In the spring of 2015, as ISIS forces made their way to the historic Syrian city of Palmyra, town officials became concerned for the safety of their historic treasures, which included priceless statuary and other artifacts from antiquity. Knowing that ISIS militants disdain the heritage of the past, and consider statues a form of idolatry, city officials sought to save their treasures from pillage by hiding them outside the city.
Even though ISIS jihadists believe artworks to be idolatrous, they are not above selling them on the black market to turn a quick profit. That is exactly what they intended to do with Palmyra’s treasures. So when they arrived and found the museums empty, they abducted Khaled al-Asaad, an 82-year-old archeologist, historian, and museum curator who had served for more than fifty years as head of antiquities in Palmyra. For a month, they interrogated and tortured al-Asaad, hoping to make him reveal the hiding place of the antiquities. But the 82-year-old scholar withstood them. Finally, when the militants realized they could not break him, they cut off al-Asaad’s head and hung his mutilated body on a column in a main square. They also placed a board in front of his body declaring that he had served as “the director of idolatry” and had represented Syria at “infidel conferences.”
What happened in Palmyra was not an isolated incident, except perhaps with regard to the fortitude with which the jihadists were resisted. At other historic sites, ISIS militants destroyed precious art with frenzy, sometimes even using power equipment to demolish cultural artifacts.
The Crusade Against Cultural Memory
ISIS exemplifies a radical form of cancel culture that seeks to eradicate all memory of anything beyond its movement. Its militants have mobilized mass hysteria to destroy not only physical artworks, but also the institutions that support the liberal arts.
Such hatred of art is not limited to Islam. In the 1650s, after Oliver Cromwell took control of Great Britain as Lord Protector, his men roamed the land with long poles, which they used to shatter stained-glass art in the high windows of ancient cathedrals. Cromwell, too, sought to eradicate much of the past, particularly where cultural memory had found expression in art and Christian holidays. Under the Protectorate he set up, the liberal arts were carefully regulated, and the theater was banned altogether.
Modern revolutionary movements have exhibited the same tendency. From the French Revolution through to the various Communist revolutions of the twentieth century, a recurring feature has been the attempt to purify society from past traditions and to build a new society from scratch. Using oversimplified ideologies and sloganeering, these movements whipped up the masses into a frenzy, mobilizing them to the mission of overthrowing existing structures and canceling cultural memory.
Fundamentalism can be religious or anti-religious. ISIS fundamentalists are religious (but anti-Christian), while Communist fundamentalists were virulently anti-religion. Regardless of the specifics of their worldviews, fundamentalist movements all seek to cancel the past by erasing cultural memory and by attacking the forms and institutions through which that memory is carried.
A Rising New Fundamentalist Threat
In late 2016 and early 2017, the Syrian Army recaptured the city of Palmyra, with help from the United States and Russia. Finding that ISIS forces had destroyed historic buildings, tombs, and temples, the authorities began a massive restoration effort.
Ironically, even as American forces were fighting against fundamentalism in the Middle East, a new form of it was rising within the United States itself. This new form of fundamentalism is subtle, disguising its agenda in the language of liberalism even as it seeks to destroy the liberal arts.
The new fundamentalism goes by various names, including wokeness, radical liberalism, critical theory, and progressivism. In this article we will simply refer to it as “Woke Fundamentalism,” or Wokeism for short.
Wokeism represents our own version of what happened in Palmyra, complete with high-profile destruction of statuary. Like ISIS, the Woke target zones of cultural significance, such as universities and historic sites. And while they do not behead people, they whip up mass hysteria to try to take down entire disciplines and to ruin the careers of people deemed insufficiently woke. Above all, Woke Fundamentalism is a virulent version of cancel culture, which aims to send Western civilization down the memory hole.
Drawn from the Communist Playbook
Last October, when woke protestors tore down statues of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt in Portland, Oregon, their destructive mission was obvious. What is less obvious is the more subtle way Wokeism has been attacking the liberal arts by undermining the notion that the arts have intrinsic value. The Woke follow Karl Marx, who taught that the liberal arts have merely extrinsic value as instruments that can be used to achieve various pragmatic goals.
