Seven with One Blow

I can hear my father: "Now, Rachel, don't be nasty."
Aiming points
Fiore dei Liberi, "Il Fior di battaglia" (ca. 1410)
Getty Museum, MS Ludwig XV 13, fol. 32

Four weeks, a day, and a lifetime ago, Sightings published my article "Why Milo Scares Students, and Faculty Even More." Two weeks and a day before that, Milo had planned to give the last of his talks on his Dangerous Faggot Tour, but had had to be evacuated by his security team when the protests on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, became too violent for the campus police to contain. By the beginning of February, I, of course, had been writing on this blog in support of Milo, his method, his message, and his fans for over four months, ever since the College deans at the University of Chicago sent out their now infamous "no safe spaces" letter to our incoming freshmen. As I know now, my blog had already been exciting comment on my own campus, so when the barricades hit the windows at Berkeley, the Editor of Sightings contacted me and asked me to write something about Milo.

More particularly, as he explains in the Editor's Introduction to the Packet of responses that my Sightings piece provoked, he came to me because he had heard that there was a professor on our campus "who not only supported Milo Yiannopoulos but also understood her support of him as concomitant with her work as a medieval historian and scholar of religion." Sensing--rightly!--a prime journalistic opportunity to spark productive debate, the Editor invited me "to argue for the significance of Yiannopoulos's activities, specifically in relation to the academic study of religion." Which, being a good Fencing Bear, I did.

Little did I know what a furore I was to spark. (Okay, rhetorical feint; I kinda knew.) First there was the weekend that my colleagues spent on the listserve to which I subscribe talking about how to deal with what I had said--and not said. Then there was the bombshell dropped on Milo for his comments about the sexual abuse that he suffered as a minor. Then there were the articles written about my blogging for him, complete with a whole new range of insults to add to the usual "racist, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic, white supremacist" cloud that has plagued Milo's own speaking over the past year. Then there was the letter signed by twenty-seven of my colleagues in the Divinity School, assuring the world that my opinions do not represent the diversity of our conversation at Chicago.

In the midst of all this, seven of my colleagues, some from on campus, some from elsewhere, including one of my own former students, wrote more substantive responses to what they thought I had said, which Sightings published two weeks ago yesterday. Milo has spent the past week in Hawaii, away from the fray, which has given me a chance to catch up on some of my more professorial duties and to reflect on the arguments that my colleagues have made. They will be sad to hear, I suspect, that I still think that I, like Milo, am right. But they are honorable opponents--they have openly entered into the lists--and they deserve some response here.

On some points, as I hope to show, we agree. On others, I believe they have willfully misunderstood me. On yet others, I acknowledge that even in a short online article intended to provoke discussion I might have been clearer. I refuse, however, to say that I was in any way wrong to defend Milo in the terms that I did, whether in my blogging or in Sightings, my proof being the very volume and volubility of my colleagues' response. As I said in my Sightings article, Milo is important because, unique in my experience in academia, he has brought the very questions that my colleagues say they care about back into play in a way that they have not been for the whole of my career. I say that, as a Christian, I have found it difficult to speak as such in the academy; they say that religion has been a constant feature in our conversations. Yes, I say, from the outside, but not, I would insist, from within, which, I maintain, is why our students across the country, particularly at elite institutions like the University of Chicago (or Middlebury), find them so threatening. They do not know how to deal with direct challenges to their beliefs. To quote myself: "If students cannot practice these difficult conversations in school, there is nothing to stop them from spilling into the streets." So let's practice. Ladies and gentilhommes, report to the lists!

