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Why the alt-right loves ancient Greece and Rome

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If you peruse the corners of the internet occupied by the “alt-right,” sometimes called the “manosphere,” you’re likely to encounter a lot of references to ancient Greece and Rome.

There’s a fascination with Spartan culture and stoic philosophers and famous thinkers like Aristotle and Plato. The men who consume this stuff — and yes, it’s almost exclusively men — tend to believe two things: that ancient Greek and Roman culture are the basis of Western civilization and that these cultures are the exclusive achievements of white men.

But the idea isn’t merely to celebrate these ancient cultures. The goal is to turn a phrase like “Western civilization” into code for “white culture” and to cement a narrative about history that glorifies patriarchy and undercuts cultural progressivism.

This, of course, isn’t all that new. As I wrote back in 2018, the alt-right appropriates the philosopher Nietzsche in similar ways and for similar reasons. But the obsession with Greece and Rome seems to be more widespread, and perhaps even mainstream.

Donna Zuckerberg, editor-in-chief of Eidolon, an online Classics magazine, examines this trend in her book, Not All Dead White Men: Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Age. I spoke to her recently about the appeal of ancient history to the alt-right, how it’s used to reinforce misogyny and racism, and why the field of Classics has a major problem on its hands.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.


Sean Illing

I think the best way to start is to have you explain why ancient Greece and Rome is so culturally significant to the alt-right.

Donna Zuckerberg

“Western civilization” has, for the alt-right, become culturally acceptable code for “white culture.” So celebration of Western civilization is really a way to celebrate the cultural achievements of white men. They see ancient Greece and Rome as a starting point for this imagined idea of Western civilization, and later it evolves to include Christianity in the medieval period.

It gives them a unified cultural narrative to draw on.

Sean Illing

So history is a device for glorifying masculinity and whiteness, both of which they take to be synonymous with Western civilization?

Donna Zuckerberg

Exactly.

Sean Illing

Part of what’s so odd about the race dimension is that “race” as a category, or at least race as we think of it today, had almost no meaning in these ancient societies.

Donna Zuckerberg

Right, ancient Greece and Rome were actually quite diverse and the concept of “whiteness” didn’t have much meaning thousands of years ago. Race, as we know it, is a fairly recent category. But the far-right relies on this construct of Western civilization, which for them means white civilization and culture. So they craft a narrative that begins with Greece and Rome and then continues into the medieval period up through the emergence of modern Europe.

Sean Illing

And what are the main themes you see beyond the usual “white men are the most rational” tropes? What specific conclusions are they drawing from history or what assumptions are they justifying?

Donna Zuckerberg

They look to the ancient world for the confirmation of their pre-existing worldview, which is not necessarily easy to boil down to a few simple ideas — the far-right, especially online, is intentionally malleable and difficult to pin down.

Most of its ideology depends on ideas taken from evolutionary psychology about normal, natural human behavior. So this includes ideas that men are naturally dominant and rational and women are emotional, along with a whole set of other ideas about gendered behavior (for example, the idea that women naturally want to “marry up” and thus are always looking for an alpha male).

But there are other ideas under this umbrella, too — like tribalism, which they consider natural to human psychology and use to justify arguments for racism and against “race mixing.” They use whatever they can find to provide intellectual justification for these ideas, including history.

There’s also an obsession with cultural decline.

Sean Illing

Why the obsession with decline?

Donna Zuckerberg

The short answer is they want to predict what the future of America will look like, so they turn to these ancient cultures for patterns that reinforce their expectations. For instance, there’s a strong belief that liberals are trying to create a chaotic multicultural society that’s destined to fail; and the purity and patriarchy of ancient cultures, on their reading, is just a superior model, or at the very least, an argument in defense of their worldview.


Sean Illing

Let me ask you this as a historian: Is there some validity to these arguments? In other words, are they projecting their own biases onto history or is their bias genuinely reflected back at them when they look at this history?

Donna Zuckerberg

Both are true. On the one hand, their knowledge of ancient history and literature is often very shallow, and the scholar in me wants to interject by adding much more nuance and complexity to their awful interpretations.

But their analysis, in spite of being oversimplified and sometimes misleading, isn’t necessarily fundamentally wrong. The fact is that many societies in classical antiquity were very patriarchal, and misogynistic ideas can be found in many canonical texts from ancient literature. So they’re not necessarily wrong to see, for example, misogyny in Ovid’s Ars Amatoria.

