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Doing Justice to the Classics

Militia Group Warns of the Roman “Path to Ruin”

In May 2019, Pennsylvania state representative Stephanie Borowicz drew criticism for posing for a photograph with a member of the militia group “American Guard” at a rally. Such reports of elected officials having ties to white supremacy or granting influence to members of hate groups seem to be increasingly common. When the report of Rep. Borowicz’s selfie came across our desk Pharos looked into American Guard and found not only hateful politics, but references to classical antiquity as well.

“Come and take it” at the center of the American Guard logo is a reference to an ancient Greek saying that many militia groups admire

Like many militia groups, American Guard claims to reject racism and to advocate for the rights of “citizens” against what they see as a tyrannical federal government, but the group shares many of the priorities of white nationalists. American Guard in particular was founded by the leader of two separate racist organizations, the “Vinlanders Social Club” and the Indiana chapter of the “Soldiers of Odin.” Also like other militia groups Pharos has documented, American Guard invokes the ancient Greek phrase molon labe (“come and take them”), the words that the Spartan king Leonidas supposedly spoke when Persian emissaries invited him to surrender Sparta’s weapons in return for amnesty. Without making reference to the ancient origin of the phrase, American Guard incorporates an English translation of this slogan into their logo (pictured above).

On its own the phrase does not necessarily convey white nationalism, but the crossed meat cleavers below it do, according to the ADL. This symbol is inspired by the character of “Bill the Butcher” in the 2002 film Gangs of New York, who was based on William Poole, the leader of a 19th century gang known for its violence towards immigrants. This connection should color our understanding of the anti-immigrant positions outlined in American Guard’s “Platform” page, including that they “support harsh penalties for the willful violation of our borders” and that “the liberties, rights, and freedoms” of the United States “don’t extend past our borders.” Certainly the actions of American Guard’s leadership are in keeping with the violence implicit in the cleaver imagery and associated with Sparta in the popular imagination: the militia’s founder, Brien James, allegedly punched and stomped a man to the brink of death in 2000 for refusing to seig heil, and James’ co-founder of the Vinlanders Social Club, Eric “The Butcher” Fairburn, is currently serving a life sentence for the murder of a man in Springfield, Missouri.

Whereas other militia groups do not go much beyond admiration for Sparta in their classical references, at least one contributor to American Guard’s blog takes inspiration from a broader range of classical material. Many xenophobes, including some that Pharos has documented, see the “fall” of Rome as a parallel to the supposed decline of America. This comparison is mentioned but not developed in a racist, anti-Semitic, and transphobic article on “The Grave Importance of History” that argues that the collapse of the Weimar Republic provides a better parallel than the “fall” of Rome for the “frightening path…lead[ing] to a place where America drives off a cliff, and lands in one of 2 places, Marxism or Fascism.” This same article also invokes the assassination of Julius Caesar in order to discredit contemporary journalism that supports the removal of Confederate monuments and accounts of the civil war that paint the Confederacy as defenders of slavery and not, as American Guard would have it, as opponents of “the growth of the imperial federal government that now oppresses us all.” The same news media that claims these things, the argument goes, claims that there is “a toxic environment in Washington D.C.,” but our politics are tame compared to those in Roman times when Caesar was assassinated; therefore, the post claims, the media is lying about contemporary politics, popular support for the removal of confederate monuments, and the causes of the civil war.

In the hands of American Guard any debate over the war in Afghanistan is inextricably linked with hateful politics

Another post, entitled “On Libertarianism, Nationalism, and Tribalism,” makes less superficial (not to say convoluted) references to antiquity in support of a similar thesis, namely that if “you have a basic understanding of economics and history, it is obvious that we are on a path to ruin.” The author assigns blame for this decline to “American Socialists” for “propagat[ing] white guilt propaganda,” “tell[ing] women not to have babies,” and portraying men as “buffoons” who “push every sort of degenerate behavior,” and wonders “how long before [Muslims] impose their will on you?” This article is a prime example of how hateful claims can be found underneath a veneer of anti-government rhetoric. The stated point of the argument is to criticize America’s war in Afghanistan, which are framed in reference to various ancient military defeats: America’s failure to stabilize Afghanistan despite the assassination of Osama Bin Laden is compared to Alexander’s failure to conquer Bactria (northern Afghanistan) even though he had defeated the Persian satrap Bessus, to the Romans who saw their city sacked “repeatedly” beginning with the Gallic sack of 390 BCE, and to the Roman emperor Hadrian being repelled from Scotland by the Picts.

Whether the war in Afghanistan was worthwhile or has been successful is a topic worth debating. But in the hands of militia groups like American Guard that debate is inextricably linked with hateful politics. And for all his insistence that history provides our best guide in such matters, this author’s own sense of history is blatantly tendentious: he praises the “healthy tribal system” of early American colonists who “test[ed] themselves against an unexplored land full of savage natives,” thereby casting the violent displacement and genocide of the Native Americans in triumphalist terms.

Just as some of the grievances of misogynist groups have some legitimacy — for example, we should try to understand why men are far more likely to commit suicide than women and should try to do something about it — there is plenty to criticize in how America’s war in Afghanistan has been conducted, or in the workings of the U.S. government more generally. In both cases, however, any possible value that could come from drawing attention to these issues is negated by the hateful framing of the problems: reinstating oppression of women won’t help the epidemic of male suicide; changing the way we define and celebrate masculinity will. In the case of American Guard’s grievances, it is hard to see what the progress made in women’s and gay rights or awareness of structural inequality and historical injustice in the United States has to do with the war in Afghanistan. But both “men’s rights” misogyny and militia groups like American Guard take the easier route of blaming problems on someone else.

These movements have something else in common too: both use antiquity to give legitimacy to their hateful politics. And just as we may be dismayed that these groups turn to hate rather than putting their energy into developing peaceful, inclusive, and meaningful solutions to the problems they’ve identified, it is dispiriting to realize how frequently classical antiquity is found on the side of hatred and how rarely on the side of progress.

To avoid generating traffic for American Guard’s site we have linked above to archived versions of their pages. The original versions of the two articles documented here can be found at these links: “Libertarianism, Nationalism, and Tribalism;” “The Grave Importance of History.”

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