For obvious reasons, the CIA is desperately casting around for friends and allies at the moment, and isn’t inclined to be too fussy about cosying up to groups with equally blemished reputations, declining public support and clouds of accusations of dubious practice. Naturally this includes Classics and Ancient History. At any rate that’s my reading of a recent piece in the Harvard Review on ‘Classical Studies and Today’s Middle East’ by one Andrew S. Gilmour, a member of the CIA’s Senior Analytic Team. Of course the article comes with a lengthy caveat to the effect that all views, opinions and analysis are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the US Government or any of its agencies, but why else would a high-level spook be waxing lyrical about the potential contribution of Altertumswissenschaft to making sense of the intractable conflicts of the region? “Let us invite professional classicists and their supporters to join the discourse. Then, we may also succeed in winning new students to a discipline too formative to abandon and too useful to forgo.”
I cannot be the only UK-based classicist to read those words and instantly think “IMPACT!!!” Let’s be honest, we tend to fall to the floor and roll around in slavish gratitude, hoping to have our tummies tickled, the moment that a minor-league politician or D-list celebrity mentions in passing that they quite like something ancient – look, Ma, we’re not obsolete or elitist after all! Moreover, the expectation, under the new rules of the UK’s Research Excellence Framework, that we should demonstrate how our work helps to build a better vacuum cleaner or cure terrible diseases is enough to leave otherwise sane, balanced and congenitally cheerful people staring into the abyss and thinking that it looks rather more inviting than the idea of trying to write an impact case study. But here we have someone from the Real World expressing a belief in the genuine Real World usefulness of what we do, and inviting us to contribute our expertise to solving Major World Problems. Peace in our Time: that would be four-star impact. How could we turn down such an opportunity?
Gilmour’s article concentrates on a lot of fluffy, touchy-feely stuff about national/religious identities and the interaction of cultures, but I don’t think we have to limit ourselves to that. After all, there are precedents for the influence of classical studies on modern foreign policy, for example with the popularity of Thucydides among the proponents of the New American Century project and the deployment of Rome as a model for benevolent global hegemony; we just have to put the whole thing on a more professional basis, and ensure that future imperialist ventures are founded on the latest scholarship rather than faint recollections of old Michael Grant books. Moreover, just think of all the classical precedents we can offer for torture, brutality, dehumanisation of ‘barbarians’, destruction of indigenous social and economic systems in the interests of globalised power and so forth. The reason Dick Cheney’s defence of advanced interrogation techniques seems so unpersuasive is clearly the absence of ancient citations on the unreliability of the testimony of those bound to a domineering master (for slave-owner read ideology) unless compelled through fear of something worse.
Of course, the basic problem with this approach is found in the disclaimer to Gilmour’s article: “This material has been reviewed by the Agency to prevent the disclosure of classified information.” How are we going to provide the evidence to support our impact case studies if the CIA are just going to refuse to confirm anything, and insist on redactions? We will enter a universe of mirrors in which, given the obvious and undeniable utility of all classical knowledge, the absence of a four-star impact case study from a particular university’s REF return can only be interpreted as proof of the existence of impact so massive and significant that it cannot possibly be disclosed for fear of destabilising the world order and sending stock markets into free fall.
The obvious solution is to look for similar opportunities to shape and justify state policies where there may be less need for secrecy. The Department of Work and Pensions, for example, could clearly do with a briefing on the ancient custom of infant exposure as a means of dealing with excess numbers of the feckless poor, if only as a means of showing how humane their current policies of restricting child benefit and the bedroom tax really are. Has no one considered the model of the Athenian metic, and above all the metoikon, as a way of handling the problem of immigration – get foreigners to do important jobs, tax them extra and make sure they don’t get anywhere near citizen rights? This is so obvious that I’ll be surprised, when the impact case studies for this round of the REF are published, if it hasn’t already been done.
There will doubtless be some lily-livered ivory tower liberals who regard such ideas as clear proof of the pernicious impact of Impact on the research agenda, tempting us to abandon all intellectual and moral principle in the pursuit of ‘relevance’ and affirmation from people with power and money. As the author of a forthcoming series of pamphlets on the application of Thucydides’ hard-nosed realist principles to such fields of activity as career development (1), sports psychology (2), pick-up artistry (3) and so forth, I can only say: good. That’ll be fewer people writing to take up the CIA’s open invitation to collaborate.
Update: it belatedly occurs to me that much of this may be completely incomprehensible to anyone who isn’t a UK academic struggling with the joys of the Research Excellence Framework (see also previous post). I’m sorry about that, but for the moment the idea of trying to explain it all in a way that makes sense to anyone, including academics, is just too depressing. Please leave us to our sorrow.
(1) “The strong enjoy the view from a corner office, and the weak do their photocopying.”
(2) “The strong hurdle the bar effortlessly, the weak let self-doubt get the better of them.”
(3) “All women are driven by fear of rejection, vanity, and the fact that secretly they really want it. Use this.”