BMCR 2019.05.20

Not All Dead White Men: Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Age

, Not All Dead White Men: Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Age. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018. 270. ISBN 9780674975552. $27.95.


The “classics” bear a claim to authority right in their name, namely, that Greek and Latin literature from the ancient world is central to the humanities and by extension to culture. That claim may have wobbled a bit in the last few decades, but its strength remains visible in the confident titles of the courses that classics departments offer, like “The History of Democracy,” “Western Civilization,” and at my university, “Great Books.” Donna Zuckerberg’s new volume explores the use of the classics’ implicit claim to authority, not in the academy but outside it, by men who seek a retreat to a society shaped by the ideals they find in classical literature. Active mostly online and thus perhaps easily dismissed, these men are taken seriously as Zuckerberg traces the hermeneutics and rhetoric they employ to support racist and misogynist ideas as natural and right—as “classic,” in fact. Though there are missed opportunities in the book, Not All Dead White Men is an important project—required reading for classicists who want to understand how the works we study resonate in contemporary politics.

The first chapter is a sort of field guide to these men, who are loosely gathered under the moniker of “the Red Pill,” a reference to Lana and Lilly Wachowski’s 1999 movie The Matrix. In that movie, a red pill swallowed wakes the main character from the illusory world he inhabits and allows him to see an exploitative reality for the first time; the men whose readings Zuckerberg catalogs all share an analogous perspective, namely, that society is not as it should be, and men, who are actively kept from seeing the truth, need to be roused. Not everyone under the Red Pill banner bears the same feathers. There are men’s rights activists, the dating mavens who call themselves “pick-up artists,” alt-right provocateurs (several who cut their political teeth in the 2014 online harassment campaign known as “Gamergate”), and the wistfully-named Men Going Their Own Way, among others. But they do flock together, joined by the same view of the cultural landscape. Starting from disparate interests, the groups gathered under the Red Pill umbrella have all lighted on the classics as texts that reveal a better way. In them, they see untrammeled power exercised by certain men, who are seemingly unbothered by the notion that women (or any other men) have agency or rights to be considered. Thus, Zuckerberg explains, some classical texts have become for Red Pillers “aspirational representations of the world they wish we inhabited.” (44)

The second chapter, titled “The Angriest Stoics,” opens with a direct comparison between two texts. Zuckerberg reads a famous passage from Epictetus alongside a screed recently posted online by a Red Pill writer justifying his harassment of women. In the first, the Stoic explains that our reactions to life are “up to us”; indeed, our decisions about how to respond in any moment are the only agency any of us ever has. In the second, an essay titled “You Did This to Me,” a blogger explains in quite vulgar terms that he holds the misogynist views he does because women forced him to think that way. The comparison makes clear that Red Pillers who frequently think of themselves as embodying the essence of Stoicism seem to miss its central tenets. As Zuckerberg observes, “instead of deeply and productively studying Stoicism,” these men “use a simplified version of the philosophy to celebrate what they perceive as stereotypically masculine traits, including men’s supposedly inherent superior capacity to use reason to control emotion.” (47) But Red Pill politics are constituted by emotions—resentment the first among them—and Zuckerberg shows just how bent such readings of Stoic texts can be. At the same time, she effectively demonstrates that Red Pill readings are not entirely divorced from the world of the ancient writers we study. Though other contemporary proponents of Stoicism may see in it a framework for universally egalitarian politics, Zuckerberg subtly reveals an uncomfortable truth: the classics of Stoicism can be read—indeed are currently being read—to support a racist and misogynist worldview.

The third chapter shifts to another polity in the Red Pill world: so-called “pickup artists” who love reading Ovid’s Ars Amatoria as a guide for seducing women. Ovid’s text is already not an easy read. When taken at face value it is a troubling poem for all the ways it assumes women to be mere objects for sexual conquest. Those who use the text in classrooms often maneuver around this trouble by pointing to the poem’s comical, provocative tone to disarm it (as if jokes don’t also port real claims). Pickup artists do no such hedging. These see Ovid as one of them, a founding father who tells the truth about women and how to bed them. Zuckerberg argues that their earnestness and care about the text should spark a corresponding urgency in the those who assign it to their students. As she writes, “Ovid’s casual references to sexual assault seem far more sinister and less ironic when one realizes that similar ideas are widespread in the seduction community today.” (142)

