I see we are both reading Donna Zuckerberg’s book Not All Dead White Men. Since I know you as one who will tackle the classics head-on I am interested in your reaction to Zuckerberg’s glancing blow at some of its fans.
Me? I found it underwhelming. Not that I expected that much since I come at the notion of a feminist reading of the classics with some skepticism.
That is not to say reinterpretations cannot be done. Take, for example, The Red Tent, one of the classic women’s book club books. The author went at the patriarchal Old Testament from a feminist perspective but heck it’s fiction and people are entitled. She’s a feminist; her project is fiction; let ‘er rip.
But I was less sure what feminist scholarship would entail when it comes to a pretty unfeminist body of literature. I am still not sure.
You can’t blame Zuckerberg’s book too much for this. The purpose of the book is not to present to the non-scholarly reader what feminist scholarship on the classics consists of. She says right upfront what the book is: a challenge to certain men who, in her view, claim to valorize the classics but who both misunderstand the topic and are not to be trusted politically.
So the bulk of the book consists of bashing, with the reader only able to discern what “Feminist Classicist” means by observing the ricochets set off by Zuckerberg’s target practice. It is a polemic (or maybe a philippic?–one of those Greek terms anyway).
Who is she after? In the main she is after what she calls the alt-right, or, as she writes it, Alt-Right (it is not clear why she accords such a shaggy beast the honor of capitalization).
But what is the alt-right? On the one hand that term expands outward, and she references Breitbart, Bannon and “Publius Decius Mus’s” article on the Flight 93 Election, none of which qualifies as misogynist exactly. And of course Trump, and Trumpism, and Trump supporters figure in there somewhere if only by implication or innuendo. But her real target, the one she actually shoots at, is a much smaller set of writers and websites that comprise the so-called manosphere, especially Roosh, Roissy, Quintus Curtius, and The Return of Kings.
She appears to acknowledge that these writers comprise only a slice of the alt-right, and an even smaller slice of non-progressive thought, and that they are followed actively be a relative few. But in her mind they punch well above their weight. In her article How to be a Good Classicist under a Bad Emperor (the piece that went viral and that led to the book) she writes:
(O)n November 8th, 2016, after enduring years of mockery, months of being told that the arc of the moral universe would never let it win, the Alt-Right scored its first significant political victory: the election of Donald Trump to the highest office of the most powerful country in the world.
That’s a lot of influence for some guys in pajamas giving pick-up advice. But at least this makes clear how she envisions what is at stake–a lot.
A specter is haunting the Internet — the specter of the “alt-right.”
A tip o’ th’ hat to Marx there. The Left knows the power of vanguards.
And so the book is mostly an exercise in vanguard-building, using as a tool a blanket condemnation of the manosphere. I had thought that in doing that maybe she might put a stake in the ground as to what feminism means in this context. I did not find a lot. She may be a classics “scholar” but her project is clearly not the classics–it is feminism. The main thing is not to ask “what is truth?” but rather “what is to be done?”
Last week, I gave two lectures about my research on Classics and the manosphere. Both times, people asked me afterwards, “But what can we do?”
A tip o’ th’ hat to Lenin, there. Praxis makes percepts!
Her advice is mostly that of an activist.
–challenge those who point to Greece and Rome as the foundation of Western culture.
–don’t focus on white men in your studies. Seek out those who write about race, gender and class. Fight the bias in favor of white men in the field.
–resist any pressure to write in a way that might attract the wrong kind of reader and do not cooperate in any way with the wrong kind of scholar. Ostracize and resist.
–support progressive movements.
–organize efforts to put pressure on scholarly organizations to oppose bad influences.
–document examples of the bad scholarship of alt-right promoters of the classics.
There is not a lot in this list that suggests why a study of the classics is a good thing, except to advance a current day political agenda–the very thing she accuses her opponents of. Why do we study? We study to better understand “patriarchy, oppression, and resistance”.
And you don’t even have to study the classics directly to do that. It can be beneficial simply to examine current day “subversive use of symbols from antiquity to challenge established ideas of cultural value”, citing as an example . . . Jay-Z’s use of Plato.
And this is from someone who disparages her targets for not taking the classics seriously from an academic perspective! She’s quick to pull rank. But when she goes after the famed classicist Victor Davis Hanson (“most classicists have little time for VDH these days”) one has to wonder about his substantial bona fides versus hers, as a “Silicon Valley based classicist.”
Consider the issue of her deplorable targets. Her main targets are a handful of manosphere writers without much in the way of followers. Roissy, Roosh, Neil Strauss, Quintus Curtius. What she ignores here, perhaps willfully, is that a fair number of men who are not pick-up artists might find things they like about the classics in ways that are relevant to their being male. Misogyny is not the main draw, or even present.
Check out Quintus Curtius’ blog. He shows up a lot in the book as a reprobate character. But is there anything in his blog that demeans women–that even addresses the issue? I can’t find anything. To be sure he writes from a traditional male POV–duties, virtue, strength of character, etc. Women are notable in their absence not in their degradation.
Odder still: two of her targets (Roosh and Strauss) have given up “game” and are now preaching a moral life. And not a boycott of women either. In Roosh’s case he still gives advice on getting women to find you attractive but it is the service of finding a mate in a religious context. From his forum page:
Due to my recent turn to faith, my sense of morality is becoming based on the Bible. I’ve stopped a lot of behaviors that I’ve used to do and am in the process of making other changes. I’ve also realized that the majority of my published materials and online platforms lead men into sin or enable them to partake in sin. I no longer want this to occur, so I am implementing two new rules on the forum that are effective on June 1, 2019.
1 .You can no longer discuss fornication or pre-marital sexual activity
2. You can no longer use pornographic or vulgar language
Neil Strauss has also shifted away from promiscuity and gaming to long term relationships.
So in sum what do we have here? We have an author who is committed less to the classics than to a specific 21st century version of activist feminism. She claims to find satisfactions in the classics but fails to describe how or why, other than through a negation of the values and beliefs found there.
She sets her band of progressives against an easier target–a small group of the more virulent pro-male voices–but ignores anyone less strident who is not part of the enlightened Resistance. You are either with her, as a progressive feminist, or you must surely be with the misogynists. She is stuck and doctrinaire while some of her “misogynist” opponents are changing, aware of the dialectical nature of gender relations.
She is no doubt an ardent critic of colonialism, but who is doing the colonizing here?
There’s probably a shift going on in the larger culture in which some males and females are questioning the old ways
and interested in the resurrection of even older ways.
Some day Roosh may ask Donna to dance. And just a dance, all very proper . . . though who knows what the courtliness may presage? Will she remain resistant to his obvious charms?