Friday, 24 February 2017

'Populist' versus Academic Obscurantists

"Open the Lyceum Doors to the Public Now"
Obscurantism was the theme of a lecture I gave at Northwestern University near Chicago today. Aristotle, who wrote some challenging 'esoteric' books, also gave accessible public lectures at his Lyceum to explain his work (they were called 'exoteric' and sadly have not been preserved). This was good academic practice.

Scholars today use unnecessary obscurity when communicating with one another. We make far too little effort to express our findings in ways that non-specialists can understand. For hilarious examples, see the submissions to the 1990s Bad Writing Contest, which I would like to re-establish.

Occluding Truth Can Appear Impressive
Academic obscurantism happens for three reasons. First, laziness. It takes less effort to express complicated ideas in the dialect of people sharing our assumptions than to express them in the dialect of other tribes. Second, careerism: we are sometimes rewarded for displaying command of specialist jargon, especially if it conceals a lack of anything significant to say, to cheering peers. Third, elitism. Making ourselves incomprehensible to most of our fellow citizens can help us police the ownership of intellectual ideas and access to university places and jobs.

But we are at a point in history where custodianship of the truth, and skills in critical analysis of public discourse, have never been more important.  For obscurantism, justifiably associated in the public imagination with wildly out-of-touch professors and pretentious art critics, is also an invaluable instrument in the toolkit of tyrants. Plato knew this when he defended the ‘Noble Lie’ as propagated by State Guardians.  

At its crudest, 'populist'-tyrannical obscurantism takes the form of inventing terrorist attacks or straightforward concealment of the truth. It can obfuscate the nefarious workings of capitalism: the Special Purpose Vehicles (SPVs) invented by American banks, which precipitated the 2008 financial crisis, were simply a clever label for the illicit hiding of debts.  

"Who Said I Had No Sense of Humour?"
This week, Stephen K. Bannon, who is committed to the wholesale public obfuscation of real financial and political hierarchies and injustices, cracked a joke. This was pointed out by my my friend Sara Monoson, Head of Northwestern's Department of Political Science.  

Bannon told the Conservative Political Action Conference that his goal was nothing less than the ‘deconstruction of the administrative state.’  Being, perhaps unexpectedly, a bookish person himself, he knows that the word ‘deconstruction’ is intimately associated by the public, even if they have not heard of Jacques Derrida, with their stereotype of the smug left-liberal intellectual snob. 

With Professor Monoson
Bannon, an arch-obscurantist, may not have had them rolling in the aisles with his pun. But he has brilliantly co-opted the very term which is emblematic of what Trump’s supporters see as the ‘irrelevant’, unpatriotic and privileged intelligentsia, moving seamlessly between elite universities, the hated media and the Washington ‘political class’. 

The Obscurantism Wars have been declared. We need to stand up for what Aristotle would have called the median virtue of clarity between the Scylla of wordy academic obscurantism on the one hand, and the Charybdis of political obscurantism masquerading as 'ordinary-person-commonsense-speak' on the other. It’s time for academics to step down from their Ivory Towers, stand up for old-fashioned values like clarity and truth, and do some plain speaking for once.


Sunday, 19 February 2017

On Receiving an Honour at Athens

After a winter beset by flu and medieval problems which I’ll divulge in due course, I ran away to Athens. Despite the obvious increase in homelessness and darned clothes, even since I last visited in October, the Athenians are resilient and still go for strolls to enjoy their lovely sunsets. Sunlight there has not (yet) been sold off to any global corporation.

On Tuesday I received the greatest compliment of my life, an Honorary Doctorate from Athens University. There is no institution in the world from which I would rather my work received recognition. Inducted by Professor Walter Puchner, I was given a beautiful scroll and a sash, blue with white goose feathers: serendipitously, my acceptance speech explored the possible reasons why it is a goose that Aristotle is waving a knife at on the university’s famous fresco.

Before the ceremony, the Rector and Deans took me upstairs to make sure I was lent the right size of gown. These are elaborate in design, reminiscent of stage stereotypes of Japanese or Chinese authority figures.  Looking back at other Athens Honorary Doctors gives me impostor syndrome, so vastly more important has been their contribution than mine. But it was size that was on my mind. It is obvious I did not wear exactly the same costume as tall Derek Walcott, nor the much lamented six-footer Umberto Eco. 

Vladimir Putin is less tall. I fear that I wore the very same garment as he did  in 2001. I hope I do not develop ambitions to invade Crimea. I do not know the height of soon-to-be fellow-Hon-PhD-Athens, European Central Bank President Mario Draghi; is it too much to hope he will wear the same one as I did and it transmits to him some sympathy for the Greeks’ plight?

