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Doing Justice to the Classics

How Classics Made its Way into the “Freedom Convoy”

This article is a collaboration between Pharos and Professor Katherine Blouin, who first documented this material. She is one of the editors of Everyday Orientalism, a publication that “reflect[s] on how history and power shape the way in which human societies define themselves through the ‘Other’”.

The “freedom convoy” was a Canadian protest that took place in several Canadian cities and border crossings and led to a month-long occupation of Ottawa in early 2022. Demonstrators opposed Canadian and American requirements that cross-border truck drivers be vaccinated against COVID-19. The protest was primarily initiated by an organization described by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as an “anti-public-health-mandate group,” but prominent leaders included anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists, white nationalists, and one former officer of a federal political party in Canada. Ordinarily we are only able to track the appropriation of Greco-Roman antiquity at such demonstrations if the demonstrators themselves invoke it publicly. But in the case of the “Freedom Convoy,” the work of public interest whistleblowers at DDoSecrets has revealed how those who privately support the convoy also take inspiration from the ancient world. 

Tweet from Kate Dupis (@DrKateTO) with three images showing a partially obscured flag bearing the Greek phrase "Molon Labe"

Classical symbols appeared in the protest itself alongside confederate flags and flags bearing swastikas. Those occupying the streets of Toronto flew a (familiar, misspelled) Molon Labe flag (perhaps ironically in front of the neoclassical facade of the University of Toronto Classics Department), and a “hero” of the anti-lockdown movement who has promoted racist memes online was filmed wearing a hoodie and a hat showing a Spartan helmet while heckling lawyer and independent journalist Caryma Sa’d. But these displayed symbols are just the tip of the iceberg.

Tweet from Caryma Sa’d (@CarmynaRules) showing a man and his wife wearing hoodies with Spartan helmets and the partially obscured text "HOLD FAST."

The Leaked Donor Data

The “Freedom Convoy” protestors who occupied Ottowa raised nearly $10 million on GoFundMe before the fundraiser was shut down for violating the platform’s prohibition against the promotion of violence and harassment. Fundraising subsequently moved to GiveSendGo, which describes itself as the “leader in Christian funding” and which has become the crowdfunding platform of choice for right-wing extremists such as former Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio and those who associate with them, like Kyle Rittenhouse. As the extremism behind the “Freedom Convoy” became increasingly obvious, GiveSendGo’s list of donors was leaked to journalists and researchers in mid-February. The leak of this information provides a glimpse at the motivations of those who give financial support to white nationalism, who are usually protected by the confidentiality of the powerful financial institutions such groups use in order to receive funds. 

Wherever you find the fantasy of "Western Civilization," you’ll find Greco-Roman antiquity close by 

Katherine Blouin, an editor of Everyday Orientalism and Pharos’ collaborator on this post, obtained the Excel Spreadsheet of more than 92,000 donations, about half of which came from the United States. Blouin began identifying historical references within the information that GiveSendGo recorded for each donation, which includes each donor’s “Public name” (often a pseudonym); their first and last name; their email address; their postal code; and the donors’ comments. The “Public Name” and Donor Comments are particularly interesting because they were visible to other potential donors on GiveSendGo’s site and so indicate how donors want to be seen by like-minded individuals.

A team led by Dr. Blouin is currently compiling and analyzing the donor list for the historical references it contains. These will be the subject of a future panoramic publication that uses donors’ appropriation of all periods of history, from Antiquity to the modern period, in order to assess the (a)historical intellectual landscape that shapes the donors’ understanding of the Canadian present. In this post, we focus more specifically on the many references to Greco-Roman antiquity found in the linked donor data (we have also excluded many biblical references that, although they are ancient, Pharos does not ordinarily document). The picture that emerges is one of the donors attempting to use the prestige of the ancient past to valorize the demonstrators as heroes and freedom fighters.

