The alt-right have a fondness for justifying their beliefs with mangled historical references and assertions that only white people have contributed significantly to culture. The historians and classicists have noticed, and are beginning to marshal resources to fight back. So here you go, a preliminary list of articles that rebut fascist claims. The Nazi wanna-bes are going to hate it. But, as Donna Zuckerberg frankly admits, there is a danger of temptation.
The Alt-Right is hungry to learn more about the ancient world. It believes that the classics are integral to education. It is utterly convinced that classical antiquity is relevant to the world we live in today, a comfort to classicists who have spent decades worrying that the field may be sliding into irrelevance in the eyes of the public.
The next four years are going to be a very difficult time for many people. But if we’re not careful, it could be a dangerously easy time for those who study ancient Greece and Rome. Classics, supported by the worst men on the Internet, could experience a renaissance and be propelled to a position of ultimate prestige within the humanities during the Trump administration, as it was in Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Classics made great again.
This is my call to arms for all classicists. No matter how white and male Classics once was, we are not that anymore. In spite of the numerous obstacles that remain, our field is now more diverse than ever, and that is something to be proud of.
These men are positioning themselves as the defenders of Western Civilization. Classicists, when you see this rhetoric, fight back. We must not allow the Alt-Right to define what Classics will mean in Trump’s America.
But she also points out what needs to be done.
It is time for Classics as a discipline to say to these men: we will not give you more fodder for your ludicrous theory that white men are morally and intellectually superior to all other races and genders. We do not support your myopic vision of “Western Civilization.” Your version of antiquity is shallow, poorly contextualized, and unnuanced. When you use the classics to support your hateful ideas, we will push back by exposing just how weak your understanding is, how much you have invested in something about which you know so little.
She also provides a specific list of actions classics experts should take, as the alt-right continues to invade and appropriate their discipline, especially in light of the fact that classics already has a problem with people who see the field as “the study of one elite white man after another”. Boy, does this resonate: this is exactly the problem we have in atheism, too. Some of these solutions apply to us.
When you hear someone —be they a student, a colleague, or an amateur — say that they are interested in Classics because of “the Greek miracle” or because Classics is “the foundation of Western civilization and culture,” challenge that viewpoint respectfully but forcefully. Engage them on their assumed definitions of “foundation,” “Western,” “civilization,” and “culture.” Point out that such ideas are a slippery slope to white supremacy. Seek better reasons for studying Classics.
In your scholarship, focus on the parts of antiquity that aren’t elite white men. Read and cite the work of scholars who write about race, gender, and class in the ancient world. Be open about the marginalization and bias that exists within our discipline. Model a kind of Classics that isn’t quite so congenial to the neo-Nazis of the Alt-Right.
As the Alt-Right becomes more vocal and normalized, we may face pressure to frame our research and teaching in a way that will appeal to this new audience of Classics enthusiasts. Resist that pressure.
Do not write content for these men. Sometimes they publish articles such as “Mate, Hate is Great! A Philosophical Defense of Misogyny”; if you are approached to contribute to such a blog, refuse and write about the incident instead.
Consider coming out in support of progressive student and community movements. Classics has a long history of regressive politics, and if we are serious about social justice and activism, we must speak out.
Write to professional Classics organizations, including the Society for Classical Studies, and encourage them to take a stand against these groups. Samuel Huskey has written and shared a lovely example of such a letter.
If you are so inclined, engage with the classical reception that these men produce. There is a narrative blooming that you can see in that Breitbart Guide to the Alt-Right, where the writers claim, “Skinheads, by and large, are low-information, low-IQ thugs driven by the thrill of violence and tribal hatred. The alternative right are a much smarter group of people — which perhaps suggests why the Left hates them so much. They’re dangerously bright.” But the Alt-Right are not “dangerously bright.” They are young men — if you’ll excuse the pun, the kids are alt-right — whose inane readings of classical texts often provide a window into their intellectual shortcomings.
I am considering creating a Tumblr to document examples of Alt-Right Classics. If you are interested in contributing, contact the Eidolon team (email@example.com).
