Aside from climate change and the global refugee crisis, both caused by centuries of rampant imperialism and capitalism, the rise of the right across the world — especially in the guise of the heavily digitally mediated alt-right in United States — is our most pressing political crisis. Facing racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia—all of these forms of hate—how can the literature of ancient Greece and Rome truly matter today? If you’re not following academic conversations unfolding in the humanities, particularly around the disciplines of Classics and medieval studies, chances are you probably haven’t asked this question. But Donna Zuckerberg‘s Not All Dead White Men, a rare book from a university press that will probably be a crossover bestseller in non-academic markets, is here to make you care about all those old dead white men, their philosophizing, and their long-ass poems.
What’s at stake, Zuckerberg claims, is our culture—only this doesn’t mean what it usually does. More often than not, a book arguing the importance of the heritage of ancient Western cultures does so from a place of entrenched xenophobia and conservatism, claiming some justice-oriented political movement or influx of non-Western/non-white peoples as the new “death” of Western civilization. Zuckerberg’s book is the precise opposite, and instead traces the ways in which the alt-right have co-opted the subjects of Classical literature, history, and philosophy for discourses of hate, racism, and sexism to push a hyper-conservative agenda, spread terror online, and grow their movement by convincing other “economically anxious” white men (with some exceptions) of the coming death of America and all things good at the hands of their favorite straw (wo)men: feminists, more affectionately known in these circles as feminazis.
Zuckerberg’s book is a clear and convincing deep-dive into the message boards, online forums, self-published books, and blogs where the alt-right congregates. It’s also a powerful defense of the humanities at a time when scholars of ancient and medieval literature, history, and art history are in the spotlight as their fields, once thought old and dead, at the edge of the academy’s utility in the contemporary world, are taken up by the alt-right to relitigate the canon wars.
Zuckerberg takes a hard look at what she calls the Red Pill, a complex political hydra that can be broadly subdivided into the manosphere—which can be further subdivided into the men’s rights activists (MRAs), pick-up artists (PUAs), and men going their own way (MGTOW)—and the alt-right. While there is significant overlap among these groups, she makes the broad distinction between the groups motivated by a view of contemporary society that stresses gender, particularly hegemonic masculinity, and groups motivated by something more akin to racial nationalism (though the alt-right’s vision of a white nation can hardly survive without the gender politics of the manosphere).
Not All Dead White Men is about how these diverse members of Red Pill communities utilize ancient Greek and Roman sources, and sometimes even just the very ideas of ancient Greece and Rome, to bolster their sexist, patriarchal, and often racist worldviews. In doing so, Zuckerberg is “dedicated to exposing how Red Pill rhetoric works,” and the book offers a guide to the tactics used by the Red Pill to convince people to join them and to “troll” those who disagree with them. Zuckerberg’s book is rather straightforward in terms of organization: her first chapter offers a lengthy introduction to the terminology and history of the Red Pill, and in three subsequent chapters she offers a look at one of the key thematics in Red Pill uses of the Classics, focusing on the Stoic philosophers, the Roman poet Ovid, and ancient ideas about rape and marriage.
Not All Dead White Men offers both a survey of the contemporary landscape the alt-right trawls, as well as a primer in the major Classical texts and precepts they (mis)use. And Zuckerberg knows what she’s talking about. She received her PhD in Classics from Princeton in 2014 with a dissertation titled, “The Oversubtle Maxim Chasers: Aristophanes, Euripides, and their Reciprocal Pursuit of Poetic Identity”, and is founder and editor of Eidolon, an online scholarly magazine that seeks to bridge the divide between academic Classicists and broadly interested, educated public. While Zuckerberg could have used her considerable knowledge to provide a detailed fact check of the dozens of manifestos, pick-up artist manuals, and forum shitposts she describes and critically explores, she is less interested in proving Red Pills wrong than she is in noting their tactics and providing a way for non-Classicists to recognize their constant and consistent misuse, misreading, and often times plain bastardization of Classics authors and ideas. Zuckerberg is an expert at reading the contradictory worldbuilding Red Pill “thinkers” engage in when they rally, for example, the writing of a Stoic philosopher like Marcus Aurelius in the service of a “life hack”, use his dicta to perform their supposed superior rationality and emotionlessness (compared to emotional, less-rational women), and advocate white supremacy by harkening to a fantasized continuity between themselves and the ancient world (as compared to what they view as the more animal, and thus less rational and inferior cultures of Africa and Asia).
Zuckerberg reveals the Red Pill as little more than circulators of meme-deep levels of information about the Classics, all the while pretending a closeness with the ancients that values the sense of oldness, of Western heritage, over any knowledge of content or context. To return to the example of the Stoics, they completely miss, are unaware of, or otherwise ignore that Stoicism was a largely ungendered philosophy that has garnered much support among feminist philosophers, or that Ovid, whom PUAs view as the first author of pick-up manuals (and a hero of Red Pill rape culture), was responding to an entirely different set of cultural conditions (whereas they view him as exactly like themselves). In focusing on how Red Pill and alt-right men weaponize Classics against women and people of color, Zuckerberg politicizes the Classics, puts them center stage in the ongoing cultural battle for justice and equality. As a work of scholarship, albeit written in intelligible prose for a broad audience (sometimes bordering on college-freshman-essay simple), Not All Dead White Men is also a call to action for Classicists to take an ethical stand in their research and pedagogy, to recognize the consequences of interpretation of ancient texts, and to think about these texts as very much alive in the culture today.
If anything mars Zuckerberg’s book, it’s that she downplays her discussion of Red Pill uses of the Classics to further white supremacist aims. Yes, Zuckerberg is clear that Red Pill and white supremacist communities do not form a neatly overlapping circle, even if the non-overlapping spaces make up only a small fraction of people from either community. Zuckerberg sells her own book short when she declares her intent “to focus primarily on the gender politics rather than the racial politics of Red Pill communities.” Indeed, although no single chapter deals, for example, with how the language of civilization versus barbarism—so familiar to the Greeks and a root of Imperial Roman identity, and which has infused American race and racism since Columbus—plays out in online Red Pill discourse, Zuckerberg nonetheless pays careful attention to the ways in which the overwhelmingly gendered language in the Red Pill is often co-opted from or transformed into racial discourse. This is especially evident in Red Pill uses of Stoicism to establish white men as rational; since black men are heavily racialized as angry, they are unable to be rational and thus do not count as fully human according to some Red Pill interpretations.
It seems by purposefully downplaying her own contribution to the study of racism in online white supremacist spaces, Zuckerberg is shielding herself from criticisms that she hasn’t gone deep enough into this or that specific topic; and while this is an understable rhetorical move, Zuckerberg teaches us a great deal about white supremacy in the Red Pill all the same. Perhaps another book diving into greater detail is in order, and no doubt folks in medieval studies are already working on those books, and essays on Zuckerberg’s Eidolon have explored this within Classics as well. This seeming fault, which Zuckerberg herself acknowledges, is not really a fault at all, but an opportunity. It reminds us that Not All Dead White Men should not be the last book of its kind; if it is, we have already lost the war against what Zuckerberg exposes to be the alt-right’s quite cavernous and extraordinarily virulent ignorance.
Stoics, my ass.