Victor Davis Hanson: The Historian Who Became a Farmer and then a Public Figure
[Jonathan Kay is managing editor of Canada's National Post and a media fellow at the Hoover Institution.]
MOST PEOPLE who earn Ph.D.s aspire to tenure-track professorships, think-tank jobs, or careers in government. When Stanford University awarded Victor Davis Hanson his classics degree 26 years ago, he chose to become a farmer.
"My grandmother was 93 and living alone," Hanson tells me as his pickup bounces along a dirt road winding through his family's grape vineyard. "My brothers, cousins, and I decided we'd come home and see if we could put the farm right."
But his career as a full-time farmer lasted just four years. In 1984, the price of raisin grapes fell from $1,300 per ton to $450. Struggling to make ends meet, Hanson reluctantly dusted off his résumé, got into his truck, and drove to the closest university, California State at Fresno. "I was dressed like this," he tells me, gesturing to his red and black lumberman's jacket and work-worn blue jeans. "The dean couldn't believe I was a Stanford Ph.D. The chairman made me go home and get my diploma."
On weekdays, Hanson would wake at 5 a.m. to prune his grape vines, then drive 25 miles to Fresno where he taught Greek and Latin to Mexican immigrants and working-class students. In what time remained, he managed to author a slew of weighty tomes on the wars of the ancient Greeks that made his name as one of America's preeminent military historians.
Farmer and classicist in equal measure, Hanson has led something of a double life. But read his work and it becomes clear that the two identities are intimately joined. From his early books on the Peloponnesian campaigns to his widely read post-9/11 essays on Afghanistan and Iraq, the connection between agriculture and war emerges as a constant theme.
Most classicists trace the advent of Greek democracy to the urban culture of Athens. Hanson takes another view. In his 1995 book, The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and The Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization, he argues that such institutions as constitutional government and property rights originated in large part with rural landholders. The patterns of rural life also influenced the way Greeks went to war, he believes. As Hanson notes in Carnage and Culture, most Greek foot soldiers, the hoplites, were not full-time conscripts like those of Persia or other Eastern powers, but rather volunteer farmers who were needed back home at harvest time. Greek armies thus favored quick, decisive infantry battles. The resulting theory of war, Hanson argues, has survived through the centuries and even finds echoes in campaigns fought by modern Western armies.
Hanson, representing the fifth generation of his family to work this land since it was first homesteaded by Swedish ancestors in 1871, also sees an important connection between farm life and America's role in the world. The farm is a "crucible of character" and martial valor, no less in the United States of today than it was in ancient Thebes. Hanson takes as his model the citizen-soldier, a humble creature of the land who puts down his hoe and takes up the rifle in a proud tradition carried on by America alone.
"There's an element in this country that is unchanged in the last 200 years," he says. "It cannot be defined by race or religion. They are the people who made this country unique and retain a tragic sense. They gravitate to the military or live in rural America or work with their hands. If you talk to captains or lieutenants in Iraq, you won't find anything in them that is different from their equivalents in World War II."
And so, even as Hanson has spent the years since 9/11 filling the pages of Commentary, City Journal, and National Review with articles about fighting militant Islam, he spends as much time worrying about what corporate agriculture and demographic trends are doing to his native San Joaquin Valley. Fresno County is home to six of the ten poorest towns in California, and attracts a steady stream of illegal immigrants looking for agricultural work. In 2003, Hanson wrote a book focusing on their plight, Mexifornia. (The provocative title was not his idea, he's quick to mention.) His politically incorrect prescription for the region's woes is a return to the melting pot. From watching two generations of farmhands work his property and teaching students at CSU-Fresno, he's concluded that Mexican-American children must learn proper English or inherit their parents' limited prospects.
DRIVING TOWARD TOWN, we pass a row of farms, and Hanson recites the names of families who worked them back when he was a child. Most have moved on. The days of the family farm are gone, he laments, and with it, Selma's civic pride. Lawns have become dumping grounds for refuse and parking spots for mobile homes. Back roads have been turned into slalom courses of discarded garbage and old furniture. Even the old timers seem to have stopped caring. Meanwhile, nearby Fresno is rapidly expanding. Sooner or later, all of this land will be given over to strip malls and tract housing. Selma's "crucible of character" is crumbling before Hanson's eyes.
