Why Are Americans So Uncomfortable With the Greeks?

Celebrating Dionysos, Archaeological Museum of Melos. Photo: Evaggelos Vallianatos.

In mid-April 2022, I visited one of my favorable museums, which is the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). I had not been there since 2020, the year of the dreadful pandemic.

I expected to see and admire the museum’s collections of Greek and Roman art and substantial collection of modern paintings and other artifacts.

Hiding Greek art in the basement of LACMA

But the moment I stepped into the expansive museum I sensed something was wrong. I could not find the Greek collection of statues and vases and jewelry.

I asked a museum guard to direct me to the Greek antiquities and he said the Greek and Roman antiquities were out of reach. To my astonishment, he explained the museum stored those ancient treasures in the basement to accommodate renovation or more construction. I looked at the guard with anger, saying to him the managers of the museum should see a psychiatrist.

“Why,” I asked, “would the museum hide its most precious collections at a time Americans need the civilizing and healing influence of Greek and Roman culture?”

The young black guard smiled and nodded in agreement. “I am only a guard,” he said.

I never expected to be confronted with this obvious cultural racism. I rushed through the modern collections of the museum and left. I bemoaned the decline of America.

Racism from the academy

This racism started decades ago by classical scholars writing entire books against the Greeks. These pseudo-scholars have been attacking the Greeks for having slaves, for their nude Olympics, for misogynism and other imaginary crimes. Their books continue to some degree to rewrite  Greek history in order to make themselves feel good, satisfying fashionable careerist and political agendas.

These scholars figured a democratic Hellas, crowded by original philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, and scientific geniuses like Demokritos, Aristotle, Euclid, Aristarchos of Samos, Ktesibios, Archimedes, Hipparchos, Ptolemaios and Galen, did not fit in America. The country, after all, had become an empire. Its democratic institutions are wafer thin and collapsing. For example, President Donald Trump was behind the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol in order to overthrow the government, and yet he is still free.

The intellectual slander of the classical scholars, and popular writers imitating them, against the Greeks found a fertile ground. Insulting Homer, the teacher of the Greeks, and saying he did not exist, coincided with the dramatic decline of democracy in America as well as with the civil rights struggle of black Americans.

Justice for black Americans

I support the struggle of black Americans. They, and Native Americans, deserve better. But the white heads of corporations, colleges and universities, and state and federal government only pretend they like black people, much less Native Americans who are still invisible.

The politics of racism against the Greeks

These executives never challenge America’s abysmal social, economic, and political inequality and the colossal power of the billionaire class. It should have been obvious to scholars and politicians versed in Greek thought that billionaires cannot exist in a democracy. They represent antithetical interests. A billionaire is tyranny.

Not even Barack Obama, the country’s first black president, dared bring billionaires to justice and the rule of law. And with the exception of appointing a few blacks to senior government positions, Obama did nothing to improve the lives of black people.

His black and white women administrators of the US Environmental Protection Agency did not end the poisoning of the food supply of the country by neurotoxic and carcinogenic pesticides. They also failed to protect children from those pernicious poisons.

Moreover, Obama was responsible for the outrageous treatment of Greece by America’s International Monetary Fund and the European Union. Instead of investing in Greece and helping it repay its loans, the join IMF-EU acted like crusaders. They abolished the sovereignty of Greece and looted the country as if they had conquered it in war.

Selfishness of the ruling class

The rulers of America ignore all crises, including the catastrophic climate chaos. Half or more are Republicans, representing primarily the business party and polluting industries. They go to war defending the fossil fuel industry.

War above all

President Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House, are in bed with Republicans in pushing and dangerously expanding the war of Russia in the Ukraine. Pelosi said we need to defeat Russia. The Europeans are expressing uneasiness and fear from this irresponsible  and belicose rhetoric.

A nuclear backlash from Russia would be Russia’s, America’s and humanity’s nightmare of nightmares. Yet, strangely enough, there are no peace protesters in Washington, DC or California.

Fear behind racism

Meanwhile, at home, Republican and Democratic rulers in Congress fear the wrath of black Americans. So, they take the easy way out. They bamboozle them by tokenism, which is translated in colleges and universities with admitting more black students at the expense of probably qualified white students at Berkeley or Yale, for example. This reverse discrimination harms the education of both white and blacks.

Seeing these obvious bad policies but failing to understand their implications, other colleges and universities and museums and other institutions join the racism game against the Greeks. After all, ancient Greeks have been dead white people for a very long time.

A university administrator told me that ethnic studies were the top priority of all universities in California, even more important than Greek studies.

Future of Greek art 

But art? Why should Greek art become a forbidden object?

Greek art mirrors the Hellenic democratic virtues of the good and the beautiful. Civilization falls apart without the good and the beautiful.

Private museums will probably resist the trend of hiding Greek art. They should also condemn the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for its unacceptable and loathsome decision to deprive millions of Americans from seeing Greek art and the civilization that brought it into being.

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of seven books, including the latest book, The Antikythera Mechanism.