The “woke” crowd is now intent on tossing out Homer’s “Odyssey” and challenging classical literary tradition. They want to inculcate a Jacobin uniformity of belief in the minds of future generations. How much easier will it be to recast history in the rigid terms of oppressor and oppressed, of exploiter and exploited, when no one has the intellectual wherewithal to understand history in all of its facets and contours?
For well over a century, Homer’s Odyssey has been a mainstay of American high school education. Indeed, although it is common to allow educators a significant degree of independence with regards to which books they choose to include in their curriculum, the Odyssey occupies an almost hallowed place in American cultural life, symbolizing as it does the value of the quest, or journey, and the realization of the goal to which it leads. As an op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal this past December makes alarmingly clear however, the burgeoning “cancel-culture” or “woke” crowd is not content to merely silence the voices of the living. Now, they have set their sights on Homer and the classical literary tradition.
The article, authored by the essayist Meghan Cox Gurdon and entitled “Even Homer Gets Mobbed,” details a recent Twitter exchange in which a high school English teacher implored her followers to “Be like Odysseus and take the long haul to liberation, and then take the Odyssey out of your curriculum because it’s trash.” In response to the latter, a second teacher, employed at a public high school in Massachusetts, declared: “Hahaha. Very proud to say we got the Odyssey removed from the curriculum this year.”
Far from an isolated incident, Ms. Gurdon is keen to point out that this exchange reflects the most recent examples of a “sustained effort” to deny young people the pleasure of engaging with the literary treasures of the past. As one critic bluntly put the matter in an edition of the School Library Journal published this past June: “Challenging old classics is the literary equivalent of replacing statues of racist figures.” In addition to Homer, Ms. Gurdon suggests that authors ranging from Shakespeare to Nathaniel Hawthorne are seemingly at risk of being consigned to the rubbish bin of history.
In place of the classics, those hankering for their disposal appear to be advocating for a more “inclusive” curriculum consisting largely of young adult fiction and socio-political tracts that expound on various hot-button political themes. While there is certainly nothing wrong with teaching such works, the Twitter conversation Ms. Gurdon describes makes it clear that simply diversifying the curriculum isn’t the motivation here. Rather, it is to reduce the “subtle complexities of literature” to the “crude clanking of ‘intersectional’ power struggles.”
Indeed, as those of us who read dystopian novels such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or George Orwell’s 1984 should recognize, power is the bottom line. To those who want to dispense with it, the emphasis that the principal works of the Western Canon have historically enjoyed is not a reflection of the intrinsic worth of the texts themselves, but of who wields the most power in society. Pursuing this Machiavellian logic through to its conclusion, it follows that if those who are critical of “old classics” can successfully disparage them in the public arena, the amount of power they possess will increase relative to those who allegedly have an interest in the perpetuation of such works.
But the degree of wisdom that a society has attained is not a question of power. Rather, we ought to consider its capacity for wrestling with nuance and complexity. Tempting as it may be to view the world through the black and white lens of “us vs. them” or “good and evil,” reality invariably proves itself to be one or more shades of grey. Homer’s poetry is a testament to this enduring truth. Consider, for example, the Iliad, which recounts the story of the Trojan War. The final scene of that epic is famous, not for a hair-raising depiction of combat between the Greeks and the Trojans, or of one side triumphing over the other, but for the fleeting moment of compassion in which the Greek hero Achilles finally lets go of his overbearing wrath and turns the body of Hector over to Priam, the aged Trojan King. Thus Homer shows us that even in the midst of the most protracted and bitter conflicts, humanity’s capacity for love and mutual understanding prevails over its baser instincts, at least momentarily.
Those intent on tossing out the classics don’t want nuance however. They want to inculcate a Jacobin uniformity of belief in the minds of future generations. How much easier will it be to recast history in the rigid terms of oppressor and oppressed, of exploiter and exploited, when no one has the intellectual wherewithal to understand history in all of its facets and contours? How much easier to keep society polarized when its members lack common cultural reference points or a willingness to engage with perspectives that clash with their own?
Though all indicators suggest that the assault on the classics will only continue to gain traction as the culture war drags on, such efforts may ironically do these time-honored texts a great service. As history attests, attempting to suppress something or construe it as “forbidden fruit” more often than not only serves to make the object of derision that much more alluring to those who are kept from it. That aspect of human nature at least is not so easy to re-program. Given the overwhelmingly positive response that Ms. Gurdon’s article has received, this appears to be no less true where Homer is concerned. As a simple Google search reveals, at least ten articles have already surfaced coming to Homer’s defense against these most recent ideological attacks.