These are the colleagues who offered formal challenges.
  • Emily D. Crews, Ph.D. candidate in the History of Religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
  • Maggie Fritz-Morkin, Ph.D. (2013) in Romance Languages and Literature from the University of Chicago, Assistant Professor of Italian at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  • William Schweiker, Edward L. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor of Theological Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
  • Miles S. Hopgood, B.A. (2010), M.Div. (2013) University of Chicago, Ph.D. candidate at Princeton Theological Seminary.
  • David Hollinger, Preston Hotchkis Professor of History Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley.
  • Amy Dru Stanley, Associate Professor of History and the Law School at the University of Chicago.
  • Nancy Frankenberry, John Phillips Professor in Religion Emeritus at Dartmouth College, fellow at the Marty Martin Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School in 2015-2016.


There are, if I have read my colleagues' arguments correctly, seven points on which they would challenge me, with a few points at which they would seek to distract from the issues at hand.

First, the feints. None of them seems to have done what I hoped by giving the references that I did to the Sightings piece. I assumed, rightly, I suspect, that almost none of them (or any of my other colleagues) would have been following Milo's tour this past year with anything like the attention I--or his now two million Facebook fans--have. My goal in the Sightings article was to make them curious. "Oh, look," I imagined them thinking. "Rachel, our colleague, sees something in Milo that I have not heard before, perhaps I should take a look." (Stop it! I'm an optimist!) 

Sightings typically publishes pieces of no more than 1,000 words or so in length. My original draft ran to more like 2,000 words, which (to my mind) the Editor did a fine job of trimming down to a mere--but still lengthy for Sightings--1,300. With only so much space, I needed to make some choices. What I did was try to show Milo in his own words talking about the issues that even my colleagues acknowledge are important. In the Editor's words: "the commitment to free expression, and its limits; the relationship between 'religion' and 'culture' ('Western,' 'Christian,' or otherwise); the place of religious studies within the modern academy, and of theology within religious studies; the intellectual, social, and ethical responsibilities of scholars, educators...and editors." 

I knew that my colleagues would doubtless have heard the insults thrown at (and by) Milo. What I wanted to do was make them wonder on the basis of the words that I quoted--from his interviews with Tucker Carlson and Stefan Molyneux and his talk at Minnesota State University--whether maybe there was more to the hysteria over his speaking than the standard media reports allowed. My sense from their responses on Sightings is that I failed. None of them seems to know any more about Milo than he or she did before I published my piece; none of them mentions anything that Milo said in any of the links that I gave. 

Perhaps most tellingly, my longtime colleague from my own department Amy Dru Stanley reiterates simply that Milo espouses "hateful beliefs" and that my own opinion on "race, sex, gender, and faith is both so specious and so odious as not to be worth debating." She assumes on this basis that I want to use my classroom "as a place for conversion of students to Christian religious faith"--which I never said. And she concludes, without evidence, that I want "the minds of students...[to] be 'filled' with Christian religion to counter dangerous secular ideas. That false proposition hardly counts as opinion based on scholarly research." She is right: I do believe that Christian religious faith is worth teaching for its own sake, but I do not and never have taken my classroom as a place for indoctrinating students. Quite the reverse. As I said in the Sightings article, they have already been indoctrinated. What I want to do is challenge them, as I say Milo--through his own championing of Christian values--has. What they, and my colleagues, do with that challenge is up to them.


There are seven worthier blows that my colleagues have attempted to make.

1. On the importance of entering the fray. Here Emily Crews shows herself a true Chicago graduate student. She recounts how many members of the University of Chicago community insisted that the best response to my Sightings article was to ignore it. Her response: not at all! 
The time for saying, "Let's not dignify this with a response," has passed. That method has been painfully unsuccessful. The reality facing us now is that the things we have thought would disappear if we looked the other way have not only remained, but put down roots. They've set up camp. They've been elected president. And so it seems to me that Fulton Brown's piece, as objectionable as many find it, provides scholars of religion with an ideal opportunity to do something we have, by and large, failed to do in recent years, and particularly in the months since the election of Donald Trump: step into the fray. 
So, basically, I was right. Scholars of religion have, in Crews' own words, "been largely silent," despite the fact, as I said, that we as a country are involved in a major religious crisis. Crews and I may (okay, almost certainly do) disagree on the contours and content of that crisis, but she, like I, sees that we as scholars of religion have a responsibility to engage. Simultaneous attacks, no touch.

