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The farmer

Classicist and raisin-grower Victor Davis Hanson argues that the USA needs a dose of ancient Greece's warrior culture. White House hawks are listening.

VICTOR DAVIS HANSON leads a double life. A fifth-generation raisin farmer in California's fertile Central Valley, Hanson is also a historian of ancient Greece, a lyrical defender of American agrarianism, and a prolific contributor to conservative opinion magazines. His columns so caught the fancy of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney that he has enjoyed audiences with both. It's hard to say which is stranger: that a raisin farmer should exert such influence, or that a classics scholar should.

It helps that one of Hanson's areas of academic expertise coincides with the national agenda: war. ''Carnage and Culture,'' his recent book arguing that the West has produced a uniquely effective military culture thanks to inherited Greek values, was a New York Times bestseller and a particular favorite of Vice President Cheney. Random House has paid a stunning $500,000 for Hanson's forthcoming book on the Peloponnesian war.

These are confusing times, and Hanson wields a few simple ideas with blunt force. Western culture, in his view, emanates from ancient Greece and prizes consensual government, private markets, self-criticism, and rational inquiry. Where such values are found, political, economic, and military preeminence follow. The non-Western world lags behind the West because it does not share in the Greek cultural legacy, having opted instead for despotism, theocracy, illiberal markets, and the plain old laziness that has men whiling away afternoons playing backgammon in the cafes of the Middle East.

Greek warriors defeated numerically stronger armies, according to Hanson, because they were citizens who participated in political life and felt ownership of their wars, because rational inquiry allowed them to develop superior weaponry, and because they cleaved to a strategy of head-to-head ''shock battle'' that aimed for nothing short of the enemy's annihilation.

A great admirer of Donald Rumsfeld and a supporter of the Iraq war, Hanson's only qualm is that maybe the war wasn't fought hard enough. Might postwar violence and chaos be less widespread if damage to the civilian infrastructure had been more humiliating and severe? ''Maybe,'' he suggests over lunch at a Mexican restaurant near Fresno, ''the war was so surgical and quick that the Iraqis don't really think that they lost.''

Hanson the war pundit has overshadowed Hanson the raisin farmer lately. Sitting in the garden outside his 19th-century farmhouse, Hanson tells me last year's raisin crop never sold. ''I just stacked them up here, fumigated and tarped in a yard about 5 miles away. Nobody wants them. I think we should just parachute them into Iraq.''

Lucky for Hanson, raisins aren't his only livelihood. ''Every dime I ever lost was in farming in the wealthiest agricultural area in the world,'' he marvels. ''And every money I ever made was in classics, in the most culturally desolate area in the world.''

When Hanson entered the University of California at Santa Cruz in 1971, he recalls feeling culture shock. ''It was just the antithesis of this place,'' he says, motioning at the 42-acre ranch that was settled by his grandfather's grandfather. ''There were no rules, no grades, co-ed dorms. Drugs were everywhere.'' He sought refuge in the classics department, where he studied philology. In the literature of the ancients, Hanson found a ''tragic view of the world'' that resonated with him.

''The Greeks accepted the idea that we all get old, there's certain things that we can't change, human nature is constant throughout the ages and therefore certain things will always be with us-war, pestilence, the fact that individuals are capable of pretty awful things without civilization and culture,'' he explains. ''And the more I read that, the more I realized that it was the way I had been brought up.''

Hanson's Stanford doctoral dissertation became his first book, ''Warfare and Agriculture in Classical Greece.'' In it, he evaluated the use of crop devastation as a tactic in ancient warfare. The Cornell classicist Barry Strauss stresses that Hanson's farming experience brought him insight previously unknown to the field. ''Try asking most of us, what does it take to cut down an olive tree?'' says Strauss. ''I don't know.''

After graduate school, Hanson spent five dismal years as a full-time farmer. When the California raisin industry crashed in 1983, Hanson and his brothers planted a ranch with rare, fragile strains of plums and table grapes. The plum orchard turned out to be sterile; the grapes depended on a miasma of toxic chemicals for even minimal harvests that never paid for the vines' upkeep. In his critically acclaimed 1996 memoir, ''Fields Without Dreams,'' Hanson narrated these years of loss with vitriol and sardonic humor. He condemned big agribusiness and its government subsidies for crushing not only the American family farmer, but the panoply of civic virtues that farmer embodied. But, to many members of Hanson's family, the book was a violation of privacy that cost him their trust.