Despite staying out late on a dance floor slurping Pina Colada, I scaled the Acropolis on Wednesday, with daughter Sarah, long-time co-conspirator Dr Rosie Wyles and her husband Mr Holmes. On the plane home I dreamed I was being directed by Mike Leigh in a performance of the Mikado’s song My Object all Sublime. Is it a sign of incipient megalomania that in the dream I was bursting with joy?

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Xenophon, Hallucinogens & the Hydra

Having gone down with flu the weekend Trump was inaugurated, I've just emerged from twelve days when I thought that the news reports penetrating my feverish consciousness were just the paranoid hallucinations of a Lemsip addict. Then yesterday I got out of bed  and discovered they were true.

This coincided with opening the new Cambridge Companion to Xenophon, edited by Professor Michael Flower of Princeton, a beautiful book in which I have a  brief say on the huge influence exerted by the writings of this Athenian soldier-adventurer. That article is available free on my website, as are as many of my other books & papers as I dare.

The Sea, the Sea!
Xenophon's most famous book was his account of his journey upcountry (Anabasis), when with ten thousand comrades he was stranded near Baghdad at the heart of the hostile Persian empire. The Greeks took two years to stagger to the Black Sea coast and ships to freedom. The Anabasis has been crucial to American military culture and national identity: George W. Bush’s covert plan to topple the regime of Saddam Hussein was codenamed the ‘Anabasis Project’. 

But the story resonates for different reasons now. The speech of the week was the Baghdad-born Kurdish MP Nadhim Zahawi lamenting that his sons, who are studying at Princeton, feel stranded at the hostile heart of the USA but dare not leave it for fear they will be forbidden to return. 

The Xenophontic text with even more painful relevance today is Memorabilia 3.4.1. Socrates argues that a businessman can make a good statesman. In an excellent blog published before the election, Dr Jon Hesk discussed what this might say about Trump.

A skill which Xenophon’s Socrates suggests a businessman could bring to statesmanship is delegation to well-qualified specialists. But even this skill has bypassed Trump. He has appointed climate-change-denier Scott Pruitt to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. An advocate of ‘Dominion Theology’ and schools privatisation, Elisabeth ‘Betsy’ DeVos, breathtakingly, is his Education Secretary.

Kellyanne Conway is the sole appointment where the individual is almost over-qualified. The Presidential Counsellor is petrifying (and I do not choose this word lightly—several journalists have compared her to Medusa because of what they perceive as her frequent ‘bad hair days’). This super-sophist for the digital age understands Big Lie theory perfectly. Even Jess McIntosh, Hillary Clinton’s Director of Communications, grudgingly admires Conway: ‘You have to be operating at Jedi mind-trick-levels of punditry to not sound completely insane while saying the sky is green, and she manages to do that.’  From a defeated rival, this is high praise indeed.

But I would read ‘Hydra’ for ‘Jedi’ here; it is to the head-sprouting Hydra that Socrates in another text, Plato’s Euthydemus, compares uber-sophists who can ‘prove’ that black is white: ‘the hydra—that she-professor who was so clever that she sent forth many heads of dispute in place of each one that was cut off.’ I fear that there are hundreds more hydra-heads equivalent to ‘alternative facts’ and ‘Bowling Green massacre’ remaining to sprout before we're done. 


Saturday, 21 January 2017

Crowd Help Needed to Visualise Campaign for People's Classics

Dr Holmes-Henderson
Wonderful news arrived yesterday at exactly the right time to dispel gloom.  I've been awarded a Leadership Fellowship by the Arts & Humanities Research Council to run a nationwide campaign. It will support Classical Civilisation or Ancient History qualifications in secondary education. But I need your help and there is a £100 prize on offer!

From May 1st, my  soon-to-be Postdoctoral Fellow, brilliant colleague Dr Arlene Holmes-Henderson and I will be

  •          writing a book about teaching the Greeks/Romans in translation
  •          supporting teachers, lobbying, doing publicity and journalism
  •         organising public events in our twelve partner institutions*

Studying ancient Greek and Roman Roman civilisation, history, thought, literature, art and archaeology is not only exciting and instructive, but confers profound advantages: it hones analytical and critical skills, trains minds in the comparative use of different types of evidence, introduces young people to the finest oratory and skills in argumentation and communication, enhances cultural literacy, refines consciousness of cultural difference and relativism, fosters awareness of a three-millennia long past, along with models and ideals of democracy, and develops identities founded in citizenship on the national, European and cosmopolitan, global level. So there.

