Stopping The Cancellation Of Western Civilisation

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24 March 2023
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On 24 March, IPA Senior Fellow John Roskam meets with Marie Kawthar Douda, a lecturer at the Oriel College at Oxford University. They discuss how the study of western classics is being undermined in English-speaking countries. Marie, who is of Moroccon descent, emphasises that Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Odyssey should be studied and understood because they are powerful works of art which help us understand the human condition, not merely deconstructed to suit the vanities of academics.

IPA Encounters is held live over Zoom, and IPA members join the discussion live. You can become an IPA member here.

Below is a transcript of the interview.

John Roskam:

Welcome to this edition of IPA Encounters. My name is John Roskam. I am a senior fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs. Today, I’m speaking with Dr. Marie Kawthar Daouda on the topic, Stopping the Cancellation of Western Civilization. I’m speaking to you from the Baillieu Myer Studio in the IPA offices in Melbourne. And Dr. Daouda is with us from Oxford. Many IPA members have sent in a range of wonderful questions. We’re not going to be able to get to them all in the hour that we have, but I hope to get to many of them.

Now, let me introduce our guest for this episode, Dr. Daouda. She’s an author and lecturer in French language and literature at Oriel College at Oxford University. One of her academic research areas is 19th century French and English literature, and in particular artistic representations in literature, music, and art of good and evil, in times of turmoil. She has a forthcoming book, Blessings and Curses: Desperate Prayer in French Literature from Baudelaire to Bernanos. She’s also worked as a school teacher and enjoys translating.

She’s currently working on an English to French translation of Marie Corelli’s, Victorian Gothic bestseller, The Sorrows of Satan. Dr. Daouda also plays the bass guitar and was a member of the first female metal band in Africa playing covers of Nirvana, Metallica, and The Cure. The particular reason that I’m speaking with Dr. Daouda today is that in recent years, she has become one of the highest profile and most eloquent defenders of Western civilization in the English-speaking world. She’s a member of the editorial advisory committee of History Reclaimed in the UK. History Reclaimed is a wonderful organization founded by a good friend of the IPA, Dr. Robert Tombs.

It is a network of academics and writers from around the world, including the IPA’s own Dr. Bella d’Abrera, our director of the Foundations of Western Civilization Program. The mission of History Reclaimed is to communicate that history requires careful thought and interpretation and should not be a vehicle for proper gander. Some of Dr. Daouda’s writing for History Reclaimed and other organizations and publications include works such as Shakespeare rises above the shabby attempts to cancel him, Studying Latin and Greek is an antidote to shallow woke ideology, which we’ll be talking about. And the Woke war on our classical past is as lazy as it is wrong-headed.

Last year, Dr. Daouda delivered a brilliant lecture at Ralston College whose chancellor is Jordan Peterson on Baudelaire and the Creation of the Poetic Self. It is a two-hour tour de force available to watch on YouTube. It is magnificent. Marie, welcome to IPA Encounters. Thank you for being with us.

Marie Kawthar Daouda:

Hello, John. Thank you so much for having me.

John Roskam:

Can I take you back to your background growing up in Morocco in a Muslim family speaking French and Arabic originally and then moving to France to study? When was it that you began to understand and appreciate Western civilization as you now describe it?

Marie Kawthar Daouda:

I’d say I never appreciate it as being the Western civilization and separate from the space, the cultural space I grew up in. It was just that in my family one enjoyed French songs just as well as Egyptian songs, Moroccan songs. I started reading novels in French quite early on, but I was also reading in Arabic. So in a way I grew up appreciating both, and I feel it’s an incredible blessing to be able to benefit from this best of both world situation.

I would say I started realizing how important it was when I saw people who, well, were born and raised in what we would call the West discarding the very things that I as a North African thought were absolutely amazing. So I found myself in that paradoxical situation of having a very different background, but still appreciating European culture for reasons that have nothing to do with white supremacy, that have nothing to do with any sort of cultural hegemony, but just because there is a lot of beauty in it and that it is worthy of being transmitted and shared and enjoyed.

So we hear a lot nowadays about the benefits of being open to other cultures and all of that is very good, but why would one be open to other cultures but discard European culture and not give it as much value as cultures from other geographical spaces?

So when I noticed this, I decided it was worth, well, taking the pen or putting hand to keyboard, and writing a little about it and putting a bit of commitment, trying to preserve the things that made me the person I am.

John Roskam:

What has been the reaction in academic circles in the college and the university to you standing up and being counted and being so eloquent in talking about history and our past?

Marie Kawthar Daouda:

I’d say it all goes back to Rhodes statue, doesn’t it? Because I wouldn’t have stood publicly for all these questions had I not found myself in the Oxford College that happens to have a four-foot tall statue of Cecil Rhodes. And as you know, there’s been a huge polemic around this.

