Greco-Roman societies, Western civilisation and whiteness – we need to redesign the classics

Ancient Greece and Rome are endlessly fascinating societies, collectively called Greco-Roman antiquity. The Classics, as they are commonly known, are taught in universities across the English-speaking nations. Greco-Roman societies, their philosophy, literature, art and class structures, provide lessons and parallels with contemporary communities. Studying them on their own merits is great – but do not learn about them to construct an imagined community of whiteness called ‘Western civilisation‘.

Rebecca Futo Kennedy, Associate Professor of Classics at Denison University, makes the following point:

An important point to emphasize: one can have histories of antiquity, of Europe, of the US, without recourse to the imaginary identity of ‘western civilization’. There are more programs in the US today (classics and history) that don’t use the term ‘western civilization’ than do and still teach the histories of these regions and people. And the histories are still fascinating. What removing the language of western civilization does is allows these histories to exist more so on their own terms than tied to an artificial justification of white superiority.

The study of Greco-Roman antiquity has taken a battering in our neoliberal age. Corporatised universities have been cutting funding for the Classics, and shunting students into supposedly more lucrative areas, such as business and languages. The Classics usually gets derided as a fast track to unemployment and irrelevance, and classical scholars have long lamented the decline of their profession, stressing the contemporary relevance of Classics subjects.

However, the popularity of the Classics has not waned, but in fact increased, among one particularly telling group – the Alternative Right, which is a euphemism for the ultranationalist white Right. We will examine the reasons for their Classics advocacy in a moment, but for now let’s make one important observation. The Alternative Right’s obsessive preoccupation with Greco-Roman societies is not unique or original, but derives from the mainstream scholarly concern of “Western civilisation.”

The concept of a “Western civilisation” is an imagined community, a constructed continuity from specifically Greco-Roman civilisations right down to today’s white majoritarian societies, namely Britain and the United States, but also Western European nations (to a lesser extent). Indeed, the term ‘western civilisation’ was created by mainstream scholars for the precise reason of lassoing the Greco-Roman antiquity into a historically-cemented identity of whiteness.

The narrative of ‘western civilisation’, while grounded in mainstream conservative endeavours, appeals to the ultranationalist white Right. Interpreting ancient history through the retroactive prism of whiteness, the Alt-Right’s partisans have found philosophical rationalisation of their bigotry and misogyny. Quoting the works of Homer and Ovid, modern-day white supremacists have found ancient writers a source of historical ‘authority’ for their modern political prejudices.

By making Greco-Roman antiquity the ground zero starting point – and tracing all our philosophical and scientific achievements from there – we are necessarily excluding the accomplishments of the ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern civilisations that do not neatly fit into a monoracial lily-white version of history. The Roman Empire, long considered the pinnacle of cultural-scientific success by the partisans of the British empire, was very multicultural. In fact, Greco-Roman societies lacked any conception of race as an exclusionary characteristic.

There were numerous ancient civilisations whose scientific and philosophical legacies reverberate down the ages, and to whom we owe an enormous debt – Babylonians, Sumerians, Assyrians, Mesopotamia, Persians – no need to go on. While we are all familiar with the story of Alexander III of Macedon – popularly known as ‘the Great’, how many of us are familiar with the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar, who rebuilt Babylon after its liberation from Assyrian rule?

When Professor Mary Beard, an expert on Roman history, described a BBC illustration of a black soldier fathering a family in Roman Britain, she faced a torrent of online abuse, insults and attacks. Apparently accepting black persons – in this case, North African (Numidian) as being part of Britain’s ancestry caused enormous consternation in conservative circles.

The outrage over this BBC cartoon reflects the deeply-held notion of ‘whiteness’ as a key defining factor of those societies that see themselves as part of ‘western civilisation.’ Conservative commentators have heavily invested their respectable academic careers in this imagined community. This is in line with the modern right wing agenda to downplay – and repudiate – the contributions of nonwhite minorities to Anglo majoritarian nations.

