Leesfragment: Not All Dead White Men

17 oktober 2018 , door Donna Zuckerberg
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Nu in de winkel: Not All Dead White Men: Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Age door Donna Zuckerberg. Lees op Athenaeum.nl de Inleiding.

“A chilling account of trolling, misogyny, racism, and bad history proliferated online by the Alt-Right, bolstered by the apparent authority of Greek and Latin Classics. Zuckerberg makes a persuasive case for why we need a new, more critical, and less comfortable relationship between the ancient and modern worlds in this important and very timely book.”—Emily Wilson

A virulent strain of antifeminism is thriving online that treats women’s empowerment as a mortal threat to men and to the integrity of Western civilization. Its proponents cite ancient Greek and Latin texts to support their claims—arguing that they articulate a model of masculinity that sustained generations but is now under siege.

Donna Zuckerberg dives deep into the virtual communities of the far right, where men lament their loss of power and privilege and strategize about how to reclaim them. She finds, mixed in with weightlifting tips and misogynistic vitriol, the words of the Stoics deployed to support an ideal vision of masculine life. On other sites, pickup artists quote Ovid’s Ars Amatoria to justify ignoring women’s boundaries. By appropriating the Classics, these men lend a veneer of intellectual authority and ancient wisdom to their project of patriarchal white supremacy. In defense or retaliation, feminists have also taken up the Classics online, to counter the sanctioning of violence against women.

Not All Dead White Men reveals that some of the most controversial and consequential debates about the legacy of the ancients are raging not in universities but online.

 

Introduction

At the end of 2016, posters for the white nationalist group Identity Evropa began to appear on college campuses in the United States. The posters featured black-and- white photographs of statues, most of which were either ancient, such as the Apollo Belvedere, or obviously classicizing, such as Nicolas Coustou’s 1696 statue of Julius Caesar. Overlaid on these images were generic, seemingly inoffensive slogans such as “Protect Our Heritage” and “Our Future Belongs to Us.” The posters caused a wave of outrage and were quickly removed, although they remained available for sale on the Identity Evropa website under the heading “Epic Posters” for nearly a year.
This use of classical imagery to promote a white nationalist agenda is far from an isolated occurrence. In fact, the Identity Evropa posters are unusual not for what they depict but, rather, for having an actual physical presence. In the less tangible world of the internet, far-right communities ideologically aligned with Identity Evropa have increasingly been using artifacts, texts, and historic figures evocative of ancient Greece and Rome to lend cultural weight to their reactionary vision of ideal white masculinity.
These online communities go by many names—the Alt-Right, the manosphere, Men Going Their Own Way, pickup artists—and exist under the larger umbrella of what is known as the Red Pill, a group of men connected by common resentments against women, immigrants, people of color, and the liberal elite. The name, adopted from the film The Matrix, encapsulates the idea that society is unfair to men—heterosexual white men in particular—and is designed to favor women. The Red Pill finds its primary online home on the subreddit r / theredpill, a forum on the social media platform Reddit dedicated to discussion of Red Pill ideas. Its influence and reach, however, extend far beyond that home: men in Red Pill communities—on Reddit and elsewhere online—share articles, memes, and news stories to incite one another’s anger. That anger then occasionally finds outlets in what are sometimes called troll storms: a hurricane of digital abuse aimed at those with the misfortune to attract attention.
The Red Pill community has an odd and uncomfortable relationship with social media: its members exhibit widespread disdain for every major social media platform, but they also use those platforms as major modes of communication and object vociferously when members of the community are banned from social media sites. James “Roissy” Weidmann, writer of the popular blog Chateau Heartiste, calls Twitter “Twatter,” and Return of Kings, a popular blog within the manosphere community, frequently publishes articles arguing that Twitter’s censorship of conservative personalities such as Milo Yiannopoulos will lead to its eventual bankruptcy. Many members of the community have presence on both Twitter and Gab, a less restrictive Twitter clone, and some factions of the community have relocated from the barely policed news aggregator Reddit to its even less restrictive counterpart Voat. Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook (and my older brother), is frequently mocked as “Mark Cuckerberg” or “Zuck the Cuck,” epithets based on the term cuck, a particularly significant form of insult within the Red Pill derived from the term cuckold.
