How the alt-right em­braces, and dis­torts, clas­si­cal lit­er­a­ture

Clas­si­cist Donna Zucker­berg on the move­ment to weaponize an­tiq­uity for racism and misog­yny

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - @don­nazuck Donna Zucker­berg is a Sil­i­con Val­ley-based clas­sics scholar and the author of “Not All Dead White Men.” She is edi­tor in chief of the on­line clas­sics pub­li­ca­tion Ei­dolon.

For years, cham­pi­ons of Greek and Ro­man clas­si­cal lit­er­a­ture have wor­ried about its de­clin­ing promi­nence in Amer­i­can cul­ture. In 1998, for in­stance, clas­si­cists Vic­tor Davis Han­son and John Heath, in “Who Killed Homer?,” blamed over­spe­cial­ized, jar­gon­spout­ing aca­demics for los­ing sight of ev­ery­thing about the an­cient Greeks that made them worth study­ing — and for not “demon­strat­ing to the liv­ing the im­por­tance and rel­e­vance of the long-ago dead.”

To­day, eco­nomic wor­ries are fur­ther sidelin­ing the clas­sics. Debt-bur­dened stu­dents are shift­ing away from lib­eral arts to sup­pos­edly more-lu­cra­tive ma­jors, like busi­ness, and some col­leges are drop­ping clas­sics and other hu­man­i­ties ma­jors. But re­cently, a sur­pris­ing group out­side the univer­sity walls has taken up the man­tle of ex­plain­ing why the study of the an­cient Greeks and Ro­mans re­mains vi­tally im­por­tant: the alt-right.

Along with re­lated far-right on­line com­mu­ni­ties that share sim­i­lar pol­i­tics — pickup artists, men’s rights ac­tivists and oth­ers — the alt-right is fas­ci­nated by the an­cient Mediter­ranean and of­ten ref­er­ences its texts and his­tor­i­cal fig­ures

to pro­mote a re­ac­tionary ide­ol­ogy. It’s not the re­vival that ad­vo­cates of the clas­sics ex­pected or wanted, but there is no deny­ing the fer­vor of these writ­ers.

Out­siders may know the alt-right from its dis­dain for lib­eral democ­racy, its be­lief in hard­wired racial and gen­der dis­tinc­tions, and its use of crude on­line memes to pro­mote Pres­i­dent Trump and ridicule its en­e­mies (dis­pro­por­tion­ately women, Jews and mem­bers of mi­nor­ity groups). But the alt-right is also fiercely com­mit­ted to pre­serv­ing and cham­pi­oning the great works of Western civ­i­liza­tion. In its ad­her­ents’ eyes, po­lit­i­cally cor­rect “so­cial jus­tice war­riors” want to kill the clas­sics, ma­li­ciously, as part of a larger project of “white geno­cide,” which they de­fine as the era­sure of the white race and its cul­ture through in­ter­ra­cial re­pro­duc­tion and the cel­e­bra­tion of di­ver­sity.

De­fend­ing the clas­sics against this pur­ported cold­blooded at­tempted mur­der has been of para­mount im­por­tance to the alt-right al­most since its in­cep­tion. In 2016, when the com­mu­nity was still rel­a­tively young and un­known, then-Bre­it­bart se­nior edi­tor Milo Yiannopou­los and Bre­it­bart re­porter Al­lum Bokhari wrote in an ar­ti­cle ti­tled “An Es­tab­lish­ment Con­ser­va­tive’s Guide to the Alt-Right” that “at­tempts to scrub western his­tory of its great fig­ures are par­tic­u­larly galling to the alt-right.” They ar­gued that this is­sue was of spe­cial con­cern to “nat­u­ral con­ser­va­tives,” de­fined as mostly white male “rad­i­cals, who are un­apolo­get­i­cally em­brac­ing a new iden­tity pol­i­tics that pri­or­i­tizes the in­ter­ests of their own de­mo­graphic.” They con­tin­ued: “This fol­lows decades in which left­wingers on cam­pus sought to re­move the study of ‘dead white males’ from the fo­cus of western his­tory and lit­er­a­ture cur­ric­ula.”

The alt-right’s mo­ti­va­tion for de­fend­ing the clas­sics dif­fers from that of the main­stream pub­lic in­tel­lec­tu­als — peo­ple like Fa­reed Zakaria, Alex Beam and David Denby — who ar­gue that the an­cient texts de­serve study be­cause they show­case such uni­ver­sally hu­man sub­jects as brav­ery, grief, per­se­ver­ance and tragedy. To them, the rise of iden­tity pol­i­tics in the acad­emy — what some call “griev­ance stud­ies” — could be the clas­sics’ un­do­ing.