John Roskam:

Can you talk a little bit about the background and what happened in the controversy?

Marie Kawthar Daouda:

Yes, absolutely. So Oriel benefited from a donation from Cecil Rhodes that saved the college from bankruptcy in the early 20th century. And it has been transformative for the college in so far as it… Well, first it saved from bankruptcy, but also allowed for the funding of a new building, which now well has that statue of Cecil Rhodes. Rhodes never wanted to have his statue there. And there’s something a bit quirky about that whole facade because you have Rhodes in his early 20th century costume just looking quite casual with his bowler hat and underneath him you’d have kings and dignitaries of the kingdom.

It’s just very paradoxical to have this sort of triumph of the modern man. And this statue has been targeted well, mainly after the Rhodes Must Fall events in South Africa. But it rippled and shook Oxford too in 2015, 2016, and then in, well, with what happened after the death of George Floyd, it was linked to the Black Lives Matter Movement. Rhodes Must Fall was rekindled in a sort of more online web oriented activity, but also in life protests.

The idea was that, well, the statue of Cecil Rhodes makes people, especially ethnic minority students in Oxford feel unsafe. The only way the statue could harm you is either if it falls on your or if you hurt yourself, cramming your neck trying to look at it. Many people didn’t even know about the existence of this statue.

So in a way, it’s really a case of much to do about nothing, but it put the academic community in this situation of having to say, “Well, what do we do with these traces of a past that does not quite match what we hold on nowadays? Because as you know, Rhodes made a lot of his money exploiting the mines in South Africa.

So this has been linked to the war with the [inaudible] tribes. There’s a very complicated geopolitical background at stake, but the question that we had to face is, is this statue compatible with what we hold on to now? And it’s a bit of a… Well, an awkward way of phrasing it because it led to a controversy that ended up being more tense and difficult than it could have then been. And people had to, in a way, take position either for or against Rhodes, while the matter wasn’t so much Rhodes as a statue that is part of an architectural setting and that is entirely, well, linked to the history of the college.

Some colleagues at the modern languages faculty decided to boycott Oriel and not to teach any of our students as long as the statue would stand. So in a way, the undergraduates and graduates of Oriel were held hostages in this polemic situation, which is very unfair to them.

So that’s how it unfolded. But thankfully, I had amazing colleagues with whom I could disagree in an amiable way, colleagues who said, “Well, I know your positions, you know mine, but there is absolutely no reason why I would withdraw my teaching from your students.” So thankfully there are that many people of goodwill who understand that these are complicated questions, that it is possible to debate and argue around it, but that it shouldn’t impact the life of the students.

But now the question that is raised is whether… Well, we’d go back to that question of whether or not the statue is compatible with the present situation in Oxford as an extremely multicultural, diverse intellectual community. I would go back to the problem of why would it be specifically hurtful for people from ethnic minorities seeing a statue that is linked to the Victorian and Edwardian imperial past?

Does it suppose that people from ethnic minorities are not capable of taking a step back and thinking, well, this is the past of this country, but it has an amazing thing so far, and we’ve gone quite a long way since then and just move on and disapprove of Rhodes, disagree with him, but acknowledge that this statue is one of the many amazing artifacts around Britain that allows us to have a direct connection with the past to understand first how the Edwardian celebrated people who were benefactors, but also to understand how far we’ve come and that there is nothing wrong with having had a complicated past. All of the countries nowadays, if you look into the details, have a very tense and complicated past.

John Roskam:

And we are going through exactly the same debate here in this country in Australia. The Rhodes statue controversy highlighted a number of issues that you’ve touched upon. It led to statue toppling around many countries in the West. It led to a debate about the decolonizing of the curriculum. What do you think the debate about the statue represented about ourselves and about history and our understanding of history?

Marie Kawthar Daouda:

Well, when you look at statues, they’re extremely symbolically loaded objects. That’s why in many cultures, there’s a prohibition on images and icons or anything that can be figurative. So nowadays, while we claim to be in this hyper-rational civilization where everything can be debated and we have to use our reason, all of a sudden statues took their meaning, again, which is quite a fascinating situation.

So if you look at the statue craze in the Victorian era, that is when, for instance, the statue of Colston was erected. The statue of Colston was not meant to glorify him as a slave trader, it was meant to glorify him as the benefactor of the City of Bristol. And what the Victorians did by erecting the statue was saying, “We value the fact of being a benefactor and we want to be seen ourselves as philanthropists and benefactors.” So just as nowadays, we erect statues of Greta Thunberg to say, “We care for the environment.”

