Steve Sailer fisks an article by associate professor of history that purports to explain that ancient Phoenicia did not exist, and is only thought to exist because, many centuries later, some grubby nationalists invented the idea of Phoenicia to further their grubby nationalism. What the grubby nationalists called Phoenicia, Dr. Josephine Quinn describes as “a disparate set of neighboring and often warring city-states, cut off from each other for the most part by deep river valleys.”
If we change the “river valleys” to “arms of the wine dark sea,” this would seem to sound a lot like ancient Greece, and everyone nowadays knows the Hellenes never existed. The Hellenes were invented by grubby nationalists inflamed by ouzo and irrational hatred for the Sultan.
But here is the line that jumped out at me. Dr. Quinn writes:
“Modern nationalism took history from the province of the wealthy gentleman amateur, as nationalism’s focus on literacy and organized education professionalized and democratized the past.”
Dr. Quinn is historicizing history, or putting history itself in an historical context. That’s all well and good, but she does it, as it is most often done, without answering the puzzling question “which historical context.” In whose account of history are we to place, say, a gentleman amateur like Edward Gibbon? Are we to read Gibbon with the understanding that he was writing in the context of the history as narrated by Karl Marx? Or Thucydides? Or George Bancroft?
And if we historicize Gibbon’s history by placing Gibbon in the context of history as narrated by Marx, oughtn’t we to historicize Marx’s history by placing it in some third context?
I’m sure you see the problem. Contextualizing is ultimately a swindle because, at the bottom of the heap, there must always be an Uncontextualized Contextualizer. That is to say, an historian who has not been reduced to a mouthpiece for the interests of his class or the prejudices of his age.
This brings me back to Dr. Quinn, about whom I know nothing besides what I can infer from her article. If the passions of some grubby nationalists conjured Phoenicia into existence, then it seems reasonable to ask about the passions that stir the (no doubt far from grubby) breast of Dr. Quinn. What passions of heres have conjured Phoenicia out of existence? Such passions there must be, unless Dr. Quinn can explain how she has transcended her historical context in a way that wealthy gentlemen amateurs and grubby nationalists did not.
I’m a doubting Thomas when it comes to transcendent scholars peddling transcendent scholarship in which everyone before the day before yesterday was the tool of passion, interest, and prejudice. If we are going to reduce some scholars to their context, then we ought to reduce all scholars to their context.
So, what is the context of just about every academic writing today? By what passions, interests and prejudices are their ideas colored, conditioned, and deformed? As I said, I know nothing in particular about Dr. Quinn, but I do know a thing or two about university academics. Here, I suggest, is the context in which most of today’s transcendent scholars should be placed.
“I write as a lower middle-class careerist whose only real asset is my intellect, and who privately worries that the value of this asset might depreciate to zero before I’ve saved enough for retirement. Although my work is not onerous, my dominant emotion is resentment over insufficient esteem. I feel I have been systematically slighted by students, colleagues, administrators, my profession, and society at large. Deep down, I have a nagging fear that no one cares what I have to say, and even deeper down I have a nagging fear there is no reason they should care. In the course of climbing the university ladder, I lost the faith of my fathers, the friends of my childhood, and all feeling of being at home. I fear there will be no tears at my funeral, no flowers on my grave, and, cruelest cut of all, no citations when I’ve gone to that place where it will be impossible to return the compliment.
I sustain myself with a mix of hedonism, egotism, and humanitarianism. I’m a complete sucker for affordable luxuries that suggest tasteful old money, but still fall within the means of a lower middle-class careerist. I take a good deal of comfort in sneering at the vulgarity of people who have made more money with less intellect. In other words, I’m a snob—albeit a snob on a budget. And to further complicate matters, my humanitarianism makes me a democratic snob on a budget.
When I’m not worrying about the value of my intellect depreciating to zero, or chewing over my resentments, or staring into the void, I apply my intellect to the conundrum of a democratic snob on a budget.
My solution is to position myself as member of that tiny sliver of humanity who feels compassion for the whole of humanity, while at the same time sucking up to the people who have the power to do something about my wretched budget. Wine isn’t free, you know, and neither is a week’s vacation in France.”