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Right Way to Farm the Classics

Times Staff Writer

It was the first day of class in Victor Davis Hanson’s final course at Cal State Fresno, where he has taught classical history, Greek and Latin for two decades.

The subject, Hanson told the 40 undergraduates, was the 431-404 BC Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. “It’s a good time to talk about a war, because we are in a war,” he said.

For Hanson, ancient reports on the Peloponnesian War are just as relevant today as recent Fox network newscasts on a suicide bombing of a Baghdad hotel. Both, Hanson believes, portray a do-or-die “referendum” on clashing cultures: the democratic republicanism of Athens versus the martial oligarchy of Sparta; the secular, “consensual” democracy of the West versus the theocratic dictatorship of militant Islam.

Hanson’s moral parallels between the ancient Greeks’ fight for democracy and our own struggles in Afghanistan and Iraq have endeared him to the Bush administration and changed his life.

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Hanson, 50, recently signed a contract with Random House for a book on the Peloponnesian War, to be titled “A War Like No Other.” His $500,000 writing advance is unprecedented for a work of classical scholarship and more than he received for his previous 14 books combined. Hanson will leave Cal State Fresno next summer as one of America’s leading conservative writers, most prominently showcased in his weekly online column in the like-minded National Review.

In April, amid the early stages of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Hanson used his column to hail the American advance on Baghdad as “unprecedented in its speed and daring” and predicted that its “logistics will be studied for decades.” Vice President Dick Cheney enthusiastically quoted Hanson in a speech before the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

Hanson’s absolute, unflinching belief in the cause and its ultimate success made him a favorite of Cheney, who urges Hanson’s books on his staff and on reporters traveling with him for foreign trips.

It’s not hard to understand how Hanson has become an intellectual bulwark of administration foreign policy, given his conviction that nothing less than the future of Western civilization depends on our cleareyed recognition of the menace posed by militant Islamic forces.

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“We haven’t had enemies this antithetical to the United States in a long, long time,” Hanson said several days later over coffee in San Francisco, where he was a guest speaker at the Commonwealth Club. “Take your pick of the Western agenda. Women’s rights? They want to go back to the Dark Ages. Homosexual rights? They want to kill them. Democracy? They don’t believe in it. Religious tolerance? You’re dead if you’re not a Muslim. Technology? They don’t like it.”

Pentagon officials who like Hanson’s broad grasp of history vie for his time. On a recent afternoon in Fresno, an Air Force colonel with the Defense Intelligence Agency huddled with Hanson for several hours in the historian’s small office, which is decorated with a marble bust of Julius Caesar and a huge map, in German, of ancient Greece.

“These guys like to expand their analysis using history through the ages,” Hanson said after the meeting, which he said touched on topics ranging from European politics to the Korean peninsula.

Hanson is also a regular consultant to the influential Pentagon Office of Net Assessment, which has emerged as a key administration intelligence gathering and planning agency under Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and his senior deputy, Paul D. Wolfowitz. This week, Hanson was back in Washington to speak before the Board of Overseers of the Hoover Institution, the conservative Palo Alto think tank where Hanson is a resident fellow. His theme, “This War Is Not New,” was the same as that of the Cal State Fresno class. Sharing the podium were Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Karl Rove, President Bush’s main political advisor.

It is an enviable position for someone who never served in the military or trained in the science or tactics of warfare. Hanson’s influence on the administration probably comes more in setting a tone or providing a historical justification for tough decisions than it does in the details of policy.

“Victor Hanson is a brilliant classicist with a real emotional insight into antiquity,” said Stephen Peter Rosen, director of the John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard University, who has attended Office of Net Assessment sessions at the Pentagon with Hanson.

“Hanson has definitely carved out a niche,” said William M. Arkin, a military analyst who writes often for the Los Angeles Times opinion pages. “In an era where many in the Pentagon think that the sword of Damocles is being held over our heads, here’s a guy who can actually tell you who Damocles was.”

Hanson grew up in Selma, a flyspeck San Joaquin Valley farm town 19 miles southwest of Fresno where his family, descendants of Swedish immigrants, has raised raisins and other fruit since the mid-19th century. Hanson himself once dreamed of a life producing “the best raisins and the best fruit in the world.”