Note especially #4, which is particularly relevant given recent attempts to draft popular atheists to attend and speak at alt-right conferences. Zuckerberg’s response to that would be…don’t.
I have to add this statement from the Society for Classical Studies:
…the Society strongly supports efforts to include all groups among those who study and teach the ancient world, and to encourage understanding of antiquity by all. It vigorously and unequivocally opposes any attempt to distort the diverse realities of the Greek and Roman world by enlisting the Classics in the service of ideologies of exclusion, whether based on race, color, national origin, gender, or any other criterion. As scholars and teachers, we condemn the use of the texts, ideals, and images of the Greek and Roman world to promote racism or a view of the Classical world as the unique inheritance of a falsely-imagined and narrowly-conceived western civilization.
Heh. Thierry Baudet, self-acclaimed intellectual and the next alt-right thingy in Dutch parliament, thought to impress everybody by citing Latin in his maiden speech. Unfortunately for him, people who really master Latin pointed out the many mistakes.
Not that Baudet cares, he is about as immune to criticism as Trump is.
It’s not like we haven’t been here before (or, in a more thematically appropriate vein, nihil novus sub sole). In fact Classics never stopped being used as a buttress for regressive right-wing ideals. In the UK, certainly, it has always been seen as the preserve of wealthy posh boys. The whole cultural project of the Renaissance was buying in to a fusion of Classics and the Establishment, trying to get a little of the glamour that Athens and Rome consciously projected to rub off on you. It hasn’t really changed much.
My own take on this is that all the suggestions above are good ones, but we need something more radical too. We need to make Classics the cultural property of everyone, not just of the elite. I don’t know how it is in the US, but I doubt it’s much different from here – Classical subjects are almost never offered to children in state schools, but most expensive private schools still offer them (in many Latin is still compulsory) as they have for centuries. Which has made my employment prospects rather shaky, given how much I despise the Public School ethos. Right now in Britain the two most prominent champions of Classics are Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg – regressive arch-conservative Old Etonain buffoons both. One of whom may very well become Prime Minister in the not too distant future. Classics certainly has an image problem. If it weren’t for the sterling efforts of Mary Beard and Richard Miles we’d be in a very bad place.
Another thing I would note is that for far too many people “Classics” is just the Latin and Greek languages. I think these are perhaps the least interesting aspect of the Classical world – we really need people to be exposed to the history, culture, ideas and foibles of the ancients, not just taught to decline their nouns and conjugate their verbs. Even if it is just to see that people did things very differently in the past, and that our own cultural assumptions and institutions are not human universals.
Also, we mustn’t be afraid of coming to harsh and damning conclusions about the figures of the ancient world. We mustn’t condemn universally, but there really is no getting away from the deep and abiding strands of misogyny, imperialism, chauvinism and racism that runs through pretty much all ancient thinking to some degree. Though these did have their ancient critics too – Euripides, Tacitus, Juvenal and others – and they shouldn’t be ignored. Our primary engagement with the ancient past should not be about lionising and demonising – it should be about understanding and analysing.
(1) Not just historians, classicists, and atheists. In general, I would say, it’s the reality-attached community which must not tolerate their work being co-opted by nazis. Lists like that in the OP are useful, and similar lists should be possible for others. Some of the specific parameters (and wording) would vary depending on expertise and the nazis’s subversions of that expertise.
Of course, the lists themselves aren’t too useful unless applied…
(2) Please note “reality-attached community” includes artistes and others, whose works can be fanciful. This is potentially quite powerful, as the nazis’s claims are fanciful (delusional). As just one example, clever mockery can be effective, especially since it’s the uncommitted who are a desired audience / critical recipients (not the nazis themselves (of course, if you can “flip” a nazi, great! — that’s even better than punching one)).
(Related, I recently discovered the band Faun, who play a medieval folk metal music. It’s largely “white” European-inspired, which has — sadly and predictably — been seized on by nazis; the Youtube comments are a minefield. As far as I am aware, the band itself (and most of its fans) have nothing to do with those kooks, but — partially motivating point ‘2’ above — seem fairly silent on the Youtube assault.)
