His Western Civilization is not My Western Civilization
I read something stupid on the internet today. I know — I should just stop reading the internet. But this was an article that had the potential to not be stupid — its an article in Politico by Mark Bauerlein on “This Is What It’s Like to Be the Only Trump Fan at Thanksgiving Dinner” [note: all quotations that follow are from the article unless otherwise noted]. I was kind of hoping that it would be a serious rumination on what it means to have supported and continue to support a man who has already done so much harm to so many people in our society and only promises more (yes, I’ve laid my politics bare here — sorry, not sorry). And you get a little of this. Bauerlein recognizes that there are real grounds for some of us (including his mother) to dislike the president as a person:
Any career woman, especially a single one, who entered the workforce in 1970 is never, ever going to look at Donald Trump as anything but a sexist bully. She remembers too many ill-mannered bosses and co-workers, condescending males who, when they didn’t hit on her, dismissed or exploited her. My mother made a go of it and put up with a lot. Those humiliations don’t fade.
And yet, beside that lifetime of humiliation his mother and countless other women, people of color, LGBT, and people with disabilities continue to face in the workplace and the world, he places “Western civilization” and its apparent demise. Specifically, he points to “identity politics” and his graduate school experience during the 1980s at UCLA. The paragraph is worth quoting in full for its absurdity:
When I first saw identity politics at work, I was a graduate student in English at UCLA in the 1980s. These were the years when the heritage of genius and beauty was recast as a bunch of Dead White Males. Western civilization slipped from a lineage of reason and talent, free inquiry and unsuppressed creativity, into “Eurocentrism,” one group’s advance at the expense of others, women and people of color. Art for art’s sake gave way to art for politics’ sake, for identity’s sake. I spent my 20s in a grimy room reading Dante, Wordsworth and Nietzsche — only to find when I went to campus that my intellectual giants had become objects of suspicion and derision.
This trauma clearly ran deep (deeper than his concern for systemic sexism and racism, apparently)! And so, when Bauerlein heard Trump’s Warsaw speech, “and unapologetically hailed Western civilization, I felt a 30-year discouragement lift ever so slightly.” But, of course, he had to have voted for president before that speech, which makes his use of saving “western civilization” as a reason for supporting DT a bit disingenuous.
There was a lot about what DT said before the election that clearly appealed to this nostalgia and discouragement, however, and it wasn’t an “unapologetic defense of Western Civilization”. Unless by “Western Civilization,” Bauerlein means racism, sexism, threats, walls, and anti-intellectualism-i.e. Eurocentric men without talent or reason, seeking to limit and having disdain for free inquiry, hoping to suppress creativity, and do so to advance one group — ELITE WHITE MEN. The idea that DT freed Bauerlein to unapologetically read Dante, Wordsworth, and Nietzsche again (like DT has read them) is absurd.
DT’s unapologetic defense during the election campaign was a defense of being a powerful white man “who likes walls, guns and threats.” His threatening of immigrants and muslims, his dismissal and mocking of women he sexually harassed, his disregard for any “intellectual giants” or “heritage of genius and beauty” — these are the things that Bauerlein seems to have found appealing about Trump.
The Western Civilization of DT is not a pleasant place for women, people of color, LGBT or many others — it is by white men, for white men. Here’s a quote from a foundational text that underscores his idea of Western civilization:
“Numerous attempts have been made to establish the intellectual equality of the dark races with the white;and the history of the past has been ransacked for examples, but they are nowhere to be found. Can anyone call the name of a full-blooded Negro who has ever written a page worthy of being remembered?”
Sound familiar? That is from 1849 by well-known justifiers of slavery Nott and Gliddon. But it might as well have been Rep. Steve King from earlier this year:
“I’d ask you to go back through history and figure out,” King said, “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?””
If Bauerlein wonders why people treat the construct of “Western civilization” as limited to and invested in the power of only white men, there it is! Who is excluded? Anyone who isn’t of European descent, apparently.
But, there is so much more in the classical past and other texts and arts that are viewed as the foundation of western civilization that the gatekeepers (the Dead White Men and their minions) have suppressed. The Western civilization of DT, and Steve King, and, apparently, of Mark Bauerlein, is one that creates hierarchies that place the words and actions of European, elite men at the top while those of others (women, non-whites) are excluded, hidden, dismissed, derided, ignored. (much like those career women of the 1970s and 1980s Bauerlein sympathizes with).
This is what the culture wars started and what many of us who are its children continue to do — we examine the concept and content of Western civilization and don’t shy away from its unpleasantness. It is at the core of why we study it. We want to broaden what civilizations are deemed worthy of study, to break down the hierarchies that pretend that only the words of “Dead White Men” are worth study. In fact, part of my goal is to show how it isn’t just Dead White Men who make up the foundations of our culture. Those voices — because of who they were, because of their identities as not powerful “white identified” men — have historically been excluded from the canon. We want to let them in. It doesn’t destroy western civilization, it destroys a simulacra of civilization that poses as all of what our culture contains. We expand the idea to be more inclusive while acknowledging that it isn’t the only culture worth study and inherently valuable.
The identity politics Bauerlein bemoans are the very politics that made these truths evident and for many of us actually made European (and, for me, Classical) civilization worth exploring — because we didn’t have to pretend those exclusions and prejudices and horrors didn’t exist. The culture wars invited in those of us against whom this vision of Western civilization was wielded as a weapon. And what many of us found was a world below the surface, a suppressed world, that was not about “guns, walls, and threats” dressed up in the guise of “genius and beauty” but a world of actual beauty, of diversity, exploration, experimentation, reflection, and, yes, war, and politics, and prejudice, and violence, and sexism. The critical approaches the culture wars brought to these issues allows for examination of how those -isms form. It allows for the exploration of identities and how they are formed. It opens up alternatives even to the exclusions, to the “walls, guns, and threats” that have underscored the “western civilization” of rich white men historically in the US.
I, too, went to a California university during the culture wars (UCSD) and I had a required first year course on the breakdown of western values! I became a classicists despite this! In fact, I chose to study (and make a career out of) the “intellectual giants” Bauerlein worshipped and seems to have felt he was shamed over liking because we were allowed to question them and look at them with new eyes and different perspectives. Because we weren’t asked to simply worship them. Because we were allowed to see who was excluded and to discuss why there are exclusions, why being included in identity matters and why identities are such fragile, fractured, and necessary things. It’s why I teach and write about identity in the ancient world today.
The very questioning Bauerlein says he saw as a rejection of western civilization and tradition, many of us saw as invitations to participate in the very texts and cultures that had been used to exclude us. What I saw in college during the culture wars wasn’t a Greece and Rome that belonged to old white men, but an invitation to look beyond that construct and see more. And instead of 30 years of discouragement, we’ve devoted those same years to pursuing the study of these texts and the questions they raise more deeply. If an elite white man felt that the presence of a first gen woman in the conversation was destroying civilization, if he viewed the questions of black men or hispanic women on where they fit in that civilization narrative as a demise, then clearly it is a civilization worth destroying.
Originally published at rfkclassics.blogspot.com.