome as an example of how people misconstrue the ancient world. And because I had been frustrated because I had seen a lot of posters of a white nationalist alt-right group called Identity Europa and they were using white statues. And I was playing a video game with my friend Hannah Scates Kettler who is a digital librarian here at the University of Iowa and Hannah is, and she was trained in Egyptology and we decided to play “Rise of Rome” and she was like, ‘god, there are a lot of white people in this’ and I was like, ‘yeah, but like that’s not true.’ And so we just had this discussion playing this video game because Hannah was like, ‘yeah man, I never see myself in classics, I definitely don’t feel as though I am represented in it.’ So it was a confluence honestly of people of color in my life teaching me either whether that was Nell Irvin Painter or whether it was Hannah telling me that they just didn’t see themselves in classics and I thought that that was very sad. So when I wrote the original articles for Forbes, and then when her Hrag Vartanian at Hyperallergic invited me to write a piece for Hyperallergic, my objective was not to piss off the outright, my objective was simply to say like, there were a lot of different types of people in the ancient Mediterranean and can’t we all just have classics in modernity reflect that in video games and media and teaching and in our day to day lives and take this back from Identity Europa and from the alt-right, which, you know, Hitler loved to use white statues, Nazis love white statues. They aren’t the first people to use white statues as the iconography of hate. And I was just very sick of it. But yeah, the objective wasn’t to like start a maelstrom or to start any kind of beef with them. It was really just to try and get classics to be more inclusive and to reject the appropriation of classics and ancient history by alt-right groups. But what happened was that the story was picked up by Campus Reform, which is a site which kind of goes after liberal professors. So I was sent an email by a reporter-
Adam: Yeah funded by the Koch brothers, shockingly enough.
Sarah E. Bond: Right. Also people who invest heavily in Iowa. But uh, yes, Campus Reform has student reporters and they sent me an email and they basically, they didn’t tell me what the spin was going to be, but the spin from Campus Reform, which then got picked up by dozens of outlets that then take it in a new direction, was that this crazy liberal professor was saying that white statues were racist. And what I’m saying is that the people who use the white statues are racist. The white statues themselves are just very nice. And the reality was just that I was talking about appropriation and reception theory and it was a 3,000 word article and it seemed like it got distilled down to ‘professor says white statues are racist.’ And that’s where a lot of the outrage came from. I got an invite to be on Tucker Carlson —
Adam: Of course.
Sarah E. Bond: And I went to a lot of my friends, I mean this is eventually, this is the kind of order of operations now, but we didn’t really fully know this because this was about two and a half years ago when this had just kind of started ramping up because the 2016 election had only been five or six months prior. And I had no idea even what Campus Reform was, but I asked my friends whether I should go on Tucker Carlson that are journalists, and they were like, are you crazy? No, absolutely not. You should absolutely not go on this TV show. I was like, but listen, I just want to talk to them about my love of classics and my love of ancient history, and he’ll see, he’ll see what I’m saying.
Nima: (Laughs.) This is the way to spread the word.
Sarah E. Bond: Right. We were at a different point where I kind of honestly thought, if I just tell people about polychrome and I just tell people about the people that are working on it, then they’ll understand what’s going on. But that really wasn’t the case.
Adam: I want to talk about this white washing of European antisemitism that’s required to fit into a modern concept of western culture. In his recent history book, “The Right Side of History: How Reason and Moral Purpose Made the West Great” Ben Shapiro sort of routinely insists that Jews and Christians were part of the same team advancing the west. This to me seems to really kind of hand wave away the deeply ingrained antisemitism both in Christian Europe and of course during Roman times — although of course those were totally different — to create this sort of white nationalism plus, this kind of white nationalism, but we’ll sort of let certain Jews into the party to give a sense that we’re anti Muslim or anti the Orient or we’re sort of chauvinist about European culture. ‘Well, we’re not explicitly antisemitic,’ although I think of course a lot of them are implicitly, especially your, your Steve Bannon’s of the world. Can we talk about the simplified Judeo-Christian narrative and what it tries to do in a contemporary context? And how again, how sort of true is this coherent sense in terms of European history?
