May 26, 2003


The farmer (Laura Secor, Boston Globe, 5/25/2003)
The Other Greeks (1995) is probably [Victor Davis] Hanson's signature work. In it, he argues that the values of classical civilization originated not among the urban elites of fifth-century Athens but among the communities of middling farmer-soldiers who dominated Greece's pre-classical era....

Had he left it at that, Hanson might today be simply an eminence among classicists. Instead, Hanson "really alienated himself from the field," says Charles Hedrick, a classicist at Santa Cruz.

In the 1998 jeremiad "Who Killed Homer?", Hanson and the Santa Clara University classicist John Heath diagnose the field of classics as terminally afflicted with trendy literary theory, multiculturalism, low standards, and mandarin professors who ought to emulate the Greeks they teach but instead shun the classroom in favor of rarefied research and left-wing political indoctrination.

The tone of the book was stinging and superior. Critics charged that Hanson and Heath's claims were exaggerated and their prescriptions reactionary. Even like-minded classicists felt that Hanson and Heath had unfairly slighted valuable feminist scholarship in their blanket condemnation of new developments in the field.

Of all Hanson's battles, however, the most peculiar was with a University of Maryland Latinist named Judith Hallett. In a 1999 issue of the journal Arion, Hanson published a devastating review of an anthology Hallett had edited. But as Hallett pointed out on a classics listserv and in The Wall Street Journal, Hanson had neglected to make an important disclosure.

Several years earlier, confessed Hallett, when the FBI had released sketches of the Unabomber and suggested he lived in northern California, Hallett had called the tip-line and offered Hanson and Heath's names as possible associates. Their politics fit the description, she claimed, and both men resembled the sketch. Surely Hanson had gotten a call from an investigator and should have recused himself from reviewing Hallett's work.

Hanson and Heath countered that they had received no such call....

"When someone attacks me, I reply with twice that," says Hanson, who has penned many a blistering response to a negative review. It's not unlike the tactic Hanson recommends in war: "You do that a few times, and people stop attacking you."

I love Victor Davis Hanson, but his faith in the efficacy of head-on, aggressive attacks upon enemies seems to me exaggerated. H.L. Mencken, a very successful controversialist, had the opposite prescription: ignore your critics -- "it's best to leave them in uncertainty." Even in military affairs, the recent trend in military strategy -- as we've seen in the two Iraq wars -- has been to look for ways to avoid head-on clashes with enemy strengths, but to fight the enemy when and where he is weak. George Bush has followed the Mencken approach adroitly, ignoring those who oppose him while aggressively pursuing his own positive goals.

On the other hand, academia is a little different than the battlefield: the costs of contention are counted in little more than hurt feelings, and maybe a lost job or two. But to observers, witnessing experts contend can be very educational; to the experts themselves, it can be a spur to improving their work. Thank goodness we still have warriors like Victor Davis Hanson. On this Memorial Day, it's well that we honor their martial spirit.

Posted by Paul Jaminet at May 26, 2003 12:03 PM
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