With the farm falling on hard times, Hanson got a job in town. He founded a classics program at California State University at Fresno in 1984. For nearly twenty years, Hanson has taught as many as eight classes a year, cultivating minority and working-class students and aggressively lobbying for their entry into top-flight graduate schools. ''We always wonder if he sleeps,'' says former Hanson student Curtis Eastin, now pursuing a doctorate at Yale.

At the same time, Hanson was producing groundbreaking scholarship. ''The Western Way of War'' (1989) helped establish him as the leading expert on the Greek infantrymen known as hoplites. But ''The Other Greeks'' (1995) is probably Hanson's signature work. In it, he argues that the values of classical civilization originated not among the urban elites of fifth-century Athens but among the communities of middling farmer-soldiers who dominated Greece's pre-classical era. These small land-owners were ''keen-eyed,'' egalitarian, hard-working, and largely self-governing. They were also the same hoplites who fought to defend their own land and hard-earned harvests.

In ''The Other Greeks,'' Hanson suggested that Plato and Aristotle had deep affinities with the culture of the 10-acre farmer, hoplite, and council member. ''So if we now object to the view of Plato and Aristotle,'' he wrote, ''it may be because we have lost empathy with the horny-handed farmer himself and his cargo of self-reliance, hard work, and a peculiar distrust of rich and poor alike.''

Had he left it at that, Hanson might today be simply an eminence among classicists. Instead, Hanson ''really alienated himself from the field,'' says Charles Hedrick, a classicist at Santa Cruz.

In the 1998 jeremiad ''Who Killed Homer?'', Hanson and the Santa Clara University classicist John Heath diagnose the field of classics as terminally afflicted with trendy literary theory, multiculturalism, low standards, and mandarin professors who ought to emulate the Greeks they teach but instead shun the classroom in favor of rarefied research and left-wing political indoctrination.

The tone of the book was stinging and superior. Critics charged that Hanson and Heath's claims were exaggerated and their prescriptions reactionary. Even like-minded classicists felt that Hanson and Heath had unfairly slighted valuable feminist scholarship in their blanket condemnation of new developments in the field.

Of all Hanson's battles, however, the most peculiar was with a University of Maryland Latinist named Judith Hallett. In a 1999 issue of the journal Arion, Hanson published a devastating review of an anthology Hallett had edited. But as Hallett pointed out on a classics listserv and in The Wall Street Journal, Hanson had neglected to make an important disclosure.

Several years earlier, confessed Hallett, when the FBI had released sketches of the Unabomber and suggested he lived in northern California, Hallett had called the tip-line and offered Hanson and Heath's names as possible associates. Their politics fit the description, she claimed, and both men resembled the sketch. Surely Hanson had gotten a call from an investigator and should have recused himself from reviewing Hallett's work.

Hanson and Heath countered that they had received no such call. In fact, in a 2001 essay, Heath cast doubt on whether Hallett had really contacted the FBI at all, noting that she claimed to have done so in 1994, before either the Unabomber manifesto or ''Who Killed Homer?'' had been published. How had she determined the similarity of the three men's politics? ''They have made so many false claims,'' says an exasperated Hallett, who stands by her story but believes she misremembered the date.

[CORRECTION - DATE: Sunday, June 1, 2003: Because of an editing error, a story in last Sunday's Ideas section about Victor Davis Hanson incorrectly described Judith Hallett's response to a negative review of her work by Hanson. Hallett did not imply that Hanson should "recuse" himself from reviewing her work because she'd once offered his name to the FBI as a possible associate of the Unabomber. Rather, in May 1999 she posted the following statement about the matter on a classics listserv: "My interaction with the FBI in this endeavor is pertinent because Hanson should, in the interests of fair disclosure, acknowledge that I voluntarily went to a law enforcement agency and likened his and his collaborator''s views to that of a deranged killer when he is asked to assess my work and my life."]