While we’re on the subject of how a nuanced and informed approach to the Classics can counter the Trumpian nonsense, I might also draw attention to an obscure and little-read text of Xenophon’s – the Ways and Means (Poroi e peri Prosodon). It’s a short pamphlet-length tract, written in the aftermath of the Peloponnesian War, where Xenophon gives some suggestions as to how Athens might rebuild its shattered economy now that it can’t rely on the “contributions” of its Delian League allies / Imperial possessions.
Xenophon’s main suggestion is that Athens encourages immigrants from across the Mediterranean to settle in Athens and set up businesses and trading concerns there. He says the state should offer land around the ports to these resident aliens (normally land in Attica was strictly reserved for citizens) to build houses, warehouses and shops, rather than laying idle in citizen hands. The immigrants, being metics, would then be taxed the standard metic tax and thereby replenish the state’s coffers. Rather than throwing her weight around as an imperial hegemon in the Aegean, Athens should become a cosmopolitan, mercantile society that people want to come and do business with.
Now, knowing what we do about how modern capitalism can fester in such societies, that wouldn’t be my remedy for this situation. But Xenophon is far from a touchy-feely soft-hearted liberal by Athenian standards (he’s something of a critic of the democratic system and a Spartan sympathiser), and even he saw openness and immigration as a way to revitalise and restore the fortunes of Athens. Compared to Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric, the difference s stark,
Ye gads, yes, Yes, and for emphasis, YES: I loathe thatconfusion / presumption. The languages, works in those languages, and errors in using those languages, do offer interesting and valuable insights, but so do the mundane physical(≠ permanent) things, as well as the rarities, plus the less-tangible (albeit obviously with caution) such as verbal stories, and so on. And that’s mostly at the artifact level, the interpretations and implications can then be fascinating. Then there’s the comparing-and-contrasting with other (not necessarily contemporaneous nor geographically near-located) societies, and the whole set of subjects is, well, amazing.
Focusing on the Classical period of Western Civilization is very misleading. This is a late period in development.
The roots go much further back than that.
1. Agriculture was developed in the middle east, Mesopotamia, and Egypt.
2. Metal working particularly of iron was developed in the same areas.
3. So was writing, the alphabet of the Phoenicians.
All of these places are populated by what we today, would consider brown people. They certainly aren’t what the racists call “white”.
And these are critical to running a civilization.
The question of why in the current world, the Northern Europeans are on top has been dealt with before.
Read Jared Diamond’s, Guns, Germs, and Steel.
It’s basically a historical accident of geography.
And there is nothing that says we will remain on top.
In fact, in recent decades the West has been sliding down.
The Asians are on their way up, in particular the 1.4 billion Chinese.
Also note that the Chinese classical period was roughly 300 years before the Greek one.
A bit more complicated than that: Diamond argued feedback loops amplified ecological-social traits, and the compact “European” area (including the golden crescent) encouraged traits leading to the current situation. As Jared Diamond himself said (in the New York Times) when Romney claimed to have read Guns Germs and Steel, “My focus was mostly on biological features, like plant and animal species, and among physical characteristics, the ones I mentioned were continents’ sizes and shapes and relative isolation. […] Will [Mitt Romney] continue to espouse one-factor explanations for multicausal problems, and fail to understand history and the modern world?”
me@9, “golden crescent” → “Fertile Crescent”. Oops! Sorry.
Pierce R. Butler says
Didn’t Tacitus consistently harp on the innate inferiority of those ugly dirty dumb Teutonic beasts?
Pierce R. Butler, #11
Tacitus’s opinion of the Germans (and of the tribes of Britannia too) is not monolithic or straightforward. He singles out certain characteristics of the northern European peoples for praise (their bravery in battle, sexual modesty and chastity, relative social equality and lack of greed), and others for censure (laziness, drunkenness, lack of stamina). Very often he is implicitly comparing barbarian virtue and simplicity with the corruption, vice and urban dissolution of the Romans of his own society. Indeed, Tacitus’s deep cynicism leads him to consider that the Romanisation of other peoples is usually just sharing corrupt vices with them and thus spreading the kind of decadent society he hates from back home (“they call it culture, but it’s really just another part of their enslavement”). It’s a classic case of “noble savage” rhetoric – the eye is very much on the Romans throughout.