But our project needs a promotional image and logo before we design the website. The full title is cumbersome: ‘Teaching Classical Civilisation in Britain: Recording the Past and Fostering the Future’.  We need to identify—or persuade one of our friends out there such as you, your children or pupils to create—an impact-making, easily reproducible pic and/or logo that gets over one or more of the key themes: youth, education, classics, inspiration.

So I’m offering £100 to the best suggestion or submission, sent in by the March 1st deadline. Everyone is eligible but tell me your age if you like. I have thought about such themes as the autodidacts’ Minerva urging youths to education, about Cheiron the Centaur who taught mythical heroes in their teens, ancient images of young people studying, or more British subject-matter (Boudicca, well-known British artists). But I am old and out of touch with people born since the millennium and they are the ones we want to  get involved.


Please email or post ideas to me at my two names divided by a dot then @kcl.ac.uk, Dept. of Classics, King’s College, Strand, London WC2R 2LS. Arlene and I will announce the winning submission on 4th March. And meanwhile I can’t resist posting this upcheering pic of the two teenagers I am most proud of in the world, off today to march against misogyny.




[*] In  Swansea, Exeter, Warwick, Kent, Durham, Glasgow, St Andrews, Belfast, Liverpool, Open University, Leeds and Reading. Information about whom to contact at each partner institution will be available soon.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Spartacus' Morphing Politics in Dark Times


The weather is always appropriately dank and bitter on 15th January,  the anniversary of the brutal 1919 murders, by the far-right proto-Nazi volunteer Freikorps, of the Spartacists Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. Their Spartacus League took its name after splitting from the Social Democratic Party, which had supported imperial Germany’s declaration of war. But I’ve never been able to discover whether it was Rosa or Karl or indeed their colleague Clara Zetkin—a trained Classics teacher—who chose the identification with the ancient Thracian slave.

Toussaint L'Ouverture

Spartacus, as he is admiringly portrayed in Plutarch’s Life of Crasssus, was adopted as ancestral hero of single-issue Abolitionists when Guillaume Raynal asked in 1770,  ‘Where is this great man to be found? Where is the new Spartacus who will not find Crassus?'  His plea seemed to be answered when Toussaint Louverture, aka The Black Spartacus, successfully led the 1791 slave rebellion in Haiti. British children were introduced in 1822 to the paradigmatic classical proto-Abolitionist via Spartacus: A Roman Story, by Englishwoman Susanna Strickland (later to migrate to Canada, campaign against U.S. slavery and find fame as Susanna Moodie).

But Spartacus did not mutate from campaigner against slavery into campaigner against capitalist oppression of workers until three decades later. The individual responsible seems to have been Ernest Jones, Anglo-Welsh but Berlin-born Chartist friend of Marx and Engels. He founded the short-lived weekly journal Notes to the People (1851-2). Its fiftieth edition kicked off a three-part serial The Gladiators of Rome, narrating Spartacus’ revolt but turning it into a paradigm of principled popular working-class uprising against the super-rich. 

'Mugshot' of Chartist Jones
This was a radical move, since the Chartists and other working men’s organisations had traditionally been suspicious of the anti-slavery societies whose hero was Spartacus: the British working class thought that the Abolitionists were privileged do-gooders crassly neglecting the exploitation of white workers in their own back yard.

Spartakusbund attacks 3-headed hydra of capitalism
By January 1st 1916, when the Spartakusbund became official, Spartacus had therefore been a proto-socialist for a lifetime. And 1916 was the year when Kirk Douglas was born—the actor who impersonated Stanley Kubrick’s rousing Spartacus in 1960.


Draba selflessly spares Spartacus' life
The politics of that film are stupefyingly confused: there are good reasons for interpreting it as simultaneously pro-Israel and pro-Christian-Evangelical, pro-civil-liberties and homophobic, as Anti-McCarthyite but Anti-Soviet but Pro-Trade-Union.  It has one great scene for an African American actor (Woody Strode as Draba) but otherwise presents Spartacus’ fellow slaves as whiter than white. Let us not even talk about the women. 