We are good people. The Victorians said, “Well, we have this statue of a benefactor. We are good people.” So there’s that claim of identifying oneself with the statue and whatever you put in the public space. Another question is, can we acknowledge the fact that good people can have done terrible things as well? And that’s one of the complexities of the question that is rarely assessed that you can be a slave trader and also save many young boys from poverty by providing them with shelter, food, and education.

It’s not incompatible because human beings are complicated. So the way we look at these questions now projects back onto the past, what we know and understand and also what we consider as good and highly valuable. It’s something that we have to acknowledge when we think, for instance, of what people will think of us in a hundred years from now.

I think all of this chaos about toppling statues would seem just as a bit awkward and cringe-worthy as during the reformation when all of these beautiful statues and Catholic monasteries were destroyed. History changes and evolves and when we want to be on the right side of history, we might end up being seen as on the very wrong side of history by the future generations. So it’s better to be very careful with these matters and not try to make progress happen in a way.

It will happen, but organically, if let’s say in 50 years from now there is a solid reason for replacing these statues or someone has done something amazing and is worthy of celebration, there’s nothing wrong with putting up new statues. But we can’t do that in the heat of the moment. After so much mob pressure and within such a tense political context. Things need time to happen.

John Roskam:

You in an interview with Julian Reed last month made a point also based on your background as a school teacher for a little while, that young people are now so self-obsessed and so focused on the current that anything that conflicts with their own self-images is damaging. And you made a fascinating point that in this world of hyperrealism, we are affected by our emotions and affected by simply the site of something in concrete. How do you reconcile our hyperrealism, our hyper-rationality, our supposed focus on facts and data and evidence with the fact that simply looking at something can make us upset and is hurtful and we need to have it removed?

Marie Kawthar Daouda:

Well, I think there’s been a very serious issue of hypercorrection in considering how the surroundings can affect individuals and especially young people. So one of the things that has been noticed now statistically is that teenagers are much more susceptible of talking about mental health issues. One of the reasons for this, and this is very good, is that the taboo around mental health is gradually subsiding. It is now possible to address these questions in an honest, clear way.

The trouble is that teenagers want to be seen, they want to be special. And we’ve built around them this narrative where the only way in which you can be seen and valued and special is if you are feeling bad. And you see how wrong this goes because some tiny thing that they could have just well applied a sort of keep calm and carry on mentality to it, now they have to build their personality around it because they expect to get social validation from it.

So instead of being forced into locking up all of their feelings and pretending that everything goes right when everything goes wrong, now we’ve told them, I will only be looking at you if you file me a mental health as assessment document where I can see that in fact you’re unwell and then you’ll be special and like, “I’ll look at you and I’ll talk to you,” which is incredibly damaging.

So I’m sure there is an in between position where it is possible to provide support and help and mental health while still telling young people that they are the captains of their own lives, that there are lots of things that they in fact do have control on. And comparing the amount of support… I wouldn’t say coddling, but almost that they receive nowadays in the top institutions and well-

John Roskam:

So are institutions then able to be sustained and their mission continued if their mission is to challenge to provoke learning, knowledge, reactions. How do universities continue to exist if students can’t cope with what universities have done for hundreds of years which is an essential part of growing up?

Marie Kawthar Daouda:

Well, so far, universities were places for learning, for transmitting knowledge and for valuing intellectual effort. Now, they have become safe spaces where care is the most important part and that explains that we’d take off To Kill a Mockingbird from the curriculum. We’ll take off Sulzer from the curriculum because, well [inaudible]

John Roskam:

Enid Blyton will now be censored. George Orwell will be censored. We’ll do all manner of other things as well.

Marie Kawthar Daouda:

Yes. And all of that with the argument that, well, this might upset the students. Well, if this upsets them, there are many more things that are more upsetting in the world out there than what Sulzer joked about or the racist insults in To Kill a Mockingbird. Not to say that these things aren’t, well, disconcerting, but it’s entirely part of these works of arts to have these elements that are unsettling. Now, the trouble is that intellectually there has been a trend in academia lately, which is the, well, something, something studies.

So instead of doing literature, you do gender studies, Black studies, this or that studies, which implies that instead of preceding a work in its entirety from a literary perspective, from a cultural perspective, you get down on your knees trying to look at it with a microscope trying to find why this work of art is offensive. So that’s a very different mentality from, “Well, I’m going to look at it and if there is something offensive I can mention it, but this won’t be the point of my study.”

So the universities have ended up valuing the deconstruction of what we used to hold onto as valuable, enjoyable, and beautiful as more important than the inquiry and the transmission that they were supposed to hold onto.

John Roskam:

Can I talk to you about that? So a great Australian artist who say is no longer with us, Bill Leek said that, “We have lost the idea of the sublime.” And you mentioned the study of beauty. Why has this happened and what are the consequences of that? We seem not to be able to appreciate art of literature and musical fine arts for what it is now other than what it represents and the ideology that created it. How have we come to this space?

