Donna Zuckerberg–that is, Mark Zuckerberg’s less famous sibling–recently published a book titled Not All Dead White Men: Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Age. This is a curious book–to quote from the summary on Amazon:
A virulent strain of antifeminism is thriving online that treats women’s empowerment as a mortal threat to men and to the integrity of Western civilization. Its proponents cite ancient Greek and Latin texts to support their claims―arguing that they articulate a model of masculinity that sustained generations but is now under siege.
Donna Zuckerberg dives deep into the virtual communities of the far right, where men lament their loss of power and privilege and strategize about how to reclaim them. She finds, mixed in with weightlifting tips and misogynistic vitriol, the words of the Stoics deployed to support an ideal vision of masculine life. On other sites, pickup artists quote Ovid’s Ars Amatoria to justify ignoring women’s boundaries. By appropriating the Classics, these men lend a veneer of intellectual authority and ancient wisdom to their project of patriarchal white supremacy. In defense or retaliation, feminists have also taken up the Classics online, to counter the sanctioning of violence against women.
Translation: “I read a blog and I didn’t like it.”
So Donna Zuckerberg, a white woman with enough wealth and leisure to study the classics for a living and sister of one of the richest, most powerful men in the world (who also loves the classics so much that he has named his daughters “Maxima,” Latin for “greatest,”* and “August,” after Emperor Augustus,) is complaining that Losers on the Internet are sullying the Classics by quoting Ovid.
This is a problem because White Men on the Internet are Privileged (even when they are poor whites who struggle to get a job or even friends,) while rich white women like Donna are the Oppressed.
*(Maxima is also named after two relatives named “Max,” though if honoring relatives were the only motive, Zuck could have gone with “Maxine,” or named her after a female relative.)
Realistically, these men aren’t a threat to Mrs. Zuckerberg; the aren’t going to rise up and force her back into the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant. They are, however, icky, and Donna obviously doesn’t like them impinging on her turf: “By appropriating the Classics, these men lend a veneer of intellectual authority and ancient wisdom to their project of patriarchal white supremacy.”
Appropriating from whom? What culture owns Ovid and Homer? These books are considered the foundation of all of Western Civilization. Is Heartiste not a part of Western Civilization? I suppose you could argue that Roosh is Iranian/Armenian by blood, (despite being born in the US,) but arguing that Roosh can’t enjoy Ovid because he’s Iranian is, well, stupid.
I understand that Mrs. Zuckerberg doesn’t like pickup blogs, but you can’t appropriate the intellectual and literary foundations of your own culture. This is like accusing a Hindu of appropriating the Bhagavad Gita just because he’s a jerk.
The implication of “appropriating” is that Donna thinks the classics belong to some narrow class of people–most likely, academic dilettantes like herself. But as I’ve noted before, Donna Zuckerberg doesn’t own the Classics. Being rich doesn’t give her any more right to quote Plato than anyone else in the entire damn world.
But my complaints aside, I think this nicely illustrates a difficulty found in many academic disciplines:
It’s very difficult to make any new arguments about the Classics. Ovid has been around for a long time. So has Homer. Everything you can say about them has probably been said a thousand times already.
Schliemann managed to up the ante by actually finding Troy, but what’s left to discover? You will never be as great as Schliemann. You will always toil in the shadows of the greats of the past.
But there are rules in academia, most notably, “Publish or perish.” If you want to be a professor or otherwise taken seriously as an academic, you’ve got to publish papers.
What, exactly, are you going to publish on a subject that was thoroughly mined for all new ideas and concepts hundreds of years ago?
So I see two options:
1. Lie. Just make something up, like “the ancients couldn’t see blue.” Totally untrue, but people have bought it, hook, line, and sinker.
2. Write things that aren’t new and don’t provide any new insights, but show that you are a member of the “classics community.”
We think of academic disciplines as “producing knowledge,” but it may be more accurate to think of them as “knowledge communities.” to be part of those communities, all you have to do is produce works that show what a good community member you are. People who fit in get friends, mentors, promotions, and opportunities. People who don’t fit in either get pushed out or leave of their own accord. There’s not much new to say about the Classics, but there are plenty of people who enjoy reading the classics and discussing them with others–and that makes a community, and where there’s a community, people will try to protect what is culturally “theirs.” Folks like Roosh and Heartiste, then, are moving in on academic territory.
What counts as being a “good member” of your community depends on the current social norms in that community. If your community is full of people who say things like “The Classics are the foundation for the greatness of Western Civilization,” then aspirant community members will publish things echoing that.
And if your community is full of people who say things like “If your feminism isn’t intersectional, it’s bullshit,” then you’re going to write things like that.
Modern academia is not really comfortable with “Dead white males”* (much less “Alive white males,”) nor the idea of Western Civilization as anything particularly special or qualitatively different from other civilizations–which creates a bit of a conflict when your field is literally the semi-symbolic and literary basis of Western Civilization.
*Note: most people who study the classics know that the “Classical World” is really the circum-Mediterranean world, that Herodotus lived in now-Turkey, St. Augustine was born in now-Algeria, Alexander the Great’s empire stretched to India, etc. Whether these men were “white” (or men) is irrelevant to our understanding of the foundations of Western Civilization.
Now, I understand not liking everyone you meet on the internet. There are lots of wrong and terrible people in here. But this is why you get a blog where you can complain to the five people who can stand you about all of the other annoying people on the internet.
There are probably many academic disciplines which could, at this point, be transformed into blogs and tumblrs without much loss.