[Marxism] As White Supremacists Try to Remake History, Scholars Seek to Preserve the Record
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Wed Aug 7 06:25:23 MDT 2019
Chronicle of Higher Education, AUGUST 05, 2019 PREMIUM
As White Supremacists Try to Remake History, Scholars Seek to Preserve
By Emma Pettit
In the wake of yet another mass shooting, committed by yet another
radicalized young white man, scholars are repeating a call to action
that has been issued during the Trump presidency: White supremacists are
distorting history. It’s the job of experts, who know better, to push back.
One of the most widely circulated historical claims, for example, was
cited by the gunman in El Paso, Tex., before he opened fire on Saturday.
In the first paragraph of a racist screed, which has been linked by law
enforcement to the shooter, he references The Great Replacement, a book
by the French writer Renaud Camus.
Camus argues that white people in France, and in Europe in general, are
being replaced by Muslim immigrants, in what he calls “genocide by
substitution.” Without this book’s influence, the gunman wrote, he would
not have targeted “the Hispanic community.”
Such ideas have found eager support among white supremacists. In 2017,
protesters at the Unite the Right Rally, in Charlottesville, Va.,
reportedly chanted, “You will not replace us!” and “Jews will not
replace us!” A shooter who, in March, killed at least 50 people
attending two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, titled his manifesto
“The Great Replacement” and was motivated by the conspiracy theory of
white genocide. “As long as a white man still lives, they will NEVER
conquer our lands and they will never replace our people,” the shooter
(Camus, on his website, sought to distance himself from the two
shooters. His book could not have provoked such acts, he wrote, because
they run counter to what his book recommends and conform to that which
Camus’s book is racist theory couched as academic analysis, says Sarah
E. Bond, an associate professor of history at the University of Iowa.
Though the alt-right says it despises so-called left-leaning academe,
its followers gravitate toward the few academics who prop up their
racist and xenophobic views, Bond notes. White nationalists’ hypotheses
are bunk, she says, so they go searching for the faux legitimacy of
scholarship to prop it up.
‘It’s Going to Take All of Us’
The ideology underpinning white power has a broader goal, Kathleen
Belew, an assistant professor of U.S. history at the University of
Chicago, wrote in The New York Times. It links events — killings at a
synagogue, harassment of immigrants, racist attacks — that otherwise are
often perceived as discrete.
It is not enough to dismiss mass shootings as “horror beyond our
comprehension,” says Belew. Rather, it is necessary to understand their
meaning and “confront the movement that relies upon them.”
Confronting harmful ideas head-on is “the only thing we really can do”
as academics, Bond says. The job of scholars is not just to disseminate
new ideas, she says, but also to dismantle dangerous ones. That’s what
happened after World War II, when academics like Hannah Arendt worked to
dispute and undercut Nazi ideology. A more recent example, Bond says, is
that of scientists who discredit climate-change deniers.
But there’s no such unified front in the humanities, she says. When
white-supremacist theories gain traction, responses can be fractured.
Scholarly organizations may issue a statement, but mostly, she says,
it’s individual academics speaking out. Or not.
“These are all individuals trying to dismantle this gigantic death
star,” Bond says. But there’s no vulnerable soft spot that one person
alone can reach. To be effective, she says, “it’s going to take all of us.”
Scholars have a responsibility to make sure that students understand the
past. The challenge of the current moment is that the past is being
mobilized in “particularly political ways and particularly violent ways
by these explicitly college-aged white men,” says Matthew Gabriele, a
professor of medieval studies at Virginia Tech.
Inside an ‘Unprecedented’ Increase in Campus White-Supremacist Recruiting
White-Supremacist Propaganda on Campuses Rose 77% Last Year
For example, white nationalists have flocked to medieval studies to
adopt the discipline’s iconography and to stake out a mistaken vision of
medieval Europe as an all-white space.
At the same time, Gabriele is clear about how much impact he and his
fellow scholars can have. Aspiring mass shooters aren’t exactly filling
up college classrooms, he says. And he acknowledges that taking one
course is unlikely to convert someone from a hateful ideology.
Rather, he says, such courses can provide corrective context to students
who might be sympathetic to white-nationalist ideas or have encountered
them on message boards or on YouTube, or who simply don’t know any better.
When white nationalists look to the Middle Ages to find a heritage for
whiteness, and encounter no resistance from scholars, “our complacency
becomes complicity,” Sierra Lomuto, now an assistant professor of
English at Macalester College, wrote in 2016 on a medievalist blog
called In the Middle.
Bigger Awakenings to Come
Until a couple of years ago, the discipline had mostly shunned
discussions of race and racism, she wrote in a more recent essay. Then
came Charlottesville. At the rally, modern-day racists appropriated fake
medieval culture by designing crests, wielding shields, and replicating
versions of the Celtic cross. It was a wake-up call, Lomuto wrote, but
there are bigger awakenings to come.
“If we want to be anti-racist, we need to start thinking more radically
about how we can reformulate our field in our teaching, graduate
training, and public outreach,” she wrote. “These priorities will
necessarily require institutional change, and may even mean leaving
behind this thing we currently call medieval studies.”
Like Lomuto, Curtis Dozier has been dwelling on a larger question of
what it means to study his discipline in its current form. Dozier, an
assistant professor of Greek and Roman studies at Vassar College,
started a website, Pharos: Doing Justice to the Classics, that documents
hate groups’ online use of Greek and Roman antiquity. “Certainly we
haven’t had any shortage of material,” he says.
When he started, Dozier says, he was a bit naïve. He assumed he’d be
pointing out mostly factual and historical errors. These hate groups do
make mistakes when writing about this history, he says. But they’re
clear on the patriarchal and imperialist aspects of ancient society. In
fact, that’s what appeals to them. “They don’t get wrong the oppressive
aspects of Greco-Roman culture,” Dozier says.
It’d be difficult, but Dozier wants to see his discipline re-examine how
it justifies the study of Greco-Roman antiquity. A basic reason to study
ancient Rome has long been that its society was supposed to have been a
high point in human history, he says. But that way of thinking, he says,
can lead to some “unpalatable things.”
This year, for example, Rep. Steve King, a Republican of Iowa, said to
The New York Times, “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western
civilization — how did that language become offensive?”
What the congressman said next is something Dozier hasn’t seen quoted as
much, but it speaks volumes.
King asked, “Why did I sit in classes teaching me about the merits of
our history and our civilization?”
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