Weekend Reading: Dangerous Books

It’s been an interesting week in the news. Cambridge classicist David Butterfield made the headlines in the Times and the Daily Mail for claims that he (along with others, presumably) has been labelled as a white supremacist for studying and teaching Classics.

From the Daily Mail coverage

He expanded upon those ideas in an article he wrote for the online Antigone Journal, stating:

‘…since some elements of them have been reported in today’s press in a form that lacks the broader context – and in some cases the actual content – of my remarks, I am happy to set out my views more fully for proper scrutiny in the hope that it provides some stimulus for debate  at least from those that still believe in that art.’

As you can imagine, his arguments have caused some controversy on social media.

I’m definitely not the right person to take up his challenge to debate these issues. For a start, I have a profound aversion to arguing with anyone (I would undoubtedly have crossed the street to avoid Socrates). For another thing, I’m the wrong demographic: he is mostly tackling the views of what he describes as ‘a strange mix of permanently employed academics, usually aged over 50, whose own jobs tend not to be under any real threat, and graduate students who are rightly frustrated…’. Neither of those descriptors currently applies to me, although I have passed through the second and aspire someday to the first, if I’m very lucky.

But I do find his views odd, and I had to sit with them a while before I could figure out why. Eventually, though, I worked it out. I find these ideas odd because I started out as a Tacitus scholar.

Butterfield states:

The arguments that Classics in and of itself is ‘problematic’, or that to study the Greeks and Romans in tandem is artificial, just do not stack up for me. Nor does the notion that modern Classical scholarship is somehow implicated in a shadowy, ill-defined cabal of far-right extremists: this claim has proved impossible to evidence materially, or so trivial in its examples adduced as to be almost self-parodic.

These are all things that a Tacitus scholar would be unlikely to say.

When you work at any level with the writings of Tacitus, you come up against the cultural weight of them early in your studies, and you have to find a way through that. Tacitus and Tacitean scholarship have absolutely been implicated in far-right extremism, for hundreds of years, and there’s nothing shadowy or trivial about it. The fascination Tacitus held for the Nazis, and the way his writings underpinned the development of their ideas of racial superiority, is very well documented. If you’re interested in finding out more, a really interesting and hard-hitting book is ‘A Most Dangerous Book’ by Christopher B. Krebs, which looks at the way in which Tacitus’ little ‘Germania’ ethnography became a cult artefact and a rallying point for the early 20th century obsession with racial purity.

Interestingly, a review by Michael Dirda from the Washington Post said,

By tracing the fortunes of Tacitus’s “Germania,” Krebs shows us how scholarship both recovers and distorts the past, how ideas take on lives of their own and how our cultural beliefs bear political consequences. Along the way, he provides a powerful justification for classical studies in a time when they are often shamefully neglected.

This sums it up for me. Scholarship is responsible for these twisted perceptions, and it also allows us to look at them critically. We can’t celebrate the latter without accepting the former.

For the record, I have never (to my knowledge) been accused of being a white supremacist because I study and teach Classics. I would like to think that I, personally and professionally, am not racist, and work hard at making my teaching explicitly anti-racist. But the actions we take as individuals are not really the issue. The issue is structural, as Rebecca Futo Kennedy explains clearly in her blog post in response to the press coverage.

Here again, Tacitus is helpful. On a basic level, I’ve always been both horrified and fascinated by the way Tacitus was used to found and uphold the Nazi ideology of racial purity; but my reaction is an intellectual response to the magnitude of Tacitus’ influence and to the scale of the cultural distortion. Would I feel the same if I had relatives who died in the Holocaust? Would I feel comfortable studying this text and its scholarship as an academic exercise if I knew that it had been used to justify the destruction of my own family?

I don’t think I would.

That answer has implications for the discipline of Classics, going back decades. If something doesn’t offer a safe intellectual space for you, you’ll probably avoid it, and you’d be smart to do so. So we end up with a field full of people like me, decade after decade: people who don’t feel the generational trauma, people who haven’t been hurt by the centuries of ugly, distorted scholarship, people who can easily dismiss accusations of white supremacy because it’s mostly invisible to us. We don’t see how its effects and after-effects shape the field around us, inviting certain people in while repelling others, unless we look really closely. At some point we’ll probably look around and wonder why everybody we see is white – but when we don’t find an easy answer we’ll shrug it off because it can’t be our fault. We didn’t do anything. We’re not racists or white supremacists.

Tacitus is an extreme and quite specific example, I grant you: most areas of Classics don’t have such striking associations. But that’s why he’s so useful. He shows us clearly where the fault lines are, where scholarship has been twisted, and why certain groups of people might have very good reason to avoid this academic area. He also shows us that there is no easy answer. But perhaps the most important thing he shows us is that scholarship is NOT politically neutral and never has been. We can disclaim responsibility, protest slurs and call for unity, as David Butterfield is doing, but that doesn’t make the problem go away.

Classics is an old discipline, with centuries of baggage. There are layers of pain, exclusion and distortion here which go back a very long way, and which are embedded in scholarship itself. I don’t think we should burn it all down: but I have the luxury of feeling like that, because Classics doesn’t hurt me personally. So that’s another reason why I’m not the right person to debate this. All I can do is welcome David Butterfield’s intention to provide ‘stimulus for debate’, and hope that his invitation is taken up by people more invested and more influential than me. Classics is not a comfortable space for everybody; it never was; and unless we do make room for these discussions, maybe it never will be.

Interesting Things This Week

There’s a new podcast out this week from Jasmine Elmer, who’s doing great work as one of the EDI officers for the Classical Association, among many other things! It’s called ‘Legit Classics’, and you can find the first two episodes in all the usual podcast places (as well as being featured as one of the Guardian’s best podcasts of the week!).

Speaking of podcasts, Peopling the Past is back for Season 3, with an episode on Wonder Woman in Classics and Comics. Highly recommended – they’re great scholars doing really exciting work!

You might also enjoy the Herodotus Marathon, which took place this week. It was a continuous reading (over 24 hours!) of the whole of Herodotus in Greek, English and many other languages, by more than 200 readers around the world, including a number of well-known classicists. You can find the recordings on the Herodotus Helpline YouTube channel.

If you like your Classics creative, take a look at the first issue of new online magazine Pnyx from the Ozymandias Project, which features, among other things, myth-inspired music by my dad, James Fraser.

I’d also like to point you towards the Kickstarter funding project from my ridiculously talented friend Laura Jenkinson-Brown of Greek Myth Comix. This is your chance to pick up a myth-themed kids’ book, colouring book, stickers or all of the above. I’ve seen an advance copy of the book, and it’s just as pretty as it looks!

Finally, if you’re in the mood for some activism, there’s a Classics department in need of your help. Roehampton Classics, which has been doing wonderful work for 21 years, is being threatened with closure. You can help by signing the petition.


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