"Sometimes I go back and read copies of the Fresno Bee from the 1950s, and it breaks my heart," he tells me. "I was reading an article from 1957 that went something along the lines of: 'Mr. Smith was arrested when a syringe was found in his family's house. The family members expressed shame.' Or 'the Lion's Club failed to meet its fundraising goal. They promised to do better next year.' There were high moral standards without cynicism or nihilism. Now, you pick up the paper and there are two kinds of stories: crime hit pieces and 'feel good' vapid multicultural be-all-you-can-be stories. 'Mr. Rodriguez bought two Christmas trees this year'--that's a story."
Hanson places much of the blame for this decay on America's elites, who he says have fostered a cult of postmodernism, identity politics, and affirmative action--or, as he puts it, "diversity without standards." As a classicist, he sees this as nothing less than a renunciation of the intellectual traditions bequeathed by the Greeks.
"Multiculturalism, in preference to a multiracial embrace of Western culture, has become what pulp was in the 1950s," he tells me as he navigates the truck between a rotting sofa and a bed frame. "Plato told us this was inevitable: The more you embrace a state-mandated egalitarianism for its own sake and radical democracy, . . . the more you will be driven to the common denominator of a therapeutic, happy-go-lucky culture, simple stories, lowbrow entertainment, minimal expectations--rather than the hard work of using education to uplift the majority."
If Hanson's great hero is the citizen-farmer, his great villain is the effete, left-wing urbanite--the relativist, the poseur, the spoiled gadabout who has ignorantly embraced fashionable opinions. Hanson himself is a registered Democrat, but he loathes "boutique liberal multimillionaires" and freely acknowledges the party he admires has been extinct since the days of Truman and JFK. "There are a lot of people who are simply not equipped for capitalism," he tells me. "You have to look out for them. The Democratic party is supposed to be about giving ordinary people a stake in society. But those aren't the people who speak for the Democrats these days. The people who write for Harper's, you put them in a trailer out here, they'd go nuts."
When Hanson gets on this theme, his voice rises slightly. One senses he has not entirely forgiven the sneering welcome he received at Fresno State a quarter century ago. Railing against America's intellectual establishment, he hits his target from both sides--as both a rural farmer who feels urban America's patronizing sting and as a scholar who can easily unmask the elites' intellectual pretensions.
"Go out and quiz a history post-grad," he says. "What were the tactics employed at Gettysburg? Who was General Thomas? What was the Anaconda plan? They won't know. Look instead at the titles of their dissertations: The Cuban medical system, the history of footwear, gender in the revolutionary war."
"Do you know why Michael Moore doesn't like people filming him when he speaks?" he asks, summoning a name that appears often in his writing. "It's because he can't finish a sentence. Because he's uneducated, and that's exactly how he sounds. I saw him speak on C-SPAN once and it went mostly like this: 'You know, like, they're coming to get--you know--like you and you. For the army. And it's for oil, man. You know. Bush and Cheney.' And that was the range of his delivery. We apparently no longer apply any litmus tests to public figures who assume positions of wisdom. We no longer ask, 'Is the man educated? Does he speak well? Is he a man of honor who speaks the truth?' . . . There is only one way to be educated. Read narrative history, read the great novels, read philosophy, learn foreign languages. But we've forgotten all that in our therapeutic culture."
By 21st-century political typology, Hanson's love of the pastoral life, distrust of large corporations, and embrace of old-fashioned values might put him in the paleoconservative camp. And indeed, he was once horrified by the "neocon" projects he now defends. "I remember it was 1998 and I was in the library reading a magazine article about the [Project for the New American Century's] letter to Bill Clinton asking for regime change in Iraq," he tells me. "And I thought, 'That's crazy!' The whole idea of preemption in Iraq made no sense to me."
But then came 9/11, and Hanson's thinking changed radically. Like the campaigns against Prussian militarism and Nazism, the war against militant Islam is not one of America's choosing, he argues. As a student of military history, he believes there is only one way to wage it--ferociously and single-mindedly, in the tradition of Patton, Sherman, and the Theban general Epaminondas. The result of Hanson's political shift is a worldview that looks back to the ancient virtues even as it defends the most modern of wars and the controversial Bush Doctrine, thus reconciling the two major strains of the conservative movement.
