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Doing Justice to the Classics

The Fourth Year of Pharos: What is the Emotional Toll?

Curtis Dozier, Director of Pharos

The end of November marked the four-year anniversary of the launch of Pharos: Doing Justice to the Classics. Each year around this time I’ve published a retrospective about how the site has grown and evolved during the past year. Since I’ve already done some of that in my announcement of our new front page and land acknowledgement, I’m going to take a slightly different approach this year and try to address a question I’m often asked when I tell people about Pharos. It’s a question I’ve had trouble answering, in part because how I answer it defines the significance of this work. (Don’t worry, I’ve put a quick retrospective at the end of this post).

The question I have in mind takes various forms, but people basically want to know about the emotional toll that they believe spending so much time reading overtly white supremacist material takes. Often this question is combined with an expression of gratitude for my being willing to assess this material so that others do not have to. 

My candid answer is that I do not find it very taxing, ordinarily, to study the sites I document, because their hatred is not directed at me. If anything, as an able-bodied, heterosexual, Christian, white man, I am the audience they seek to persuade. When I first launched Pharos I wrote that I had been particularly disturbed by the antisemitic harassment Donna Zuckerberg received when she wrote about misogyny and Greco-Roman antiquity online. At the time I attributed my outrage to the resemblance between those attacks and Nazi propaganda, but I’ve come to realize — with help from Aimé Césaire, who wrote in Discourse on Colonialism that what “the Christian bourgeois…cannot forgive about Hitler is…the fact that he applied to Europe colonialist procedures that until then had been reserved for” Arabs, Indians, and Africans — that if antisemitism disturbs me in a more visceral way than other forms of racist violence, it is at least partly because it is a form of violent hatred directed at people who are conventionally racialized as “white,” like me. But because I do not identify as Jewish, it is still relatively easy to maintain a critical detachment from that ideology. It is this privilege of detachment that enables me to work on this material so intensively.

As so often, however, that privilege is implicated in the maintenance of white supremacy, which draws strength from that critical detachment, from the feeling that “this is terrible but it isn’t about me.” Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. 

After more than four years of work my team at Pharos has compiled a vast archive of white supremacist appropriations of Greco-Roman antiquity (readers who are curious about how a particular author or aspect of antiquity appears in this archive are invited to email us). Most of the appropriations in this archive will never be documented on the site. A majority are, in a sense, more of the same: the prestige of the “Classical” world being used to give legitimacy to hateful ideas, often through the quotation of ancient texts that express white nationalist ideas or ideas congenial to them. In our archive we categorize appropriations by the depth of their engagement with Greco-Roman antiquity and, in recent years, have tried to focus on examples that we have tagged “SE” (“Significant Engagement”) because those are the appropriations that reveal the most striking similarities between mainstream and white nationalist ways of valuing the ancient past.

But sometimes one of the appropriations that doesn’t have enough antiquity to be judged “significant” sticks in my mind.

Greg Johnson, the editor-in-chief of Counter Currents, likes to quote Aristotle. This is usually just a run-of-the-mill appeal to authority, like the first thing Pharos ever documented, although Johnson, who has a Ph.D. in Philosophy, knows Aristotle much better than your average white nationalist.  For example, Johnson frequently invokes Aristotle’s “mixed constitution,” which combines democratic and aristocratic elements, as evidence that principles of equality will never (Johnson believes) produce a healthy state. In this Johnson echoes the views of the framers of the United States Constitution who followed the arguments of Aristotle and his successors such as Polybius in order to avoid what they believed would be excessive democracy.

It is painful to see myself reflected in white nationalist confidence that most white people lack the courage and conviction to create a more just world

One of the essays in which Johnson invokes Aristotle is called Truth, Justice, and a Nice White Country, a phrase Johnson believes summarizes white nationalist ideals for a society whose “political mainstream,” according to Johnson, promotes “lies, injustice, and mixing up [of] every white nation into a multicultural, multiracial pigsty.” In the essay Johnson defines each part of the phrase in turn. “Truth” turns out to be the fundamental lie of white supremacy, that “race” is a meaningful, deterministic category. In his definition of “Justice” Johnson cites Aristotle’s mixed constitution as evidence that society should be organized hierarchically. So far so familiar. Nothing is more ordinary in my research than finding a white nationalist, even a prominent one, even one who knows his Classical political philosophy, claiming that racial differences require hierarchical social structures. I would normally just file it away and move on. But I haven’t been able to shake Johnson’s discussion of what he meant by “A Nice White Country.”

This, Johnson says, is what white nationalists want: “nice white schools, nice white suburbs, nice white churches, nice white restaurants and parks and playgrounds.” It’s disgusting when you see an avowed white nationalist say it. But it’s also reflective of a segregated society that white Americans have worked hard to create and maintain, primarily through their activism (especially around school district composition) and through their choices about where to live. Joseph Sobran, the “Nazi fellow traveler” and holocaust denier that Pharos has documented for his racist commentary on Latin education, was not entirely wrong when he said (according to white nationalist sites that lionize him), “in their mating and migratory habits, liberals are indistinguishable from members of the Ku Klux Klan.” And although it’s true that what the census calls interracial marriage has increased markedly since Sobran’s death, at least in metropolitan areas, it is these “revealed preferences” of white people that give Johnson hope for his white nationalist cause: “When whites finally wake up,” he writes, “to the fact that the system will no longer let us have a separate peace — that we can no longer run away to find nice white schools and nice white communities — then White Nationalism will be a political possibility.”

