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Doing Justice to the Classics

Ancient Orientalism in Modern White Ethnonationalism

The opening months of 2021 witnessed a surge in violence against Asian Americans, most visibly the murders of Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, Delaina Ashley Yaun Gonzalez, Soon Chung Park, Hyun Grant, Suncha Kim, Yong Ae Yue, and Paul Andre Michels in Atlanta in March 2021. One result has been new attention to the history of anti-Asian racism and violence, particularly against women, in the United States. The ideas that justify violence against Asian people, however, have an even longer history, stretching back to ancient Greco-Roman perceptions of “the East,” as Nandini Pandey has shown. And these ancient ideas don’t just lurk at the root of modern racism but continue to be quoted as justification for racist ideas by contemporary white supremacists.

Info-graphic about "Breaking the Model Minority Myth: The Facts about Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders" from the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. Facts include: "From 2007 to 2010, AAPIs had the highest share of long term unemployment of any racial group. (Economic Policy Institute)" and "In the Southeast Asian American community, 35-40% of Hmong, Laotian and Cambodian populations do not finish high school. (2006 American Community Survey)".

Understanding how ancient material is used to justify anti-Asian racism requires understanding the complex mix of dehumanizing stereotypes about Asian people that justify that racism and violence. On the one hand, Asian Americans (in particular) are subject to the “Model Minority” myth, which holds that Asian people are adept at assimilating to white American culture and in fact desire to do so. The prevalence of this myth has many harmful effects: it erases disparities of wealth, health, and other metrics between different groups that the monolithic term “Asian” encompasses, it feeds ignorance about the long history of anti-Asian violence in the United States, and it contributes to anti-Blackness by promoting the lie that because Asian people have supposedly been able to succeed, Black people, and not systemic racism, are to blame for their status in the United States. On the other hand, Asian Americans are treated as a threat to white people — an idea sometimes termed “Yellow Peril” — especially if they refuse to conform to the docile and assimilated stereotype of the “model minority” by embracing their Asian identity. Asian immigrant men have long been feared as rivals for jobs, for example, and Asian women as a threat to public morality, a perception written into law in the Page Act of 1875, which contained provisions that explicitly forbid “the importation of women for the purposes of prostitution.” This provision was used to prevent Chinese women from immigrating.

Ancient sources give particular prominence to the following ideas: that Asian people are submissive and docile, that Asian people spread weakness and effeminacy wherever they go, and that Asian women pose a threat to sexual morality

In addition, both of these white supremacist views of Asian people — that they are either docile and compliant or that they present a subversive threat — have gendered components: Asian men today are stereotyped as weak or effeminate but historically were regarded as a threat to white women, originally as a result of immigration policy that prohibited them from bringing their wives and other female family members to the United States and so created a large group of men that appeared to be single. Asian women continue to be fetishized as both sexually submissive and hypersexual. The result is a complex and often contradictory network of prejudices — all of which representations of Asian people in film and television continuously reinforce — that serve both to dehumanize Asian people and justify violence against them.

Many of these prejudices have their origin in what the Palestinian-American critic Edward Said termed “Orientalism,” by which he meant the constellation of ideas about “the East” that, stretching back to antiquity, have served to justify European colonial domination in those regions. Central to Orientalist thought is the grouping together of all of Asia — from Turkey to Japan — into an undifferentiated mass, erasing all distinctions between the myriad peoples and cultures of that vast region. This is in itself dehumanizing because it erases human individuality. It also makes possible the assignment of essential characteristics to very large groups of people throughout time. Said notes that in Europe “the Orient” has, historically, referred primarily to the regions of the Eastern Mediterranean, but that in America, as a result of what he terms “the Japanese, Korean, and Indochinese adventures,” the discourses of Orientalism have been extended to describe those regions as well. Thus even if the ancient Greeks and Romans had only limited contact with inhabitants of ancient China or India, their attitudes toward Persians, for example, have come to justify violence against what are conventionally termed East, Southeast, and South Asians. Nowhere is this more clear than in the way white supremacists cite ancient material to justify anti-Asian racism.

Aristotle wrote that "the people of Asia are more servile than those of Europe"

Ancient sources, as Pandey documented, give particular prominence to the following ideas that contribute to the anti-Asian racism and violence described above: that Asian people are submissive and docile, that Asian people spread weakness and effeminacy wherever they go, and that Asian women pose a threat to sexual morality. And not coincidentally it is these ancient sources that recur frequently in expressions of anti-Asian racism on contemporary white ethonationalist websites.

For example, an essay at The Occidental Observer arguing that Aristotle’s Politics constitutes an analysis and rejection of “the ills of modern liberalism.” The author finds in Aristotle many of the same political beliefs that white ethnonationalists hold, including the need for hierarchy, “regulation of reproduction,” rejection of individual rights, the idea that “diversity [is] likely to lead to conflict,” and the designation of people from Asia as servile. The essay quotes Aristotle saying that “the people of Asia are more servile than those of Europe” (Politics 3.14 1285a16) and that “they continue to be peoples of subjects and slaves.” (Politics 7.7 1327b18) This characterization has been used to claim the superiority of Europeans over Asians and to justify their domination.

