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It must be interesting to be a member of the Princeton classics department these days. Many years ago, I was briefly a junior member of a bitterly divided department, and so I can imagine echoing halls, slamming doors, quick scuttling into offices, whispered conversations, and the Cut Direct. It makes one long for the days of dueling. (Oh, wait—everyone’s working from home these days. But you get the idea.)

For those not up to date on academic politics, let me summarize. On July 4, a group of Princeton faculty and others connected with the university sent this open letter about structural racism at Princeton, with the usual list of accompanying demands, to the president, provost, and other administrators at the university. A few days later, on July 8, a Princeton classics professor, Joshua Katz, published this dissenting op-ed in Quillette. The predictable third act of the drama is now unfolding; Professor Katz’s letter, in particular some language in it, has been denounced by the president of Princeton, the administration of its classics department, and no doubt by many others. (I gave up Twitter for Lent and haven’t resumed the habit, but I think it’s a safe guess.) There will probably be a fourth act, and even a fifth, and so readers should not regard this post as anything but a view from the lobby at intermission.

I have no connection with Princeton, although it’s a fine place to visit, and I’m not interested in rehearsing the issues raised so far in this controversy. But I think it’s worth asking what else might be at stake besides structural racism, possible remedies for it, and intemperate language.

First, there’s what John Henry Newman called “the idea of a university”—what a university is for. One view maintains that universities are, or should be, places of teaching, learning, and research. At the university level, both of these involve inquiry, and a long-standing tradition that goes by the name of “academic freedom” requires that this inquiry be as free as possible, unrestrained by religious dogma or political ideology. For Professor Katz, the deal-breaker in the open letter was a demand for “a committee composed entirely of faculty that would oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty.” That sounded to him, and sounds to me, like a mechanism to enforce orthodoxy and discourage dissenting views and questions. Even when I taught at religious institutions, as I did for three-quarters of my teaching career, no committee looked at my research and publications to make sure that I didn’t deviate from the Nicene Creed. No committee like that has a place in my ideal of higher education.

But especially in America since World War II, universities are no longer cloistered thinkeries set apart from the larger society in which they exist. Another view demands that they contribute to social and political aims: to preparing students for the workforce, to promoting research that serves the national interest—or, in the case of the Princeton open letter, to advancing social justice. It would probably unnerve the professors who drafted the open letter to think that they are on the same page as Wisconsin’s Republican governor Scott Walker, who wanted to change the official mission of the University of Wisconsin by removing “the search for truth” and adding “to meet the state’s workforce needs”—but on this issue, at least, they are.

Second, there’s the ever-racing engine of academic politics and its oil and gas: power and money. The open letter includes demands for course relief and summer salary for faculty of color, a new distribution requirement that will support the Department of African American Studies, a new research center that will provide “educational, funding, curricular, and co-curricular opportunities”; “target of opportunity” cluster hires; a new chaired professorship in Indigenous Studies; a substantial increase in the size of departments like Gender and Sexuality Studies, American Studies, African American Studies, and Anthropology; and other goodies. That adds up either to a lot of new money sloshing around in the humanities and social sciences or to a substantial reallocation of existing resources toward them. Even if you’re not a member of one of the favored departments or races, there will be crumbs to pick up.

Expanding the issues at stake in this way, I know, risks diverting attention from the real and urgent issue of racism and its remedies. And pointing out that what we have here is simply a dispute between two factions of the academic elite trivializes the real passions on both sides, devalues the hours of committee work that must have gone into the drafting of that open letter, and diverts attention from the legitimate concerns that Professor Katz raised about it. I don’t want to do any of those things, but I do want to suggest that racism is only one among many interconnected problems, that human motives are seldom pure or disinterested, and that being aware of the connections and motives may lead to a clearer view and better solutions.

~Lee T. Pearcy

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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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“You have the right to remain silent . . .”  So begins the Miranda warning, a text recited by arresting officers to make sure that an arrested person’s rights to avoid self-incrimination and to legal counsel are preserved.  By now we all know that George Floyd’s silence is absolute, not because he preserved his right to it, but because his greater rights to the pursuit of happiness, to liberty, and to life itself were taken from him by police violence. And today my Instagram feed, which is populated mostly by artists, museums and galleries, and people connected somehow with the arts, was filled with black squares hashtagged “blackouttuesday.”

It is against that background that I want to think about the idea, which now turns up everywhere, that silence, and especially white silence, amounts to violence against black people. Does a person, especially a white person, have a right to remain silent in the face of George Floyd’s death and the deaths of so many other black people at the hands of police? And if he or she does, are there good reasons for doing so?

We do not have a right to remain silent in all circumstances. We have, for example, a duty to warn a person in danger if that person is unaware of it, and if doing so would not cause greater harm. If I see the rattlesnake and my hiking companion doesn’t, I have an obligation to warn him before he steps on it, to help him if he does, and to warn other hikers about the danger. But in general, and under ordinary circumstances, we have a right to choose to say nothing.