But as Yiannopou­los and Bokhari noted, the alt-right has also em­braced iden­tity pol­i­tics. Pro­gres­sive schol­ars ap­ply gen­der and race theo- ry to the study of the clas­sics to open the an­cient Mediter­ranean to more in­clu­sive read­ings that em­pha­size the roles of women and slaves, for ex­am­ple. Alt-right read­ers fo­cus on race and gen­der, too, but with the aim of prais­ing white­ness and mas­culin­ity — and jus­ti­fy­ing the priv­i­leged place that white males en­joy in so­ci­ety.

The alt-right takes a two-pronged ap­proach to de­fend­ing the clas­sics. First, it pushes back force­fully against what it con­sid­ers the “wrong” (i.e., pro­gres­sive) kind of clas­sics. In the sum­mer of 2017, the BBC aired a car­toon about Ro­man Bri­tain that in­cluded sev­eral peo­ple of color. In re­sponse, Paul Joseph Wat­son, edi­tor at large of In­fowars, wrote on that site: “Few things are more in­sid­i­ous than at­tempt­ing to re-write his­tory to achieve your un­hinged po­lit­i­cal agenda. Re­sist all at­tempts to his­tor­i­cally nor­mal­ize po­lit­i­cally cor­rect myths. Who con­trols the past con­trols the fu­ture.” (In fact, Ro­man Bri­tain’s pop­u­la­tion was some­what eth­ni­cally di­verse and in­cluded a North African con­tin­gent.)

This re­sponse em­bod­ied many alt-right tropes found in dis­cus­sions of the clas­sics. Wat­son ac­cused the car­toon of be­ing anachro­nis­tic in ser­vice of an agenda, whereas he con­sid­ers his ver­sion of his­tory to be apo­lit­i­cal and fac­tu­ally ac­cu­rate. He also called the left “un­hinged,” even as he dropped omi­nous hints about an apoc­a­lyp­tic cul­tural night­mare as the nat­u­ral con­se­quence of car­toons that de­pict non­white Ro­mans. (“Who con­trols the past con­trols the fu­ture.”)

While some within the alt-right fo­cus on fight­ing the wrong kind of clas­sics, oth­ers work to ar­tic­u­late what they want an­cient Greece and Rome to mean in the pre­sent day. An­cient Sparta has proved par­tic­u­larly at­trac­tive to far-right on­line com­mu­ni­ties (as well as to former White House ad­viser Steve Ban­non, whose com­puter pass­word at one time was “Sparta”). It is praised for its eth­nic pu­rity — main­tained through the pol­icy of xenela­sia, or the ex­pul­sion of for­eign­ers, men­tioned by the his­to­rian Thucy­dides — and, of course, for its mil­i­tary dis­ci­pline. The use of slaves for man­ual la­bor freed the Spar­tans for mil­i­tary pur­suits; that two-tiered so­ci­ety also ap­peals to the alt-right. Jon Har­ri­son Sims, writ­ing for Amer­i­can Re­nais­sance, draws on the myth of the Do­rian in­va­sion — the idea that, in pre­his­toric times, peo­ple of Nordic de­scent mi­grated to Greece and brought their lan­guage and cul­ture — to ar­gue that clas­si­cal Sparta was pop­u­lated by fair-haired whites.

Sparta’s ef­forts to stay eth­ni­cally “pure” ap­peal to the white su­prem­a­cists of the alt-right for ob­vi­ous rea­sons. Mean­while, the mil­i­tary cul­ture of Sparta has been em­braced by white na­tion­al­ist mili­tias in­clud­ing the Oath Keep­ers, and Spar­tan im­agery is com­mon at far­right protests. The re­sponse by Sparta’s King Leonidas to the Per­sian King Xerxes’ de­mand at the Bat­tle of Ther­mopy­lae that the 300 Spar­tans turn over their weapons — “Come and take them” (“molon labe”) — has be­come an all-pur­pose right-wing ral­ly­ing cry; the Oath Keep­ers have a “Molon Labe Pledge.”