Later, as we sit at his farmhouse dinner table, he points to a chair. "That's where my paternal grandfather would visit, sit, and tell us about World War One, with my other maternal grandfather, the host, in rapt attention," Hanson says. "I used to listen to him, my father, and my uncle-in-law, and they'd count off the family members who'd been killed or wounded in war. That number included my father's cousin--my namesake Victor Hanson--who died at Okinawa. My grandfather himself was gassed in the Argonne. And my father flew 39 missions in a B-29 over Japan. But they had no regrets. I was never tutored in isolationism."
HANSON IS NOW one of the Bush administration's most passionate and prolific defenders. Having recently taken early retirement from Fresno State and joined the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in Palo Alto, he devotes much of his time to writing essays. He also contributes 1,800 words per week to National Review Online, and has begun a syndicated weekly column distributed through Tribune Media Services. Later this year, Random House will release his new book on the Peloponnesian War. As if that weren't enough, he also maintains a website (victorhanson.com), where he answers readers' questions about the Iraq war, ancient military tactics, and the modern academy.
Many war pundits have done their best to situate the Iraqi and Afghan conflicts in historical perspective. But few can go back as far as Hanson. In the June 2004 Commentary, he defended the number of U.S. troops deployed in Iraq with the dizzying observation that "Alexander the Great, who never led an army numbering more than 50,000 men, defeated hordes five times that size in battle. . . . Julius Caesar conquered and held much of Western Europe with legions that numbered fewer than 40,000. The British defeated both Cetchewayo and the Great Mahdi with a few thousand redcoats, [and] Thucydides did not believe the Athenian disaster at Syracuse was necessarily caused by the smallish armada sent over by imperial Athens."
Hanson's expertise has brought him political influence. When I visited his farm in January, he had just come back from a meeting at the White House, where he was among five experts who'd been asked for their critiques of the Iraq war. The other four were Charles Krauthammer, Elliott Abrams, Fouad Ajami, and John Lewis Gaddis. Impressive company for a humble farmer. And one senses it all makes Hanson a little uncomfortable. "Everyone I met in D.C. was gossiping about this important guy they met and that guy they met," he tells me. "Me? I spent yesterday negotiating with a Sikh farmer who was renting some of my land."
While gaining national prominence as a pundit, however, Hanson has become unpopular here in Selma. His books on immigration have turned him into a target for local diversity boosters. His stance on Iraq, too, has lost him friends. Hanson has two brothers, one a twin. Thanks to political differences, neither will speak to him. "I've lost almost all the friends I grew up with," he tells me. "People will come up to me, wag their finger, and tell me, 'I knew your mom. Now you're just a Bush lover.'"
Selma is becoming less hospitable in other ways, too. Methamphetamine labs are now common. On one recent occasion, police drove across Hanson's farm in hot pursuit of drug dealers. On another, Hanson had to escort a pair of fugitives off his property at gunpoint. His three sons now grown, Hanson, who lives with his wife of 28 years, is musing about spending more time in Palo Alto. But it's hard to imagine him off the farm: So much of his identity and intellectual energy is tied up with the land. Moreover, Hanson doesn't play so well with others. At a recent meeting at Hoover, he strained to remain polite when a free-market colleague blithely dismissed America's family farmers as road-kill on the path to efficient markets. At a meeting in Europe, he shocked his Bush-loathing Swiss host by lecturing him about the profits his nation made from Holocaust loot. And, needless to say, Hanson's views on affirmative action would make him anathema to most elite university administrations. The safe bet seems to be that he will continue to spend most of his time in Selma, chronicling the breakdown of rural America even as he urges it to rescue the cities from George Soros and Osama bin Laden.
The decay of Hanson's natural habitat, however, only partly explains his melancholy air. There is a sense of unfulfillable longing about the man--for an ideal of citizenship, of culture, of honor and decency and shame that is passing irreversibly into history. (In a recent National Review Online essay, he wrote that visiting Normandy leads one to "prefer the wisdom of the noble dead to the ignorance of the shameful living.") This longing is a powerful muse: Few writers combine such a broad understanding of the ancient world with a deep desire to resurrect its virtues. One suspects also that the tragic nature of the project takes its toll.
But Hanson isn't going to give up the battle any time soon. In fact, he has just started a new project--a novel. "It's about the Helots, the indentured servants of the Spartans," he tells me. "They were freed by Epaminondas. He was accused of all sorts of heresies and ulterior motives. The book's about preemption, multilateralism, confronting your enemies, democracy for the dispossessed, and ending tyranny.
"It's an allegory, I'm afraid," he adds. "That should be pretty obvious."
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