Sarah E. Bond: Thinking about modernity, I would say a large amount of the hate mail that I get and the list that I’m on, called I believe Judas Watch, is a list of Jewish professors. My maternal grandmother is Jewish and when the Internet found this out, I got a lot of hate mail that just ended with references to my Judaism. Um, and a lot of youtube videos about me being, of course, a Jew once people found that out, even though, I mean I was raised Christian and my grandmother, my maternal grandmother happens to be Jewish and I identify as partially Jewish. But I would say that the narrative around all the things that I said very much changed once they found that out. And so I felt lots of antisemitism. And I think a lot of scholars who are Jewish who are working on this and who have been put on the Judas Watch list have felt a lot of fear and antisemitism and not as one with our Judeo-Christian heritage. I felt pretty white there for a long time until they found out I was partially Jewish and then I was like white but Jewish. And so there was kind of like a star put by my name and they were like, ‘Well, you know, she’s not actually white.’ So whiteness always can be detracted from and it’s something people who have constructed it only want it when it works in service to their own argument. So just exactly what you said about Jews that contribute to ‘and sometimes we like them, sometimes we don’t.’ I think that in antiquity, obviously there were the Jewish Wars in the first century CE under the Emperor Vespasian and his son Titus, where they demolish the second temple and took the Menorah and many other valuable things out of the temple and brought them back to Rome along with thousands of slaves who happened to also be Jews or sold them off. And so there was a conflict between Judaism and Romans for many years. That antisemitism, we call it more anti-Jewishness and antiquity and modernity, we call it antisemitism, but that continued into the Middle Ages. I mean, if you think about the First Crusade, the first crusaders stopped in the area of the Rhineland in Germany and pilfered thousands of coins and lots and lots of the houses of Jews on their way to the First Crusade. They stopped and bob Jews on the way. So antisemitism has an incredibly long history.
Adam: But just the, the way it’s sort of glossed over. I mean, I, I, the term Judeo-Christian as we talk about in the intro, was arrived at in earnest and in good faith to prevent antisemitism in the 1930s as a sort of conceit. But now it’s used for Islamophobes and chauvinists as this actually coherent thing. And I’m thinking like, (chuckles) you know, white Europe invented antisemitism.
Nima: Right, it was you!
Adam: There was a holocaust that killed 6 million Jews.
Sarah E. Bond: Absolutely.
Adam: Right. And so it’s sort of like the idea that there’s this sort of symbiotic mutual relationship, again, glosses over the fact that you’re, you know, to the extent to which you’re even in the club, you’re only a temporary member and your pass can be revoked at any moment.
Sarah E. Bond: These names create a hierarchy, right, and also a false sense of cohesion so you can create an Old Testament and a New Testament. This New Testament then is going to modify and create like the people that will be saved by Jesus and within Christianity, but there’s still a role for Judaism and that’s what really has bothered me about the use of Judeo-Christian today as if you can lump all of us together with one mindset and just completely wash over the fact that antisemitism has been rife for the entirety of the time that Jews have existed.
Nima: Before we go, Sarah, we’d love to know like what you’re working on these days to change the way that the field of classics is currently being taught and maybe tell us and our listeners about not only your work but some other folks who we can be paying attention to who are speaking out or writing really interesting stuff about this.
Sarah E. Bond: Sure. Well, I’m finishing a book on semiotics, which is just a fancy word for symbols and it’s called The Semiotics of Hate and it’s just looking at the appropriation of different symbols. I think probably the most familiar would be the swastika, which actually was invented and created and popularized in southeast Asian was a symbol of luck and something that was seen as a very positive symbol for a very long time up until obviously the 1930s. So looking at various symbols like torches, facies or phrases like molon labe that have been appropriated and then turned into new symbols over time. So that book is hopefully going to get finished probably in the next four or five months. But it draws on a lot of the work of other classists, ancient historians and medievalists who are doing really the same type of work together as a cohort in order to rebut a lot of this appropriation. Probably the most visible and the person that is doing kind of an incredible amount of work to combat this is a medievalist name Dorothy Kim and she is working, as well as Jonathan Hsy, who is another medievalist, many of them medievalist have gotten sick of viking history and and many other history, Templar history, being appropriated by the alt-right as well, so it’s nice to see ancient historians and medievalists kind of coming together in order to try and combat these narratives. Donna Zuckerberg, who is the editor of an online journal called Eidolon is doing amazing work looking at particularly groups of misogynists on Reddit who are appropriating things like stoicism and stoic philosophy and Ovid and many other literary authors using them in order to prop up their misogyny online. And Dan-el Padilla, who is a professor now tenured at Princeton, who has been doing fantastic work. I will just say one other person whose name is Rebecca Futo Kennedy who is at Denison in Ohio. All of these people are working I think in earnest and in good faith to try and show the counter narrative to the alt-right to contextualize, um, a lot of these symbols and ideas and show people how they were originally used.