But the alt-right’s in­ter­est in clas­si­cal an­tiq­uity goes far be­yond co-opt­ing im­agery and pol­icy from an­cient Sparta. I’ve seen the works of Greek au­thors used to jus­tify sex­ism: On his blog, alt-right writer Matt For­ney pub­lished a guest writ­ten ar­ti­cle about Aris­to­tle ti­tled “Mate, Hate is Great! A Philo­soph­i­cal De­fense of Misog­yny,” and on the site Re­turn of Kings, a writer an­a­lyzed Xenophon’s “Oe­co­nomi­cus” to ar­gue that men should gaslight their wives and tightly re­strict their be­hav­ior. Ovid, author of “The Art of Love,” has been em­braced as the first “pickup artist” for writ­ing a man­ual on how to find, at­tract and se­duce women in the city of Rome. (Al­though the pickup-artist com­mu­nity, some­times called the “game” com­mu­nity, is not syn­ony­mous with the alt-right, sev­eral of its most prom­i­nent mem­bers, such as the blog­ger who runs the site Chateau Heartiste, are part of both.)

One of the most in­sid­i­ous and dis­turb­ing ex­am­ples of clas­si­cal ap­pro­pri­a­tion by the al­tright is its em­brace of Sto­icism, a philo­soph­i­cal school that be­gan with Zeno of Ci­tium around 300 B.C. To­day, the ad­jec­tive “stoic” is most com­monly used to de­scribe peo­ple who don’t show what they’re feel­ing, in­stead keep­ing their emo­tions un­der tight con­trol. An­cient Sto­ics, though, were less in­ter­ested in the dis­play of emo­tions than in un­der­stand­ing what causes them. The Sto­ics as­pired to live ra­tio­nally, which meant ac­cept­ing that each per­son could ex­ert com­plete con­trol over their own be­hav­ior. Emo­tions, they thought, were usu­ally a re­sult of ir­ra­tionally be­liev­ing that some­body else’s ac­tions, or other out­side forces, de­ter­mined one’s psy­cho­log­i­cal re­ac­tion. The Stoic thinker Epicte­tus wrote in his “Dis­courses” that the ap­pro­pri­ate re­sponse to the death of your child is to say to your­self, “I knew I had fa­thered a mor­tal.” Anger was par­tic­u­larly anath­ema to the Sto­ics: The Ro­man philoso­pher and statesman Seneca the Younger wrote an en­tire trea­tise about anger’s de­struc­tive force: “De Ira” (“About Anger”).

It may seem strange that the alt-right, of all groups, would em­brace a phi­los­o­phy hos­tile to anger — think of the im­ages from last sum­mer’s “Unite the Right” rally in Char­lottesville of young white men hold­ing tiki torches, their faces con­torted with rage. On­line, how­ever, many in­flu­en­tial alt-right writ­ers pro­fess to be devo­tees of Sto­icism. Mar­cus Aure­lius’s “Med­i­ta­tions” and Epicte­tus’s “Enchirid­ion” ap­pear on lists of rec­om­mended texts on the Red Pill sub­red­dit.

Ap­peals to Sto­icism sup­pos­edly help as­sert the value of Western civ­i­liza­tion in de­fense of re­ac­tionary con­ser­vatism. But men also use them to as­sert their in­her­ent moral su­pe­ri­or­ity to women and peo­ple of color, who are of­ten stereo­typed as ir­ra­tional and emo­tional. On one “game” site, Black La­bel Logic, “Med­i­ta­tions” is praised as a tool men can use to but­tress their “nat­u­ral” log­i­cal su­pe­ri­or­ity. It teaches “a man how to be a man through gain­ing con­trol of his emo­tions, and re­ac­tions to the world, and trans­form­ing them into ac­tion,” writes an anony­mous author.

The as­sump­tion that only men can master their emo­tions is not found in an­cient Sto­icism: Both Seneca the Younger and Mu­so­nius Ru­fus as­sert that women are as ca­pa­ble of mak­ing rea­soned de­ci­sions as men. (And there is no­body more frus­trat­ing to ar­gue with, I can as­sure you, than an an­gry male troll who has con­vinced him­self that he is per­fectly ra­tio­nal and calm, and that you are the one who is “un­hinged.”)

Alt-right thinkers pre­sent them­selves as pro­tec­tors of the clas­sics who are sav­ing the cul­tural her­itage of the West from so­cial-jus­tice-war­rior pro­fes­sors who se­cretly want to de­stroy it. This vi­sion res­onates pow­er­fully in our cul­tural mo­ment. But it’s silly. The chal­lenge for pro­gres­sives who love the clas­sics is to pre­sent a vi­sion that’s just as vi­tal and rel­e­vant, but that sees an­cient racism and sex­ism, where they ex­ist, as top­ics to be ex­plored thought­fully rather than mind­lessly cel­e­brated.

The alt-right claims it’s pro­tect­ing the cul­tural her­itage of the West from lib­eral pro­fes­sors and “so­cial jus­tice war­riors.”

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