Marie Kawthar Daouda:

Well, that’s a very interesting point, and I would look back at the distinction that Kant poses between the beautiful and the sublime. The beautiful is what gives us a sense of fulfillment and harmony. It echoes to our reason, so when you look for instance at a tree or a classical building, there is some sort of… Well, if you look intently at the tree, you’ll see a sort of perfect balance that it cannot grow if it doesn’t have some sort of inner harmony. And that’s what classical architecture tried to do, just having something balanced that you can look at and it would mirror your reason.

Aristotle explains it by the fact that, well, rationality is written in our bodies. We’d see our limbs. There’s some sort of parallelism going in. There are numbers written in our body parts. We count numbers on the way we are made as human beings.

And opposite to this, there is the sublime. The sublime is when you are standing on a cliff in front of the ocean and the waves are going back and forth, splashing you with foam and everything is out of control. It’s very different from a sort of perfect, balance, harmonious beauty. We have indeed lost the feeling of both. We have lost the appreciation of what brings us harmony by the construction of serenity, harmonious colors, harmonious shapes, and we have lost the sense of awe in front of what we cannot control.

In fact, a lot of what we see in art and literature about the problem of evil is linked to the sublime. If you look at Shakespeare, when you have these unleashed feelings of jealousy or if you look at the unfairness in King Lear, all of that is meant to grip you at the guts because it is simultaneously something that all of us can relate to, but also something that is beyond the limits.

But in the way Shakespeare writes it, for instance, in King Lear, you have Cordelia. There is always this idea that one of the characters, a tiny little glimpse in that work of art, will make you trust in the fact that always going to end well in spite of all this apparent chaos of the situation. And that’s the sort of thin end of the sublime. When you acknowledge that with this chaotic imbalance and back and forth between good and evil, there is still some sort of order that you can’t see, but it’s still there. And we’ve lost that sense.

I think a lot of the feeling over the turmoil, the urgency that we have around that we’ve had around COVID, that we’ve had around climate change that we have about decolonizing the curriculum, is that we want to hold on to things and shape them in a way that makes us feel safe. So we’ve lost the sense that there are things that we can’t control and that we’ll just have to let go and try to get through it and in the end it will all end well, after all.

John Roskam:

Is what you are describing a symptom of modernity? Is it an inevitable consequence of change or is it because we have taken our heritage and what you’ve described for granted? What has brought some of this about, do you think?

Marie Kawthar Daouda:

Well, I think a lot of this has been brought about first by intellectual comfort. Well, in Europe, in the United States, in Australia, it is normal not to be racist. It’s when you are a racist that you are an evil person. And it’s fully acknowledged. So in a way, we’ve gone so far that we still need to find something to do to prove to ourself that we are good people.

So Douglas Murray describes it as the syndrome of St. George in Retirement. There are no more dragons, but we have to find another one. In fact, it would be perhaps more accurate to describe it as Don Quixote syndrome of taking windmills for giants. And when everything is quiet and a bit dull in your life, you still need to find something to fight about.

So many people have commented on the current situation as a crisis of meaning. There is a lot in that insofar as the challenges that we have to face nowadays are absolutely not as big as the challenges we were facing 100 ago. We are facing different challenges, new challenges, but in fact, instead of looking at these in the face, we rekindle the all challenges of the past that we have already done so much about because we know that they are easy leverage points.

John Roskam:

You spoke about your colleagues in academia. One of the questions that many IPA members have asked me is, “Why aren’t there more Marie’s? Why aren’t there more Robert Tomb’s? Where is academia? Where are universities speaking about these things?” History Reclaimed is a very powerful and important organization. Why aren’t there hundreds of History Reclaimed organizations talking and fighting for exactly the things you’ve just outlined?” What makes you so brave?

Marie Kawthar Daouda:

Well, I don’t think I’m particularly brave. I think I have African woman immunity, which is an interesting paradoxical turning up over all these talks about privilege and so on and so forth. I happen to have the privilege of my skin color, of my origins, of my intellectual background that allows me to say things that sadly enough, the average white man in the UK cannot say. So this being said, aside from the idea of well feeling of the fear of a backlash, it’s also… A lot of this conversation has now moved online and people are terrified of being… Well, having to go through a Twitter pile-on.

These can be rather nasty, and it’s perfectly understandable. So the trouble is that nowadays things that used to be, well, confined to individual conversations, one-to-one or small group talks are all put out on the public sphere. And if you say something, everyone can access it online. You cannot tweet about something without it being recorded for Twitter eternity. And that’s something that can lead to, well, some random news instead of person to reply something very harsh, and then it creates a snowball effect of going on and on.

