Not All Dead White Men: Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Age
Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018
Translated by Emily Wilson
New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2017
Classics is sometimes perceived as the last bulwark of sanity in the humanities, a refuge from militant anti-white Leftism. But the field is gradually succumbing to the same pressures that have scourged Western civilization at large.
Donna Zuckerberg, sister of Mark, is at the vanguard of the crusade to replace the traditional discipline of Classics with a “vibrant, radical, intersectional feminist Classics—one that uses the ancient world to enrich conversations about race, gender, and social justice.” (Note the implication that the study of the ancient world is ultimately subservient to social justice ideology rather than an end in itself.) Most of her output consists of blog posts relating to the topic of this book. She has not produced any serious scholarship on the ancient world from what I can tell, though she flaunts her academic credentials (referring to herself as “Dr.” on social media) and calls herself a “Silicon Valley-based classicist.”
Not All Dead White Men is Zuckerberg’s first publication and documents the reception of Classics among the “Alt Right,” particularly the manosphere. A potentially fascinating topic, but Zuckerberg’s book manages to be dull and pedestrian, consisting of the half-baked observations of an over-educated, blue-checked yenta who kvetches about white men for a living.
The bulk of the book focuses on the manosphere, or what she terms the “Red Pill” community. The introduction and first chapter are followed by three chapters devoted to the popularity of Stoicism on the Alt Right, PUAs’ endorsement of Ovid’s Ars amatoria, and the story of Phaedra respectively. The brief conclusion is a call-to-arms for Leftists to repurpose the classical tradition for their own interests.
Her choice to focus on the manosphere points to a reluctance to engage with other, more threatening elements of the Right. She does not discuss the National Socialists’ affinity for Greece and Rome (except in passing). Counter-Currents is not mentioned at all, even though there are many CC articles relating to classical civilization. This is typical of mainstream commentators on the Alt Right in general; they are unequipped to debate their opponents in a serious and honest manner, so they go after low-hanging fruit (Internet trolls, skinheads, narcissists/defective personalities, etc.) instead. So the central personage of Zuckerberg’s account is none other than Roosh V.
She conspicuously omits any discussion of male chauvinism in ancient Athens. I suspect this is because she wants to form an association between the ancient world and ultra-heterosexual PUAs, and the existence of Greek pederasty undermines this. It also attests to a form of male supremacy (the complete sequestration of women) that poses a much greater threat to feminism than the PUA sphere, which mirrors the gynocentrism it criticizes in modern society. Again she does not confront the real threat to her worldview; PUAs are an easier target.
Zuckerberg seems torn between the view that the ancients were bigoted dead white men and the view that the Alt Right “misappropriates” the classical tradition. She smugly points out, for example, that the Stoics promoted cosmopolitanism and the ideal of a cosmopolis in which “everyone would be an equal citizen regardless of class, ethnicity, or gender.” (She later admits, though, that most Stoic writers still believed that women belonged in the home.) This attempted “gotcha” falls flat, as it is quite possible to admire the principal teachings of the Stoics while being critical of their cosmopolitanism. And while cosmopolitanism flourished in the second and third centuries (which happened to be a time of decline), the default attitude among the ancients was patriotism.
She is right to point out the irony in Roosh V’s idolization of Marcus Aurelius given the discrepancy between the hedonism and opportunism of PUAs and the self-discipline of the Stoics. But again, Roosh is low-hanging fruit.
Zuckerberg insists that white men who uphold the integrity of the classical tradition are driven by “fear,” but is obvious that she is the one who is afraid. She is terrified. There is nothing Leftists fear more than awakened, intelligent white men. A November 2016 blog post by Zuckerberg entitled “How to Be a Good Classicist under a Bad Emperor” (her manifesto of sorts) brims with fear:
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.
It is odd that she fears the prospect of her own discipline experiencing a “renaissance”; it would appear that she is more invested in social justice than she is in classical scholarship.