''When someone attacks me, I reply with twice that,'' says Hanson, who has penned many a blistering response to a negative review. It's not unlike the tactic Hanson recommends in war: ''You do that a few times, and people stop attacking you.''

For Hanson, it can seem like everything is at stake in these battles. The Greeks are not just a subject of academic research to the 49-year-old farmer, but the purveyors of a living legacy. That legacy lies at the core of all that's best about Western civilization, and disrespectful left-wing academics, in his view, risk squandering it.

Hanson is hardly the only scholar to think in such terms. But many contemporary classicists ask whether it is really possible to trace the Greek legacy like a single thread over the millennia. Were there really such impermeable fences between East and West in antiquity? After all, ''One of the great lessons of the ancient world was a genius for cultural synthesis,'' says Gregory Nagy, director of the Harvard Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, D.C. What we call Western civilization incorporates Egyptian influences, for example, along with Christianity, Judaism, and Islam-all of which originate in the Middle East. Nagy adds that during the medieval second caliphate, ''the intellectual world of Aristotle was preserved in Baghdad and Basra in a way it wasn't further west.''

Hanson is unimpressed. Plato and Aristotle ultimately had no impact on Arab society, he claims, because ideas that challenged Islam were uniformly rejected by theocracies. In the West, by contrast, rational inquiry opened the way toward progress and prosperity.

If the course of history is so clearly visible, today's foreign policy, in Hanson's view, is a no-brainer: Terrorism can be crushed by the same military means that defeated Japan and Germany in World War II. To oppose that strategy is lunacy or cowardice. And the entire Muslim world, he has written in The National Review Online, can be viewed as a single bloc, no more variegated than the Soviet-controlled Warsaw Pact.

On the domestic front, Hanson's views reflect the deep-seated social conservatism of the farm world. But they also reflect its populism. Despite Hanson's enthusiasm for the Bush administration's foreign policy-''Being unpredictable and scary is valuable in war. That's why Bush is a good leader.''-he remains a registered Democrat who was raised reciting William Jennings Bryan's ''cross of gold'' speech and who has antagonized big agribusiness in a region practically owned by it. ''I'm not comfortable with these people of the golf club set,'' he says of the Republicans.

Of conservative classicists-including followers of the late University of Chicago scholar Leo Strauss-Hanson says, ''I don't think they understand the brutality of life that I grew up with. I don't think any of them's gone out and pruned vines for 30 days on end in monotony, and nobody's been in a fight, or nobody's had to run a business.'' He is even less comfortable with what he sees as the noblesse oblige of the academic left, which too rarely makes contact with the races and classes it pretends to champion.

There's a look about Hanson that's both brooding and surprisingly mild for the hard-bitten world he boasts of inhabiting. His literary voice is edgy and sometimes shrill, but his speaking voice is quiet, with a slight rural twang and a note of burdened resignation. For a man who writes prolifically (Hanson is the author of 14 books and innumerable articles) about the superiority of his farming life to his writing life, Hanson seems nonetheless torn between the two.

''On the East Coast people seem overly refined,'' he says, having just returned from a year long visiting professorship at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis. ''Here they have no interest in reading. Maybe I'm just a contrarian and never happy.''

As of this year, he's mostly retired from his job at Fresno, having accepted a position at the Hoover Institution. His apricots, pomegranates, nectarines, pistachios, and figs sell mostly in farmer's markets, but he's still deciding what to do with the money-losing grape vines.

Hanson does not seem much given to regret, but as the afternoon wears on he confesses that there's one thing he wonders about as his three kids hit college age. Did his scorched-earth battle against the academy devalue education in their eyes? He knows he was raised to value learning. And now he suspects that he unwittingly raised his kids to look on it with scorn.

''To be honest with you,'' Hanson had said earnestly in his garden just that morning, ''the university is a really rotten institution.''

past coverage
A series on the thinkers who have shaped the Bush administration's view of the world.
 THE MIND OF THE ADMINISTRATION | PART ONE: The philosopher (By Jeet Heer, 5/11/03)
 THE MIND OF THE ADMINISTRATION | PART TWO: The analyst (By Neil Swidey, 5/18/03)
 THE MIND OF THE ADMINISTRATION | PART THREE: The farmer (By Laura Secor, 5/25/03)
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