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

Portside Culture

 

Tara Wanda Merrigan

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

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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, was published by Harvard University Press last week. In it, Zuckerberg argues that far-right online forums, like /r/TheRedPill, “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” 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).

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 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, 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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