Great thinkers of the past are today dismissed for bigotry. But their lesson was to cherish wisdom, not to elevate “whiteness.”
The problem I have with this otherwise sophisticated argument is that it seems to take the term "whiteness" seriously. What exactly is "whiteness?" Its connotations, as far as I can tell, are entirely negative, revolving around stereotypes of the abuse of power. The term is used by academic theorists, "anti-racism" activists, corporate diversity trainers, and journalists in the halls of power (ahem) as if it had absolute validity, as if it expressed a reality to question which is to reveal oneself as a "racist" and so to risk expulsion from the human community. I feel like I'm watching a cultural coup unfold, one that continually extends its reach to obliterate more and more of what used to be a shared history and culture, open to expansion, and to impose a narrow canon of righteousness. I find it ironic that people who use "sensitivity" as a strangehold on discourse nonetheless feel free to impose pejorative labels on whole groups of other people, indeed whole histories and cultures. To judge harshly and to seek to obliterate the works and deeds of those who have lived in previous centuries is to reveal an absence of historical imagination and of intellectual humility. And to what end? Will a Western Cultural Revolution benefit poor and economically disadvantaged people, who come in all colors, or just the practitioners of revolution themselves?
"Perhaps this is the best lesson to learn from the Enlightenment thinkers. They may have had all kinds of “blindspots” that we now recognize in our incomparable wisdom, but they were never content to stick to what they happened to be born into. They tried to find their answers everywhere, and the world is still the richer for it."
That was so well said. It is BECAUSE writers like Shakespeare and the ancient Persian poets expressed the universality of the human condition that they are still celebrated and revered. Love, loss, good, and evil are part of the HUMAN condition.
The reason I spent the bulk of my career teaching international students at a university is because I wanted to learn more about cultures from around the world while simultaneously helping students understand how best to navigate the United States. My students from Cameroon, Korea, Saudi Arabia, China, India, etc. were rightly proud of their cultures; it was a privilege to share and explore facets of each and find how the most important value in one (hospitality: Saudi Arabia, community: Laos) exists in all but to a different degree.
You also write, "the whiteness of these writers is their least interesting facet" and again I concur wholeheartedly. By all means, broaden the curriculum to include the "greats" from multiple cultures and times. But to "cancel" the ancient Greeks, Shakespeare, and Jane Austen because of their "whiteness" is the height of intellectual laziness and hubris.
"The question then is how to make non-white people in a Western nation feel culturally included?" The actual American culture does this every minute of every day through myriad means. Turn on a television. Walk down the street. Go into a business or a classroom. People of various backgrounds are getting on with the business of everyday life quite well, by historical standards. The problem is the tiny fraction of professional race mongers who stir things up - the Neoracists. They have no desire to feel included. Their very identity is faux alienation. They're also, let's be frank here, quasi-Marxists (Foucault, etc). Thus, they have nothing but contempt for this country or quaint ideas of Enlightenment universality. To them, "reason" is just a vestige of capitalist euro-centrism. It's a power play. Everything is a power play, they believe in true Marxist fashion. And they're playing vigorously. They must be oppossed at every level, as they are currently poisoning the minds of the young and stoking an extreme right-wing reaction.
I read Prof. Peralta's piece in the NYT with sadness. As a child of the white poor/working class, and the first member of my extended family to go to college, my lifelines as I grew up were the "great books" and, when I was a teenager, PBS, including programming from the BBC. It's possible I wasn't interpreting these sources correctly, that is, as a celebration of the superiority of the whiteness I shared with the authors and characters. Instead, to me they were doorways into otherness and proof that the world was larger and more marvelous than anything I could see.
Well, in many respects I have inhabited that world, and I've learned a lot about its unfairness and inequalities, some of it directed at me. But I'm also convinced that the antidote to unfairness, inequality, stigma, and bias isn't teaching young people that everything that came before the present moment is worthless. Yet that is, indeed, what we're teaching. All of this makes me glad to have grown up when I did and only to have been subjected to the intellectual authoritarians of the left in later years.
The “Dead White Man” debate traces back a few decades. The more I read and try to uderstand it, the more I don’t. It seems some academics define whiteness more in terms of a ruling class. Well, yes, power has been held by caucasions in Europe and the US for centuries. But 1) didn’t other ancient societies also have ruling elites, generally made up of the largest or strongest ehnic grouping in a given region. Didn’t Pharoahs have slaves buried with them to continue serving them in the next world. In Islam, Mohammed was said to have instituted a reform that required tribes to enslave those they conquered instead of killing them all. 2) Are advocates of dismantling the study of the Classics saying that studying modern slavery will give a more authentic understading of ancient culture than just reading Livi, Cicero, Plutark and Homer? As a woman, I accept history was written by men. It’s matter of fact. But as an adult, I re-studied the Western “Canon” in a non-credit program run by the University of Chicago for over 70 years, then transitioned into a similar one on works from the Golden Age of Islam. And why shouldn’t i revere these great thinkers. In a global, more democratic world today, that “Canon’ can be expanded to include great books such as Black Reconstruction in America, invisible Man and Beloved. Those are already widely taught outside black and women’s studies. Go beyond Greece and Rome. Study the great Sufi work, Conference of the Birds and anthologies of the great Islamic poets. Expand, don't narrow the horizon. Talk about inclusiveness today is hollow if you write off centuries of literature by dead white men or dead Persian and Arab men. To hell with neofascists who try to claim them as their own.
That was a super tedious article from the NYT but I managed to read all of it. I find it laugh-out-loud ironic that an impoverished boy from the Dominican Republic could come to the US, get degrees at Princeton, Oxford and Stanford, become a fully tenured professor and then lecture everybody on how we're all a bunch of white supremacists. He seems to be a living, breathing repudiation of his own core argument. The NYT article did mention one good point that wasn't mentioned above, though. The classics were elevated during the 17th and 18th century as a moral an intellectual counterweight to the church and religious thinking. But of course people like Peralta are trying to establish a new public religion, so of course they would begin attacking the classics. They are living the dream of so many small minded people - they get to create and impose their own religion on an entire society and our media is playing right along. Amazing.
What a great and sensible way to start the week. Unfortunately it is likely to be downhill from here.
"The main problem is the confusion of race, ethnicity and culture. In what way does a concept like “Asian-Americans” make sense? In racial terms, a person of Indian background has nothing in common with someone from a Korean or Thai family. But there is no common culture either."
In the US at least, Asian-American is usually taken to exclude persons of South Asian background. Of course, literally it should include them but in practice it doesn't. And then when you are just taking about East and Southeast Asians, there is in fact a reasonable degree of common culture. With Chinese influence generally being the point of commonality.
Greetings, In your commentary, I think you are missing the core points of thinkers who are seeking to de-centering the teachings of the greeks, romans, and enlightenment from our curriculum. I do not think they are disputing their value. In fact, they share your point that these ideas are not universal. That they are time and culture-bound. That does not mean they do not have value, just that have to be understood for what they are and what they support. They are the base of euro-centric thinking, which is what makes them about"whiteness" since causacians are the dominate racial group in Europe. Finally, in support of a point you make, these ideas are very important, but they are not centered in thought or deed on humanitarian impulses. That is their danger.