Earlier we mentioned Alexander the Great, the King of Macedon (and the united Greek city-states) who conquered the formidable Persian empire. In his wake, he brought the culture of Hellenism. However, the Persians remember him, not as a ‘great’ figure, but a cultural and religious vandal. His forces destroyed Zoroastrian temples and artefacts – then the religion of Persia. While Alexander’s military genius has been admired in our universities, his destruction of the ancient city of Persepolis remains forgotten.

The empire that Alexander conquered was one of the largest, successful and culturally enriched civilisations, arguably the greatest prior to its conquest by Hellenic forces. The soldiers of Alexander despised Persia, but were also envious of its remarkable cultural accomplishments.

The purpose of redesigning the Classics is not to censor every single ‘dead white man‘ – by no means. It is not intended to demolish the entire profession, or dismiss the importance of Greco-Roman antiquity. The goal is to reclaim the Classics for the people, repudiate the embedded white supremacy, and make the study of ancient Mediterranean societies accessible, inclusionary and enjoyable for everyone.

Ten years on, the results of the NATO intervention in Libya are disastrous

This month marks ten years since the beginning of the NATO bombing campaign in Libya. Launched on the spurious pretext of ‘protecting human rights’, the bombardment of Libya resulted in the toppling of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, and the installation into power of CIA-backed Islamist rebels. The US administration at the time, under President Obama, intended to effect regime change and seize Libya’s extensive oil assets.

The bombing of Libya, it was claimed by the Obama-Clinton administration, was undertaken to protect Libyan civilians protesting the rule of Colonel Gaddafi. This excuse turned out to be transparently false. The imperialist states, led by Britain and France, began a mad scramble for Libya’s oil reserves in the immediate aftermath of the Gaddafi regime’s ousting. Obama, in a 2016 interview, claimed that the biggest mistake of his presidency was the ‘lack of planning’ for a post-Gaddafi Libya.

We will return to this pathetic and tired excuse of ‘failure to plan’ later. For now, let’s make a number of relevant observations, taking a historical perspective. Under Gaddafi, Libyans had the highest standard of living in Africa, ranked in the Human Development Index. The oil wealth of the nation was distributed to its citizens, and health care was available to all. Libya had the lowest infant mortality rate, and had the highest life expectancy in Africa.

Today, ten years after the NATO bombing campaign, the country remains mired in ruins and militia-chaos. The health care and electricity systems have all but collapsed. Fractured into warring regions, two rival governments compete for authority. The new Libyan governing militias, composed of Islamist fundamentalist groups, participate in the trading of black African slaves. Refugees from sub-Saharan Africa are making their way to Europe, using Libya as a transit point.

After ten years of lawlessness and violent conflict, Libya is a failed state, where the majority of its people live in squalor. Bearing that in mind, it is interesting to read an editorial from the highly-esteemed New York Times. In a column called “Can Libya Put Itself Back Together Again?“, the writers admit that Libya is fractured, blame the ‘lack of planning for rebuilding’ by the Obama administration, and set out reasons for the post-2011 chaos. However, they avoid mentioning the main reason why Libya is stuck in anarchy – the 2011 NATO intervention which broke the nation in the first place.

The Obama excuse – lack of planning for rebuilding – does not stand up to scrutiny. In fact, it is ludicrous to suggest this tired, worn-out cliche, considering that the Libya intervention was conducted with the full knowledge and participation of then US President Obama, his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and his Vice President Joe Biden. Intelligence gathering and sharing, the use of armed drones, and the deployment of CIA-recruited Islamist fundamentalist rebels were all measures adopted with the permission of the Obama administration.