Greco-Roman Antiquity in the Leaked Donor Data

Covid skepticism and opposition to vaccines has already been correlated to racist politics, which are clearly visible throughout the leaked donor lists. Donor comments are replete with slogans associated with anti-government groups and QAnon, as well as outrage at the supposedly nefarious influence of the “depopulation” program of the “globalists.” The former is a reference to the racist conspiracy theory that governments promote immigration in an effort to exterminate the “white race,” and the latter is an antisemitic dogwhistle. One donor hits all these bases when they express a hope that the demonstrators would “bring to their knees the out of control madness of Justin Trudeau, the Canadian Tyrannical Government & put a stop to the behind the scenes secret elite plotters who are running this planned depopulation scheme & NWO takeover OF Western civilization.” With this last remark this donor links his racist beliefs with the fantasy of “western civilization” (a concept that recurs nearly a hundred times in donor comments) as a racial inheritance under threat in the contemporary world.  Wherever you find such notions of “the West,” you’ll find Greco-Roman antiquity close by

Tweet from Dr. Katherin Blouin (@isisnaucratis):

101. OMG I’M LAUGHING SO HARD:

Paul from California writes that...you ready?

"Without truckers there would be no Western Civilization."

I repeat:

"Without truckers there would be no Western Civilization."

Many of the donations reflect what is likely only passing familiarity with Greco-Roman antiquity. “Atlas” appears several times, but is probably (and in two cases, explicitly) a reference to the novel Atlas Shrugged; it is unsurprising to find this touchstone of libertarianism being celebrated among white nationalists but it doesn’t have much to do with Classical antiquity. And we may dismiss as superficial the frequent references to the Latin phrase Sic Semper Tyrannis, a favorite slogan of terrorist Timothy McVeigh that appears nowhere in ancient literature. Similarly the phrase Veni, Vidi, Vici, which appears in several donation comments, is familiar enough to require no knowledge of ancient history, even if it does chime with white nationalists’ fetishization of imperialism and anti-democratic politics. 

Email addresses that incorporate ancient names trade a bit more directly on the prestige of the ancient world as a means of giving oneself a heroic or otherwise impressive aura, as when someone named Alexander named his donation “Alexander the Great.” Several of those that recur, such as “Socrates,” “Plato,” “Diomedes,” “Zeus,” “Hannibal,” “Praetorian,” or “Maximus,” are favorites of white nationalists. We can add that the gender diversity of the names in the donor list reflects the sometimes ignored involvement of women in white nationalism. Indeed, one of the primary organizers of the Ontario demonstration was a woman. The choice of some of the women among the donors to use classical names in their email addresses — Artemis, Persephone, Cleopatra — suggests that white nationalist women, too, find ways to take inspiration from antiquity: the misogyny of ancient representations is, perhaps, acceptable to those who have joined so misogynist a movement. 

Many references to Greco-Roman antiquity attempt to align the convoy with freedom and the Canadian government with tyranny 

Plenty of donors, however, play Classical scholar in their self-represe. A donor from New York names his donation “Seneca” and quotes that philosopher in the “comment” field to reassure the demonstrators that “He who fears death will never do anything worthy of a man who is alive.” A donor from Florida writes that “Plato and Aristotle define a tyrant as a person that rules without law, using extreme and cruel methods against both his own people and others.” Something like that definition — which is quoted from Wikipedia — can in fact be found in those authors, both of whom wrote a lot of things congenial to hateful politics. Donors don’t always know what they’re talking about, of course, as when someone from a suburb of Vancouver recycles a well-worn but spurious quote from St. Augustine that “Truth is a lion, let it loose and it will defend itself.” Either way it’s clear that they believe that Greco-Roman thinkers can be used to dignify not only themselves, but the convoy’s politics. 

The recurring theme throughout the donation list is that life-saving vaccine mandates are the work of tyrannical, oppressive governments, and that the demonstrators are taking a heroic and honorable last stand against such tyranny. Already these themes are evident in the examples given above, but they are also to be found in the frequent references to the phrase “Molon Labe,” Leonidas, and more generally the Spartans, whom white nationalists make their model for such resistance. A donor from Ohio, whose donation title “This is Sparta” reveals his admiration for the film 300, clearly had this association in mind when he commented “NEVER BOW DOWN…NEVER.”  This language is reminiscent of the title of an essay entitled “Free Citizens Do Not Kneel” written by a Classics professor for an Islamophobic site and republished by a white supremacist site that Pharos has documented. Whether or not the donor had read this particular essay, the correspondence reflects the similarity between white nationalist and certain kinds of scholarly narratives of Spartan heroism.    