People don’t want that. The reason for that is that we tend to fear the virtual space as though it were the real space. If there is a mob yelling at you on Twitter, these are not people who are knocking at your door to scream these things at you. There is a margin between the two. Many people who have taken position, let’s say against transactivism have suffered from death threats and things like that. So it can escalate and it is understandable that some people would be afraid or would just not want the [inaudible]

John Roskam:

How do you deal with what’s been said about you, with what’s been said about supporters of Rhodes statue, for example, with what’s been said about supporters of the concept of Western civilization? Again, that’s one of the things that I ask guests on IPA encounters, how do they manage with the opprobrium and other things that sometimes comes towards them?

Marie Kawthar Daouda:

I turn off Twitter. It’s incredibly relieving. I just turned it off and that’s it. Well, I thankfully didn’t get that much backlash. The mean things that I’ve heard or read mainly came from the liberal left. So there’s that paradox that Kim Balanoff also said that any racist insults she ever had only came from the liberal left. So it’s this idea that, well, if you’re a person from an ethnic minority, please stay in your space. You stay where you belong and wise white people will tell you what you should think or say. So it’s a bit of a paradoxical situation when everything is about empowerment.

I often say that to be empowered is still a passive objective. You have to look back at the person who empowered you, and that person who gave you power is just as well capable of taking it back from you. So many lobbies advocate this idea of, well, no, you have to be black and proud and all that, anti-racist, et cetera, et cetera. But you have to tow the line. And if you don’t, then on with the Twitter insults.

John Roskam:

Can I ask you something again that many members are very curious about? So French intellectuals going back to Rousseau then the 20th century by many blamed for the scourge of postmodernism and its variance and it’s given us this ideology that we’re now discussing. But the paradox seems to be that in France where so much of this came from, there seems to be a better understanding of the past and a defense of the past by politicians in a way, there isn’t in the English-speaking world. Can you guide us through why that may be?

Marie Kawthar Daouda:

I’d probably go back to a very blatant cliches about the difference in nations. The French are often angry and won’t hesitate to let you know they’re angry. It’s not something we do on this island. So I’d say there’s a stronger culture of dissent in France of just saying that you disagree with things just because you disagree. For better or for worse, sometimes the matters of disagreements are quite fickle and volatile, and sometimes they’re very serious.

So when it comes to the appreciation of the cause, I’d say, well, also still has a very strong influence in France. France pretends it has been born in 1789, which is yet another problem. So while Britain has a longstanding history of, well, going through crisis, powering through, fixing the broken pot, carrying on, having this sort of well patched-up identity, France has this delusion that, “No, we only began in 1789 and everyone is equal and everything is perfect.”

So the trouble is that some of the French thinkers of the 1960s, ’70s were translated into English, they were read by people who did not know much about the background or did not know much about how much of… Well, this was a sort of intellectual experiment. So when you look at-

John Roskam:

You mean the English-speaking world took the French philosophers seriously?

Marie Kawthar Daouda:

Yes. While the French never take themselves seriously. So of course people like Sartre or Foucault had a political agenda. They had a very clear objective. So they knew that deconstruction was meant to lead to a better future where people will be equal, free and everything would be perfect. Yes, they also knew that it came at a cost and it was more of a matter of, “Well, I wrote about it in a book.” And the way it has formed the intellectual trends in the United States is a bit surprising because Foucault have been the first one to disown the people who are turning his philosophy into a new dogma.

These were people who rejected any kind of dogmas, and now people are being just as dogmatic about deconstruction without taking into account the fact that deconstruction itself can be deconstructed. And Foucault did it all the time. And [inaudible] too is a fascinating writer when it comes to questioning how much we can grasp of reality and how much, in fact, we write around an emptiness. And it’s something that a philosopher should always bear in mind just out of humility to remember that there is more in the world that can be written of in your philosophy.

John Roskam:

Can I now turn to questions that have been sent by IPA members? And this is one of my very favorite questions to you, Marie. “As a grandmother of eight grandchildren, how can I, in practical terms, encourage a respect for our heritage among my grandchildren?” And before I ask you to unpack that, I have referred to the wonderful interview you gave last month where you talked about reading CS Lewis and Tolkien. So I’m going to suggest that perhaps you might suggest that anyone begin understanding Western civilization by reading Narnia and Lord of the Rings.

Marie Kawthar Daouda:

Yes, absolutely. So I have the immense luck of having read Narnia and the Lord of the Rings as an adult. So I got the cheat code in a way. I knew how much, well, how important these books were because I knew what tradition they took place in. So in a way, you can’t really understand the Lord of the Rings without having Tolkien’s background as a medievalist, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy it. And even though you won’t understand all of it when you are 10 or 12 or 13 or 14, these are books that one can read again and enjoy again.