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After getting his doctorate in classics from Stanford University in 1980, Hanson eschewed academia to return to Selma to make his life as a family farmer.

But the farm fantasy foundered in the new world of corporate agriculture and globalized markets. “I learned the hard way that all the things that used to be noble, physical hard work and creating a real product, somebody overseas could do cheaper,” said Hanson, who has written two books on the decline of family farming.

For a while, Hanson, his wife, Cara, and their three children, now ages 22, 21 and 17, supplemented the family’s meager income by selling fruit from a van at street markets in Monterey and Carmel. “One time, the van broke down and we had to drive for six hours in first gear,” Hanson said. The couple made all their own preserves and ate only the food they grew or traded for with other farmers.

Nearly broke, and deaf in one ear from operating heavy farm equipment, Hanson took jobs tutoring Latin and finally, in 1985, convinced the Cal State Fresno administration to create a classics department. After making less than $6,000 a year as a raisin farmer, Hanson saw his fortunes, supplemented by revenue from his books and frequent paid speaking dates, slowly grow while the family farmers’ did not.

“I was in the richest agricultural area in the world, and I was going broke farming,” Hanson recalled. “And I was in the most intellectually arid place and made money from classicism. So weird.”

Hanson had just published “Carnage and Culture,” a sweeping look at how leaders have responded to military crises, when the 9/11 terrorist assaults occurred. Hanson first surfaced as a commentator on current events during a C-SPAN interview, and soon after launched his weekly column for the National Review, which quickly attracted the Bush administration’s attention.

Hanson’s support for the administration’s aggressive response to the attacks on New York and the Pentagon has never flagged.

During the rockiest periods of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, Hanson has only amped up his support, dismissing the significance of American casualties and the failure to find weapons of mass destruction.

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“In the list of 10 reasons to go to Iraq,” Hanson said, “I think WMD was about the 10th. I’ve told the administration that they made a mistake placing too much emphasis on it.”

At a White House Christmas gathering, Bush approached him, asking, “How’m I doing?” Before the flustered Hanson could fully respond, he said, the president had assured him, “I’m not finished yet,” and walked on to other guests. This pleased Hanson, whose historical heroes are decisive men ranging from the Athenian leader Pericles to Civil War Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, whose tactical brilliance at the Battle of Shiloh and brutal “March to the Sea” helped break the back of the Confederacy.

In Hanson’s opinion, expressed in his recent military history “Ripples of Battle,” Bush, despite intellectual shortcomings (“he lacked his predecessor’s encyclopedic knowledge of names, places and dates”), was the right leader at the right time in responding to Sept. 11.

“The terrorist war proved that he [Bush], like the Greek iambic poet Archilochus’ hedgehog,” Hanson wrote, “knew one thing, but a big one: how to galvanize his people and lead them into battle against an evil enemy in the hour of his country’s great peril.”

Hanson’s new celebrity has taken him places he never dreamed of going, from the flight deck of a U.S. nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to a corner table at New York’s trendy Alain Ducasse Restaurant, where he was recently treated to a $1,000 dinner by his literary agents.

The extra money from publishing and an active public speaking career has made him more financially secure, enabling him to resign next summer from Cal State Fresno. He installed a swimming pool and central air-conditioning in the old two-story farmhouse, which is surrounded by a walled garden and 40 acres of vine and fruit trees.

Hanson’s seven dogs roam the courtyard of the 131-year-old family home. A great horned owl lives in the persimmon tree Hanson said was planted, along with the gnarled black mission fig next to it, in 1880. A tall sequoia dominates the yard. To a first-time visitor, the farm has a comfortable, reassuring feel, a place where someone with Jeffersonian tastes for letters and agriculture could live in peace.

But the fame, admits Hanson, has come at a price.

Prominent colleagues in classics accuse him of putting scholarship in the service of neoconservative, bellicose politics.

“Hanson is a very skillful scholar who made some major contributions,” said W. Robert Connor, a retired Princeton University classicist. “What makes me nervous is that over time, the political agenda in his work has become stronger and more evident. I worry that the scholarly talent has become subservient to the political.”