Nima: Well that is fantastic. We will leave it there. Dr. Sarah E. Bond Associate Professor of History at the University of Iowa. She is author of the book Trade and Taboo: Disreputable Professions in the Roman Mediterranean, she is a frequent contributor to Hyperallergic and principal investigator at Women in Ancient History. Dr. Bond, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Sarah E. Bond: Thank you guys so much. I really appreciate your having me on.
Adam: Yeah, I think that idea of just watching how much right-wing outrage there was by her very benign point that statutes were not always white.
Nima: Oh yeah.
Adam: It really shows the degree to which people are territorial and possessive of these myths and that they’re not academic, you know, curiosities that they have real life value and really animate white supremacy today.
Nima: There’s actually a lot more for us to talk about and to kind of dig in even more on some of these issues having to do with the trajectory of history and how race plays into that we are going to be joined by our next guest Dr. Cord Whitaker, Associate Professor at Wellesley College, where he teaches on Medieval English literature and the history of race. He is the author of the book, Black Metaphors: How Modern Racism Emerged from Medieval Race-Thinking. That will be published later this year. Dr. Whitaker is going to join us in just a moment. Stay with us.
Nima: We are joined now by Dr. Cord Whitaker. Cord, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Cord Whitaker: Thank you so much for having me. I’m really happy to be here today.
Nima: A lot of anti-immigrant organizations borrow classical as well as Medieval imagery in their propaganda. As someone who studies the Middle Ages, can you tell us how these things manifest and what you found in your own research?
Cord Whitaker: Oh, sure. As to how they manifest and how they’ve affected the scholarly field of Medieval studies, many of us who work on race saw this calming for a long time. I mean, it’s not been a surprise to those of us who would consider ourselves critical Medieval race scholars that the study of the Middle Ages, both professionally and in an amateur way, have attracted people who are interested in and who have been led to believe in a homogeneously white Medieval Europe. It’s one of the tenets of the alt-right. Folks like Richard Spencer have said this directly that the United States should strive to return to the model, to the political and social model of a homogeneously white Medieval Europe. That is what the white ethno state that they desire should be modeled on. So I’d say Charlottesville in August of 2017 was a big eye opener for the field of Medieval Studies at large and it’s led a lot of folks in the field to be much more aware of the ways that the Middle Ages and false ideas of the Middle Ages are co-opted for nefarious racist purposes.
Adam: We talk a lot in the show about language. You have a new book coming out that’s called Black Metaphors: How Modern Racism Emerged from Medieval Race-Thinking, in the book you discuss how classical modes of rhetoric were received and used in the Medieval Christian world and how it’s used in forms even our current notions of quote unquote “whiteness” and “blackness.” Can you unpack this a bit for us and sort of explain where the origins of those concepts lie?
Cord Whitaker: Sure. I mean the origins of the concept of blackness and whiteness go back well beyond the Middle Ages. You know in classical color theory and Aristotle’s work on color for instance, there are only two primary colors and those are black and white and every other color is made of various amounts, various gradations of blackness and whiteness mixed together. Even crimson is a certain proportion of black and white. Yellow is a certain proportion of black and white. So it’s very different from how we think of primary colors now in modernity. But that approach to colors in the classical world had great effects. You can even see it in the art of Anglo Saxon England for instance and other Germanic cultures in northern Europe in the very early Middle Ages where a lot of the decoration, a lot of jewelry etcetera is all about the interplay of black and white. The color theorist, well known art historian John Gage, you know, has cited blackness and whiteness as one of the major elements in the art of the Greco-Roman world from the fifth century BC. So what I call a black-white dyad, which eventually becomes a black,-white racial matrix in early modernity really has its roots in pretty fundamental ideas about how we see the world. When we get the Middle Ages of course this begins to map on to political and religious and cultural conflict between the east and the west, so it gets into the Crusades and the idea of darker skinned Muslim people in the east sort of get alighted with blackness where blackness also becomes a matter of depravity and sinfulness.