Indeed, although Homer was traditionally said to have been a blind poet, his vision was seemingly prophetic when he composed these immortal lines:
Yea, and if some god shall wreck me in the wine-dark deep, even so I will endure… For already have I suffered full much, and much have I toiled in perils of waves and war. Let this be added to the tale of those.
“…While most Americans suffer more than ever, the people at the top have stolen nearly a trillion dollars. (Quick Refresher: if you make $40,000 a year, in order to make a trillion dollars, it would take you a mere 25 million years.) Meanwhile, the lines outside food banks stretch for miles in many cities with people sometimes waiting five hours for a box of food assistance”
The Pandemic Dirty Dozen
These 12 people get rich while doing the most harm.
(Alec Wilson, Flickr & Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0)
It’s tough to even explain to people how much the wealth of the richest Americans has increased while everyone else has suffered during this pandemic. The human brain can’t process the numbers. It’s like trying to explain the entire plot of “Twin Peaks” to a dachshund or a house fly or a Kayleigh McEnany.
Trying to come to terms with this level of inequality is hard but necessary. We must keep reminding ourselves just how evil these rich sociopaths are. They are not normal or average evil. They are not run-of-the-mill evil.
(And to be honest, I don’t even know what that would entail. How could someone be evil in a mill? Even if they had their run of the place — they’d just be stealing grain and laughing maniacally, I guess? That’s if it’s a grain mill, I suppose. What if it were a windmill? What if he’s run-of-the-windmill evil? Then what kind of shit is he involved in? Blowing on the wrong side of the windmill just to screw up the airflow?)
With the help of the Institute of Policy Studies, here are the numbers detailing just how bad American inequality has gotten during this pandemic. In their latest report they write, “The combined wealth of 647 U.S. billionaires increased by almost $960 billion since mid-March, the beginning of the pandemic lockdown… .”
Gulfstream G650ER jet owned by The Blackstone Group. (Alec Wilson, Flickr & Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0)
While most Americans suffer more than ever, the people at the top have stolen nearly a trillion dollars. (Quick Refresher: if you make $40,000 a year, in order to make a trillion dollars, it would take you a mere 25 million years.) Meanwhile, the lines outside food banks stretch for miles in many cities with people sometimes waiting five hours for a box of food assistance.
Thousands of cars lined up to collect food in Dallas, Texas, over the weekend, stretching as far as the eye can see. pic.twitter.com/xLFGOcBkPK
How is it citizens struggle to eat in one of the richest countries in the world – which pours billions per day into our military? A post-scarcity world where we throw out 40 percent of all food? You thought it was just your aunt’s casserole but no, literally millions of tons of untouched food splatters into landfills — a lot of it never even makes it to your plate. It’s thrown out by the producers and stores because it hasn’t sold or the meaningless expiration date has gone by or the fruits and veggies are too ugly.
We should all find it maddening that producers throw out tons of ugly fruits and veggies while their fellow citizens go hungry. There is nothing wrong with a malformed grotesquely distorted potato. Just ask Ted Cruz’s face. (Besides in terms of which foods people prefer, I believe physical appearance should rank far below the fruit or vegetable’s personality, net worth, and work ethic.)
So how did we get to this point in human evolution? How do we have human beings going hungry while we throw out nearly half the edible food and a select few individuals rake in Olympic swimming pools full of money? It’s inarguably because our economic system (AKA “capitalism,” AKA “slippery Pete,” AKA “the underhanded hello”) is a dumpster fire.
Just like a select few sociopaths oversee this horrible system, it’s also a select few corporations that benefit the most. The Institute For Policy Studies says, “Driving this exploding inequality are 12 companies whose profits are coming at the expense of workers and communities. …They include retailers like Walmart, Amazon, Target, Dollar Tree, Dollar Store, gig economy companies like Instacart, and food producers like Tyson Foods.”
Unbelievable profits don’t come out of nowhere. They are not beamed down from alien spacecraft or manifested using a magic wand. They are the result of the grand, breathtaking, generational exploitation of American workers. Just three members of the Walton family have added $48 Billion to their wealth since March of this year while giving their workers zero hazard pay.