Johnson wrote this essay in 2014. Since then, we’ve elected a white nationalist president and seen the continued incubation of white nationalist beliefs within the mainstream of America’s political establishment. Johnson’s essay about white people rising up against a more equitable society looks pretty prophetic. That realization — that Johnson might be right, and that his movement, which so many people continue to describe as “far right” or “extremist,” might actually have widespread support — takes a toll. But even more, as I look back over that same period from 2014 until today, I know I lived my life and I made choices, some of which subverted white supremacist ideology, but others of which fit the pattern that white nationalists like Johnson are depending on “normal” people making to fuel their movement’s continuing rise. Where to live. Where to go to school. Which park to play at. Where to eat. Where to go to church. How different, really, is the life I’ve made than that which people like Johnson expect me to make?

The goal is not to “save Classics” from neo-Nazis

So when people ask me how working on overtly racist material affects me, I don’t think about how the literature and history I’ve devoted my life to studying are used in support of hateful ideas. That doesn’t bother me that much, and anyway, the more you look at this material the more you see that its nothing new for white nationalists to use Greco-Roman antiquity to make racist ideas respectable. And although I’m disgusted by the racial and antisemitic slurs I often encounter, those don’t take a toll on me because they’re not about me. And anyway “highbrow white nationalists” like Johnson don’t write that way. They don’t need to, because they know that white supremacist beliefs and practices are the default for white Americans.

No, working on Pharos affects me because it is painful to see myself reflected in Greg Johnson’s confidence that most white people like me — especially white liberals like me — lack the courage and conviction to give up some of our comfort, our wealth, our access to power, our confidence that we deserve what we have, our isolation from people and experiences that are different from ours, in order to create a more just world.

By the same token I am not always gratified when I am thanked for doing this work so that others don’t have to. If Pharos allows people of color to know what white nationalists are saying about antiquity without having to encounter such vicious hatred directly, that’s good. But my documentations on Pharos also make it possible for my white readers to avoid the experience I’ve described above, of having Greg Johnson, fellow Ph.D., fellow admirer of Ancient Greece, hail them as allies in bringing about the racist state he desires. Maybe we need to have that toll taken for us to really understand the stakes in this work and to ask ourselves what kinds of changes we would need to make in how we spend our time, our money, and our influence in order to prove Greg Johnson wrong.

I still believe that, by prompting scholars to reflect on the similarities between the ways we’ve been taught to value the ancient world and the ways that white nationalists value it, Pharos contributes to anti-racism in our discipline. But I am increasingly conscious that justice demands that we actually reflect on something much more personal, not just how we value and teach about antiquity, but how we live our lives. The goal is not to “save Classics” from neo-Nazis. The goal must be to save our communities, and ourselves, from the immoral and soul-destroying violence of racism and oppression.

2021 Report and Statistics

In 2021 Pharos‘s audience continued to grow. Our most popular article remains, by far, “SPQR and White Nationalism” with our documentation of white nationalist apparel marketed to law enforcement and the military coming in, as in past years, a distant second. Our summary of reference to Greco-Roman antiquity in the work of “Bronze Age Pervert” was our third most popular article. The most popular article published in 2021 was our documentation of Classical symbols among the rioters at the U.S. Capitol on January 6th, 2021, followed by our first-ever guest post, Jeremy Swist’s review of Classical imagery in the album art of racist heavy metal bands, and our documentation of the “First Amendment Praetorians,” a group that was recently subpoenaed by the House Select Committee charged with investigating the Capitol attack of January 6th.

This year we also launched a new set of materials intended to help educators use Pharos in their classrooms. These include surveys of appropriations organized around the themes of Greek City States, Misogyny and Gender, and Greek Myth. These are accompanied by a list of best practices and questions for discussion. We have more surveys planned and welcome requests for specific topics by email.

Overall Pharos published fewer new articles than in previous years. This was partly because we went for depth rather than volume, as in, for example, our discussion of how contemporary white nationalists employ ancient material to justify anti-Asian racism, and partly because I devoted more time than in past years to speaking about white nationalism and Greco-Roman antiquity. Recordings of several of these talks are available in the “Site News” section of the website.

Finally, we made a number of behind-the-scenes improvements to the site, including an updated theme and URL that ensure the stability and longevity of the site. As part of this update we improved the accessabilty of the site by improving the color contrast of our theme and in 2022 I hope to add alt text to our images.

Thanks as always for your support and continued interest in Pharos and in making Classical Studies a more just and inclusive discipline.

Land Acknowledgement: Pharos is researched, written, and published online at Vassar College, an institution situated in the homeland of the Munsee Lenape people, who lived here for thousands of years before the arrival of European colonists. Please read more.

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