So to go back to this grandmother’s question, first, it’s wonderful that she’s thinking about this. It’s just great because the impulse of transmission is a key factor in all of this. I think one some of my dearest memories are thinking of my grandmother reading fairy tales with me and also learning how to knit with her.

So it’s just these tiny little things that people would remember much later in life when they’re adults, when they have their own children, and they would think, “Oh, I learned it from my grandmother.” We shouldn’t think of transmission and heritages sort of abstraction, something floating up in the air. It’s what we do all the time whenever we are enthusiastic about something and we want to share it.

So yes, read Narnia and read the Lord of the Rings. Well, probably The Hobbit with young children, but showing to them how much you enjoy it, not telling them that you have to read it because it’s part of the Western cannon. But well, let’s read it together because you are going to see how amazing it is.

John Roskam:

Do you think we do too much… Sorry to interrupt, we do too much of that? Read Dickens because read Shakespeare, because read Fitzgerald, because it’s part of the Western civilization? Have we lost in the attempt to defend Western civilization? Have we lost a little bit of that joy and a little bit of that beauty and a little bit of the sublime that makes these works of art so great?

Marie Kawthar Daouda:

I think it changes everything when the reader knows that someone else has enjoyed this book, that it’s not just something that has to be done as a chore in order to be a proper westerner, but that many people for decades, perhaps for centuries in some cases, have enjoyed this text. And perhaps you too will find something that resonates with you in particular, but also allows you to understand something about our shared past as a humanity.

It clicks much better when there is someone just saying this very simply that, “Well, I enjoyed this because I found this and that passage very moving. What did you think of it?” So just creating this connection, this conversation makes it so much more meaningful than, oh, there’s a book taking the dust on the shelf, and you should read it because you have to, or because your school teacher told you to.

When you read about Michaela, you might think, “Oh, this is a dreadful school where children are beaten into being polite and learning their lessons and doing their homework.” In fact, there’s so much joy in this school, and I think it always all goes back to this idea of sharing and transmitting. Because I was talking about that lunch experience. I sat down with these kids between 11 and 13, and what we had to discuss was two plays of Shakespeare where we were to discuss Julius Caesar and Romeo and Juliet.

Some of them had read birthplace, some of them had only read one. And the question was, which of these characters do do you find admirable and which of these characters could you see as a model? And it was just great to see these young kids being able to have an elaborate constructed conversation about these matters because there was a real enjoyment.

So this cannot come out of the blue. This happens because they have extremely dedicated teachers who show them that this is not only desirable, but something that you can enjoy regardless of your age, regardless of your background. So supposing that someone whose parents have well arrived in England a few years ago barely speaks English and all that will be locked up into that same situation of being unable to relate to English culture is extremely offensive and extremely racist.

And Katharine Birbalsingh sets a high standard for her students and does not take ethnicity as an excuse. I think in many instances we are leaning towards that sort of leniency that just ends up being so dismissive, “Oh no, he didn’t do his homework because his parents are not English and therefore are not able of providing the proper support and care and all of that.”

Symmetrically, I’ve seen that dreadful article about the fact that if you read stories to your children before bedtime, you might be giving them unfair privilege. So what are parents supposed to do? It must be so complicated when you have on the one side people telling you, “Oh, well, you can’t get out of your box because of your ethnicity, and you always be in the underprivileged category because you can’t reach Shakespeare because you don’t have the right skin color.”

And on the other end, “Well, I’m sorry you can’t do that with your child because it’s unfair. It makes that child privileged over the people who can’t read Shakespeare because of their skin color.” So you see how it lowers the expectations for everyone. And the question is, well, who benefits from this? And it’s the grownups. It’s the adults in the room who get their moment of personal joy. I don’t know how to qualify it, of just having that sense of having been the good person.

They have let go of their expectations towards the ethnic minority kid. They have told the white parent not to give a child any unfair advantage. So they’ve done their job. They’ve kept everyone equal. But at what level? What are we transmitting? What do we want the next generation to know and to understand if we give them so little factual knowledge and so little direct contact with works of art.

John Roskam:

And you’ve spoken very powerfully about, for example, access to Shakespeare being available to all children regardless of their background, regardless of their economic circumstances. Is it something, and others have spoken about this, is it white guilt that puts children into boxes and says to some of them, “Well, you can have Shakespeare, but you can only have a comic book or you can only have daytime TV.”

Marie Kawthar Daouda:

Well, there is a lot of white guilt, but the paradox in this is that you end up having an extremely segregated society and even an extremely segregated civic space. In France, for instance, I know of many North African families who move out to another district or area so that they could put their child in a school where there aren’t too many immigrants. So you see the paradox of, “Oh no, we’re going to make it easier so that immigrant children can learn the same thing as the others.” But in fact, no. Well, parents usually have very high expectations for their kids.