One disgraced academic, writing for Counter Currents, pairs Aristotle’s judgment with an explicit declaration of white superiority, arguing that “the West [rose] to become the most powerful civilization [and] the progenitor of modernity” because of the “Superior Psychogenetic Cognition of Europeans.” He supports this claim of cognitive superiority with reference to Aristotle, whom he admits ascribed intelligence to “the peoples of Asia” but said that Europeans are “high-spirited” while Asians are “wanting in spirit and therefore are always in a state of subjection and slavery.” (Politics 7.7 1327b18) “Ancient Greeks,” the author claims, “were the first ‘New Humans,’” thereby designating everyone else as subhuman and so providing a justification for violence against them. The same author has been documented by Pharos for his claim that “The Greatest Philosophers are ALL European Men;” in that essay he employed the same language of intellectual limitation, writing that “Chinese philosophy never rose beyond [a] pre-rational, mystical, poetical, bureaucratic, style of writing.”

This fear of Eastern "decadence" found genocidal expression under Nazism in the twentieth century

This reference to supposed Asian “pre-rationality” reveals another component of the belief that Asian people are servile, namely, that Asian people are less creative and less capable of “original” thought than white people. This idea appears alongside the belief in Asian servility in an essay for American Renaissance by Samuel Francis, one of the intellectual architects of twenty-first century white ethnonationalism and an early proponent of what would become Donald Trump’s political strategy of appealing explicitly to white grievances. Francis explains the supposed cognitive inferiority of Asian people with reference to the servility that Aristotle ascribes to them. In a discussion of the origin of “the Faustian dynamism of the Aryan race and civilization” in Indo-European prehistory and Greco-Roman history, Francis (echoing Aristotle) sneers at “the static primitivism and never-changing dullness that characterize the ‘fellahin‘ peoples of Asia, immersed in the fatalism and world-denying religions of the East.” Such designations have provided justification for colonial violence for centuries. Francis also cites ancient history as evidence that modern white people should regard the “East” as a threat to white civilization, writing that “the despotism that arose in ancient Rome was based on a non-Western, Asiatic, or Egyptian model and that the ancient Greeks always feared and distrusted citizens who became ‘Medized’, (i.e. adopted the customs of the Medes or Persians or other Asians) as people who were alienated from their own institutions and who might harbor ambitions of enslaving their own people.”

These ancient claims of Asian servility contribute to the “model minority” myth, which holds, in essence, that Asian people willingly submit to the dominant culture wherever they are. The other dominant dimension of anti-Asian racism — that Asian people pose an effeminizing or hypersexual threat — is also an ancient idea, as Pandey has demonstrated in her discussion of the ways the Romans saw foreign customs as threats to Roman manliness. This fear was particularly acute regarding “the East,” the conquest of which made it a a source of many refined luxury items that wealthy Romans desired. An essay for The Occidental Observer, written under a pseudonym by the same misogynist that Pharos has documented for claiming that women are inferior to men because Aristotle said so, declares that “fourth- and fifth-century Romans had become the ‘soyboys’ of antiquity — soft, effeminate, milquetoast, peace-loving and totally lacking in all the warrior virtues.” The author goes on to argue that, in the modern world, “globalist elites have aggressively promoted feminism, multiculturalism, and mass immigration” with the result, he claims, that “homosexuality, transgenderism, and miscegenation have become enshrined as the new values of a decaying post-modern civilization.”

Ancient Greek and Roman writers really did articulate attitudes toward the East that continue to find expression in contemporary anti-Asian racism

This essay does not explicitly say (what Roman sources say) that the influence of Asia is the source of such degeneracy, but its use of the insult “soyboy” signals its anti-Asian bias. The term is frequently used by contemporary white ethnonationalists to attack modern men who do not cultivate the violent and toxic masculinity that white supremacists favor (and often trace back to ancient mythological warriors), and is itself an anti-Asian racist slur, marking as effeminate one of the central traditional ingredients of the East Asian diet. The same website that Pharos documented for blaming the Fall of Rome on feminism all but acknowledges this element of the insult when, in an essay claiming a government conspiracy to emasculate American men by promoting soy products, the author remarks that “When the Asian dude in the group looks like the highest T[estosterone], you know you’ve got a soyboi problem.”

Other contributors to white nationalist websites use Greco-Roman antiquity to assert that Eastern luxury in particular poses a threat to white civilization. The same author that Pharos has documented for making Classical Athens a model of white supremacist politics has argued that Herodotus’ account of “The Persians’ rise to power” as a result of “their initial Spartan-like ruggedness and simplicity” and “their decline…due to their indulgence in comfort and wealth” should be understood as a warning about “the perils of luxury, effeminacy, and decadence.” The author then translates Herodotus’ warning into contemporary terms, claiming that “the message could not be clearer: a prosperous and civilized people is precisely the most vulnerable to creeping weakness — a message that resonates today as the West is suffering population replacement by Africans, Muslims, and Mestizos as a result of the treason of our hostile elites.”