As Eric Draitser wrote in Counterpunch magazine, the disastrous state of post-2011 Libyan affairs was not the result of hawkish Republican neoconservatives;

No, it was the great humanitarian Barack Obama, along with Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Susan Rice, Samantha Power and their harmonious peace circle of liberal interventionists who wrought this devastation. With bright-eyed speeches about freedom and self-determination, the First Black President, along with his NATO comrades in France and Britain, unleashed the dogs of war on an African nation seen by much of the world as a paragon of economic and social development.

This is not the first attempt at overt or covert intervention in Libyan affairs. The effort to topple the Gaddafi regime extends over decades. The man appointed to lead the Libyan rebels in 2011 is General Khalifa Haftar (sometimes spelt Hifter), a former army general who defected in the mid-1980s. Recruited by the CIA and relocated with his family to Virginia, he led several unsuccessful attempts to overthrow the Gaddafi administration.

Provided with armaments and logistical support, the Libyan Islamist rebels and Haftar, backed up by NATO sorties, overthrew the Gaddafi regime, and in October 2011, Gaddafi himself was murdered by a lynch mob. The anti-Gaddafi Libyan exiles, based in England, the US and other nations, provided the foot soldiers for the rebel cause. In fact, the Manchester bomber, who detonated a bomb at Manchester arena in 2017, was himself a Libyan rebel who had fought for the anti-Gaddafi cause.

It is interesting to note that while anti-Gaddafi Libyan refugees were welcomed in the capitalist nations of Europe, since 2011, refugees from Libya and sub-Saharan Africa are met with a range of hostile militarised responses. The European Union has used the Mediterranean Sea as a maritime barrier to refugees escaping from the horrendous conditions in Libya.

Dissecting the hypocrisies of the imperialist states is basically a full time project. The Libyan intervention of 2011, a criminal and predatory undertaking, has been disguised as a humanitarian‘ enterprise. The international powers who currently act in Libya are doing so for the purpose of extending their economic and military powers. It is time to condemn the criminal war against Libya in the same manner we have denounced similar predatory wars in the past.

The Myanmar coup, Aung San Suu Kyi and Buddhist nationalism

It has been one month (actually a bit longer) since the February 1 military coup in Myanmar (Burma) and the ousting of former State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. There have been numerous analyses in the media about the coup itself, Suu Kyi’s role, and the politics leading up to it. Mass sustained protests have brought the popularity into direct confrontation with the Myanmar generals, and the coup’s leader General Min Aung Hlaing.

Myanmar is a Buddhist majority nation. That fact, coupled with the near-universal admiration of Aung San Suu Kyi, has contributed to a widespread misconception which hinders our understanding of the military regime. In the West, the religion of Buddhism (at least, the version we are offered by way of the Dalai Lama and Richard Gere) is associated with meditation, harmony and universal tranquility.

In line with Buddhism’s ostensibly pacifist underpinnings, we also hear the claim that Buddhism is not a religion at all, in contrast to the Abrahamic cousins (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). Attempting to rescue that faith from the charge of violence, Buddhism is viewed as a ‘way of life’, or even a ‘mind science‘, with deference to modern psychology. We may also see the ludicrous attempts to reconcile quantum physics with the ancient precepts of Buddhism – the pseudoscientific quantum woo.

The military-monastic complex

The claim that Buddhism, in contrast to the monotheistic faiths, lacks a history of violence does not stand up to scrutiny. The monastic complex, inextricably bound up with the Myanmar military, has a long and bloody history of religious and political violence. Aung San Suu Kyi, while advocating a multiparty plurality to shore up her democratic credentials, is a strong proponent of Buddhist supremacism. The monks have not remained on the sidelines, but have incited violence and ethnic cleansing, particularly against the Muslim Rohingya minority.

Buddhist monks and soldiers make up an army of faithful to take up the crusade against the Rohingya Muslim community. Respected Buddhist abbots – the equivalent of our clerics – have denounced the Rohingya as Muslim ‘invaders’, whose hyperfertile women breed like ‘cockroaches’ for the alleged purpose of conquering Myanmar. The Buddhist organisation Ma Ba Ta, the shorthand reference for Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, is known for its social welfare work, and for advocating genocidal violence against the Rohingya Muslim community.