So the trouble is that we consider that culture is a block that you cannot shape or mold, that you are born with this hardware function of, “Well, you are a North African woman, so you will only be reading things that are written by North Africans because that’s your background. That’s something that you can understand.”

John Roskam:

Sorry, go on.

Marie Kawthar Daouda:

So the amount of white guilt there in a way is directly linked to the way 18th century people. The starting point of imperial colonization looked at these foreign cultures as noble savages. Oh, they can’t read or speak, but look, they have a wonderful understanding of nature. We’re duplicating this right now by giving well, a sort of almost mystical value to anything that is not white, and at the same time, disregarding reason, intellect, culture as being typically white, and therefore just locking up anyone who’s not white in that type of a person who has a direct connection with nature, but can’t read books.

John Roskam:

And speaking about that and European background in a wonderful piece you wrote, Studying Latin Greek is an antidote to shallow woke ideology. I want to just read out a few lines and ask you for your comments because I think what you’ve written is very powerful. “The French Minister for Education has announced a European plan for the teaching of Greek and Latin. He sees this project as a response to the abysmal absurdity of woke ideology while Canadian students burn the Odyssey because it allegedly promotes slavery and universities decolonize classics. This project aims to unite Europe around a shared cultural identity.”

But then you go on, “Yet the classics are not about Europe. Neither are Greek and Latin limited to the transmission of white Western male ideology. Classics are not a distant point in the past, but a world we still navigate.” And you say, “Decolonizing is gatekeeping in disguise.” What do you mean by that?

Marie Kawthar Daouda:

What I mean by that is that the same people who tell you, “Oh no, it’s all right. You can read classics without doing any Greek or Latin,” are usually very good at Greek and Latin themselves. So it comes from a point of privilege to recite that language. They can afford to say so yet again because it gives them nice people points. It’s, “Oh no, I’m making my degree inclusive.” I think it should be in the University of Pennsylvania and where else? Probably in Princeton. You can now have a degree in classics without having any contact with the original language.

There are other ways of making classics accessible. For instance, by offering entry level courses with an initiation for one year and then, well, after a year, in fact, it’s not that difficult to be able to at least read your Latin text, read your Greek text. If a student really wants to do it a year reading the language is not wasted time. And the trouble is that it gives a completely biased perspective on the text because… Well, I’m a translator. I know how much you have to drop on the way as you translate. You are expected to make a choice in meaning when you have something ambiguous.

A lot of the beauty in Latin language because of its grammatical structure is its density is the way you can have so many different ideas expressed in so little words. But when you have to translate it, you make a choice. It’s very easy to lose a lot in translation. And the people who decolonize classics are usually very good at reading their texts in the original. They know all about that and they say, “Well, no, we’re going to make our degree more accessible because-“

John Roskam:

And does that apply the same to perhaps English literature or the literatures to history? Those who want to decolonize the syllabus, who want to dumb it down are those who invariably know all about it, as you’ve been talking about King Lear, for example?

Marie Kawthar Daouda:

They know all about it and they underestimate the fact that Maya Angelou wouldn’t have happened if Shakespeare hadn’t happened. So what we can value and appreciate nowadays about black authors, ethnic minority authors is entirely rooted in the very things that they want to remove. These people didn’t become great writers out of the blue. Toni Morrison is extremely loud and well read. There’s something sadly misleading about saying that you can read 20th century literature without knowing at least, well, what happened in three, four, five centuries before. So that’s what we are depriving the students from when we tell them, “You can have degree in English or in classics while only focusing on translations or on the immediate literature that we don’t have much, well, hindsight on.”

John Roskam:

In the time that we have left, if I can go to some more questions, many questions about universities and tertiary education. One IPA member has asked me to ask you, can universities be saved?

Marie Kawthar Daouda:

I’d say depends on the universities. There are amazing initiatives that are now developing either in the US or in the UK to provide students with, “Well, would you leave it with actual teaching? With teaching that focuses on the content rather than on the narrative around the content?” So you would of course build your own ideas about this or that author this or that point of history, but you will have access to all the facts. And that’s part of the intellectual honesty that universities should hold onto.

So can universities be saved? I say yes. I’m in fact extremely optimistic when I see, well, how the conversations go with my students, and in fact, how eager they are to learn things. They don’t care that much would you believe it about the ideology? But they are fascinated with the theater of [inaudible] 17th century playwright or about the realism of Balzac or Stendhal. And what this shows us about the way we look at the world, the young people of today have the same intellectual curiosity as 50 years ago and perhaps even more.

