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Living the Classics

By Jaimie Epstein, Official ZEE JLF@Boulder Blogger

“Whiteness was not really a concept that existed back then.” – Donna Zuckerberg

What do the alt-right and Greek and Roman history have in common? More and more than ever these days. According to Dan-el Padilla Peralta, Assistant Professor of Classics at Harvard, “We live in a post-factual world,” a world in which, as an example, the white supremacist group Identity Europa appropriates a marble bust of Hercules for a poster and captions it “Protect Your Heritage” to support its concept of ideal beauty.


What to do about the alt-right? To paraphrase Donna Zuckerberg, editor-in-chief of Eidolon—an online journal devoted to ‘classics without fragility’—if there weren’t such serious consequences, you might be tempted to laugh at the shallowness of their understanding, you might be tempted to correct their mistakes; to point out, for example, that “whiteness was not really a concept that existed back then” or that “not all marble is white,” As tempting as it might be to entertain the notion of having a civil dialogue with members of the alt-right, “I don’t think there’s really anything to be gained with these people because you’re not going to change their minds,” says Zuckerberg, although “I would engage with them for some kind of purpose for my audience.” And when asked about their heavy trolling of her Twitter feed, she replied: “I don’t think they really care about me—they’re performing for each other.”

Trends in Classics

“We can all get behind being against alt-right appropriation of classics,” said Johanna Hanink, Associate Professor of Classics at Brown University, “but what do you do when it’s one of your students? How are professors complicit in what’s going on?”

“There is a feeling that in these instances where classics are being hitched to ideological projects that one might find deeply morally objectionable, one should point out the mistakes,” Peralta says. “There is a cloud of systemic uncertainty hovering over political and social discussion of classics and their uses.” According to Peralta, the alt-right’s appropriation “is very real and pernicious,” and he doesn’t “believe in the value of subtlety in addressing these kinds of issues.”

Trying to determine what role ancient Greece and Rome play in our lives today, regardless of political orientation, is really the point of continuing to study and teach and ponder the classics. Traditional scholarships are being parlayed into nontraditional writing (as an example, the panelists are writing or have authored books outside the traditionally defined realm of classics), and, as Peralta points out, classicists don’t necessarily look very classical anymore—noting that no panelists were sporting a tie and Peralta is an Afro-Latino who was first exposed to the classics when he was living in a homeless shelter. Hanink calls herself “classic-ish,” a term that reflects this evolution.

The Value of Classics

“What is the value of classics, of ancient Greece and Rome, if it is not the foundation of western civilization?” Zuckerberg asks. “I don’t have an answer, which is why I created an online journal.” Peralta doesn’t have an answer either but asks why we value something that has been implicated in projects of domination: “Why are we committed to this and in what form in the 21stcentury?”

Perhaps the value will reveal itself under pressure: “The classics exist to be tested,” Peralta reminds us.

Photo Credit – Will Hauge

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