2. On being wary of "fake news." Medievalists know all about "fake news." Just ask anybody about the historical King Arthur. Maggie Fritz-Morkin gives another apt example, drawing on a story in Boccaccio's Decameron, where Ciappelletto, "the worst man ever to live (including his impressive catalogue of vice)...spins his final confession into a rhetorical masterpiece narrating his own superlative virtue." By way of his confession, Ciappelletto manages to cast himself posthumously as a saint, but "there is no question but that the tomb [at which the Burgundians make their devotions to him] is an idol, an empty fetish." In Fritz-Morkin's words: "It is a testament to the frisson of blind and impulsive mass piety stirred up by a lone friar who, seduced by a dazzling autobiography, neglects to 'fact-check' Ciappelletto's story before publicizing it with all the tacit institutional approval inherent in his pulpit. Score an epic trolling victory for Ciappelletto."

Fritz-Morkin does not say, but I'm guessing we are meant to take Ciappelletto here as a stand-in for Milo. Her (implied) critique would be more salient if I had not, in fact, taken the time to listen to all of Milo's campus talks, all of his podcasts, and all of the interviews that he has done since coming to America and several of those that he did in England, as well as reading deeply in his archive for Breitbart and back into his reporting for The Catholic Herald. As noted above in answer to Amy Stanley's feint attack, it was precisely in order to counter the "fake news" circulating about Milo that I wrote the Sightings piece with the focus I did. Milo's fans love him because he is honest with them about who and what he is, unlike those who would seek to cast him as "the worst man ever to live" because they disagree with him on his politics, sexuality, or religion.

I have written extensively in this blog about how I believe Milo's critics misread both his satire and his confession. Unlike Ciappelletto, Milo has never described himself as anything other than a sinner. When asked how he can be both Catholic and gay, his invariable response has been: "What else would I be, as a sinner?" It is I, not he, who has compared him to a saint, which blog posts he has persistently refused to share on his Facebook feed, almost as if he disagrees with me. Attack, parry, riposte, my touch.

3. On the role of universities as places for arguing religion. Having acknowledged the importance of arguing religion, Crews refines her critique with an attack on my purported "nostalgia for the medieval European university." What I said in the Sightings piece, just to be clear, was that "the medieval university on which American colleges were modeled was founded as a place to wrestle with theology; all the other arts and sciences were intended to stand in service to this task"--a statement which not so many decades ago would have been simply textbook boilerplate. It was during the Middle Ages, after all, that the Church had a monopoly on education. It didn't? Sorry, I must have dozed off while we were rewriting that narrative.

Crews further chides me for not acknowledging that the medieval universities "did not welcome...the presence of women [true, although Christianity has been the greatest force for women's education ever; even women wanted to learn to pray, for which they needed to be able to read ], or Jews [technically true, although Christian scholars of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries spent a great deal of time consulting with learned Jews], or homosexuals [John Boswell would doubtless have something to say on this point]," while suggesting that I do not appreciate the privilege that I or Milo have in being able to participate in university culture in the way that we do today. (I most certainly do.) David Hollinger suggests that I do not appreciate the importance of science in the history of education, while, as noted above, Amy Stanley assumes that I mean to use the classroom as a pulpit. And Nancy Frankenberry would insist that students should be able to come away from university "without endorsing any particular faith or sectarian creed"--with which assertion I would agree, if that includes rejecting what I called the "bad theology" of unexamined secularism in favor of, say, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, African religions, Chinese and Japanese religions or even, heaven forfend, Christianity. (I think she has been reading Stephen Prothero's God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World--and Why Their Differences Matterwhich I likewise recommend.)