John Roskam:

Do you think the reaction is coming? Do you think that young people are, and this is certainly my experience, young people are coming to understand what they are missing, and they are coming to understand that previous generations have an insight into our heritage and who we are in a way they don’t yet have and they want for themselves?

Marie Kawthar Daouda:

Well, I’d say not only young people, but less young people as well are rediscovering humanities. And perhaps one of the great positive points about the last decade is that the humanities are moving out of the university. The humanities in the university is when you want to say that Shakespeare was a racist and Homer was a lesbian. But when you want to really read the text, you do it most of the time on your own. And thankfully, we have lots of amazing online services, classes, people doing podcasts, people doing YouTube videos that actually provide classical education.

So there is a real yearning for just knowing about things because people know that we didn’t make ourselves, we didn’t just happen out of the blue, and that whatever we experienced nowadays takes place within historical continuum and they just want to understand about this. So during lockdowns, for instance, many people went back to reading long novels, Alexandre Dumas, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy because they never had the time to do so before. And this gives me a lot of hope that in fact, people do know where the important things are. It’s just that they need time and they need to find the space for this.

John Roskam:

And I mentioned at the beginning of our discussion, your wonderful lecture on Baudelaire. 10 years ago, I would’ve needed to enroll in Oxford or at Ralston College to have had the benefit of your understanding of 19th century French politics, culture, and history. And I can watch you on my phone. Is this a way forward for Western civilization? Is this a way forward for education? Many, many young people tell me that it’s not at school that they’re learning things, it’s when they come home and they’re on their phone or they’re listening. And the fascination of young people to listen to a three-hour podcast with a Jordan Peterson or a Joe Rogan is just absolutely exciting.

Marie Kawthar Daouda:

Yes, absolutely. Well, there is so much available online now and I’ve actually had that conversation with my father because what we hear is that, “Oh, young people spend way too much time on their screens. It’s horrible for their mental health,” and so on and so forth. The question is, what are they doing on their screen? Is it time that helps them build themselves, or is it time that makes them hate themselves? It’s not the same thing whether you spent an hour watching the Instagram photos of all the girls who are thinner, prettier, have better makeup, have better clothes than you, or if you spent an hour browsing through interesting podcasts or videos about literature, about history, about politics.

So we were talking about this because in Morocco during lockdown, in fact, there has been a search in the number of young people who were using the internet to access all the lectures that had been put online by Western universities. So while we were hoping that some student might show up to an online lecture, there were people at the other end of the world just being very happy that now this is accessible. I hope this brings us to understanding the immense worth of what we have, because what is special about Western civilization isn’t not that it’s specifically better, whatever.

It’s that to this day it’s the one for which we have the most detailed continuous account. You can look back at the Iliad and look at about the latest novel and your water stones. All of these are intertwined with one another. There’s a chain. There are other extremely interesting ancient civilizations, but at some point the connection is lost. At some point something happened and we’ve lost track of it, but there is nothing wrong with appreciating Western civilization in its continuity.

And if people are genuinely interested in, I don’t know, let’s say Indian civilization, which also has a very long continuum, nothing prevents them from reading it and enjoying it. It’s just that there is no reason why you would have one and not the other and or sacrifice one to the other. If we had as much taste and enthusiasm here for Western civilization as young people have in North Africa, we’ve probably not been in this situation.

John Roskam:

Can I then ask you a final question to conclude this wonderful episode of IPA Encounters? What are you optimistic about for the future?

Marie Kawthar Daouda:

Well, I’m very optimistic about, first, the fact that young women rediscover what it is to be a young woman. I have immense faith in the fact that women will rediscover their part in transmission, continuity and in holding things together in a way I’m saying that about women, but I can say just the same about men that, weirdly enough, the whole questions about sexual identities, gender identities have rekindled an interrogation about what it means to be a man or a woman as an individual and what place it gives you.

So it gives young people a framework. This is how I can build myself as a woman, as a man. It gives you a pattern. I’m very optimistic about this. I think there is a strong revival among young women and young men willing to live a fruitful life as young women or young men. I’m also extremely enthusiastic about the fact that people from ethnic minorities will not be put in a box.

There is no way you could have all that intellectual enthusiasm and energy, and all that locked up into the victim category. So people are rejecting the victimhood category. And also, I just think that things like the IPA, Ralston, the University of Austin are amazing institutions where people can now find a place to develop all of this. So I’m not pessimistic about the future, but if the universities collapse, well have other places to go.

John Roskam:

Marie, on that note, can I thank you for being so generous with your time, so generous with your insights. This has been an outstanding episode of IPA Encounters. Thank you so much.

Marie Kawthar Daouda:

Thank you so much for having me. It’s been a delight.

This transcript of IPA Encounters from 3 March 2023 with Martin Gurri has been edited for clarity.

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