In a recent interview with Vox, Donna Zuckerberg, a scholar and editor of online classics magazine, Eidolon, lamented the fact that the “alt-right” has embraced Western civilization, particularly the history of ancient Greece and Rome. “‘Western civilization’ has, for the alt-right, become culturally acceptable code for ‘white culture,’” she said. “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.”
Although Zuckerberg’s evidence for this consists largely of anecdotal snapshots of the behavior of people in online chatrooms, when the interviewer asked, “So history is a device for glorifying masculinity and whiteness, both of which they take to be synonymous with Western civilization?” Zuckerberg responded, “Exactly.”
Complaints about the cooptation of history for ideologically driven ends is an odd charge coming from the left, which for decades has eagerly promoted its own skewed narratives about the past. Indeed, Ms. Zuckerberg’s own field has largely been overtaken by progressive insurgents. “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,” she told Vox, “not just a discipline where white men see their values reflected back at them.”
Instead, it is becoming a discipline where progressives and ideologically-driven academics see their values reflected back at them. As The New Criterion, has noted, “More and more, it seems, the study of classics—like the study of the humanities generally—has fallen under the spell of grievance warriors who have injected an obsession with race and sexual exoticism into a discipline that, until recently, was mostly innocent of such politicized deformations—largely, we suspect, because of the inherent difficulty of mastering the subject.”
Zuckerberg herself has been a leader in these efforts. After taking over the editorship of Eidolon, she declared that it would “err on the progressive side” in “the spirit of bringing politics into Classics.” Objective measurements of scholarly worth were out (since objectivity is “often nothing more than a cover for upholding the status quo, and to hell with the status quo”) and “a progressive, feminist publication with a commitment to social justice” was in.
As for “appeals to merit” in scholarly assessments, she claims they are merely “white supremacist dog-whistles.” But she did reassure white scholars by telling them, “If you’re white and we publish you, you will know, for maybe the first time in your career, that it was because of the merit of your idea and not because you’re white.”
Evidently, it’s not just fans of the study of classics that are lying in wait to capture the minds of impressionable young men and turn them into Nazis. Pernicious forces are everywhere in the culture. In a recent interview with Esquire, feminist writer and activist Lindy West doesn’t blame ancient Greece or Rome, but popular television and performers like Adam Sandler for the rise of the alt-right. As Esquire describes West’s thinking, “She unveils her unifying theory of America: that our steady diet of pop culture created by and for embittered, entitled white men is directly responsible for our sociopolitical moment.” West is particularly incensed by “South Park,” about which she says, “That sort of untethered omnidirectional irreverence is not particularly helpful when you’re trying to salvage a wildly unjust, oppressive, and unequal society. The alt-right feels like a full generation of boys who think that Cartman is aspirational.”
Writing in the New York Times, Joanna Schroeder, an editor at YourTango and the mother of teenage boys, echoes West’s concerns about popular culture as a gateway drug to neo-Nazism. She describes a harrowing car ride during which an unfathomable word was uttered: “As my 11- and 14-year-old sons and their friends talked and bantered–phones in hand, as always–in the back seat of the car, one of them shouted it in response to a meme, and they all laughed uproariously.”
But she didn’t laugh. “I almost lost control of the car. That’s because I know that word—often used to mock people who are hurt or offended by racism as overly sensitive—is a calling card of the alt-right.” The word in question? “Triggered.”
White nationalists and supremacists like the ones who marched in Charlottesville, VA, and who unfortunately thrive in the dark corners of the Internet, are reprehensible people whose message is anathema to anyone who admires the values of Western civilization (or the values of “South Park.”)
For all these critiques, there is no curiosity about why these messages appeal to men; there are only denunciations of the men for responding to them. There is no acknowledgment of the fact that much of the appeal of politically incorrect memes or words like “snowflake” is that they are a refreshing alternative to what these men are told about themselves most of the time: that they are patriarchal oppressors, potential sexual predators, “toxic,” and worse. In the progressive version of history, they are the villains of every story. Is it any surprise that they go looking for alternatives to that narrative?
Young men who admire the Stoic philosophers, or the history of Western Civilization, don’t do so because they are latent neo-Nazis. They initially go looking for something that contemporary society has largely abandoned: celebrations of courage, honor, sacrifice, and loyalty; a vision of manhood that allows for the possibility of improvement, hard work, and moral meaning; and a way forward for men who want to behave nobly but have little encouragement from a culture that largely views them as a problem. It’s a terrible thing when that search leads them to the bowels of alt-right propaganda. It’s also a terrible thing that there are so few alternatives to that propaganda.
In 2017, Jason Willick warned in the Washington Post that the left should not be too eager to label any discussion or defense of western values or western civilization as “alt-right.” “The intelligentsia is now flirting with an intellectually indefensible linguistic coup: Characterizing any appeal to the coherence or distinctiveness of Western civilization as evidence of white nationalist sympathies.” He argued that “such a shift, if accepted, would so expand the scope of the term ‘alt-right’ that it would lose its meaning. Its genuinely ugly ideas would continue to fester, but we would lose the rhetorical tools to identify and repudiate them as distinct from legitimate admiration for the Western tradition.”
Whether it’s indicting Cato the Elder or Cartman, the progressive left seems intent on ignoring his warning.