Medieval universities were a model for exactly the kinds of arguments I say our students should be practicing, women, Jews, and homosexuals included. Not because I want students to be indoctrinated in Christian theology (or any other theology) without questioning, but precisely because I don't. I want them to learn to argue as the scholastics argued, by raising objections and marshaling their evidence. I want them to wrestle as the scholastics did throughout the thirteenth century with the introduction of Aristotle's natural philosophy and the Arabic commentators on his thought, with ideas that challenge the orthodoxies with which they have grown up, not simply reinforce them. I want them to know what it takes to counter real objections to their arguments, not simply tilt at straw men. I want, as Milo constantly says, for their opponents to bring their best arguments to the table so that they have to argue their best. And, yes, I want them to argue not just science and politics, but also religion, because religion matters. Attack, parry, riposte, my touch.

4. On the definition of religion. But to argue religion, we need to know what we are talking about, which involves another good medieval discipline: defining our terms. Here I acknowledge that I should perhaps have marked more clearly that, when I said students (and my colleagues) need practice arguing about religion, I did not mean only Christian theology. I did try to mark what I meant by listing the things that I say Milo challenges his audiences to think about: "the proper relations between women and men, the definition of community, the role of beauty, access to truth." It is true that Milo speaks more openly as a Catholic than I tend to in places other than my blog, but I specifically did not invoke the tenets of the Christian faith as elements of what I think "religion" means. "Religion," as I understand it, goes deeper than any particular confessional claims.

William Schweiker would insist that what Milo and I say about religion is "too simple." There is no such thing as "Christianity," but rather only "Christianities." There is no such thing as "religion," but rather only "religions."
It is not the case that "Christianity" is the root of "Western civilization," or that the defense of liberty was the concern of the medieval Church (recall the Inquisition!), or that the freedom to question "Christian" values is a mainstay of most "theologies" or even obviously Christian. The roots of the freedom of speech and conscience, as well as human equality, are more complex. Let's not replace one simple reading of history--the bland secularization theory that still holds the liberal academy in thrall--with an equally trite myth of decline where we supposedly race into decadence with the waning of the moral muscle of the (Catholic) Church. Scholarship and teaching demand that we articulate, analyze, interpret, and assess the full complexity of our lived reality.
I could not agree more. What puzzles me in this response is that it is attacking something I never said. I never said there is only one answer to the questions that Milo raises, only that the answer is religious, having to do with our deepest convictions about what it means to be human. That the answers are multiple--and contested--should go without saying. Of course they are--that is the reason we need to practice talking about them!

Crews insists that I am wrong to suggest that "religion is the 'wellspring' of culture." Religion, she says, "is culture naturalized as supernatural." It is "the structures, biases, prerogatives, and asymmetries of culture projected into and justified by a realm beyond the human." To which I say: Feuerbach. Attack, parry, riposte, my touch.

5. On our ability to question from within our faith. Continuing with Schweiker's critique, I most certainly did not say, as Schweiker implies, that "people of faith are better armed to wrestle with ultimate questions" because they are "less manacled by ideology." Everyone is manacled by ideology, we could not function otherwise. This is what makes arguing such fundamental convictions so frightening, and the challenge, I say, that Milo brings to college campuses. While other conservative speakers argue generally about freedom of speech and the articles of the Constitution, Milo raises questions that cut to the very core of who we are as individuals in society. That he does so through jokes and satire as well as through reasoned argument is one of the things that makes him all the more dangerous--and impossible to ignore.

Of course he does it to get attention! That's the first rule of rhetoric: capture your audience's attention. And of course he is offensive. He is talking about things that are more or less guaranteed to offend. Plus, he's not the only one to make the arguments that he has, and with which I have agreed. If you don't like Milo or Fulton Brown, how about a bit of Camille Paglia to add to the mix?* Milo says: "Feminism is cancer." Paglia says: "Women's studies is institutionalized sexism." Milo says: "The campus rape culture is a myth." Paglia says: "Rape is an outrage that cannot be tolerated in civilized society. Yet feminism, which has waged a crusade for rape to be taken more seriously, has put women in danger by hiding the truth about sex from them.... The date-rape controversy shows feminism hitting the wall of its own broken promises.... The only solution to date rape is female self-awareness and self-control."