The last chapter of the book deconstructs a central belief in Red Pill ideology: that women lie easily and frequently, especially about having been assaulted by men—indeed, we do that so frequently that men should be prepared to be accused of rape, and should wear any rape allegations they earn as a “badge of honor.” Red Pillers generally do not source their belief in female mendacity from classical texts, but in this chapter Zuckerberg brings the classics to them, examining the logical ground of their claim about women through an extensive feminist analysis of the myth of Phaedra. Red Pill writers suggest that all women, mendacious as we are, should be governed closely by men throughout our lives; this is so vital to a functioning society, they argue, that “the very survival of Western civilization” is threatened when it is not in place. (176). Zuckerberg takes the extreme contortions of Phaedra’s story—she is governed in precisely this way, yet still makes a false accusation, inducing chaos—to show that the fantasy of male coverage, like the fantasy of female mendacity, is not the actual state of things, but a simple (and predictable) plank in patriarchal ideology. On this reading, she pushes back against those who would have classicists stop assigning, and actors stop performing, versions of the Phaedra myth. Ultimately, she avers, the myth demonstrates just how rare false rape accusations are and how self-motivated the supposedly detached and rational conversation about them among Red Pill men is as well.

Having examined the chapters individually, let me acknowledge the sheer ambition of the project as a whole, even as I mark a place where that ambition could have extended further. The book’s title, Not All Dead White Men, is proof of Zuckerberg’s aim of drawing seemingly disparate conversations together, as it pastes together catchphrases from two arenas. The first catchphrase originated in online discussions of misogyny. A critique of men voiced in public inevitably draws an interjection: “not all men” are like that. As a tactic, it is so frequently used that it has earned a shorthand, the hashtag #NotAllMen, which is obviously the source for the first part of the title. The second catchphrase may be more familiar to the BMCR reader: the charge that classics, like other canonically-focused fields, really only deals with the work of “dead white men.” The title combines these two phrases in a clever play, representing the unusual terrain covered by Zuckerberg in the book.

At the same time, the title points to a missed opportunity. Quickly in the introduction, Zuckerberg announces that she will “focus primarily on the gender politics rather than the racial politics of Red Pill communities.” (15) Red Pill men, she writes, share across their other differences an unwavering misogyny, while their views on race are too fragmented to be captured by the book’s analysis. In other words, she made this choice for clarity’s sake, but any clarity it produces is an illusion. Not only do gender and race consistently work together to produce political effects in general, they obviously work together in the Red Pill community specifically. Zuckerberg’s subjects have a robust concept of whiteness; her own work in the meat of the book reveals that race informs the Red Pill view of what these men call “the cultural narrative” (12, 63-64). Anti-Black, anti-Jewish, and anti-Muslim stereotypes are the foundation of much of their sense of superiority (40-42). What is more, their readings of the classics (37, 79-81), their evaluations of women’s worth (122, 131), and their arguments about women’s agency (174-179) all depend on commitments to white supremacy. Despite Zuckerberg’s intention to focus primarily on gender, race is very obviously important to the work this book aims to do. As I read, I found myself wishing that she had turned her high-powered lens of analysis onto the full complexity of her subject matter: the authority gained by appealing to “dead white men” and how it is deployed in reality.

My disappointment in this aspect of the book should not should not discourage readers from taking it up. The difficult truth is that misogynist and racist groups do find authority in the classics, in part because as a library, “the classics” were compiled by people who saw men as agents, who conjured whiteness from the history of Rome and Greece, and who used the study of both to reinscribe it in generations of students. Part of the easy case for “the classics” that we depend on for our current esteem in the field includes that there seems to be no need to study this process of transmission and creation of knowledge in the discipline. The ethics of reading and scholarship—issues at the fore of so many other humanistic disciplines—are already decided when one starts, even before one starts. But, as Not All Dead White Men warns, the views Zuckerberg explores do not arise solely from the folly of misappropriating amateurs. They are latent in the field as we created it, and thus are available to readers, whoever they may be. The book holds up a mirror to classicists, to show us how our work—our choices, our curation— is germane to the goals of groups I hope most of us would disavow.