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White Nationalists Embracing Classics Of Ancient Greece And Rome

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: The public presence of so-called white nationalists has increased dramatically over the past few years. Things that may have been written or espoused in the dark corners of the web are now being seen in much more open spaces — including college and university campuses. And the white nationalists have also been embracing the classics of ancient Greece and Rome as part of an Alt-Right vision. Donna Zuckerberg is in the Valley today at ASU for a presentation called, “The Classics Between White Supremacy and White Fragility.” She's also author of “Not All Dead White Men: Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Age,” and she is with me. Donna, are white supremacists coopting the classics to appear more sophisticated and well-read than perhaps they are?

DONNA ZUCKERBERG: I think that that's a major part of it, yeah, that it provides the sort of this gloss of intellectual sophistication. But I also think that a lot of it has to do with the fact that most people, even sort of within what we would call the Alt-Right, are not terribly comfortable with the label “white supremacist” or “white nationalist.” Those are terms that have just so much baggage and they have such bad optics, they think, that it's a lot easier to think of themselves as the defenders of Western civilization. That's a stance that they could take that people will be a lot more sympathetic to. So where do you go from there then? You need some kind of coherent concept of what Western civilization means. And that turns out to actually be quite difficult for them but they tend to be able to agree that Western civilization starts with ancient Greece and Rome, and then evolves into being about Christianity and Christendom in the medieval period.

GOLDSTEIN: It's been pretty clear I think from many people we've spoken to or listened to, or read, that this issue, this challenge, this problem, was here, that the president is kind of the result of this as opposed to the reason for the problem itself. But has his presence, has his — whether it's Charlottesville or other things — his lack of really shooting down some of these things or knocking down some of these premises, whether people would believe them or not, has it made it a more comfortable place for, rather than being hidden just in the bowels of the Internet, some of these folks have felt a lot more comfortable just expressing themselves either verbally or physically?

ZUCKERBERG: Yes, I think that's exactly right. Their stated goal during the 2016 election was to shift the Overton window, that the set of topics that are broadly considered socially acceptable to discuss in public discourse and political discourse. They've really succeeded in doing so. Nativist discourse is much more common now and much more mainstream than it was five years ago.

GOLDSTEIN: Well and it seems so contrary to the idea of intellectualism and studying of the classics when we're going to embrace the classics to kill them, as President Trump has sort of not embraced institutions but has gone in these institutions in order, and some critics would say to kill them as well.

ZUCKERBERG: That's really interesting. I think that's those contradictions are not only inherent to how these online communities work, but are in fact part of where they draw their power from, because it makes it so impossible to argue with them. On the one hand Trump's proud refusal to read, right? The fact that he is very much not a reader is something that they can praise him for. But on the other hand, they also like to portray themselves sometimes as very sophisticated readers who are knowledgeable about the classics. And again, I mean there is a contradiction there, but also it's not one that you should invest too much time or energy into trying to break apart because that would be time wasted.

GOLDSTEIN: Has just the ability to be on the Internet, whether it's with Reddit, and maybe even Twitter, I imagine there's some clear line that that has really allowed these movements, these beliefs, to expand greatly. Is that really a clear line there?

ZUCKERBERG: It has. Reddit, Twitter, YouTube is huge with this, really. People get drawn in. They sort of end up that you know they start with watching sort of YouTube videos of Jordan Peterson and then they end up going, you know, spiraling downward until they're deep in the red pill web. It is clear that the community is growing. It is also fragmenting. The Alt-Right is not nearly as cohesive as it was two years ago, but that hasn't made it less dangerous. If anything, it's become sort of a larger amorphous blob of toxic ideology.

GOLDSTEIN: Have there been specific examples of how this has penetrated or permeated classics departments at different universities and colleges? Has there been a backlash where maybe people who have those beliefs in those departments have now been tougher on their colleagues or have been more outspoken with some of these views themselves that maybe were either hidden before, people didn't even know they had them?

ZUCKERBERG: I don't think that there are that many people who are openly sympathetic with the Alt-Right within classics. That's different in medieval studies, where you have a prominent medievalist at the University of Chicago who is closely associated with Milo Yiannopoulos. But in classics departments, I would say where this is manifested is that classicists have attempted to respond to white supremacist use of the classics by doing anti-racist work — by really trying to dig into that reception and understand what the relationship is between classics and racism, and then that progressive classics work is what creates a backlash of not far-right classicists, but people sort of generally conservative ideas and then tension simmers between those two groups. So, at a recent major classics conference, there were a few really awful racist incidents, including the racial profiling of a grad student, an undergrad, in the exhibit hall. And also during the Q&A after a panel on the future of the classics, one of the audience members got up to ask a question and it sort of devolved into a long racist rant that ended with her telling one of the panelists that he may have only gotten his job because he was black.

GOLDSTEIN: That seems stunning to me. Is that a trend though? I mean is that something we're seeing more of?

ZUCKERBERG: I mean there have always been people inside classics who think that. That's not new. This is the between white supremacy and white fragility thing that, that this is what I want to talk about more is that the racism that has been sort of part of how classics has been studied, has been mostly latent, mostly quiet. It's never been not a feature of how classics study though.

GOLDSTEIN: Donna Zuckerberg is author of “Not All Dead White Men: Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Age.” She'll be at ASU tonight for a presentation called, “The Classics Between White Supremacy and White Fragility.”

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Steve Goldstein was a host at KJZZ from 1997 to 2022.