Hanson’s courses are popular with students. But fellow professors at Cal State Fresno have been bruised by Hanson’s uncompromising attacks on modern education, particularly ethnic and gender studies programs that Hanson terms “therapeutic curriculum” and feels should be ejected from the university.

“Being on the wrong side of Victor Hanson is not somewhere you want to be,” said Western Washington University English professor Scott Stevens, who spent six years at Cal State Fresno and says Hanson drove him away. “Everyone talks about the power of the left on campus, but Hanson led a powerful clique of antifeminist traditionalists who would really like to see the university return to some pre-'60s stage.”

Even members of his extended family, Hanson admits, go for months at a time without speaking to him.

The family frictions began in 1996 after Hanson wrote the critically celebrated “Fields Without Dreams,” the first of two books lamenting the decline of family farming in the San Joaquin Valley. Hanson attempted to protect his family by changing the name of the town -- from Selma to “Alma” -- as well as most people’s names. In other ways, however, it was a direct autobiographical account that ended up offending most of his nearby kin, who thought Hanson was exposing private family business to make a political point.

Hanson defends himself against family criticism by saying that branching out from farming is no different from what his parents, community college superintendent William Frank Hanson and state appeals court justice Pauline Davis Hanson, did to provide for their family.

He says that just to maintain the farm costs him $1,400 a month more than he makes from the crops.

The family pressures and changes in Selma, where Hanson says drugs and gang activity have become rampant, have caused him to reconsider an earlier pledge that he would never leave the family homestead.

“I do not think I shall leave the San Joaquin Valley of California,” Hanson wrote in “The Land Was Everything.”

“My children are the sixth continuous generation to live in the same house. For 120 years, from malarial ponds to Wal-Mart two miles away, some member of this family has lived on this ground in one of these five ramshackle farmhouses. I guess that I will end here too, like all the others, one more in a row of cement slabs in the Selma cemetery.”

But since that book, written only five years ago, conditions in Selma have worsened. For the second time in several months, Hanson said recently, he was forced to chase away an intruder -- “a gangbanger high on PCP” -- with the 12-gauge shotgun he keeps in his upstairs office.

On a table in the wood-paneled living room one afternoon not long ago were blueprints for a new family residence he’s building high in the isolated Sierra Nevada east of Fresno.

The changing conditions at the farm represent a dilemma for Hanson. He grew up there and, except for his years as a college student, two years of study in Greece and a recent one-year teaching stint at the U.S. Naval Academy, has spent his entire life there.

The farm and life there are at the center of virtually all of Hanson’s writing. His scholarly achievement in classics, for example, rests largely on his pioneering writings on the Greek hoplites -- citizen-farmer-soldiers who were the foundation of Athenian democracy.

“Hanson’s work on the role of the small family farmer in the development of democracy is the most important work in Greek history in my lifetime,” said Yale University classicist Donald Kagan, a longtime friend who shares Hanson’s conservative political views. “Nobody told that story before Hanson, and its significance is hard to exaggerate.”

In his military books, Hanson draws on his family history -- his grandfather’s service in World War I, his father’s 39 combat missions over Japan, a cousin’s death in the bloody invasion of Okinawa -- to tell his stories. To Hanson, those California farmer-soldiers were modern-day versions of the Greek hoplites.

Hanson’s office is decorated with his grandfather’s battle helmet and souvenirs from his father’s military service. Hanson, who was an undergraduate at UC Santa Cruz when the Vietnam War was winding down and was exempted from service by a high lottery number, said, “My relatives, the tons of them who went to war, were hoplites.”

In a recent speech before 1,000 people at Fresno’s William Saroyan Theater, Hanson turned to the farmer-warrior theme, much to the delight of the mostly white-haired audience. Hanson noted that the last time he had spoken at the theater was when he delivered his mother’s eulogy there in 1989.

Pauline Hanson, the first female appellate court judge in the Central Valley, was a popular local figure and prominent Democrat.

“One of the great things in my life is to have been born in Selma,” said Hanson.

“In times of war, I find the wisdom of farmers to be greater than all the fancy academics I ever met. A farmer can sit on his Massey Ferguson tractor and say, ‘Osama bin Laden is no damn good.’ ”


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