On a similar note, last week’s “On the Media” had a segment on the appropriation of Medieval History by the alt-right: http://www.wnyc.org/story/when-neo-nazis-lay-claim-your-field
Ray Ingles says
For all the reasons above, they are, of course, wrong. But for some, it might at least create a little cognitive dissonance if you use the phrase, “Past performance is no guarantee of future results.”
@6 Raven – you beat me to the punch. Yes, a helluva lot of “classical” civilization was black, brown, Semitic, pre-Christian, and even with the Hellenic and Roman successors, it included no lily-white northern Europeans. Iraq and Iran were big deals. It’s also worth noting how homosexuality was well tolerated among the Athenians, and that the greatest mythical warrior, Achilles, and the greatest real warrior, Alexander, were both gay — or at least flexible, both had longtime male lovers, and the fierce warrior Spartans whom Gameboys seem to adore engaged in quite actively gay rituals in their all-male training camps, and Spartan brides were forced to shave their heads on their wedding night, and engage in anal sex, so that the men would feel comfortable with this novel first encounter with a female.
Augustus and most of the other Caesars were gay, and Caligula enjoyed the spectacle of floating around in parties on his man-made lake and on his Imperial Barge have all the guests watch as he found the largest endowed Nubian men to roger him. Yup, alt-righters, your favorite quasi-fascist aristocrat dictators were ….emmm…what would you call it in your Libertarian lexicon, auto-cucks?
It’s also worth nothing that in the original main entrance to Boston’s MFA (now of course all museums force you to go through cafes and bookstores), they had the three great western halls — Egypt, Greece, and Rome — radiating to the right, and the three great Eastern civilizations — India, China, and Japan — radiating to the left. It’s sheer inanity, by any standard, to not include East Asia and the subcontinent in any conceivable definition of classical civilization.
And of course me Irish Da used to tell snooty WASPs, “we were running the world’s first universities and preserving learning and culture through the Dark Ages while you Brits were grunting to each other in pelts and digging turnips in bogs.”
But in the end, most of the Righties I know who ooze over “classical civilization” have probably never taken a course in it, never read Thucydides or Herodotus or The Illiad or The Odyssey, really haven’t much of a clue beyond the “300” movies and Troy and a general notion that these were Might Make Right cultures of scientist-warriors who enslaved lesser humans and built empires and got rich and had indoor hot and cold water plumbing. Woo-hoo. The kind of guys to whom Gingrich and Ron Paul sound wicked smahhht.
We have to be quite careful when talking about stories of same-sex activity in Athens and Rome. Particularly when it comes to lurid stories about Spartan warriors and Roman emperors. The sources of information we have on these things tend to be highly problematic.
Sparta was an all but illiterate society. We have no documents from the Spartans themselves telling us what their lives and customs were like, so we have to piece it together based on what outsiders say about their society – primarily Athenians. The most detailed source on Classical Spartan culture and customs – from whom the rather fanciful stories about a cross-dressing marriage ritual come – is Plutarch. Plutarch was a priest at Delphi and a native of Chaeronea in Boeotia, writing about 400 years after Sparta’s decline. His focus was mainly on moral stories and items of unusual antiquarian interest. So his reportage is somewhat suspect. Athenian contemporaries of Sparta at the height of its unusual communitarian constitution tend to talk about how weird Spartan women are, because they are much freer and more liberated than Athenian women. The idea that they had to dress up as men to get married fits in rather too well with Athenian cultural chauvinism on how mannish Spartan women were. The notion that their wedding night would be the first time Spartan men and women would have any contact with one another is also a peculiarly Athenian piece of fantasy – in Athens men and women were kept rigorously separate by culture and custom, but in Sparta women and men both exercised outdoors naked, swam in the same rivers, hunted, fished and occupied communal spaces together. The idea that the men were kept confined in their barracks all the time and the women in their homes is very likely Athenian projection. As is the notion that the barracks of the agoge were run along institutionally paiderastic lines. The truth is we really don’t know how important paiderastic relationships were in Spartan military culture and education. They were a popular thing among Athenian aristocrats, that much we can be fairly sure of, and in some other cities too (Thebes with its Sacred Band most prominently, if that was indeed run along paiderastic lines), but how far did our Athenian observers read their own culture into what little they saw of Spartan culture? It’s an open question.