Nima: I think that what’s really fascinating is dissecting where even the concept of race emerged from. We were talking earlier on the show about the concept of even like whiteness as an identifier for a racial group really just had no place in antiquity, really any place in the, in the world and that this was a relatively modern human construct. I mean, obviously yes ‘Ooo race is a construct.’ Sure, sure. As a scholar and a historian of this, can you walk us through how those racial identities were created in this time period?
Cord Whitaker: Sure. So what a lot of my work is about is the political and religious and cultural conflicts of the later Middle Ages, in that period, you begin to see the development of what I call race thinking. Not quite, you know, at the level of fully fledged modern racial ideology, but you see the elements of race coming together. They’re still in service at that point to a dominant religious paradigm where what matters is ultimately belief regardless of people’s appearance, regardless of their geography, to a certain extent even regardless of of some elements of culture. What you have happen though is as you move through the Crusades and then into early modern European exploration of the rest of the world, the Roman Catholic church’s desire to be a global church and the knowledge in the Middle Ages that that had to include people who looked differently and acted differently etcetera, begins to cede primacy over to much faster, easier ways of deciding who’s who and deciding who matters, who’s in the ingroup and who’s in the outgroup, who you should trust and do business with, who you shouldn’t trust and who you shouldn’t do business with. And one of the fastest ways to make those decisions ends up being how people look and how people look is the basis for racial identification. You know, certainly complexion is number one, but it also includes, you know, things like eye shapes and nose shapes and color of hair in addition to skin. In the later Middle Ages, you do have a whole body of study. It would have been considered scientific at the time called physiognomy and physiognomy is about exactly that. It’s about taking, examining people’s physical appearance, not only their color, but also all those other things, eyes, hair, even how much they move their hands when they talk, etcetera, and making judgments about their character based on those matters of appearance. As the Crusades come to an end, as it becomes clearer that the western European church is not going to rule the entire world religiously, and as Europe begins to look toward conquest of other lands, both to the south and to the west, things like physiognomy become all the more important to the point where in the 14th century you see little bits of physiognomy to make getting excerpted left and right and circulating little bits of texts, circulating independently from the rest of their texts. So now they’re taken out of context. They can be used at the drop of a hat, they can travel much more easily and they can be redacted and revised to fit whatever context they need to fit much more easily too.
Nima: So you’re a scholar of the Middle Ages. Here’s I think maybe the most fundamentally important question. What’s the problem with massively popular Medieval inspired worlds of like Westeros in Game of Thrones or say like Middle Earth and in Lord of the Rings. Like how do these worlds of, you know, men, monsters and dragons help bolster white supremacist tropes in our media and kind of in our culture at large?
Cord Whitaker: So (laughs) well they do help bolster white supremacist tropes. And part of it is we live in the aftermath of 19th century Medievalism and in fact I’m coming out with a new issue of the journal Postmedieval that’s really very much on the legacies of the 19th century. In the 19th century and somewhat in the 18th as well, the Middle Ages were really used as a European imperial tool to honor and sort of vaunt all the wonderful things about the European past and to foist those things on to colonized cultures such that from the 19th century on students in a colonial education system, in a place like say Jamaica, this was going on even before the 19th century, but certainly in the 19th century, a Jamaican student certainly had to read Chaucer even though Chaucer’s context might not seem to us as, you know, as late modern people, might not seem all that relevant to, you know, to what a student in Jamaica would need to know to become an educated person.
Cord Whitaker: So we have to look at the history of colonial education along with foisting things like Chaucer — and don’t get me wrong, I love Chaucer, Chaucer’s like, Chaucer’s my thing — but, um, but, you know, foisting writers like Chaucer onto people who they don’t seem to have the most relevance for, well, it’s only part and parcel because the Middle Ages were used as an imperial tool. They were also depicted as homogeneously white. When you say the Middle Ages, it does not conjure images of Medieval Africa. It conjures images of castles and princesses and kings and queens and princes who are all white and largely blonde and blue-eyed. This was all part and parcel of a very, very precise, very well thought out and quite hegemonic colonial program.
Nima: Yeah, I think, you know, you see that in fairy tales obviously and all the way up to still, I think the almost surreal fascination with royal Britain and like the jubilee and royal weddings. It’s still so, so fundamental to I think our weird American culture.
Cord Whitaker: Absolutely. Absolutely. You know, we have some of our political and cultural popular media that has, you know, pretty high circulations, things like Vanity Fair and Vanity Fair’s multiple blogs. One of them is even just focused entirely on the British royal family and it gets pretty high readership in America.
