Donna Zuckerberg on the Alt-Right Menace from Ancient Greece and Rome
Silicon Valley-based Classics scholar. Editor of Eidolon .
A specter is haunting the Internet — the specter of the “alt-right.” The forces of white supremacy and toxic masculinity, fueled by a sense of entitlement dwarfed only by their inflated estimation of their own intelligence, have entered into an unholy alliance to remove feminism, political correctness, and multiculturalism from America. And on November 8th, 2016, after enduring years of mockery, months of being told that the arc of the moral universe would never let it win, the Alt-Right scored its first significant political victory: the election of Donald Trump to the highest office of the most powerful country in the world.
Who are these people? They are part of a group of a few hundred thousand men who have “swallowed the red pill” and belong to a few allied online movements: not just the Alt-Right, but also men’s rights activists, the manosphere, and GamerGate. At times these groups seem more clearly defined by what they oppose than what they support, but they’ve also mobilized to fight for men’s rights in a “gynocentric” society, harass women on Twitter, and redefine Pepe the Frog. They are younger than the typical conservative establishment, white, and male. They are antisemitic, homophobic, transphobic, Islamophobic. Some are self-described Neo-Nazis.
They also love the classics.
This is at once surprising — most classicists I know consider themselves politically liberal — and not, because when we’re truly honest, we see that for many the study of Classics is the study of one elite white man after another. The same texts that are for us sources of beauty and brutality, subjects of commentary and critique, are for these men (and they really are almost exclusively men) proof of the intellectual and cultural superiority of white maleness.
The Alt-Right is hungry to learn more about the ancient world. It believes that the classics are integral to education. It is utterly convinced that classical antiquity is relevant to the world we live in today, a comfort to classicists who have spent decades worrying that the field may be sliding into irrelevance in the eyes of the public.
The next four years are going to be a very difficult time for many people. But if we’re not careful, it could be a dangerously easy time for those who study ancient Greece and Rome. Classics, supported by the worst men on the Internet, could experience a renaissance and be propelled to a position of ultimate prestige within the humanities during the Trump administration, as it was in Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Classics made great again.
This is my call to arms for all classicists. No matter how white and male Classics once was, we are not that anymore. In spite of the numerous obstacles that remain, our field is now more diverse than ever, and that is something to be proud of.
These men are positioning themselves as the defenders of Western Civilization. Classicists, when you see this rhetoric, fight back. We must not allow the Alt-Right to define what Classics will mean in Trump’s America.
Just how interested is the Alt-Right in Classics? On the one hand, it is very interested in the cultural capital of antiquity. An article published yesterday in the New York Times shows how freely they use classical references — “crossing the Rubicon,” “ascending to Olympus.” On the other, the movement appears to have little interest in understanding the ancient world in any way other than the most superficial one.
I know about this interest from personal experience — that is, from Twitter trolls and comments on Eidolon articles. …
Steve Bannon, former Breitbart News executive chairman and newly appointed Chief Strategist to President-Elect Donald Trump, told Mother Jones this August that Breitbart is “the platform for the alt-right.”
Is there any evidence that Bannon was using this rather vague term in the sense that Dr. Zuckerberg is using it?
In recent weeks, Breitbart editors have backtracked on that claim, and they now argue that their site has only one piece of explicitly Alt-Right content: “An Establishment Conservative’s Guide to the Alt-Right” by Allum Bokhari and Milo Yiannopoulos (who, incidentally, was using the Twitter handle “@nero” when he was banned from the platform this summer). In that article, they write that the preservation of Western Culture is of monumental importance to the audiences for Alt-Right content:
[A]ttempts to scrub western history of its great figures are particularly galling to the alt-right, who in addition to the preservation of western culture, care deeply about heroes and heroic virtues. This follows decades in which left-wingers on campus sought to remove the study of “dead white males” from the focus of western history and literature curricula… to a natural conservative, such cultural vandalism may just be their highest priority.
… Unfortunately, I have met a few professional classicists who would prefer that the entire discipline embraced the model Quintus Curtius espouses for “classical knowledge.” Victor Davis Hanson explicitly trumpeted the same views in Who Killed Homer: “This new, ultrasensitive curriculum and its appendages — diversity training, journal writing, gender and racial sensitivity, multiculturalism, situational ethics, personal growth and self-indulgence, and the politics of commitment — ran directly counter to Greek wisdom” (118). For all that he is beloved by the Right, most classicists have little time for VDH these days — but many nevertheless agree, quietly, that as a field we’ve lost something in our increasing focus on race, class and gender in the ancient world. Our field is still, in many ways, in thrall to the Great Men model of history.
Kind of like movies and TV shows with Aaron Sorkin screenplays, such as West Wing, Moneyball, and Steve Jobs?
And others may disagree, but still feel that Daryush “Roosh V” Valizadeh has a point when he writes of the moral vacuum that would exist without an understanding of historical precedent in his article “What is a Social Justice Warrior (SJW)?”:
Even if Aristotle, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Thomas Aquinas, or Henry David Thoreau had valuable wisdom that continues to help how millions of people live today, the information derived from their work must be completely discarded since they were white men. Since white men were at the forefront of advancing humanity for the past several centuries, especially after the decline of the Egyptian, Persian, Mongol, and Ottoman empires, this precludes the bulk of moral guidance that we can use to determine right and wrong. SJW’s invent their own moral code but it is often based on what they are upset about in the present moment. It does not serve as a guide for more than a month or two, suggesting that their book of code would have to be written in pencil.
