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 		 [A scholar of the Classics takes a look at how the far right uses,
and abuses, ancient texts in its propaganda.] [https://portside.org/] 

 PORTSIDE CULTURE 

 NOT ALL DEAD WHITE MEN   [https://portside.org/node/18873] 

 

 Tara Wanda Merrigan 
 October 16, 2018
The Ploughshares Blog
[http://blog.pshares.org/index.php/donna-zuckerbergs-not-all-dead-white-men-and-red-pill-reductionism/]


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 _ A scholar of the Classics takes a look at how the far right uses,
and abuses, ancient texts in its propaganda. _ 

 , 

 

_Not All Dead White Men_

_Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Age_

Donna Zuckerberg

Harvard University Press

ISBN 9780674975552

For three years, classicist Donna Zuckerberg spent nearly every day
reading through the darkest, most hateful corners of the Internet,
researching how misogynistic online communities misappropriate ancient
texts. The final product of this research, _Not All Dead White Men:
Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Age
[http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674975552]_, was
published by Harvard University Press last week. In it, Zuckerberg
argues that far-right online forums, like /r/TheRedPill
[https://www.dailydot.com/layer8/reddit-red-pill/], “have turned the
ancient world into a meme: an image of an ancient statue or monument
becomes an endlessly replicable and malleable shorthand for projecting
their ideology and sending it into the world.”

At the time of the book’s writing, during the final years of the
Obama presidency, Zuckerberg had expected her research to make a small
contribution to her discipline: in shedding light on how the
Internet’s “manosphere” abused ancient texts, her book might
expand how scholars of the classics study contemporary uses of the
ancient world in lesser-known realms like /r/TheRedPill. She hadn’t
thought that the many varieties of hate she witnessed—homophobia,
xenophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, racism, sexism, and so
on—would be prominent aspects of American public discourse when her
book was eventually published. But then, a few days after submitting
her first draft in the fall of 2016, Donald Trump was elected, and the
structure of her project changed.

Where before Zuckerberg “put a great deal of energy in that first
draft into convincing the reader that the Red Pill community,
including the Alt-Right, was worth paying attention to,” far-right,
misogynistic politics now had more credence than at any moment in
recent memory. According to her research, /r/TheRedPill grew from
138,000 members in early 2016 to over 230,000 in early 2018. As of
late September 2018, that one forum, arguably the epicenter but by no
means the only red pill hub, had more than 290,000 members. (As of
late September, the subreddit had been “quarantined
[https://www.theverge.com/2018/9/28/17914240/reddit-update-quarantine-policy-appeals-process]”
by Reddit’s moderators.) The increase in followers has been
accompanied by the group’s development of increasingly extreme
right-leaning politics. From early 2016 to early 2018, Zuckerberg
says, the community has transformed from one focused on father’s
rights to one more interested in demeaning marginalized identities
and, especially, policing sexual politics and women’s reproductive
health.

The term “red pill” is in some ways a perfect label for this
far-right Reddit congregation. It’s a term stolen from _The Matrix_,
which itself took the idea of an “obscured and disconnected
reality” (more formally _simulacra_ and _simulation_) from critical
theorists like Baudrillard and others who were crucial in stoking
postmodernist paranoia. Unsurprisingly, red pill members seem to take
the term quite literally, using it to convey that, like Neo, forum
members have taken the red pill of enlightenment and now know what the
world is _really, truly_ about.

For the members of this group, the world is actually very much against
men—the feminists have created a _desert of the real_—and
progressive achievements are to blame for the Decline of Civilization.
Zuckerberg defines the red pill forum’s core beliefs about gender
and racial politics as such: “that all women are deceitful and
degenerate; that white men are by nature more rational than (and
therefore superior to) everyone else; that women’s sexual boundaries
exist to be manipulated and crossed; and, finally, that society as a
whole would benefit if men were given the responsibility for making
all decisions for women, particularly over their sexual and
reproductive choices.”

This is an inflammatory, regressive platform, but it’s not one
that’s totally antithetical to the perspectives portrayed by the
male authors of classical texts. “There is no denying that producing
feminist readings and uses of the Classics can be a bit like trying to
use a normal pair of scissors when you are left-handed: they were
designed with somebody else in mind,” Zuckerberg writes in _Not All
Dead White Men_. She includes a high-level gloss of ancient texts with
explicitly anti-women stances, like the following excerpt from the
writer Juvenal, who was known for his anti-marriage stance:

Who would be able to stand such an exemplary wife? I’d rather
Have a prostitute than you, Cornelia, mother of the Gracchi,
If along with your multitude of virtues you bring
A proud eyebrow and triumphs as part of your dowry.

Clearly, it’s a text that wouldn’t be particularly hard to bend to
a misogynistic point of view, if you had no trouble cherry-picking.
That Juvenal was a satirist, that any written text should be regarded
as a less-than-authentic statement, and that society, the status of
women, and the very institution of marriage are far different today
seem not to occur to those members of the red pill community.