When it comes to Roman emperors, the sources tend to be skewed by gossip and slander to a significant extent. We get most of our lurid stories of the sexual misconduct of emperors from Suetonius and the Historia Augusta, and their sources were often little better than recorded hearsay and palace gossip. Roman culture had a strong undercurrent of homophobic sentiment to it – particularly an antipathy towards taking the passive role in sex, which was thought inferior, decadent, feminine and slavish (and hence suspiciously foreign!). Athens was not free from this kind of ethic (we have courtroom speeches from trials where being a male prostitute is seen as grounds for loss of citizenship), but Rome’s culture of traditional masculinity was much more harsh and systematic. The reason almost all the early Roman emperors were said to have had same-sex relations is, most likely, because an accusation of sexual deviancy was one of the go-to slanders in Roman political culture. Especially for Emperors, since part of the job (after Augustus made such a big noise about it) was promoting public morals and encouraging traditional marriage and social cohesion. There is also an element of political commentary to such stories – Imperial rule was rule by choosing favourites and making familial alliances, rule by whim and caprice – a process reminiscent of sexual promiscuity to Romans who believed in rule by senatus populusque and mos maiorum. An Emperor accused of having sex with everything that moves was being painted as the sort of character who would confer power on slaves, freedmen, women and foreigners, rather than keeping it where it belonged – in the hands of sober, upper-class Roman men.
I would also suggest that we extend Classical study to other ancient cultures like those found in India and China. I’ve been reading the Three Body problem and I’m somewhat shamed that the author has a far better understanding of Western culture and history than I do of Chinese culture and history.
The Western classical music fandom has a similar problem. You can spot them in YouTube comment sections as the ones who clearly don’t know the first damn thing about the music, but who feel obliged to comment on its sublimity and the wonderfulness of the “culture” that produced it.
Pierce R. Butler says
cartomancer @ # 12: Tacitus… singles out certain characteristics of the northern European peoples for praise (their bravery in battle, sexual modesty and chastity, relative social equality and lack of greed), and others for censure (laziness, drunkenness, lack of stamina).
I doubt the “alt-right” would score very high on the T-scale, either way.
Thanks for setting me/us straight (here & elsewhere)!
Brian English says
novus? not novum?
I had the privilege of teaching Latin in a large public school in Texas. The majority of my students were Hispanic.
I once took several of my students to a museum to see a presentation of artifacts from Pompeii. I felt so proud as I listened to my students read plaques written in Latin aloud to people who were gathered around them.
I learned Latin in a public high school many, many years ago. The popularity of the study of the classics has waxed and waned in the US over the years. I tried to stress to my students that a knowledge of the past was important to everyone from all walks of life, and would enrich their lives forever.
Brian English says
They had a headstart with Latin then. Or perhaps that’s my anglo speaking perspective. I look at amo,amas,ama,amamus,amatis,amant vs amo,amas,amat,amamos,amais,aman (to take verbs as an example) and think that must be an easy jump.
Brian English says
Ugh, that comment reads as devaluing the students accomplishment in learning latin and MagistraMarla’s in teaching them the same. Which wasn’t what I meant. I just meant the basics of verbs, and gramatical structure seem to me closer with Spanish (being a romance language) and Classical Latin which would help in the initial stages of learning. Apologies.
consciousness razor says
Indeed, even the “classical” brand name has roots in this kind of thinking, with the implication that it’s essentially a direct descendant of music from classical antiquity, with the kind of status as a musical tradition that is supposed to suggest.
