Black Lives Matter

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The following paragraphs were originally part of an effort to explain the complexities and multiple viewpoints of the Aeneid. I thought they might find a place in Aeneas (University of Michigan Press 2021), but as often happens, the book took a different direction. I offer them here as a thought for the Fourth of July.

~Lee T. Pearcy
July 4, 2022


What if you tried to write a story—a poem, a novel—that would explain to us, to Americans in the 21st century, who we are and how we came to be.  Which story would you tell?

You might tell a story of triumph:  how small groups of Europeans braved the Atlantic crossing to find religious and civil liberty; how thirteen British colonies patched together a fragile coalition and separated from mother England; how we tested that coalition in a great civil war and emerged from it as a unified nation, rapidly expanding across a continent; how we fought and survived and prospered in the terrible world wars of the twentieth century.  The names of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Lee, of Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt would figure large in your story.  It would explain some of the things we value:  liberty, the rule of law, tolerance.

That story has been told.

Or you might tell a story of decline:  how a nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” lost sight of its founding ideals and their grounding in Judeo-Christian ideals; how an agrarian republic became an industrial power, and how the forces of capital triumphed in our Civil War and replaced chattel slavery with wage slavery; how growing prosperity brought with it a culture of self-indulgence and celebrity; how scientific advance and economic prosperity enabled moral and spiritual decline; how we became a fading imperial state with a broken educational system, a debased underclass, and a middle class deprived of hope.  This story would explain the daily headlines.  Once past Lincoln, there would be few heroes.

That story has been told.

Or you might tell a third story, a story of genocide, oppression, and struggle:  how Europeans at first displaced, betrayed, and then slaughtered the indigenous population of North America; how a small cadre of English bourgeois and third-tier aristocrats so objected to the relatively light economic contribution asked by the mother country that they separated from it and constructed a federal republic in their own interests; how that republic was from its beginning, and before its beginning, stained by inequality and racism; how we fought a war of imperial conquest under the pretext of liberating Texas from Mexico and a civil war to promote the interests of northeastern industrialists; how our history has been shaped by the forces of empire, racism, and greed; and on the other hand, how from Shay’s Rebellion through the Abolitionists to the civil rights movement, Occupy Wall Street, and Black Lives Matter, some have been in continual struggle against them.  The names of Lincoln, John Brown, Nat Turner, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King would figure large in your story.

That story also has been told.

Those are the American stories of triumph, decline, and struggle.  There may be other American stories to tell.  What has not been told, and perhaps cannot be told, is a harder story:  how these are all the same story, and how all of them are true:  how our love of liberty and our history of inequality are, as Burke suggested, inextricably intertwined, and each necessary to the other and impossible without the other;[1] how racism and intolerance are so much part of our American self that we must continually invent new forms of them, and ways to oppose them; how rising standards of living and the development of a diverse, multicultural society made income inequality and a declining middle class inevitable.[2]

In the Aeneid, Vergil tries to tell that kind of hard story about Rome.  Rome’s triumph is inevitable, as Jupiter confirms early in the poem.  But that triumph can only happen at the cost of immense struggle, labor.  The forces opposing it—furor, both divine and human—are also those that make it possible.

[1] Burke, On Conciliation: Southerners valued liberty “with a higher and more stubborn spirit” than other Americans. “Such will be all masters of slaves, who are not slaves themselves. … In such a people, the haughtiness of domination combines with the spirit of freedom, fortifies it, and renders it invincible.”

[2] As argued for France by Christophe Guilluy:

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Somewhere there has to be a manual for bloggers that says, “Never announce what you intend to write in your next post,” but I forgot to read the instructions again. My previous post rashly promised that my next one would be about changes in classical studies during the last fifty years. This isn’t it.

Instead I want to think about one unexamined assumption in an open letter that is currently part of the conversation here at Bryn Mawr. It is directed to Haverford College’s president, signed by “Women of Color House, Black Students Refusing Further Inaction, Black Student League, and every single BIPOC student this institution has failed,” and can be read here.

The writers assert that “This campus runs on the physical and emotional labor of FGLI + students of color through our (usually multiple) jobs, extracurriculars, and classes.” They then call for a strike—a “disruption of the order”—through withdrawal of that labor. Their labor, it seems, includes nearly every organized activity in student life: participating in a seminar on Plato, for example, playing on the tennis team, or working at the circulation desk in the library. So they won’t do any of these things: attend classes, participate in extracurriculars (except, I presume, for the student organizations behind the strike), or show up for their student jobs. That conflation of jobs, extracurriculars, and classes as “labor” strikes me as sad, but beyond that, it reflects confusion about the purpose of a college and alienation from the idea of liberal education.

