For the study of classics, it is (if we may adapt Dickens) the best of times and the worst of times. It is the best of times because there are multiple popular initiatives, mostly outside the academy, introducing people young and old to the riches of Greek and Latin. There are even a few bright spots inside the academy, for example, Princeton University’s new Latin 110, a course taught entirely in Latin: the students and teacher do not speak in English about Latin but instead conduct the entire class in the ancient but still-living language. Impressive.
But such bright spots are few and far between. Indeed, even that class at Princeton has been castigated on Twitter for catering to students who are too “fit,” too male, and probably too heterosexual. More and more, it seems, the study of classics—like the study of the humanities generally—has fallen under the spell of grievance warriors who have injected an obsession with race and sexual exoticism into a discipline that, until recently, was mostly innocent of such politicized deformations—largely, we suspect, because of the inherent difficulty of mastering the subject. (In this sense, classics is different from pseudo-disciplines like women’s studies, black studies, LGBTQ studies, and the like, because classics can never be entirely reduced to political posturing. You actually have to know something.)
Consider the fate of Eidolon, an online journal that was started in 2015 to demonstrate the relevance of classics to modern life. It wasn’t long before Donna Zuckerberg, the sister of the personal data magus and surveillance guru Mark Zuckerberg, engineered a palace coup and declared that henceforth Eidolon would “err on the progressive side,” dedicating itself to “the spirit of bringing politics into Classics.” Because, you know, the humanities have not been sufficiently tainted by signing up for every trendy progressive cliché going. From now on, Zuckerberg said, Eidolon would forgo objectivity—“often nothing more than a cover for upholding the status quo, and to hell with the status quo”—in its quest to become “a progressive, feminist publication with a commitment to social justice.” And how was this goal to be achieved?
Well, this year, Zuckerberg noted, the magazine would aim to make sure that “at least [at least] 70 percent of our contributors be women and 20 percent of our writers be poc,” i.e., “people of color,” i.e., not white. (But isn’t race merely a “social construction”? No, silly, that was last year.) And just how are those percentages going to be achieved? Well, going forward, Eidolon will ask people pitching stories for “demographics,” i.e., are you black or white? Male or female? “I have no interest,” Zuckerberg sermonized, “in providing bland and false reassurances that we only care about good ideas and good writing and not who our authors are.” Who would doubt it? And what about merit? “[A]ppeals to merit,” she said, are “often . . . white supremacist dog-whistles.” So: “If you’re white and we publish you, you will know, for maybe the first time in your career, that it was because of the merit of your idea and not because you’re white.”
We’d like to know if there are any cases of anyone anywhere being published in a classics journal because he (or even she) was white. Still, Zuckerberg’s destruction of Eidolon as a serious journal does raise an interesting question about the level of masochism among white classicists, especially white male classicists. Why would anyone of that description who was not a masochist submit work to a journal that is self-confessedly hostile to them? Indeed, why would anyone not a masochist read it?
But the fate of Eidolon is only one symptom of the toxic substitution of identity politics for humanistic learning in classics. An episode that took place at the annual Society for Classical Studies conference in January further dramatized the rot affecting the discipline . . .