Nima: Yeah, you know, something I’m struck by, um, you know, and again it’s just a TV show, but the kind of unwashed masses in the massive port city of King’s Landing on the east coast of Westeros, you know, just across the sea from the darker continent of Essos and yet everyone is white. Like literally everybody is white there.
Cord Whitaker: Everybody.
Nima: It’s kind of remarkable. So you’re working on another book now called the Harlem Middle Ages: Color, Time and the Harlem Renaissance Medievalism. Can you just tell us a little bit about that book?
Cord Whitaker: Sure. So that book, you know, features some of the real greats of the Harlem Renaissance and one of my personal favorites, Jessie Redmon Fauset. She was a very important literary editor during the Harlem Renaissance. She was literary editor for the NAACP’s Crisis. She discovered Hughes and was the first editor to accept his work and shepherded his career from then on out. And during the Harlem Renaissance itself, she was its most published novelist. So she is pretty important. She, I argue in that book, she’s really, you know, an out and out Medievalist. She’s very invested in Medieval romance tropes and Medieval romance and narrative structures. And even, you know, in one of her most popular novels, Plum Bun, even has her character, her main character, protagonist muse about seeking men who were quote “the flower of chivalry.” So she’s pretty direct with it. But even better known figures such as W.E.B. DuBois, who worked closely with Fauset, is really invested in Medieval romance tropes in his fiction as well. So this book is very much about that. It’s about tracing how authors, well known and lesser known authors, who are still honored and those who’ve been denigrated who were associated with the Harlem Renaissance, were also very much invested in using the Middle Ages, this period that they knew well, was considered the a realm of homogenous European whiteness, they used it in order to stake a black claim to the entire history of the American literary canon and it’s prehistory in the British literary canon. So they’re saying, ‘Look, we’re black writers but we’re writers in English, so this entire canon is just as much ours as it is anyone else’s.’ So I’m really excited to be working on that book and I’ll be off at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton this coming academic year doing research for it and I’ll also be a on a fellowship at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture this summer working on it too.
Nima: Dr. Cord Whitaker, Associate Professor at Wellesley College, author of Black Metaphors: How Modern Racism Emerged from Medieval Race-Thinking, which will be published later this year. Cord, thank you so much again for joining us on today’s show.
Cord Whitaker: You’re very welcome. It’s been a real pleasure to be here. Thanks so much and I’m looking forward, as always, to listening to your next episode.
Nima: Awesome. Thank you so much.
Adam: I feel like people sort of generally want to have, like things are weightier when they seem old. I always recall how the Book of Mormon was sort of written in this, in this early 19th century version of what they think antiquity sounded like. To like lend it —
Nima: Like gravitas and authenticity as like, this is “of the ages” right? This is something that is worthwhile. Which is why like you hear even, ‘Oh, Thomas Jefferson had a library full of classics and all the founding fathers were, like, well-versed in Latin and Greek.’ You see all of this because it lends intellectual weight to the ideology.
Adam: Right. It’s why Aaron Sorkin always throws in Latin when he wants to, I mean, it’s sort of a way you make things seem like they’re part of a continuum. And I think there’s somewhat of a human instinct to want to be part of continuum. The problem with that is that it very easily becomes white nationalism because, you know, if I’m British, I don’t wanna be like, well, all my relatives were, you know, goat herders in the middle of nowhere or living in the mud. No. They’re like, ‘I’m actually descendant of Ancient Greece and this sort of idea of the west.’ This is very neat and clean idea.
Nima: Right, of art and architecture and philosophy and literature and poetry where yeah, we have this through-line of progress and thought and critique and that’s why what we are saying is, again, has the weight of history and that’s why it’s legitimate.
Adam: Which is why it appeals to both the alt-right and the alt-center. It’s this kind of an extreme rationalism and it just, again, it happens to be that my culture, my country out of all the thousands of cultures and all the hundreds of countries happen to be the right one.
Nima: Yeah. “Of all the gin joints — ”
Adam: “ — in all the towns, in all the world.” Alright.
Nima: So that will do it for this episode of Citations Needed. Thank you everyone for listening to our exploration of the Classics and Middle Ages and other such topics. You can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. We are 100 percent listener-funded. So all of your help is so appreciated and especially appreciated are our Critic-level supporters through Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Production consultant is Josh Kross. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Additional research and newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thank you everyone again for listening. We’ll catch you next time.
This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, July 10, 2019.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.