Tweet from Dr. Katherine Blouin (@isisnaucratis):

81. Jack from NYC is a fan of Gladiator:
"Keep Fighting the Good Fight. To paraphrase from Gladiator, "What you do in this battle will echo in eternity""

Many of the donors’ references to Greco-Roman antiquity should be understood as attempts to align the convoy and its supporters with freedom while painting the Canadian government as a tyrannical, oppressive force. A donor from Detroit named his donation “Cicero” with the comment “Liberty or Death,” accepting, like an antisemitic group Pharos has documented, Cicero’s self-representation in the Philippics as a defender of liberty against tyranny. A donor from Montréal used his donation comment to quote a (finessed) remark attributed to Pericles by Thucydides: “The secret to happiness is freedom…And the secret to freedom is courage.” Pericles is widely admired as a supposedly great orator and statesman but he is also a source of inspiration for xenophobes for his restrictive reforms of Athenian citizenship laws. The username “SPQRheroes” invokes the widespread myth of Roman Republican freedom and dovetails with white nationalist admiration for that abbreviation; the donation name “Ajax” may be intended to liken the demonstrators to the Homeric hero known as “the Bulwark of the Achaeans,” (e.g. Iliad 3.229) making the modern counterparts a “bulwark” against supposed tyranny; the donation name “Socrates loves truth” invokes a figure beloved by many — including racists — as a heroic truth-teller but who was also supposed to have “thanked Fortune” that he “was born a human being and not an animal, a man and not a woman, and a Greek and not a barbarian.” 

One of the complexities of white nationalist appropriation of the Greco-Roman past is that antiquity serves as both a positive and a negative model. The examples listed, which treat ancient figures as inspirational and admirable, illustrate the former. But, as Pharos has documented, the ancient world, particularly the Roman empire, is often represented as the analogue to what white nationalists claim are the degenerate, tyrannical, and anti-white governments of today. Several references to antiquity in the convoy take this approach. Second only to Sparta in frequency are references to Spartacus, the enslaved leader of a rebellion against Rome. His name appears several times in the donor data: as a “donation name,” as a pseudonym, and in the comment field as a quote from the Stanley Kubrick film adaptation of his life,  “I am Spartacus!” Although some white nationalist literature treats him as a dangerous subversive, in the popular imagination Spartacus has been regarded as a freedom-fighter by a wide range of political movements, often with very different conceptions of what freedom is or means. This is the case here, where these donations liken public health policy to enslavement in a disgusting (but all too common) sanitization of the violence and degradation of that institution. These are the same people who wore yellow Stars of David in order to claim that they had experience persecution like that of Jewish people in the Holocaust.  

Other prototypical freedom fighters that appear in the donation list are Arminius, the commander of a Germanic alliance that destroyed three Roman legions and who is linked with Spartacus by a donation name “Spartacus Arminius,” and Boudicca, the leader of an uprising against Roman occupation in Britain who, according to a donation comment, “approves this endeavor” [i.e. the convoy]. Both Arminius and Boudicca have long been favorite symbols of nationalist movements. Whether the donation name that includes “Visiogoth” is a reference to the group that some white nationalists believe provided an injection of racial purity into a supposedly decaying Roman empire is anyone’s guess. 

Most of the appropriations of Greco-Roman antiquity that Pharos documents are groups or people that are acting and recruiting in public, whether it’s “highbrow white nationalism” that makes the intellectual case for racist politics or real-world terrorists who enact violence in our communities. Usually, it seems, Greco-Roman antiquity is part of the public-facing picture. The Molon Labe flags and the Spartan Helmet hoodies mentioned above show that this is true of the “Freedom Convoy” as well. But the leaked donations give us a glimpse into the mindsets of the nearly hundred thousand people — “normal” people, some of them your neighbors — who support these movements, to the point of making monetary contributions. At the risk of taking a page from the convoy donors’ playbook, it brings to mind the (ancient) scripture, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” They’re looking to Greco-Roman antiquity for inspiration and legitimacy too. 

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