Not All Dead White Men

This weekend I had a couple of flights and took that quiet time to read Donna Zuckerberg’s Not All Dead White Men (Harvard 2018). The book has created a good bit of buzz lately, in part, because of Zuckerberg’s pioneering work at the web journal Eidolon and partly because any book subtitled “Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Age” is sure to have relevance in our current political landscape.

On the surface, the book considers the way that “Red Pill” communities across the web use Greek and Roman texts to support their deeply misogynistic views of women, reactionary standards of masculinity, and support of Alt-Right political groups with their racist and militarist agendas. The visibility of the groups in the current political climate makes critical and serious discussion of their values, attitudes, and methods a pressing matter for both academics and informed citizens. The appropriation of the Ovid’s Ars Amatoria, the Stoic philosophy of Marcus Aurelius or Epictetus, or the Hippolytus of Euripides and Seneca to justify their attitudes toward women, to craft political and personal identities, and to critique claims of sexual misconduct, abuse, and rape should give pause to any of us who study and teach the ancient world.

At the same time, Zuckerberg is clear that the arguments advanced in this book are unlikely to change the views of members of the Red Pill community and her book isn’t directed at these groups. Zuckerberg directs this book toward people who consider themselves progressive and who share her passion for the ancient world. The appropriation of Greek and Roman texts by the Red Pill community draws upon methods that are not unfamiliar to those of us who study the ancient world. In fact, very idea of the “red pill” which Neo took in the Matrix allowing him to understand that humans were enslaved, has obvious parallels with the older concept of being “woke” (“I been sleeping all my life. And now that Mr. Garvey done woke me up, I’m gon stay woke. And I’m gon help him wake up other black folk.”) that has currency among progressives. The idea that what we think of as reality is a dream or an illusion from which we need to awake cuts a broad swath through the academic and political discourse grounded in an ironic view of the world that demands deconstruction to expose the real forces at play. In other words, Zuckerberg expects us to see something of our own discursive proclivities in the Red Pill movement. She doesn’t do this to imply any kind of moral or ethical equivalency, but to grab her audience’s attention. To remind them that our ways of viewing the world require certain ontological (and even epistemological) moves to produce a cohesive reality. The choices that we make to create our worlds are not the same in terms of their ethical, moral, or even practical value, but we cannot assume that our perspective alone justifies the decisions that we make. Being woke involves difficult choices.

For example, Zuckerberg notes that Red Pill communities often read ancient sources as revealing fundamental and timeless realities about relations between the sexes. While it is easy enough to understand why this is a problematic approach to texts like Ars Amatoria, the larger project of looking to ancient texts as persistent commentaries on contemporary situations should not be foreign to us. Who hasn’t looked to Tacitus’s Agricola as a model for the virtuous life under tyranny or reflected on complex and tragic portrait of Sallust’s Catiline or even the turmoil present in Augustine’s Confessions and allowed these texts to speak directly to us across the centuries. In fact, it’s not foreign to us to celebrate certain aspects of the Classics as a field of study for its timelessness. In many cases, this is innocent rhetoric which our own commitment to historicism undermines. At the same time, it is difficult to deny the power of Syme’s The Roman Revolution or to see something compelling in Tarn’s Alexander despite both book’s ahistorical reading of the past (or perhaps because, from a distance both books appear overly burdened with history). Again, this isn’t about moral equivalencies, but how we understand time and past.

An appeal to timelessness might serve as a useful effort to bolster the power of Classics and particular texts and make them relevant in the 21st century. It might even help us avoid the challenges associated with “othering” the past and reducing it to being “a foreign country.” Instead of these easy categories, Zuckerberg calls on us to be more subtle critics of the Greek and Roman world and to recognize that a hybridized view that recognizes the problems with strategies that essentialize or historicize ancient texts.

Zuckerberg’s book does just that as she preemptively unpacks the story of Hippolytus as a particularly challenging text for anyone who loves the ancient world. Her own reading of the Hippolytus of Seneca and Euripides show the potential for even volatile texts like these to speak across centuries in ways that are relevant and historical. They don’t offer easy answers and, as she says in reference to Euripides’s version of the play:

It has no clear hero and no clear villain. Every character is both wrong and wronged. The chorus ends the play by saying, “Floods of tears shall come over us again and again,” and that indeed seems to be the only appropriate response to such a painful story with no apparent moral.

It is easy for us to dismiss Red Pill communities on moral and political grounds alone, and, I would argue, we have a responsibility as scholars and students of the ancient world to do this. On the other hand, by viewing their methods, their attitudes toward the past, and how they position or “frame” their relationship to the real, it compels us to come to terms with our own views of the ancient world. As she points out wryly in her title, Not All Dead White Men is not meant as an apologia for antiquity, but a call for us to do better in making the Greek and Roman world meaningful today.

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