I understand what it feels like to have an ambivalent relationship with social media. I moved to Silicon Valley in 2012, when my husband accepted a job at a social-media marketing company that was later acquired by Google. All three of my siblings have worked in social media, and so have many people in my social circle. 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. But when people with similar interests are connected, some of the strengthened communities will inevitably be those bound by shared hatreds and prejudices. The communities studied in this book are a perfect example. Social media has led to an unprecedented democratization of information, but it has also created the opportunity for men with antifeminist ideas to broadcast their views to more people than ever before—and to spread conspiracy theories, lies, and misinformation. Social media has elevated misogyny to entirely new levels of violence and virulence.
Anyone today who does not intend to become a digital hermit is guaranteed to encounter these men online. Those inevitable encounters will be less traumatic and shocking to those who are prepared and able to recognize the strategies they use to attack their targets—including how they use Greek and Roman antiquity to bolster their credibility.
The Red Pill community is by no means unique in its attraction to ancient Greece and Rome. Political and social movements have long appropriated the history, literature, and myth of the ancient world to their advantage. Borrowing the symbols of these cultures, as the Nazi Party did in the 1940s, can be a powerful declaration that you are the inheritor of Western culture and civilization. The men of the Red Pill have adapted this strategy for the digital age. They 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.
Classics is not the only field of inquiry these men use to justify their views. They are particularly interested in the histories of Great Britain, Germany, and Russia, especially the medieval period, and they also compose and cite articles about evolutionary psychology, philosophy, biology, and economics. The Greek and Roman Classics, nonetheless, hold particular cultural significance for them. By turning frequently to authors such as Marcus Aurelius and Ovid, they attempt to perpetuate the idea that white men are the guardians of intellectual authority, especially when such authority is perceived to be under threat from women and people of color. They claim that the ancient world and, by extension, the study of the ancient world are under attack by the “politically correct establishment” and “social justice warriors” in US classrooms. As colleges move to replace some of the dead white men of the literary canon with writers who are not dead, not white, and not men, the living white men of the Red Pill have appeared as the self-appointed guardians and defenders of the cultural legacy of Western civilization.
Red Pill engagement with the Classics would be concerning even if it were simply a matter of a few internet trolls writing for an audience of a few hundred thousand more internet trolls. These men, no matter how small their numbers, have a disproportionately loud presence in the online discourse about sex and gender, and it would be necessary to explore how they use antiquity to construct their authority. Unfortunately, however, the far-right abuse of Classics extends beyond just a few online publications and subreddits.
The election of President Donald Trump in 2016 empowered these online communities to be even more outspoken about their ideology. As one manosphere thought-leader wrote, “His presence [in office] automatically legitimizes masculine behaviors that were previously labeled sexist and misogynist”—but, of even greater concern, it also put a few men who share those ideas into positions of power near the president. Steve Bannon, the former White House chief strategist and, earlier, the executive chair of the far-right website Breitbart News (which he once famously called “the platform for the Alt-Right”), is a lover of the Classics; one screenwriter who worked with Bannon—on a hip-hop version of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus—recalls that “he was always quoting [Marcus] Aurelius.” And Michael Anton, a national security official in the Trump administration, wrote essays in The Claremont Review and other websites during the election under the pseudonym Publius Decius Mus, after a fourth-century bce Roman consul. Those essays would end up providing an intellectual foundation for Trumpism, which Anton defined in his essay “The Flight 93 Election” as “secure borders, economic nationalism, and America-first foreign policy.” Those who frequent Red Pill message boards have embraced these two men as heroes.
It would be an exaggeration to say that the men of the Red Pill community are writing national policy. However, on some level, they seem to believe they are influencing policy, and that belief has empowered them. Their numbers are also swelling: as of this writing, the subreddit r / theredpill has over 230,000 subscribers, up from 138,000 at the beginning of 2016. The members of this growing community are more confident than ever that their gender-and race-based politics are validated both by science and by the Western tradition, and they believe that highly placed members of the Trump administration agree with them.

