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Doing Justice to the Classics

Blog uses Roman “Virility” to Advocate Sexual Assault. Was it Satire? Does it Matter?

Mitchell Langbert is a professor of business at Brooklyn College who maintains a personal blog focused primarily on conservative and libertarian politics. A week before Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed as an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court amid accusations of attempted rape and sexual assault, Langbert published a post arguing that “if someone did not commit sexual assault in high school, then he is not a member of the male sex” and that “having committed sexual assault in high school ought to be a prerequisite for all appointments, judicial and political.” Langbert went on to invoke classical antiquity as proof that sexual violence against women should be acceptable: Kavanaugh’s critics, he said, lack the “virility, a sense of decency, or the masculine judgment that has characterized the greatest civilizations,” among which Langbert listed “classical Athens” and “republican Rome.” Langbert’s post has been denounced by the Provost of Brooklyn College and by the faculty of the Brooklyn College Department of Classics.

After the post sparked protests at Brooklyn College and outrage on social media, Langbert claimed that the post had been intended as satire, in the vein of Jonathan Swift’s essay “A Modest Proposal,” which suggested that Irish people could make money by selling their children as food to the English. The original post was titled simply “Kavanaugh.” To make its satiric nature explicit Langbert renamed it “Kavanaugh: A Modest Proposal” and added an explanatory preface that also reiterated his support for Kavanaugh’s nomination. He also made a further classical allusion, saying that those who missed the satire in his post should spend “more time…on Horace and Swift, and less time on political indoctrination in college.” This reference suggests that those who have studied the Roman satirist Horace would not have been offended at Langbert’s apparent endorsement of sexual assault.

Langbert’s blog advocates conservative and libertarian politics, and frequently invokes ancient Rome (including quotes from Rostovtzeff, an early 20th century historian of ancient Rome) in support of his positions, particularly his claim that America is suffering a decline similar to that which Rome experienced in late antiquity (a favorite analogy of hate sites that Pharos has documented). In a second post concerning Kavanaugh’s nomination Langbert argued that Democratic opposition to Kavanaugh derived from the party’s “favor[ing] a dictatorship by judges and the president.” He contrasted this supposed despotism with ancient Roman restraint in “reserv[ing] the role of dictator to war or crisis situations” and, in what could be understood as a call to violence, recommended that Republicans “start thinking like Longinus, Albinus, and Brutus,” three of the architects of the assassination of Julius Caesar after he had been named “Dicator in Perpetuity”.

The ideas in the Kavanaugh post, particularly its mockery of Democratic politicians for lacking the "virility" of ancient Rome, are consistent with the views expressed elsewhere on Langbert’s blog

Pharos documents hate groups, not Republicans or other conservatives, although in recent years the distinction between mainstream conservatism and organized hate in the United States has become blurrier, as the violent and classically-informed misogyny of one of Donald Trump’s supporters that Pharos has documented shows. None of the posts on Langbert’s blog, except for the first Kavanaugh post, advocate hate as explicit as that found on most of the sites Pharos documents. Yet Langbert’s appeal to satire, including the ancient satirist Horace, as a defense of his piece raises important questions about the relationship of satire and hate speech that intersect with other material Pharos has documented.

It is plausible that Langbert really did intend the Kavanaugh piece as satire because there are other posts on his blog that show some of the features that typically characterize satire, including parody, exaggeration, a focus on hypocrisy, and sarcasm. In 2010, for example, he posted a letter that he wrote to his local paper, the Woodstock Times, arguing that “in the name of equity, equality, [and] affirmative action…the town of Woodstock needs to mandate that all homes to be sold within its borders must be sold to minority group members until such point that the minority group members are proportionately represented” and that “homeowners should be grateful for the opportunity to sell to them, even at a loss, to redress social wrongs that the people of Woodstock have perpetrated” by “us[ing] expensive house prices to exclude minority group members.” He concluded his letter by saying that “anyone who does not support this proposal is a greedy and selfish racist.” The piece seems intended to expose, through parody, exaggeration, and sarcasm, the hypocrisy of those who had complained that local conservative groups were racist because their membership did not include minorities.

The Kavanaugh post seems to lack a crucial component of satire, namely irony

On the other hand both the Kavanaugh post and this post about Woodstock’s housing seem to lack a crucial component of satire as it is traditionally understood, namely irony, which produces suspicion on the part of the reader that the satire’s words are not to be taken seriously, and that the object of the satire may in fact be the satirist himself. The Roman satirist Horace, whom Langbert cites as one of his models, wrote many poems in which the speaker of the poem is at least part of the butt of the joke. Horace even turned his satire on himself, in a poem (Satires 1.9) where he mocks a social-climbing flatterer for doing things that Horace himself was accused of doing to secure his position in the good graces of his wealthy and politically influential patron Maecenas. Unlike in Horace’s satires, there is little evidence that Langbert’s post about Kavanaugh is intended to deride those who believe what the post says. It might be possible to identify hints of irony in its extreme rhetoric, but the ideas in that post, particularly its mockery of Democratic politicians for lacking the “virility” of ancient Rome, are consistent with the views expressed elsewhere on his blog.

The piece aims to maintain a misogynist status quo. Whether it uses satire to accomplish that or not is beside the point.

Does it matter, however, whether Langbert’s piece is “really” satire or not? Throughout Langbert’s blog ancient Rome is held up as a model to be emulated: in the Kavanaugh post, Langbert’s praise of the “virility” and “masculine judgment” that characterize ancient Rome and that should, he implies, persuade us to condone or at least allow sexual assault, sounds very much like the argument of a post Pharos documented and responded to from a misogynist site that argued that supposed modern cultural decadence could be corrected by cultivating Roman masculinity. Langbert’s comment in an interview about the Kavanaugh post, that “It’s natural for males to be sexually exploratory,” sounds very much like the repeated complaint of another misogynist site that Pharos had documented that laws against sexual assault criminalize “natural” masculine behavior. Whether or not the article is satire, it is drawing on lines of argument used by hate sites, and as such it reinforces that hateful rhetoric. Its mockery seems to be aimed at anyone who believes that women should have legal protections against sexual violence, and at anyone who believes that perpetrators of sexual violence should be disqualified from public life. The piece aims to maintain a misogynist status quo. Whether it uses satire to accomplish that or not is beside the point.

The existence of an unabashedly racist site invoking the satires of Juvenal in support of hatred shows that Juvenal’s intentions in composing the poetry are immaterial

Ancient literature provides a case in point of the harm that satire can enact. Pharos has documented a racist site that invokes the poetry of the Roman satirist Juvenal in support of numerous types of hatred, whether against women, against gay people, or against immigrants. These poems do seem to argue for the inferiority of women, the unnaturalness of homosexuality, or the parasitic nature of immigrants, but there is some debate among scholars about whether Juvenal’s satire targets these groups or not: the poems frequently call attention to the hypocrisy, illogic, and factual flaws of such hateful arguments and so have prompted some to argue that Juvenal is in fact satirizing those who advocate hate. But the existence of an unabashedly racist site invoking the satires of Juvenal in support of hatred shows that Juvenal’s intentions in composing the poetry are immaterial: his poetry is used in support of hate.

Whatever Langbert’s intentions, his post, the authority he brings to it as a tenured professor at a major university, and the traditional admiration accorded to ancient Rome that Langbert invokes in support of the stated argument of his piece, can be used in the same way.

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