Bruce S. Thornton: Bring Back the Greeks

Interview with Professor Bruce S. Thornton of the University of California at Fresno.  Published in Greek: DAVLOS, No. 238. Oct. 2001. pp.15255 15264 )
By Nancy Biska
Q. Would you please comment upon the two trends currently influencing American Academia, that is, “Postmodernism” and “Multiculturalism?”
Postmodernism is an intellectually incoherent and childish fashion whose inconsistencies and errors of logic are easily identified. Briefly, postmodernism denies the possibility of stable truth, meaning, identity, etc, but of course itself is an ideology which claims to be meaningful and true. It’s like the old Greek riddle: ‘All Cretans are liars. A Cretan said this’. Postmodernism is not new, the radical Sophists of the later fifth century B.C. are their forefathers.
Multiculturalism is the heir of the romantic nationalism that emerged in Germany in the 19th century and whose monstrous offspring include fascism. The idea that individuals are to be defined and validated by their accidental birth into an ethnic category possessing mystical, unique qualities is irreconcilable with liberal democracy, which sees individuals as the locus of rights, not groups.
Multiculturalism spawns identity politics, the attempt to secure privileges, rights, etc for whole categories. Finally, these categories in the U.S. are predicated on victimization the groups have validity because they are presumably the victims of oppression and exclusion. Thus multiculturalism insidiously institutionalizes inferiority, since the victim is by definition less powerful than the victimizer.
Q. Why in your opinion these trends were created and supported by so many influential professors and how the academic society come to accept such obviously false ideas into their universities and colleges?
American intellectuals, particularly in the humanities, are woefully underprepared intellectually and thus vulnerable to fad and fashion. Moreover, the conditions of hiring, promotion, tenure, securing grants and fellowships, etc, make publishing necessary, even if there is nothing new to say. Postmodern and poststructuralist theory provides a smoke-screen of jargon and buzzwords that allow the scholar to create the illusion of novelty.
Postmodernism also reveals the failure of nerve that has afflicted Western intellectuals for most of this century, who have lost faith in their own ideals (rationalism, liberal democracy, etc) even as by century’s end these have triumphed. That these Western intellectuals enjoy those benefits of freedom, material prosperity, etc. adds the charge of hypocrisy to that of intellectual shoddiness.
Multiculturalism I think results from the institutionalization of identity politics through the creation of departments focused on ethnic identity rather than on a discipline. White guilt, of course, facilitates this process. Academics guilty about their privilege can make themselves feel better by endorsing a ´diversity they never have to live with in their daily lives.
Q. Why are the contributions to Western Civilization by the ancient Greeks being played down and even denied by so many contemporary academics?
Multiculturalism, for it is based on the idea that the West is dysfunctional and uniquely evil; since the ancient Greeks basically invent the West, they are guilty of the same crimes. Needless to say, this view is historically false.
Q. Do you believe that the ideals of Hellenism remain viable today, and if yes, how might they contribute to contemporary society?
Hellenic ideals: freedom of the individual, consensual government, rationalism, and critical consciousness: are not just alive, they have triumphed so thoroughly that no real viable alternatives exist. Even religious cultures such as Islam depend on Western science, and are struggling to keep the idea of individual freedom away from their people. Thus it is even more necessary that these ideals and their origins be taught, studies, and celebrated.
Q. Where is globalization leading us? Should any nation sacrifice its history and heritage for the sake of globalization? How do you envisage globalization?
An optimist might say that globalization will lead to the transmission of Western values to every person on the planet. That is, material prosperity and personal freedom will belong to everybody. However, a pessimist might add that the cost of this will be too great of the decline of religion, traditional culture, etc. We should remember too that the jury is still out on whether the environment can sustain such growth, or whether such growth is even economically possible in the Third World.
People have to make a hard, brutal choice: to enjoy material comfort, health, nutrition, freedom, etc, at the price of weakening their traditional cultures; or to keep their old ways and live with hunger, political oppression, etc. An argument can be made for both positions, but the vast numbers of immigrants leaving the Third World for the West suggests that most human beings will choose material comfort and freedom over their own cultural heritage. We in America have long experienced this choice: my mother’s parents came from Italy; none of their grandchildren speak Italian; most have married non-Italians. That’s sad, but there was nothing for them in Italy after World War I.
Q. Many of your colleagues would call you a “conservative.”
American academics use ‘conservative’ as a slur to avoid engaging arguments. I am conservative in some things, liberal in others. My ideal is Socrates: question everything, seek the truth, and let the political chips fall where they may.
Q. Why is it that, in spite of the availability of and access to knowledge and information on a scale unprecedented in history, most people seem more and more inclined toward giving credibility to specious and wrong-headed ideas and positions?
American education is so bad, few people anymore have the knowledge or critical skills to sort out false knowledge from true. Mass media make this problem worse, as deceptive, emotionally pleasing images bombard our society.
Q. Is this projection of pleasant and emotional imagery, based as it is on distortions and untruths, dangerous? Especially since we are now going through a very critical period of history. If yes, why?
Mass media: bad ideas now can be instantly transmitted everywhere, in a form that does not encourage critical analysis.
Q. What, then, would you say is the therapeutic antidote to the spiritual toxins of our age?
Bring back the Greeks! Study their brilliant literature and civilization, for they invented critical thought, and identified the key human problems we are still grappling with today.
Q. Do you believe that the U.S. can continue as the dominant nation on the planet in the light of this all-encompassing tolerance she’s shown in the fields of education, culture, and the mass media?
As long as the sciences resist these trends, the necessary military, economic, and research work will get done, and that will assure the US’s continuing dominance. I’m more worried about the corruption in values and character. If a crisis ever does arise– for example, if the US military is required to fight a war that leads to significant US casualties– I’m not sure what would happen, or if Americans could make the sacrifices that were made in World War II. Americans (and Europeans) are increasingly spoiled by material abundance and high expectations for human happiness. We are forgetting the tragic wisdom of the ancient Greeks, who acknowledged the limitations placed on human aspiration and achievement, and the necessity of suffering
given those limitations.
Q. At this vitally important juncture for the world and for humanity, which path should America choose: that of freedom of thought, of speech, of rationality, or that of the mysticism of theocratic tyranny and dogmatism?
Absolutely the political culture should be wary of the irrational–Euripides in the Bacchae taught us the dangers of mysticism; so too Thucydides in his description of the civil war on Corcyra. And especially we should be wary of any mysticism etc that demands limitations on the freedom of thought and knowledge, or sacrifices these to irrational visions of utopia.
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