In other blog posts, Zuckerberg relishes examples of her enemies misquoting the ancients, making spelling/grammatical errors, or otherwise making fools of themselves. Such things happen, but at least men on the Right respect the classical tradition and are eager to learn more. The same cannot be said of social justice activists. Furthermore, they are not entirely to blame for the gaps in their education, which is a reflection of the bankruptcy of the American school system—itself a consequence of diversity. If Zuckerberg really wants a future in which all American schoolchildren can conjugate Greek verbs and read the Aeneid, perhaps she should support the dissident Right.
Zuckerberg talks about taking Classics back from the Right, but she never really gives the reader a clear idea of what this might look like—apart from citing Jay-Z’s quoting Plato’s Euthyphro as an example of “the subversive use of the symbols of antiquity to challenge established ideas of cultural value.”
There are very few examples of non-whites and women who made their mark on the classical world. Apuleius and Terence were Africans, but of the Berber variety. There were a handful of notable women, but not many: Sappho, Aspasia, Artemisia I of Caria, Hypatia.
Artemisia distinguished herself as a naval commander in the Battle of Salamis and was held in high regard by Xerxes and Herodotus. She was also clearly not a feminist: prior to the battle, she had advised Xerxes not to fight the Greeks at sea, “for these people are as much superior to your people in seamanship, as men to women.”
The paucity of non-white/female cultural figures in ancient Greece and Rome leaves Zuckerberg and other like-minded classicists with the task of critiquing the ancients from a progressive, feminist standpoint—hence this book.
Zuckerberg’s talk of a “vibrant,” “intersectional feminist Classics” brings to mind Emily Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey, published last winter. Wilson is the first woman to translate the Odyssey into English. Her modern-sounding, progressive translation of the Odyssey has received near-universal acclaim. She wrote a blurb for Zuckerberg’s book; both of them belong to the general milieu of progressive, social media-savvy classicists. She is more erudite than Zuckerberg, and also less obnoxious, but her translation similarly represents a somewhat botched attempt to mesh the ancient world with modern sensibilities and progressive politics.
Wilson announces her break from tradition from the very beginning: Odysseus is described as a “complicated man,” and the bard exhorts the Muses to “. . . tell the old story for modern times. Find the beginning.” “A complicated man” (“man of many turns” or words to that effect in most other translations) evinces her reluctance to cast him in a traditionally heroic light, as male translators have done in the past. “For modern times” (“for us” in most other translations) shifts the emphasis slightly, stressing the theme of modernization over the hunger for knowledge that runs throughout the Odyssey. And alluding to a “beginning” (“start where you will” or words to that effect in most other translations) downplays the poem’s in medias res opening, a traditional feature of epic poetry (see the Iliad, the Aeneid, the Mahābhārata, etc.).
The classicist Mary Beard (who infamously described a cartoon of a black Roman soldier as “pretty accurate” last summer) recounts Wilson’s description of her choice of language, including her choice of the word “complicated” for Odysseus:
Emily (Wilson) rightly pointed out that most translations used a range of archaisms to render Homer, from ‘holy citadels’ to (lets [sic] say, but Emily didn’t use this one) ‘wine-dark’ seas — as if in some ways ‘bullying’ us (her words) with the weird grandeur of the poems. Her version, while recognising the different poetic registers, was much more down to earth, much less ‘bullying’.
I detest snobbery as well, but I cannot think of a better example of the feminization of academia than the view that the “weird grandeur” of epic poetry constitutes a form of “bullying.”
For the most part, Wilson does away with Homeric epithets (though she does use the “wine-dark sea” epithet on a few occasions). Such “repetitions,” she scoffs in her translator’s notes, “can be a mark of writerly laziness or unwillingness to acknowledge one’s own interpretive position, and can send a reader to sleep.”
Wilson’s use of iambic pentameter is consistent throughout and highly competent from a technical point of view. Her verse is economical, direct, and lean. But it is impoverished by the paring-down of Homer’s epic; something intangible is missing. Her translation works well as a clipped, breezy introduction to the Odyssey, less so as a full-fledged poem.
There are also a few cutesy anachronisms sprinkled throughout: tote-bags, kebabs, etc.