Supposed proof that Eastern luxury poses a threat to the survival of a civilization is found in Cato the Elder, Polybius, Sallust, and Livy

This fear of Eastern “decadence” found genocidal expression under Nazism in the twentieth century. National Socialism’s use of ancient hostility toward “the East” to fuel fears of effeminacy and “degeneracy” is commemorated in an essay of Counter Currents detailing the ideals of femininity that Nazi propaganda promoted: the “hardworking peasant mother” and the “uniformed woman in service to her people.” The author links these ideals to the “simplicity in dress and appearance” that “the earliest Europeans tended toward,” particularly, this author claims, in northern Europe. “The Mediterranean cultures,” by contrast, supposedly “influenced by the East, were the first to become extravagant in dress and makeup” as “cosmetics were introduced to Rome from Egypt.”

The narrative presented in this essay is one of creeping, eastern, degeneracy: at first cosmetics “were associated with prostitutes and slaves” but “as Rome degenerated..the use of makeup spread to many classes, with specialized slaves devoting much time to applying face paint to their masters, especially to lighten the skin color.” The discussion is paired with an image of the Pompeiian “Portrait of Terentius Neo” which is sometimes cited as one refutation of assumptions that ancient Rome was populated primarily by white people; in this article it is assumed to provide proof of the racial degeneration of the empire. To show that the use of makeup implies “lack of chastity, potential for adultery, seductiveness, unnatural aversion to the traditional roles for women, manipulation, and deceitfulness,” the article reproduces a whole series of passages from Roman authors condemning the use of cosmetics as degenerate, such as Seneca, who praises his mother Helvia because she “never defiled her face with paints or cosmetics,” and Juvenal, who connects perfumes from India with unrestrained female sexuality and adultery. This latter passage links Eastern influence with dangerous sexuality, simultaneously eroticizing Asian women and portraying them as agents of civilizational decline.

Screengrab of Ricardo Duchesne’s article titled "There is Nothing the Alt Right Can Do about the Effeminacy of White Men" for Counter Currents

All these ancient tropes are woven together in a piece for Counter Currents by the same author that argued (above) that Europeans are cognitively superior to Asians. This article, “There is nothing the Alt-Right can do about the effeminacy of white men,” rejects the argument (which Pharos has documented) that feminism caused both the fall of the Roman Empire and contemporary degeneracy, and claims instead that “white men are the weakest in the world today because they inhabit the most comfortable, easygoing civilization.” This author’s proof that luxury poses a threat to the survival of a civilization comes from ancient history, with quotations about Cato the Elder’s ascetic lifestyle (the essay also begins with an image of a Roman sculpture traditionally assumed to represent Cato), Polybius’ complaint about Roman men “abandon[ing] themselves to love affairs with boys” and “to consorting with prostitutes,” Sallust’s claim that luxury produces both “a change in fortune as well as in morals and behavior” (for the worse), and Livy’s declaration that “with the gradual decline of discipline, morals slid and then more and more collapsed.”

This author is not aware of, or chooses not to cite, any of the examples cited by Pandey of Roman writers blaming the influence of “the East” for this decline, but he recognizes that such claims can be found even farther back in history in ancient Greece: “Ancient Greek literature is full of objections to the pernicious luxury of the Orientals,” he writes, “their harems, eunuchs, and their corrupt intrigues. The very concept of the ‘Orient’ came to mean opulent meals, indulgence, wantonness, effeminacy.” We may note the prominence that supposed Asian hypersexuality is given in these characterizations, which emphasize effeminacy as a particularly eastern quality. But for white ethnonationalists this effeminacy threatens not simply an unfortunate loss of virility but a threat to the very existence of the white race: “the relentless occupation of the West by hordes of Muslims and Africans is an expression of White male decadence and effeminacy.”

This is not a case of white supremacists inventing a past to suit their hateful politics. Ancient Greek and Roman writers really did articulate attitudes toward the East that continue to find expression in contemporary anti-Asian racism. The history of that racism, which includes examples such as People v. Hall, the Chinese massacre of 1871, the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Rock Springs massacre, the blame assigned to Chinese immigrants for an outbreak of the bubonic plague, the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans, attacks by the Ku Klux Klan on Vietnamese fishermen, and the murder of Vincent Chin in 1982, has not, until recently, received widespread attention. Documenting the role of ancient ideas about Asia and “the East” in the creation and perpetuation of that racism is the contribution that Classical scholars can make to this belated reckoning with that history. Because as the murders in Atlanta, and all the violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders over the past year show, these ideas have real world consequences.

Resources to learn about anti-Asian racism and violence:

Organizations Supporting the Asian American/Pacific Islander community in the U.S:

And of course, within the world of Classical Studies, the Asian and Asian American Classical Caucus promotes the study of Asian and Asian-American receptions of Classics and advocates for greater diversity in Classics.

As always, in order to avoid sending traffic to white supremacist websites we have linked above to archived versions of the articles discussed.

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