Secret Santa but the secret is I’m Santa & only bought stuff for myself ?
And “The wealth of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has increased by 62 percent since mid-March, totaling $188 billion as of November 17. Bezos is now the richest person on earth. Meanwhile an estimated 20,000 Amazon workers have been infected with COVID-19.”
Twenty thousand Amazon workers have been infected while making sure every American receives their high-speed sex toys and low-speed dog toys in less than two days. And those employees who speak out about the conditions are fired. So do you think their box has a smiley face on it now?? (When I first wrote that line, I didn’t realize the sexual connotations. Now I have, and yet, clearly, I foisted it upon you nonetheless. I’m sorry.)
Meanwhile, Bezos has $188 billion – an amount of money nearly equivalent to the GDP of New Zealand, a sum of money he will never come even close to using in his entire lifetime.
So basically the CEOs of these companies say to their employees, “You go to work, you get sick, you maybe die – especially if you live in one of the areas of the country where people think science is scary nonsense put forward by witches and autistic leprechauns. And then while you risk your life, we’ll pay you no more than usual – probably less than $15 an hour. Good luck out there.
Don’t forget to clean up the syrup dripping down the side of the Walmart cafeteria Slurpee machine while somebody’s rogue super-spreader toddler chews on your ankle.”
At this point in the column, a respected Ivy League corporate journalist would avoid naming the rich criminal masterminds pulling the levers of this abusive system. Lucky for you, fair reader, I’m neither corporate nor respected.
According to IPS, “Ten billionaire-owners of a delinquent dozen companies have a combined worth of $433 billion. Since March 18, their combined personal wealth has ballooned by $127 billion, a 42 percent increase. These 10 billionaires are Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Alice, Rob, and Jim Walton (Walmart), Apoorva Mehta (Instacart), John Tyson (Tyson Foods), Steve Schwarzman (Blackstone), Henry Kravis and George Roberts (KKR), and Steve Feinberg (Cerberus).”
And these billionaires rake in (but do not “earn”) hundreds of times what their averageworker makes. The CEO of Dollar Tree, Gary Philbin, makes 690 times his median worker while sitting in a nice clean office, not having to face off with customers who start throwing discount adult diapers at cashiers for asking them to wear a mask.
Come on, Gary, why don’t you head down to the local Dollar Tree and get beaten with a $2 pool noodle for 15 minutes and then see if you deserve to make 700 times what your workers do? When one-dollar off-brand superhero action figures called “Rodent Lady” and “Electricity Boy” start hitting you square in the forehead, maybe you’ll find some compassion for your fellow humans.
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Of course none of this compares to Jeff Bezos. According to Business Insider, “Per hour, [Bezos] makes a whopping $8,961,000 — that’s roughly 315 times Amazon’s $28,466 median annual worker pay. An Amazon worker earning the $15 minimum wage would need to work 24 hours a day for about 68 years, just to earn what Bezos makes in an hour.”
Jeff Bezos in 2010. (Steve Jurvetson, Flickr & Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0)
This level of inequality is unsustainable, unfathomable, unjustifiable, unbelievable, and un-fucking-believable! And while your mainstream corporate media may mention inequality here or there, they never do it justice and they never do it LOUD ENOUGH. Having a little segment about food banks crammed between 18 hours of Biden transition coverage does not count as actually informing people.
If Americans were truly informed, rather than spending our days sitting idly watching reality shows about cakes, we would all be behaving like Khaleel Seivwright. (Granted he’s Canadian but I’ll forgive him for that.)
He’s a 28 year-old carpenter who started building tiny insulated shelters for those without homes. It’s a quick and cheap solution to help people chewed up by unfettered rapacious capitalism, a societal money laundering machine that spits out millions of humans after stealing their savings, their energy, and their youth.
So, just like a good capitalist town, upon realizing what Seivwright was up to, the City of Toronto issued a warning letter to the carpenter to stop building shelters for unhoused people. (Well, if all those poor people get homes, then how will the rest of us know we’re better than them? I suppose we’ll still have our wrist watches, but you can’t tell the brand from very far away.)
Point being, Khaleel Seivwright is a hero, as are so many unheralded activists across this land trying to help those torn up by our system. Bezos and the Waltons and the other CEOs who we seemingly celebrate in our popular culture — they are the villains. And while we continue to fight for a new economy no longer based on death and extinction, we need to build the alternative world we want to see.