_Meditations_ by Marcus Aurelius, Zuckerberg says, is a favorite
ancient text among red pill followers, but the work is most often
treated as if it’s a straightforward self-help manual targeting the
twenty-first-century man. “A very simple pathway to practical
philosophy,” writes the red pill recommender in his description of
_Meditations_. The message is simple but extraordinarily powerful:
life is short, the past and the future are inaccessible, pain and
pleasure have no meaning, but inside each one of us there is a ruling
faculty that is touched only by itself. Ovid’s _Ars Amatoria_ is
another work revered among red pill adherents. It’s included in a
list of “Recommended Great Books for Aspiring Womanizers” and
called “arguably the oldest game book is [sic] existence” by one
red pill blogger. Again and again in Zuckerberg’s book you witness
works by Ovid, Marcus Aurelius, and others falling prey to red-pill
reductionism.

The group’s penchant for warping ancient writing suggests a very old
impulse that has been seen again and again in human history. For red
pill adherents, using classical texts like _Ars Amatoria_ to excuse
sexual misconduct and further arguments about the base nature of women
is an attempt at legitimation. Referencing ancient, widely regarded
texts establishes a fictional legacy of sorts for their newly formed
political movement (Zuckerberg dates the red pill community’s start
back to 2012, when the Reddit forum was created by New Hampshire State
Representative Robert Fisher
[https://www.thedailybeast.com/new-hampshire-state-rep-who-created-reddits-red-pill-resigns]).

It’s the kind of impulse that, according to Zuckerberg’s research,
has parallels in Nazi Germany’s use of classical antiquity. Other
examples include twentieth-century fascists in Italy, revolutionaries
in late eighteenth century France, and, reaching back to antiquity,
the poet Virgil’s propagandistic _Aeneid_, an epic poem finished in
19 BCE that celebrates the authoritarian Roman Emperor Augustus.
“Borrowing the symbols of [ancient Roman and Greek] cultures, as the
Nazi Party did in the 1940s, can be a powerful declaration that you
are the inheritor of Western culture and civilization,” Zuckerberg
writes.

It becomes obvious by the end of _Not All Dead White Men_ that, along
with a desire for ideological validation, red pill forum members
repeatedly deploy just a few choice rhetorical strategies. Red-pill
arguments, in Zuckerberg’s portrayal, commonly avoid
counter-arguments and counter-evidence. They often attempt to redefine
an otherwise stable and culturally accepted term to suit ideological
purposes (e.g. what is and is not “sexual assault”). They use the
brute force of _ad hominem_ attacks. These strategies have an endgame
of appealing to their readers’ pathos.

Zuckerberg’s book quotes a number of red pill writings that employ
most of these strategies. Here’s one: “Modern misandry masking
itself as ‘feminism’ is, without equal, the most hypocritical
ideology in the world today,” writes one member of the red pill
Reddit thread. “Men have been killed due to ‘feminism.’ Children
and fathers have been forcibly separated for financial gain via
‘feminism.’ Slavery has returned to the West via ‘feminism.’
With all these misandric laws, one can fairly say that misandry is the
new Jim Crow.” The red pill pundit puts forth a highly controversial
argument without consideration of common counter-arguments and any
counter-evidence. He strives to twist the definition of feminism and
its aims as a political stance, defining it as exactly the opposite of
its culturally accepted meaning and even using scare quotes. As a
kicker to stoke pathos, the commenter compares feminism to racist
legal codes that enabled the lynching of black men.

For some classicists, the far right’s adoption of ancient texts is
as frustrating as it is worrisome. Judith Hallett, a professor
emeritus at the University of Maryland at College Park, says that
progressive activists could likewise claim a classical lineage for
their beliefs. “Classics is [the] jumping off point for
multiculturalism, homoeroticism, the resistance to slavery, [and] to
tyranny,” she says. Citing Lucretius, she continues to explain that
you can say that Book 4 and 5 of _De Rerum Natura_—which are all
about socialism—are the beginning of left-wing social justices
causes. Hallett, who has worked on gender in the ancient world and did
her PhD at Harvard during the second-wave feminist movement, wonders
why outlandish right-wing voices have become the loudest in
contemporary American society. “The question is to me why are these
male, fascist voices so predominant?”

***

Zuckerberg was pregnant with her first child, finishing a PhD in
Classics at Princeton, and running _Eidolon_, a digital magazine on
classics in contemporary culture, when she had her first encounter
with red pill ideology, in 2013. She had been reading an online
article about single motherhood and saw that the comments section had
been flooded with anti-feminist vitriolic posts. She did some research
and realized that the ideas put forth by these commenters belonged to
a whole ecosphere of the internet, sometimes called the
“manosphere.” Soon after, she published an essay about the red
pill community’s neo-Nazi leanings
[https://jezebel.com/how-to-teach-an-ancient-rape-joke-1705749434] on
Jezebel and began working on _Not All Dead White Men_.

It was at times difficult to spend so much time reading the vehement
accusations—that all women are liable to make false rape allegations
and that feminists have ruined society and brainwashed people into
believing that women as a class have a worse lot than men, among other
viscerally objectionable arguments that casually deploy racism,
anti-Semitism, homophobia, and essentially every kind of vitriol
imaginable—that are synonymous with the “manosphere,” but she
was determined: “I tried to set up some very specific rules, [like
reading red-pill forums for] no more than a certain amount of time per
day,” she says. If she hit an “extreme gross-out point,” she
would “stop and maybe stop for a day.”