In Foreign Policy magazine, authors Artinger and Rowand explain that Myanmar’s Buddhists have never been reticent in agitating for (and using) violence in pursuit of ethnocentric goals. Prior to the February coup, thousands of monks demonstrated in favour of the military, the Tatmadaw. As Foreign Policy explains:

The military advances the goals of Buddhist nationalists by protecting Buddhism against the Muslim threat, and Buddhist nationalists provide the military with religious and cultural permission for their atrocities.

Ethnic cleansing

Aung San Suu Kyi, while criticising the military’s grip on power, never challenged the Buddhist supremacism underlying military rule. In fact, she has gone out of her way to defend Myanmar’s policy of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya Muslim community. Suu Kyi became the West’s favourite politician in Myanmar because of her promotion of privatisation and IMF-style economic reforms. When one promotes neoliberal changes, one’s majoritarian racism gets a free pass.

The main targets of ethnic hatred in Myanmar have been the Rohingya people. Predominantly residing in Rakhine state, they have been excluded from citizenship in a form of ethnic apartheid. Portrayed falsely as ‘invaders’, the Rohingya have been subjected to discrimination and persecution by the Myanmar authorities. Since 2017, the military launched a sustained offensive in Rakhine province, killing thousands of Rohingya Muslims and driving more out as refugees.

During all this time, Suu Kyi deliberately defended the military’s campaign, denying that it amounted to genocide, and spoke of Islam as an ‘existential threat’ to the Buddhist way of life. When the International Court of Justice (ICJ) charged Myanmar’s military with genocide, it was Suu Kyi who rushed to the military’s defence. Her Islamophobic rhetoric corresponds to the outlook of European ultranationalist politicians.

The democracy icon has fallen from favour in the West. Rather than being an icon, she has more in common with late Israeli political figure Golda Meir. Both advocated a racist nationalism which turned a blind eye to the ethnic cleansing of the Muslim populations in their respective nations. Suu Kyi was not the only one to contemptuously dismiss claims of Rohingya genocide.

In 2017, at the height of the military’s ethnic cleansing campaign, there were no mass protests against that particular criminal undertaking. The assault on the Rohingya Muslim community was met with virtual silence, although there have been some protesters over the last month raising the Rohingya issue. It is interesting to note that Rohingya refugees, stuck in Bangladeshi refugee camps, condemned the military coup, but blasted Suu Kyi’s complicity with the military and Buddhist supremacism.

While the cement of Buddhist nationalism remains unchallenged, the military-monkhood complex will continue to shape the political order in Myanmar – in an authoritarian and ethnonationalist direction. Aung San Suu Kyi has done her part to maintain this state of affairs.

Revoking citizenship, Australia’s NIMBYism and avoiding responsibilities

New Zealand-born Australian woman Suhayra Aden has been stripped of her Australian citizenship by the federal government. Accused of Islamic State affiliation, she was detained by Turkish authorities. The latter, initially charged Aden with IS-related charges, but later dropped them and began deportation proceedings. Currently Aden, and her two children, are languishing in the Al-Hawl refugee camp in northern Syria.

She retains her NZ citizenship. Though born in NZ, Aden had been living in Melbourne since the age of six. Raised and educated in Australia, she did have dual citizenship, until the federal government recent revocation. Aden had traveled to Syria in 2014 on the Australian passport, and both governments of NZ and Australia discussed what to do should she ever return.

By canceling Aden’s citizenship, the Australian government adopted the laziest, parochial path of least responsibility. The Morrison government, adhering strictly to the relevant legislation, followed the course of leafblower diplomacy. What does that mean? A leafblower pushes the leaves off your territory, and they become someone else’s problem.