That right is tangled up, I think, with another obligation and another right: our social obligation to say what we mean and our right to be free from coercion in ordinary life. If society is to function at all, we need to be confident that most of what people say, most of the time, is what they mean to say. We need to know that a shopkeeper who puts a price on an item intends to sell it for that price, or that a journalist reports what he saw as he understands it. Speech should not be coerced. We should not hold a gun to the shopkeeper’s head and make him agree to a 50% reduction in price, and the journalist should not take a bribe to falsify facts. A confession given under duress, as the Miranda warning suggests, has no validity. So if we are not to lose our right to be free of coercion and the confidence in others that ties society together, silence, like speech, needs to be protected and always an option.

Neither obligation to be sincere nor right to be free of coercion, though, quite matches the argument behind the “silence = violence” meme. That argument seems to be that by remaining silent, a person, especially a white person, becomes complicit in the institutional and personal racism that drives events like George Floyd’s murder. That is, the relevant example is the rattlesnake on the trail. Our fellow citizens of color are endangered by racism, as surely as an unwary hiker by a poisonous snake. We have an obligation to oppose that racism and to speak up in solidarity with our fellow citizens.

The problem, for me at least, comes when the second part of that obligation is understood as a move from individual obligation—supporting our fellow citizens who have been injured by the rattlesnake of racism and passing the alarm—to collective, condensed, uniform expressions. Unison speech is always messy, imprecise, and defective. Slogans aren’t arguments, although they may be more effective drivers of action, both good and bad. Cheers at football games, chants at political rallies, and hashtags on social media make it hard to be confident that most of the people uttering them mean what they say, and to know exactly how they understand the phrase if they do mean it. Cheers, chants, and hashtags, also, can easily become coercive. Just ask the guy who wore his Cowboys jersey to an Eagles game, or the painter who posted black paintings by Richard Serra instead of the required black square on Instagram.

All this is by way of offering a partial explanation of why I haven’t posted a black square on my Instagram account today. I can’t be confident that the image expresses what I intend to say, and I can’t be sure that I won’t be contributing to coercing speech from someone else. And the rattlesnake has moved down the trail.


~Lee T. Pearcy


Update June 3, 2020

I see from this morning’s New York Times that there are other, more urgent reasons for shying away from the black square and #blackouttuesday. As usual, no good deed goes unpunished. Our crooked human timber can do no good without also doing harm in some proportion.


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It’s like the arrow in the FedEx logo: you don’t notice it, but then something makes you switch between figure and ground, and there it is. That’s the way I felt after I returned on January 6 from the Society for Classical Studies meeting in San Diego. It had been, for me, an unusually pleasant meeting–I managed to schedule everything that I had to do on Friday, January 4, and so had all of the 5th to see some of the sights and visit old friends in the city.

So it wasn’t until I was back in Pennsylvania that I saw the headline: “After Racist Incidents Mire a Conference, Classicists Point to Bigger Problems.” (I’ll resist the philological impulse to emend “mire” to “mar.”) On Saturday, as the Chronicle of Higher Education reports, an independent scholar named Mary Frances Williams stood up during an open discussion at a panel celebrating the 150th anniversary of the SCS, formerly the American Philological Association, and suggested that Dan-el Padilla Peralta, an Afro-Latin assistant professor at Princeton, had gotten his job “because he’s black.” People in the room condemned her remark as racist, and some moved to take away her microphone. The SCS Board of Directors tweeted a condemnation of “the racist acts and speech that occurred” and expelled Williams from the meeting.  A few days later, SCS President Mary T. Boatwright issued a letter to the SCS membership affirming the Society’s need to “confront, meet, and remedy the problems so appallingly revealed in San Diego.”

I need to say at once that Williams’ remarks strike me as racist, as well as simply rude, and that they deserve condemnation. Classics, at least in higher education, does have a deserved reputation for being whiter and more privileged than many other disciplines in the humanities, and you’ll look a long way at an SCS convention before seeing any persons of color with badges hanging around their necks.

But just stand a step or two to one side and look at what happened through the lens of intersectionality. The situation at the SCS begins to look a bit more complicated once you recognize how different systems of social and professional stratification weave through each other. A white woman accused a black man of owing his job to racial preference, and so implied that he was unqualified; but also, a female, marginalized member of the academic precariat—an “independent scholar”—suggested that a member of academe’s elite, a male Ivy League professor, had not earned his privilege, whereupon she was promptly crushed by the profession’s establishment. The fact that her challenge was racist and wrong doesn’t, I think, change that dynamic.

Complicating our understanding of this incident doesn’t make the problems of racism and unjustified exclusivity in classics go away. Suddenly you see the arrow, but the E and X are still there. But the intersectional lens may help us see that the problems are not simply a matter of individual prejudice or personality, and that they are not confined to classics, or to racists.

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