The question is how to interpret the text and how to decide what it means today.

Sean Illing

Who are we talking about here? Is this mostly a marginalized internet phenomenon — confined to incels and pick up artists — or has this way of thinking, this way of interpreting history, become mainstream?

Donna Zuckerberg

When I was writing Not All Dead White Men, I was looking primarily at online far-right communities. But I’ve been surprised to see, in 2019, how much of the pushback against progressive Classical Studies has come not from the kind of people I studied, but from conservative and center-right intellectuals, who see progressive classicists as attacking the cultural heritage of Western civilization and trying to dismantle the canon.

It really has become a new skirmish in the culture wars.

Sean Illing

But it’s also a problem for the actual discipline of Classics, right? There were reports of a racist incident at a Classics conference earlier this year, which speaks to how deep the rot goes.

Donna Zuckerberg

Yes, absolutely. The incident you mention took place at the 2019 SCS in San Diego, the biggest Classics conference of the year. There was a lot of energy around progressive, antiracist Classics at that conference, which led to the formation of some new groups to promote the work of classicists of color.

But there were also several horrifying racist incidents, including the one you mentioned and one which involved the racial profiling of two students who were at the conference to receive an award for their incredible outreach work with the Sportula. In the aftermath of those incidents, there was a wave of harassment and backlash to progressive Classics led by sites like Quillette and The New Criterion.

My work in this book focuses on the reception of Classics in communities that are often vocally white supremacist. But the ties between racism and Classics exist in other places outside the internet. There’s a painful reckoning happening in Classics as a discipline as we try to confront our own complicity and do the hard work to make the study of Classics truly welcoming to all, not just a discipline where white men see their values reflected back at them.

Sean Illing

Circling back to the way this stuff plays out online, the main goal of these alt-right types is to cement this idea that white men are “the guardians of intellectual authority.” But are they actually defending a tradition or are they just looking for a rhetorical club to beat women and people of color with?

Donna Zuckerberg

I think it’s both. On the one hand, they do love that rhetorical club. But harassing people online actually takes a lot of effort, and having a real cause is extremely motivating. Defending their culture against those who want to destroy it provides that motivation. So this fixation on defending ancient history, defending this great civilizational legacy, is a very galvanizing force.

Sean Illing

As I said in my interview with Angela Nagle, author of Kill All Normies, half the time I can’t tell if these people are waging a genuine civilizational battle or just a heroic trolling campaign.

You seem to think it’s both.

Donna Zuckerberg

I do think it’s both, and I think it’s very difficult to tell which it is at any moment. In the Daily Stormer’s “Normie’s Guide to the Alt-Right,” Andrew Anglin identifies one of the hallmarks of the alt-right as non-ironic Nazism masquerading as ironic Nazism. They want you to feel like you’d be stupid to take them seriously, but also just as stupid — maybe even more so — to ignore them.

It’s a very slippery but clever strategy, one that’s perfectly adapted to modern internet culture.

Sean Illing

People have always used history and philosophy to prop up their transgressive ideologies — What’s your solution to the problem? Can we ever really stop people from weaponizing history?

Donna Zuckerberg

No, we can’t. We can provide alternatives, and continue to imagine new and different ways to think about what ancient Greece and Rome mean in the present day. And we can try to correct false information where we see it. It’s a constant battle, but it’s an important one for any area of study to engage in.

We should always be thinking about what the study of our subject means and why it’s important.

Sean Illing

I also wonder how much of this is a function of the way these internet platforms are designed and structured. How many people start off with a genuine interest in history and then find themselves pulled into a black hole of misogyny and racism and hate?

Donna Zuckerberg

This idea haunts me. Again, I think all we can do is try to provide other content for people to find, which is part of what I’m trying to do with my publication Eidolon.

Sean Illing

You also point to a strange overlap between how the far-right and the far-left view the whole tradition of ancient philosophy — Both sides see it as an affirmation of white male supremacy, only one wants to revive it and the other wants to replace it.

I’m curious how you respond to the left on this front?

Donna Zuckerberg

I don’t think that anybody should feel obligated to study Classics. If your personal feeling is that it can never be more than white supremacist patriarchy re-inscribing its own values through the Western canon, then I completely understand why you wouldn’t want to study it.

But if you’re politically progressive and find Classics fascinating, then there’s a lot of exciting work being done in the field to study that tension. I would point people in that direction and encourage them not to accept what they’ve told about what history is or must be.

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