The following image is not mine, and is included here only for educational purposes. Copyright belongs to the creator of the picture, not me:

While the image above refers directly to the issue of asylum seekers, it applies equally to the global NIMBYism demonstrated by the Australian authorities. NZ Prime Minister Ardern levelled heavy criticisms of the Morrison government’s cowardly ducking of responsibility. Ardern stated that Canberra was “exporting its problems”, abdicating responsibility by washing its hands of Aden.

Legal experts in NZ criticised Australian authorities’ handling of this issue, saying that by divesting Aden of citizenship, they were practically handpassing the ball to NZ. Associate Professor John Ip, from the faculty of law at the University of Auckland, described Morrison’s actions as legalised NIMBYism.

Cancelling citizenship for overseas fighting offences is problematic at best. While Aden travelled to Syria in 2014, there is no actual concrete information about what she did there. Once the mere accusation of terrorism is levelled, the person is convicted in the public eye. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) admitted in one of its articles that the Turkish government has in the past, accused people who simply lived under IS-rule of terrorism, when there was no actual evidence of their role as combatants.

At the time Aden travelled to Syria, the US, British, and associated allied governments, including Canberra, quietly if not openly supported the various Islamist fundamentalist rebel militias fighting to overthrow the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad. The Saudis, Turkey and similar ‘frontline’ states were actively supporting and financing fundamentalist rebel groups, and these organisations attracted recruits from around the world. The foreign policy establishment in Canberra did not question the consequences of training armed Islamist militias, and what would follow should the secular Arab nationalist Syrian regime be successfully toppled.

The Syrian problem arose, from the perspective of Washington, London (and Canberra) when the wrong Islamist fundamentalist militia was strengthened in Syria – Islamic State. The preferred proxies of the West found themselves weakening with the rise of IS. Clandestine American military aid – and the inflow of non-Syrian recruits – was going to the wrong side. The corporate media suddenly ‘discovered’ the ultra-sectarian and violent nature of the militias opposing the Syrian regime.

The policies of Washington, and Canberra, created conducive circumstances for the outflow of non-Syrian foreign fighters. Of course, no Australian or American official openly stated ‘go join the Islamist rebels.’ Actually, the late Republican Senator and war-enthusiast John McCain, encouraged his government to assist the ‘right people‘ in the Syrian conflict. When Australian citizens, encouraged by the friendly policies of their government to the Islamist rebel cause, end up as foreign fighters, we must acknowledge our responsibility in creating the Syrian war.

The Syrian regime has largely defeated the rebel groupings, and the non-Syrian fighters are returning home. The UK, adopting the tactic of citizenship revocation, has used that measure against Shamima Begum, the British-born woman who travelled to Syria to join IS in 2015. She was stripped of UK citizenship in 2019. The UK government has argued that Begum, being of Bengali background, can go and live in Bangladesh, even though she is British-born. Begum has never resided, or even visited Bangladesh.

The Australian federal government is following the UK’s example, engaging in its own act of sordid opportunism with regards to Aden. Morrison, taking his cue from his Tory ideological forebears in the UK, is sending a clear signal to Australians of Muslim heritage – your citizenship can be taken away, and you don’t really belong here. Audrey Macklin, human rights expert at the University of Toronto, states that conservative governments trade in the implicit understanding that citizens of brown skin do not ‘really belong’.

Macklin writes that non-white and non-Christian citizens can be easily excluded, for instance through citizenship revocation, because they can return to their ‘real’ country of origin. Permanently temporary seems to be the category to which non-white migrants and refugees are assigned. This formalises the underlying ‘go back to where you come from‘ anti-immigrant xenophobia which pervades Australian politics.

Should Aden be treated with a ‘soft’ approach? No, of course not. She cannot face justice if she is permanently barred from returning to Australia. Her decision to join IS – if that allegation is true – is horrendous. It is our responsibility to step up and ensure that she is held accountable for her actions – which is the standard we (should) apply to every Australian. Flimsy presumptions of guilt do not constitute evidence.