This book is about how the men of the Red Pill use the literature and history of ancient Greece and Rome to promote patriarchal and white supremacist ideology. My goal is to lay bare the mechanics of this appropriation: to show how classical antiquity informs the Red Pill worldview and how these men weaponize Greece and Rome in service of their agenda. Anybody who has an interest in the Classics or social justice should not ignore this trend, which has the potential to reshape what ancient Greece and Rome mean in the twenty-first century while simultaneously promoting dangerous and discriminatory views about gender and race.
I have decided to focus primarily on the gender politics rather than the racial politics of Red Pill communities for two reasons.

First, the gender politics are generally more coherent throughout the Red Pill, with a shared interest in policing the sexuality and reproduction of young women (particularly young white women), whereas outright white supremacy is a more hotly contested issue within the community. Second, the use of the ancient world to understand gender and sex is bidirectional: the men of the manosphere see their own misogyny reflected back at them, theorized, and celebrated in ancient literature. White supremacy is less easy to retroject onto the ancient world, which had no meaningful concept of biological race, as many scholar have shown. But although whiteness is not a meaningful concept to apply to antiquity, that conceptual lacuna has not stopped the Alt-Right from using ancient Greece and Rome to fabricate a cohesive transhistorical “white” identity and a continuity of “European” or “Western” civilization for themselves. It has, however, kept them from using ancient literature to help them theorize whiteness, as the manosphere has done with masculinity, and thus their discourse about ancient race is necessarily more superficial.
This book is written for people who have an interest in Classics but have not studied it extensively. It does not, therefore, contain an extensive social history about the lives of women in ancient Greece and Rome. I provide context for the ancient texts and historical figures under discussion throughout, as well as some basic background in Chapter 4 on sexual violence in the ancient world. For readers interested in learning more about women in antiquity, I offer suggestions for further reading in the endnotes. I also do not focus on the history of aggrieved masculinity in America, as social historians such as Michael Kimmel have done. The problems faced by men in America—the problems the Red Pill community points to as proof that we live in a gynocentric society—have deep historical roots; however, the Red Pill represents a new, dangerous phase of American masculinity in the internet age.
Although my focus in this book is on the use of classical antiquity in the Red Pill community, this relatively narrow topic can provide a path into a deeper understanding of the Red Pill community as a whole. In researching this book, I spent years reading articles, posts, and comment sections on Red Pill websites large and small, on a range of topics from professional success to personal fitness to relationship advice. I have drawn my examples primarily from the most read sites and most influential thought leaders within the Red Pill—the writers with many followers and the articles with many comments.
The first chapter of this book describes the various factions within the Red Pill in greater detail and explains why the ancient world holds such appeal for them. Despite the movement’s apparent disorganization and undertheorized positions, I argue that we would be wise to pay attention to them rather than dismissing them as an impotent fringe movement. The need to take the Red Pill seriously is especially urgent for feminists who use the internet and social media for personal and professional communications. As soon as a woman self-identifies online as a feminist, she is likely to find herself in a hailstorm of abusive tweets and emails from the men who frequent Red Pill websites. Understanding their ideology and tactics for online intimidation can help lessen the impact of that abuse.
In Chapter 2, I explore the fascination with ancient Stoicism displayed on Red Pill websites, which frequently discuss Stoic ideas and texts. In particular, writers use Stoicism to justify their belief that women and people of color are not just angrier and more emotional than men, but morally inferior as well. The growing community of Stoicism enthusiasts outside of the Red Pill, I argue, should not simply dismiss this use of the philosophy; instead, it should seek to understand how Stoicism’s tenets can lend themselves to the perpetuation of systemic injustice.
Chapter 3 examines one particular faction of the manosphere: the community of pickup artists who claim the Roman poet Ovid as the first person to write a seduction manual. The Ars Amatoria, written over two thousand years ago, is a fascinating and contradictory work that has puzzled Latin scholars with its playful tone and apparent justifications for sexual assault. Reading Ovid alongside the advice of pickup artists offers us insight into seduction methodology in both ancient and modern times: both rely on the ideas that women’s boundaries are permeable and consent is a flexible concept.
While the third chapter focuses on the sexual politics of the Red Pill in the contemporary world, the fourth and final chapter addresses how ancient literature informs their aspirational sexual politics: how, in their ideal world, men and women would interact. This ideal patriarchy draws heavily on ancient models of marriage and family to promote a world in which women have no decision-making power outside of the home. This chapter also addresses the Red Pill fixation with false rape allegations, one of the most popular topics on many Red Pill fora and their ultimate proof that we live in a society where women have more privilege than men. I use the myth of Phaedra and Hippolytus, an ancient example of a false allegation with disastrous consequences, to show that, because there was anxiety about false allegations in the deeply patriarchal ancient world as well, the Red Pill use of the trope is actually a tool for misdirection. These men not only wish to prevent false allegations from occurring; they also wish to resurrect a world where female consent to sexual activity is as negligible a concern as it was in the ancient world.
As Angela Nagle argues in her 2017 book Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right, far-right internet subcultures are powered by a politics of transgression. It is perhaps ironic that the ancient Greek and Roman Classics, with all of their considerable, well-recognized cultural capital, have been embraced so vocally by a fundamentally countercultural movement. The men of the Red Pill use their vision of an idealized version of Western civilization and its past to critique our own society and inspire change, and they often rhetorically position this strategy as the natural, obvious way to understand what classical antiquity means in the present day. But by analyzing and deconstructing this Red Pill enthusiasm for ancient Greece and Rome, I hope to articulate a different vision for a feminist, radical place that classical antiquity can occupy in contemporary political discourse.

*

As classical scholars have become aware of the Far Right’s appropriation of antiquity, some have responded by suggesting that we should focus on pointing out how inexpert these appropriations tend to be and how little actual knowledge of ancient Greece and Rome they reveal. But while Red Pill references to the Classics are often inaccurate, confounding, or lacking in nuance, they can be dangerous nevertheless. Even the most elementary errors still leverage the ancient world to promote reactionary ideas about gender and race. I do not, therefore, devote too much energy to correcting flawed Red Pill classical interpretations. I do occasionally point out the most blatant errors in order to avoid perpetuating misinformation about the classical world, but identifying such errors is far from an end in itself. By focusing on the Red Pill community’s flawed understanding of ancient Greece and Rome, scholars may miss opportunities to engage with the deeper ideological purpose of classical appropriation.
Marcus Aurelius, one of the Red Pill community’s favorite ancient writers, once wrote, “It’s ridiculous to try to escape other people’s flaws and not your own—to try the impossible rather than the possible” (Meditations 7.71). We cannot stop these men from using and abusing the history and literature of the ancient world in service of a patriarchal, white nationalist agenda. But by revealing how this self-mythologizing works, we can develop strategies for counteracting its pernicious influence.

 

Excerpted from Not All Dead White Men: Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Age by Donna Zuckerberg, published by Harvard University Press.

Copyright © 2018 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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