Student jobs are not the same kind of thing as extracurriculars and classes, and only one of them really deserves the name “labor.” Asking cui bono?—who benefits?—shows why. Colleges, like the academic world in general, benefit a great deal from underpaid student labor, often disguised as financial aid or an educational experience. If Haverford or Bryn Mawr had to pay market rates for library clerks, research assistants, and deli counterpersons (to name only the jobs I see students performing every day), they would be poorer places. In a strike, the powerless acquire power by withdrawing their labor from the powerful who benefit from it. It makes sense for students with a grievance against a college to organize and withdraw their labor from tasks that benefit that institution and make it run.

But ask the same question—cui bono—about classes and extracurriculars, and the striking students’ confusion becomes plain. Who benefits from a seminar on Plato? What benefit accrues to a college from its student government? These and similar activities are things that a college does for its students, and the benefit that students receive from them justifies—or ought to—the tuition fees that they pay. Students who feel aggrieved or dissatisfied with this arrangement would, I think, be justified in an organized refusal to pay tuition—a boycott, not a strike. But there is no labor to withdraw from the action of education, and so a strike is impossible.

In using the term “action” for Plato seminars and student government, I am invoking Hannah Arendt’s distinction in The Human Condition among labor, work, and action. For Arendt, “labor” is aimed at producing what we need to live. Students need to eat, and so they take on part-time jobs. That’s labor. “Work,” Arendt thought, is more satisfying because it produces some durable product of human endeavor. (That’s why it’s hard to imagine an art student, for example, “striking” by refusing to draw any more, or a poet refusing to create poems. Painting and writing, on Arendt’s terms, are work, not labor.) But “action” is the one that matters in liberal arts education. Action names the activities by which we discover humanity in ourselves and reveal it to others. Political and intellectual life were Arendt’s examples of action, and liberal arts colleges and universities are in the business of intellectual action: persuading students to think about their own nature as human beings, recognize it in others, and share the results. Again, there is no student labor in a philosophy class or a creative writing seminar. There is only shared action, and a college is an institutional arrangement to make it possible.

Our Haverford signers are confused about what labor is, but their unexamined assumption that everything they do at college counts as “labor” also reveals their alienation from the idea of college as a place of intellectual action. Classes and extracurriculars have nothing to do with them, they seem to say; they gain no more benefit from them than they would from doing data entry in a university office.

I don’t think this alienation is entirely their fault; rather, it reflects a general failure of American liberal arts education. We’ve given everything a cash value and encouraged students and their parents to see college as a credentialing process that leads to a good job. Even the process of getting into college encourages students to see academic and extra-curricular activity alike as boxes to be ticked or hurdles to be cleared as cleanly and quickly as possible, without touching or being touched. No wonder that everything they do looks like labor to the Haverford students behind the recent letter. Liberal education has broken its promise to free their minds and, instead, left them in chains.

~Lee T. Pearcy


Followup Dec. 27, 2020: Eric Adler’s new bookThe Battle of the Classics: How a Nineteenth-Century Debate Can Save the Humanities Today, has trenchant remarks on the idea of college as a credentialing process. See also this for local coverage of these events, and this for a Bryn Mawr parent’s reaction.

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July Fourth.  I wish I could echo the Declaration’s affirmation that all men are created equal without tangling myself in knots, but the times make it impossible to do so. We are in a moment when the statement that all lives matter has become problematic because it can be taken as a rejection of the proposition that Black Lives Matter (so they do, I hasten to add) and when any statement about humanity in general erases the specific lived experiences of . . . well, of a whole list of people of various kinds.

So I want to consider, in the heat and light of this moment, what the Declaration accomplished when it began its second paragraph with a positive statement of what it called self-evident truths. The bulk of the document, after all, is both very specific and very negative: a long list of grievances against, and condemnations of, George III. But the important, enduring part is universalzing, positive, and firmly grounded in a tradition of political philosophy that begins in ancient Greece; in fact, the Declaration is part of the conversation that the Classicizing Philadelphia project sought to document. It begins with what amounts to a succinct statement of universal human ontology and then derives a theory of government from it. All men are created equal, with certain rights; to preserve those rights, they create governments which derive their authority from the people who created them. There’s enough there to keep philosophers and political scientists busy for years; there is also, or has been, enough there to inspire ordinary Americans with a belief that their country ought to rise from a foundation of virtue. When we forgot that for a while, there was enough there for Lincoln to use as he helped us remember.

We Americans find ourselves, on this July Fourth, consumed by specific grievances and condemnation of each other. Our Declaration in 2020 seems to begin partway down the text, with a “long train of abuses and usurpations.” But I don’t think we can go for long without grounding ourselves in an idea of goodness. It’s not enough to be against evil, to be anti-racist or aspire to “own the libs.” We need to ask what virtue our opposition requires or creates in us. What is the positive affirmation behind anti-racism? When we look, I suspect that we will find something very like the Declaration’s announcement, in its second paragraph, that all lives matter, and that there are particular reasons and consequences of their doing so.

~Lee T. Pearcy


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