You yourself might be horrified by his sentiment — but have you ever argued that we should study Classics because those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it? Or because Greece and Rome are important to study because they are at the foundation of Western civilization and culture? Valizadeh’s argument here is the most offensive, sarcastically stated version of arguments that are made all the time by those within the discipline in favor of studying the classics.
Next time you hear either of those arguments made, remember: they are also made by a man who tells stories about raping women in his “Bang” series of “game guides,” who believes that “Women Must Have Their Behavior And Decisions Controlled By Men,” who recently rejoiced because the election of Donald Trump “automatically legitimizes masculine behaviors that were previously labeled sexist and misogynist” — a man who was rejected by the Alt-Right for being insufficiently white himself.
It is time for Classics as a discipline to say to these men: we will not give you more fodder for your ludicrous theory that white men are morally and intellectually superior to all other races and genders. We do not support your myopic vision of “Western Civilization.” Your version of antiquity is shallow, poorly contextualized, and unnuanced. When you use the classics to support your hateful ideas, we will push back by exposing just how weak your understanding is, how much you have invested in something about which you know so little.
Last week, I gave two lectures about my research on Classics and the manosphere. Both times, people asked me afterwards, “But what can we do?” I don’t have an answer to that question that I’m completely satisfied with.
But I do have a few ideas, and I hope we can start a dialogue within the discipline to discuss the problems further.
- When you hear someone —be they a student, a colleague, or an amateur — say that they are interested in Classics because of “the Greek miracle” or because Classics is “the foundation of Western civilization and culture,” challenge that viewpoint respectfully but forcefully. Engage them on their assumed definitions of “foundation,” “Western,” “civilization,” and “culture.” Point out that such ideas are a slippery slope to white supremacy. Seek better reasons for studying Classics.
- In your scholarship, focus on the parts of antiquity that aren’t elite white men. Read and cite the work of scholars who write about race, gender, and class in the ancient world. Be open about the marginalization and bias that exists within our discipline. Model a kind of Classics that isn’t quite so congenial to the neo-Nazis of the Alt-Right.
- As the Alt-Right becomes more vocal and normalized, we may face pressure to frame our research and teaching in a way that will appeal to this new audience of Classics enthusiasts. Resist that pressure.
- Do not write content for these men.
- Consider coming out in support of progressive student and community movements. Classics has a long history of regressive politics, and if we are serious about social justice and activism, we must speak out.
- Write to professional Classics organizations, including the Society for Classical Studies, and encourage them to take a stand against these groups. Samuel Huskey has written and shared a lovely example of such a letter.
- If you are so inclined, engage with the classical reception that these men produce. There is a narrative blooming that you can see in that Breitbart Guide to the Alt-Right, where the writers claim, “Skinheads, by and large, are low-information, low-IQ thugs driven by the thrill of violence and tribal hatred. The alternative right are a much smarter group of people — which perhaps suggests why the Left hates them so much. They’re dangerously bright.” But the Alt-Right are not “dangerously bright.” They are young men — if you’ll excuse the pun, the kids are alt-right — whose inane readings of classical texts often provide a window into their intellectual shortcomings.
- I am considering creating a Tumblr to document examples of Alt-Right Classics. If you are interested in contributing, contact the Eidolon team (firstname.lastname@example.org).
… But classicists are uniquely positioned to fight back against the self-mythologizing of the Alt-Right. When we see Classics used to support a hateful politics, we must push back — unless we want to live through a second wave of fascist classical reception.
Donna Zuckerberg is the Editor-in-Chief of Eidolon . She received her PhD in Classics from Princeton and teaches for Stanford Continuing Studies and the Paideia Institute. Her book Not All Dead White Men , a study of the reception of Classics in Red Pill communities, is due to be released in Fall 2017 by Harvard University Press. Read more of her work here.
Of course, Dr. Donna Zuckerberg’s brother happens to be the most elite white man of his generation, as measured in gigabucks, and also perhaps the most powerful due to his being the chief owner and operator of the world’s most powerful communications platform, Facebook.
Scott Locklin responded to Donna Zuckerberg that Mark Zuckerberg is a huge fan of that most Dead White Man book of them all, The Aeneid. From Jose Antonio Vargas’s article about Mark Zuckerberg in The New Yorker in 2010:
He first read the Aeneid while he was studying Latin in high school, and he recounted the story of Aeneas’s quest and his desire to build a city that, he said, quoting the text in English, “knows no boundaries in time and greatness.” Zuckerberg has always had a classical streak, his friends and family told me. (Sean Parker, a close friend of Zuckerberg, who served as Facebook’s president when the company was incorporated, said, “There’s a part of him that—it was present even when he was twenty, twenty-one—this kind of imperial tendency. He was really into Greek odysseys and all that stuff.”) At a product meeting a couple of years ago, Zuckerberg quoted some lines from the Aeneid.
On the phone, Zuckerberg tried to remember the Latin of particular verses. Later that night, he IM’d to tell me two phrases he remembered, giving me the Latin and then the English: “fortune favors the bold” and “a nation/empire without bound.”