Marxists sought, and seek, to cancel the liberal arts by redefining them in purely instrumental terms. A hallmark of twentieth-century experiments in Marxism was the effort to channel man’s aesthetic faculties to purely useful ends, and to insist that works of imagination and beauty should be created and/or used only as tools to serve the goals of the state. The Soviets sanctioned a new type of art known as “socialist realism,” which regulated expression, glorified technology, and reduced art to a purely didactic function. The Marxist philosopher and revolutionary Georgi Plekhanov set the tone for the new mood when he declared that the value of art lay in its social usefulness: “There can be no doubt that art acquires a social significance only insofar as it depicts, evokes, or conveys actions, emotions, and events that are of significance to society.”
Woke Fundamentalism has been drawing from the Communist playbook by treating the liberal arts as if their value is merely instrumental in advancing social-justice agendas. Among the Woke, the great literary, visual, and musical artworks of our tradition are valued purely for their didactic function in advancing a narrow range of political concerns, including feminism, critical race theory, post-colonialism, queer theory, and so on. By treating these disciplines in this way, the Woke leave the disciplines of higher learning in place even as they pragmatize and polemicize them, hollowing out their content so that these disciplines become little more than weapons in the hands of social justice warriors. Meanwhile, scholars who insist on the older view, that the liberal arts are ends rather than simply means, risk having their careers destroyed and their reputations ruined.
Earlier this year, at the annual meeting of the Society for Classical Studies, we got a sense of how tense this conflict has become. In an address to a panel of classicists, Dr. Mary Williams argued that the classics have more than instrumental value, saying, “Maybe we should start defending our discipline in and of itself, and saying it’s Western civilization, it matters.” She was roundly rebuked for these and other comments before being kicked out of the meeting.
The Saga of Dan-el Peralta
Dr. Williams’s main critic was Dan-el Padilla Peralta, an associate professor of classics at Princeton University. Peralta serves as an interesting case study in how the Woke radicalize academics by attacking the very thing that makes them good scholars in the first place, namely, love for their subjects.
In February the New York Times ran a glowing profile on Peralta, whose career emerged out of a youthful love for Greece and Rome and a desire to be transformed by the classics. At first he studied the classics simply because he loved the subject and believed the discipline had value in and of itself. But in college, when he announced his decision to major in the classics, he received push-back from some of his closest friends. You see, Peralta is black, and his friends wanted to know how his study of the classics would help the cause of social justice. If the classics could not help with an activist agenda, were they a worthy pursuit for a black man?
Peralta at first responded to these concerns by arguing that the classics were intrinsically valuable, regardless of their political utility. But then his perspective began to shift. The Times profile reports that he became increasingly troubled by the perceived lack of practical utility in the classics, until he finally abandoned the position that the literature of Greece and Rome has inherent value.
He found he wasn’t completely satisfied by his own arguments. The question of classics’ utility was not a trivial one. How could he take his education in Latin and Greek and make it into something liberatory? “That became the most urgent question that guided me through my undergraduate years and beyond,” Padilla said.1
After coming to these realizations, Peralta tried to unlearn much of his earlier education. “I had to actively engage in the decolonization of my mind,” he said.
Now that Peralta believes the classics possess a merely instrumental value within the context of activism, what type of scholarship is he engaging in? Among other things, he is now trying to bring attention to the problem of “whiteness” in the classics. Greek and Roman language and literature are intrinsically bound up with white supremacy, he teaches. This is part of his larger agenda of woke activism, and his reduction of classical scholarship to a tool for political and social ends.
Peralta is only one academic, but he represents a consensus among the Woke in academia that their various disciplines—from classics to history to art to literature—should be pragmatized and politicized. In these efforts, the richness and complexity of these disciplines are being reduced to a handful of simple formulae about race or gender.
Hollowed Out from Within
The reduction of the liberal arts into tools for social and political utility is just as destructive as ISIS’s rampage through historical sites. In fact, woke iconoclasm and anti-intellectualism are actually more sinister than book-burning and statue-crushing, for they allow institutions of higher learning to continue operating even as they are being subverted.
The physical destruction of artworks and books will not be resisted if people become convinced that such things have no value anyway. And that is exactly what the Woke seek to do as they propagandize university students with the notion that the liberal arts should be valued only as means to ends. When the study of Western civilization—together with its art, literature, and music—becomes simply another tool for woke activism, then even if these disciplines remain formally in place, they have effectively been cancelled.
In the battle to preserve the riches of our civilization, we need more people like Khaled al-Asaad, who courageously stood against the despoilers to defend his cultural heritage.
Robin Phillips, Salvo Magazine