The result is a clear explanation of the machinations of the red pill
community. Sarah Bond, an associate professor of Classics at the
University of Iowa who has also written about how the far-right abuses
classical texts and who has written for _Eidolon_, says that the
biggest contribution of _Not All Dead White Men_ is its philological
examination of red-pill rhetoric. “Donna has gone through the muck
of the red pill internet,” she says. It’s clear—whether it’s
classical texts, medieval Europe, or the British Empire, they’re
making arguments about—that this rhetoric is how they do it.

***

In some ways, Zuckerberg sees living in Silicon Valley—a region
that’s often more focused on the possibilities of the future than
the study of the past—and being the member of a family known for its
work in social media (Zuckerberg is the only one of four siblings not
working in tech; her brother is Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, famous
for “moving fast and breaking things,” including perhaps the 2016
presidential election) as a partial inspiration for this book. “I do
think that was definitely an influence on me, being in a place where a
lot of people are very concerned with internet discourse,” she says.

The shortcomings of social media, how forums have allowed hate groups
to flourish online, isn’t the focus of _Not All Dead White Men_, but
there are moments when Zuckerberg explicitly, if tactfully, critiques
the tech companies who also make their home in Silicon Valley.
“Because I know so many people working in the technology industry, I
hear a great deal about the power of technology to connect the world
and build communities,” she writes. “But when people with similar
interests are connected, some of the strengthened communities will
inevitably be those bound by shared hatreds and prejudices.”

Her book neither lays out a plan for how to address online hate groups
nor examine the degree to which liberally moderated forums have played
in the rise of the red pill community. And moving forward, there’s
no simple solution to preventing personalities with extremist, hateful
ideologies from congregating online. “It’s a big question,” she
says. “I don’t think it’s any one person’s responsibility.”
Zuckerberg brings up the equation of what can be done. If you ban
someone on Twitter, maybe fewer people will hear it? Will it make a
difference if Alex Jones is now only on Gab?

While the book doesn’t offer structural solutions to the problems of
tech, _Not All Dead White Men_ offers some sense of how individuals
with an interest in progressive politics might respond to not only the
abuse of ancient works, but also to the works themselves. In
dissecting the far right’s misuse of these texts, Zuckerberg opens
the door to a reconsideration of what is and isn’t the “foundation
of Western Civilization.” “If you look at [Classics] department
websites…you will still see that kind of language,” Zuckerberg
says. “The ‘foundation’ argument is a slippery slope, because
it’s a kind of way white supremacists dog-whistle their ideas.”

Curtis Dozier, a visiting assistant professor at Vassar, agrees—that
examining the abuse of the Classics by online hate groups offers a
chance to reevaluate the ancient world’s legacy more broadly. In his
role as the head of Vassar’s Pharos Project
[http://pages.vassar.edu/pharos/], which catalogues (without a
paywall) misinterpretations of classical texts and ancient cultures,
Dozier has seen how debunking bad arguments only goes so far, and how
a larger conversation would be beneficial. “I think it raises a more
fundamental question of: what is our philosophical relationship to
antiquity? I kind of realized after I started doing the [Pharos] work
that there’s a lot of stuff about classical reception as a
subject…, and that work assumes a sort of fundamental value of
antiquity,” he says. Dozier wants to push Pharos, a research project
inspired by Zuckerberg’s suggestion to create a Tumblr for white
supremacists abusing the Classics, to a place where the site
“articulates ways to talk about antiquity that support progressive
politics.”

Applying a progressive, feminist lens to the Classics isn’t
novel—Hallett, the UMD professor, is one of a number of scholars who
has been studying gender and sexuality in the ancient world since the
1970s. According to the classicists interviewed for this piece,
however, while scholars working with a feminist lens aren’t
exceedingly rare, numbers-wise, their perspective is not what is most
often highlighted at academic conferences. So Zuckerberg, and Pharos,
are noteworthy for their commitment to making progressive
interpretations of the Classics accessible to the broader American
public—not “locked away in journals and academic libraries,” as
Dozier puts it. “Classics is meant for everyone because it is a
humanistic discipline,” says Bond. “We are inquiring into the
condition of the human experience.”

“The men of the Red Pill are unwilling to accept that those with
liberal political beliefs can also appreciate classical,” Zuckerberg
writes in the book’s conclusion. In defiance of this view,
Zuckerberg seems to make a habit of gaining insight from these trolls.
In response, she says, a “feminist Classics today is more exciting
and necessary than ever.”

About Tara Wanda Merrigan: "I'm an independent writer whose work
focuses on gender, literature, and art. I did my bachelor's degree in
American studies, but my first (academic) love was Latin poetry. My
bylines have appeared online in The Paris Review, T Magazine,
Hyperallergic, Longreads, Marie Claire, Allure, Lit Hub, etc. Born in
Boston, I now live in Philadelphia with my partner."

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