On reflection, it seems a suitable enough film for the current bewildering political climate. Margarethe von Trotta's heartbreaking 1986 movie Rosa Luxemburg  suggests the politics of oppression are refreshingly straightforward but sadly doesn't seem to be on Netflix. So Spartacus sounds like a plan for this winter afternoon.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Can the Left Appreciate Literature? A Reply to the Alt-Right of Classics

J. Duban
I’ve never been asked by a reputable journal to review such a bad book as Jeffrey Duban’s The Lesbian Lyre. Duban is an embittered person who left an apparently unsuccessful academic career for the law. He has published a volume ostensibly about Sappho so hefty that I plan to put it on the tea-towel when I am next squeezing water out of aubergines to make moussaka.

My first reaction to the proposal was to turn it down. The most painful aspect of the book is its (almost) unbelievably reactionary position on literature in general and ancient Greek poetry in particular. Duban is convinced that The Classics belong to a favoured few Very Intelligent People Like Himself and that nobody else has any right to study, translate or pollute them by any form of contact whatsoever. He particularly singles out for vilification ‘modern’ Greeks, ‘triumphalist feminists’, adult learners and ‘amateur’ classicists without expensive private educations. Yum.

My second response was to write a temperate review simply pointing out the (several) scholarly errors and (many) blind prejudices. But I felt as though I was using a nuclear warhead to destroy a hamster.

So in the end I decided to do something which I don’t usually approve of—use the space in the Times Literary Supplement to explore an issue which is of interest to me, and none at all, I suspect, to the writer of the book I was supposed to be reviewing.

The single merit of Duban’s work, it seem to me, is that he really, really, likes poetry and isn’t ashamed to say that some literature is really, really good. And it has always bothered me that the scholars most politically opposed to Dubanic elitism, those on the Left, not only in Classics but in all fields where artworks are discussed, are terrified of talking about beauty, sublimity, and artistic value.

'Freddie, I think Aeschylus is great and will tell you why after the revolution'
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels inconsiderately did not develop an aesthetic theory because they had more urgent things to do, like liberate the global working class. Subsequent Left critics have struggled to create an adequate theory of artistic excellence. Talking about literature in terms of its dialectical relationship with class and other socio-politico-economic categories (of which I’ve done a lot myself) is essential, but it’s not the whole story.


The only reason why it matters what literature says about society is that it can have an extraordinarily powerful psychological, emotional and therefore social effect. Pleasure, exaltation and excitement are political. We need to work on a Left-wing way of talking about the things which cause some art to make your hair stand on end, so we can really put the Dubans of this world in their place and not let the Devil get all the best literary-critical tunes. 

The review is published behind a pay wall but you can download the pdf from the news column of my personal website here. Duban is known for his trenchant public statements: I don’t know whether I want him to write to the TLS to complain about it or not.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Frogs v. Absolute Monarchs at Versailles

Yesterday, thanks to my French-resident big sister Nicky Nicholson, I came face-to-face with the class war in France. On a trip to Versailles, we saw the Latona fountain shooting its jets of water into the winter sunshine. Its labouring peasants are back, being turned into frogs in perpetuity. They were punished for questioning Leto/Latona’s right to demand their clean water for her children, one of whom was Apollo, the avatar of Louis XIVth, the Sun King himself.

Latona & the Frogs by David Teniers
As tasteless as everything else in Versailles’ 2,000-acre testimonial to economic exploitation of the under-classes, the fountain has recently been put back in action after a lengthy restoration. It transfixes in lead, marble and gilt this ancient parable of cosmic hierarchy told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses 6.

Frogification in Teniers' painting
Lizards and turtles set the watery theme at ground level. Next come the peasants undergoing metamorphosis, and multiple rows of frogs. Latona, mother of the Sun King, stands on the summit, oblivious of their suffering. She gazes west towards the next massive fountain, which portrays her son in his adult glory, perpetually arising at dawn in Apollo’s magnificent chariot.

Thirsty Versailles Peasant-Frog
The don’t-get-above-your-station message of the Latona story had been a favourite of absolute monarchs with a 'divine right' to rule for centuries before Louis XIVth. It unsurprisingly fell out of favour in the Age of Revolution. But we could bring it back, with fountains in cities across the world portraying the international super-rich and their financial-‘industry’ lackeys lording it over the rest of us frog-people.


The ultimate irony is that it was lack of clean water for the lower orders, not for the aristocracy, which was one cause of the 1789 revolution. Louis-S├ębastien Mercier advised his readers  at that time not to stop drinking water from the Seine: ‘Some say it loosens your bowels, but I drink it every day, and I’ve never suffered anything like that. But then I let it stand for a while. That way the filth settles at the bottom.’ I wish the same could be said of human filth in our political systems. A trenchant Greek proverb gets it right: 'It is not only ducks which float upon the water.'
In the Hall of Mirrors with sister Nicky