And it’s not just about belonging to that culture in general (however that’s supposed to be understood, as a sort of monolithic thing). It’s also tied up very strongly with economic class and many of the other usual suspects. It’s thought of as music for rich white (Christian) dudes, who are a very particular sort of music snob. Whatever greatness it has is supposed to reflect their greatness (and God’s as well, depending on the bullshitter).
It goes very deep. It’s even imagined that features like tonality itself reflect a hierarchical social/metaphysical structure (with God on top, just above the nobility). It’s quite a leap, but you can find arguments like that, including in some apparently well-meaning circles who’ve criticized it on that account, Marxists and such. The first thing I would point out is that Indian culture is/was also highly stratified, yet classical Indian music took a very different approach, so that kind of metaphorical association is on some pretty shaky ground. And in the European tradition, tonality in the modern sense wasn’t present early on, it isn’t dominant now, and it’s an extremely fuzzy/slippery concept no matter where/when it’s supposed to apply. But despite all sorts of issues like that, people run with the idea and don’t look back (or even show their work).
Anyway, I would want to expand on cartomancer’s “radical” idea here:
The products of academia in general are for everyone, not just the wealthy and powerful. It’s easy to find resistance to this idea in both camps, with strains of pseudo-intellectualism among the upper classes, as well as anti-intellectualism among the lower classes. If we don’t take that seriously, then it isn’t useful as a status symbol or (on the other hand) as an excuse to remain ignorant. This of course applies just as much to literature, visual arts, philosophy, math, science, and so forth. It’s a very large-scale problem, and I think we could all unite around that.
What a Maroon, living up to the 'nym says
A couple of things:
1. It’s ama, not amat.
2. Unless they’re Spanish, they probably don’t use amaís.
3. To your broader point, yes, Spanish verbal morphology is a lot movie complicated than English, but not as complicated as Latin. And the morphology of Spanish nouns and adjectives is much closer to English than Latin.
Brian English says
@What a maroon
1. Yeah, I got the conjugations mixed up. is amat/el ama. Lack of coffee
2. I still think that non Spanish speakers of Spanish would get the vosotros conjugation, given it surface as vos, and it’s part of the milleu, but even if they don’t it’s 5 out of 6 they’re comfortable with.
3. I wasn’t refering to the morphology of nouns and adjectives, but with gramatical similarities like adjectives generally following a noun and so on and lots of cognate words that aren’t much different (ignoring declinations). That’s why I meant it was a headstart.
Anyway, doesn’t matter.
A. Noyd says
I studied Japanese classics for two quarters in college. My biggest takeaway was that medieval Japanese people were mostly a bunch of goofy dorks. So, they were pretty much the same as people these days, only infinitely more likely to die in a fire or plague.
I imagine it’s the same with the classics from anywhere else. And that to accord them too much reverence only serves to leach the richness and humanity from them.
But that’s the whole point for fascists. They only want a palimpsest so they might claim legitimacy from the age of the parchment as they write their own myths on it.
There are lots of good reasons to study the classics. If nothing else, they are an important part of European history and our civilization is still essentially European. It’s the same reason you can learn a bit more about humans and their origins by studying primates rather than ungulates. Our language is Indo-European. Our law is descended from Roman Law and other European legal systems. Our modern religious and literary traditions have grown from those of the European classical era. We aren’t prisoners of our history as we move forward, but we can’t change our past.
There is only so much written human history still around, and a lot of it is official government chronicles. The Western classics include official accounts as well as satire, humor, debate, praise, drama and invective. There’s lots of useful, even modern seeming, stuff in there. The Western classics are not monolithic, and they are more culturally accessible to those of us in the West than the classics of other cultures. The narrators are not always reliable, so one of the most useful things that reading the classics teaches is how to learn from unreliable narrators. That cannot be understated.
The thing is that the Western classics belong to all of us in the West, and to anyone who cares to learn about the West. Like every cultural tradition, it is vulnerable to crawling shits who would co-opt them for their own evil purposes, so I’m glad to see that classicists are taking a stand on this.
Linked to from there:
What to Do When Nazis Are Obsessed With Your Field: How medieval historians can counter white supremacy. (by David M. Perry, Medieval Historian)