Young women have been made to feel afraid of the very men who would protect them, while refusing to take responsibility for the bad choices that they make. These are not words that are easy to hear, when they go against everything that the adults have been telling you for years. More Paglia:
The idea that feminism is the first group that ever denounced rape is a gross libel to men. Throughout history, rape has been condemned by honorable men. Honorable men do not murder; honorable men do not steal; honorable men do not rape...  Men have also protected women. Men have given women sustenance. Men have provided for women. Men have died to defend the country for women. 
Which is pretty much what I was trying to say last winter in my blog posts about chivalry. For which, as longtime readers of my blog will know, I was likewise roundly condemned. This is what I meant in the Sightings article when I said students' minds were being filled with bad theology. Where I was wrong was in suggesting that universities are institutionally structured so as to encourage such debate. They aren't. They are places where we come to learn how to defend the prevailing orthodoxy, whether we label it "religious" or not. Attack lands, touch against me.

6. On being nice. My former student Miles Hopgood is not pleased with me. "We seem," he says, "still to share much in common," but otherwise he can no longer see in my admiration for Milo "the professor I knew and respected." I seem, he says, to be suggesting that simply because Milo offends, "he is right, and that because he upsets, his claims are true." Further, Hopgood insists, I am wrong to suggest that Christians are not welcome in the academy. "In my seven years at the University of Chicago," he recounts, "never was I attacked, maligned, shunned, sneered at, or in any way maltreated for my faith.... To suggest that there is within American academia anything approaching a systematic animus toward Christianity or religious conviction in general is not to tell the truth. Rather, it is to repeat a shameful lie that serves the only agenda Yiannopoulos knows: to anger and divide. I cannot," he concludes, with some pain, "fathom why you repeat it."

But Hopgood is not finished. I must be further chastised for misrepresenting our shared faith:
In your piece you regard Yiannopoulos as a proponent of Christian values and a defender of the many contributions our faith has made to the world. You have even gone so far as to compare him to Christ.... Ask yourself: does Yiannopoulos speak or act like one who has tasted the living water which quenches all thirst (John 4:14)? Does he live a life marked by gentleness and bound by the love of Christ (Ephesians 4)? Certainly he does not, and this should be for us the sign that his attachment to our faith is not a love for the way of our Christ but merely a lust for a jeweled raiment to clothe the fictitious Western identity he peddles. What he offers the world is not a knowledge of Christ, for he does nothing to knit us together in love (Colossians 2:2).
More quotations from Scripture follow, but you get the gist: Milo cannot be doing what he does out of love or knowledge of Christ because Milo is not nice. I am reminded of C.S. Lewis's essay The Abolition of Man (1943), where he talks about the way in which modern education is producing "men without chests," men without hearts or the willingness to fight.

Paglia observed a similar loss of function some fifty years later, with the generation of those who by most conservative accounts ought to have been the most radical. Here I stand corrected for my optimism about the university as a place where we might have the difficult conversations, as well as my previous conviction that I am surrounded by activist radicals. I'm not. I'm surrounded by niceness.
There is [Paglia commented in the Times Literary Supplement in 1992] a widespread notion that [the current inhabitants of academia] are dangerous leftists, "tenured radicals" in Roger Kimball's phrase, who have invaded the American establishment with subversive ideas. In fact, they are not radicals at all. Authentic leftism is nowhere to be seen in our major universities. The multiculturalists and the politically correct on the subjects of race, class, and gender actually represent a continuation of the genteel tradition of respectability and conformity. They have institutionalized American niceness, which seeks, above all, not to offend and must therefore pretend not to notice any differences or distinctions among people or cultures.
To paraphrase Lewis, Milo, like Aslan, is not a tame lion. Nor am I a tame Bear. We follow Our Lord, who, contrary to popular children's Bible representations, was himself something of a trollAttack no, counterattack lands, my touch.