The political slant is most comical in her treatment of Polyphemus. Odysseus and his men travel to the land of the Cyclopes and discover a cave belonging to the Cyclops Polyphemus that is filled with goods; Polyphemus returns to the cave and eats Odysseus’ men alive. Wilson consciously avoids the usual depiction of the Cyclopes as a savage and dim-witted race. Her title for Book IX is “A Pirate in a Shepherd’s Cave.” Polyphemus was just a shepherd—he dindu nuffin’. The Cyclopes are described as “high-minded” and “mavericks.” In a curious juxtaposition, the epithet used for Odysseus in Book IX is “the lord of lies,” which is her own addition. Odysseus is often described as “wily,” but there is surely a difference between “wiles” and “lies.” Of Polyphemus, Wilson writes in the introduction that “the text allows for a certain amount of sympathy and even admiration for this maimed non-Greek person.”
Wilson’s views on race are what you would expect. This was her response when asked who she would cast in a film based on the Odyssey:
My first thought is that I’d really like it to be 100% people of color. There was that stupid fuss made over the BBC TV series Troy, which cast David Gyasi as Achilles. I’d love to see a casting that pushed even further against the idea that the western canon belongs to white people. It really does not.
Wilson’s feminism comes through in a handful of passages. She rejects the epithet of “dog-faced” for Helen in Book IV and subtly shifts the blame onto the men: “They made my face the cause that hounded them.” The “complicated” epithet also expresses her ambivalence toward Odysseus and his maleness.
There is also a famous scene in Book XXIV in which Telemachus is fighting alongside Odysseus and Laertes and assures his father that he will live up to the family name and prove his worth. Laertes rejoices at the sight of his son and grandson “vying on the point of valour” (T. E. Lawrence’s translation) and engaging in a contest of manly virtue. Wilson renders this as “arguing about how tough they are,” which vastly oversimplifies the original meaning and gives it a patronizing air.
Wilson remarks in her introduction that the notion of a faithful translation is “gendered,” given that it demands that the translator subordinate himself to the original text and its author. The reader is led to assume that her deviations from Homer’s original were partly intended as a feminist statement and that ideology played a role in dictating her editorial choices.
* * *
Zuckerberg’s call-to-arms for Leftists to establish a “vibrant, radical, intersectional feminist Classics” (as opposed to discarding Classics altogether) is a classic manifestation of the divide-and-conquer strategy that Jews have employed since time immemorial. She is effectively the mirror equivalent of Jewish/Straussian neoconservatives who have responded to the Left’s attack on Western civilization by setting up a false alternative in the form of civic nationalism and universalism.
Zuckerberg is terrified because the ascent of the dissident Right has struck a blow against mainstream conservatism and, by extension, the civic nationalist defense of the classical tradition. The slow collapse of conservatism has made it necessary to create another false alternative, this time under a more hip and youthful guise and with a more progressive bent. Wilson and Zuckerberg are members of this camp.
Conservatism has never posed a genuine threat to modern liberalism and its hegemony in academia. Conservatives are not interested in reviving Western civilization or attacking the root causes of its decay. For the majority of them, the ancient world (and Western culture in general) is a curiosity that ought to be preserved like an artifact in a museum. Their defense of Western civilization and its Greco-Roman heritage is divorced from the real world and from the forces that gave rise to the West in the first place.
By contrast, the true Right seeks to reanimate the spirit of the ancient world itself. This was a core element of National Socialism, drawing from Germany’s long tradition of Philhellenism. Wagner looked to Greek tragedy as the model for his concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk and the ideal of uniting art with public life; Hölderlin channeled the living spirit of Greece in his hymns, elegies, and odes; German Naturphilosophie was influenced by the Ionian school of Pre-Socratic philosophy. No wonder Jews are terrified.
It is true that an appreciation for the classical world can exist independently of political factors and that it need not consist of uncritical admiration. But Zuckerberg and her ilk have to undergo extreme levels of cognitive dissonance in order to fully appreciate the classical world. Some can tolerate this up to a point, but many buckle and simply end up in grievance studies.
For those on the dissident Right, an appreciation of the classical world follows naturally from our respect for our Indo-European heritage and for the ideals of greatness, beauty, and heroism. We are not “misappropriating” the classical tradition: we are its rightful heirs.
- Herodotus, The Histories, VIII.68.