7. On Christianity in the academy. I am of course happy to hear that Hopgood has never felt ostracized in quite the way I have for having faith in Christ. Other colleagues over the course of the past several weeks have tried to convince me that they, too, have had no difficulties talking about or teaching religion. Except, when I press them, it is clear that they do not mean quite what I mean when I talk about modeling what it means to have faith. Yes, they talk about religion and ethics and difficult questions in their classrooms. But what they model is secular humanist objectivity.

In Crews's words: "Fulton Brown's major critique of American higher education is that it 'lacks any clearly articulated and tested faith.' She is wrong. Our faith is in the fundamental commitment to the rights of any person, regardless of perspective, to enter into principled, disciplined debate, and advance an argument supported by credible evidence." Schweiker would concur: "[If] one wants free and critical discourse among people treated with equal respect, where students engage fundamental convictions, then the model of the classroom must be Socratic debate, not Sophistic advocacy.... The power differential in classrooms means that too often students will follow the leader. That is what enslaves minds. Here, too, religious studies and modern theology can help lead. Those in my guild have worked exceedingly hard to differentiate confessions of faith from the work of pedagogy."

Again, I think of something C.S. Lewis said, about how helpful it would be to have a real, live Christian at one's elbow while reading Milton's Paradise Lost.
We must...turn a deaf ear to Professor Saurat when he invites us "to study what there is of lasting originality in Milton's thought and especially to disentangle from theological rubbish the permanent and human interest." This is like asking us to study Hamlet after the "rubbish" of the revenge code has been removed, or centipedes when free of their irrelevant legs, or Gothic arches without the pointed arches. Milton's thought, when purged of its theology, does not exist. Our plan must be very different--to plunge right into the "rubbish," to see the world as if we believed it, and then, while we still hold that position in our imagination, to see what sort of a poem results.
In order to take no unfair advantage I should warn the reader I myself am a Christian, and that some (by no means all) of the things which the atheist reader must "try to feel as if he believed" I actually, in cold prose, do believe. But for the student of Milton my Christianity is an advantage. What would you not give to have a real, live Epicurean at your elbow while reading Lucretius?
This is what I try to offer my students when the texts we are reading or the themes we are discussing depend on Christian faith. Not to indoctrinate them, but to stimulate their imagination to wonder what it would be like to read Beowulf or Milton's Areopagitica or Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings as if they were, like Lewis or myself, believing Christians. How would that change what they were able to see?

I would do the same if we were reading texts from other traditions which make different assumptions about what it means to worship or pray or make objects of beauty for the purpose of praise. What would it be like to read as a Buddhist or a Hindu? A Muslim or a Jew? An Orthodox Christian or a Protestant? The exercise of imagination is necessary in every case, including when one returns to the perspective from which one began. What is it like reading as a third-wave feminist or a secular humanist after trying to read as a medieval Christian?

This exercise can be challenging--and not a little dangerous. It is what I meant when I said in the Sightings piece that Milo's speaking carries with it "the possibility of conversion, of changing hearts and minds." Not because he speaks, as my academic colleagues wish he would, as they do, with properly referenced sources (he does give references in his published writings) or without emotional appeal. But because he speaks as a believing Christian in a context in which it is rare to hear this kind of speech.

He offends precisely because he does not place the brackets around his claims that academics require ourselves to use.

He offends because he speaks his opinions on matters of faith.

He offends because, for the sake of the Truth, he refuses to be nice.

Attack, parry, riposte, my touch. 

Final score: 5-1, my bout.

*Camille Paglia, Free Woman, Free Men: Sex, Gender, Feminism (New York: Pantheon Books, 2017), conveniently released just this week.

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