In Donna Zuckerberg’s new book, Not All Dead White Men (Harvard University Press 2018), the journalist and Classics professor explores the largely digital world of the Red Pill, an umbrella term for groups that include the Alt-Right, the Manosphere, Identity Evropa, and other groups motivated by the promotion and elevation of, as Zuckerberg terms it, an “ideal white masculinity.” Reddit and Twitter in particular provide these groups with one of the most dangerous and antique of powers: Anonymity. Beyond social media connectivity, a common characteristic of these groups is that they frequently appropriate culture, texts, symbols, and art from the ancient world of Greece and Rome in order to legitimize their perspectives.
Reinterpreting cultural touchstones is a well-worn tactic for claiming legitimacy; a strategy adopted by French Revolutionaries, Italian Fascists, and—most infamously—the Nazis. As is their modus operandi, even the term “red pill” is a misinterpreted appropriation; a reference to the sci-fi film The Matrix (1999). In the movie, the red pill offered by Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) represents knowledge, freedom, and the acceptance of a brutal reality. Paradoxically, Red Pill communities are not particularly invested in acquiring knowledge through intellectual inquiry or the reading of primary sources. And the only freedom they are often interested in is liberty for themselves, rather than freedom for women, immigrants, people of color, liberals, or Jews.
The main forum for Red Pill groups can be located on Reddit at /r/TheRedPill. Zuckerberg remarks that this digital hub has grown from 138,000 in 2016 to over 230,000 in early 2018. As of the writing of this review, there were 291,000. Despite their derogating criticism of social media platforms such as Facebook, Red Pill communities have been connected, amplified, and emboldened by their use of other platforms like Reddit. Since November of 2016, they have coalesced online around their presumptive standard-bearer: Donald Trump.
References to the ancient world abound in the iconography and ideological justifications of these groups, even if they often misunderstand, omit, or ignore important components of classical culture. Identity Evropa, for example, loves the “whiteness” of classical statues even though they were originally painted in vibrant colors. Steve Bannon and other members within the alt-right with a history of homophobia have latched onto the history of Sparta and ancient Greece, while also selectively ignoring the prevalence of same sex relationships in such communities. Any glimpse of ancient female empowerment is similarly dismissed. On the Red Pill site Return of Kings, columnist Ken Bourne responded to the evidence for the economic and social empowerment of women in ancient Sparta by partially blaming women for the city’s ultimate demise:
Clearly, women’s rights in ancient Sparta was self-defeating, as the reduction in population weakened the army that held up the economic system in the first place. Hopefully, we can learn from history and try to correct the mistakes of the past.
Zuckerberg points out that these predominantly cisgender communities have turned ancient history into a replicable meme, a canvas upon which to project their own constructs of white male superiority and “the West,” rather than an earnest attempt to understand the past. These groups perpetuate the twin myths of martyrdom and false nostalgia, cultivating homesickness for a past that never existed.
Zuckerberg’s approach is broadly accessible to those who do not study Classics and to those who do. All Latin and Greek is translated. The book’s stated emphasis is on the gender politics of the Red Pill communities rather than the racial ones. Her justification is that the gender dynamics are more intelligible and coherent than the white supremacist ideologies of many, but not all, of these groups. Misogyny is easy to locate and to cite in the texts from antiquity, but biological race was not a recognized category in the ancient world. As historian of slavery Omar H. Ali has stated, race is not a product of genetics or biology, but is rather a “function of power.” Ali remarks that the empowered also create definitions for society: “(those in power disproportionately determine standards of beauty, morality, comportment, and intellect), race, like all other identities, has been a constructed and shifting term in world history.” Analyzing how white men have created and imposed definitions that benefit themselves is pivotal to understanding both racism and misogyny in our current political climate.
The book is organized into four chapters with an introduction and conclusion focused on issues of sexual violence; Red Pill perceptions of “female privilege”; the modern manipulation of Stoicism as a masculine philosophy; the use of Ovid by pickup artists; and the obsession with false rape allegations perpetuated within many Red Pill communities. While the book does supply quotes from classical texts, the focus is on reconstructing and discerning a modern methodology. The value in these chapters is ultimately to show the consistent methods of marginalization and manipulation in a small but loud online community.
In the process, she is open and honest about her own family connections to Facebook, her experiences living in Silicon Valley, and the intense harassment and antisemitism that she faced from Red Pill groups online following her November 2016 Eidolon article: “How to be a Good Classicist Under a Bad Emperor.” In turn, I should also be transparent in my connections to this book and its authors. I have written for Eidolon and have also leaned on Prof. Zuckerberg when I underwent a similar period of harassment over a year ago. This likely makes me a biased reviewer of her work, but I can confirm that the tactics and common invective of which she speaks are a reality.
Not All Dead White Men underscores a tendency within these communities (one that was also prevalent among early modern male European historians and art historians): the preference for a grand narrative that depends on carefully selected anecdotes rather than careful analysis of comprehensive statistics. Such arguments cherry-pick selective textual or aesthetic examples and then cast them as illustrative of the whole. Such an approach is practiced more broadly, for example, by those who desire to discredit allegations of rape and sexual assault. Although only a small number (around 2 and at most 10%) of rape reports are estimated to be false, men’s rights groups within the Red Pill community often use one case of false rape allegations as evidence of the nefarious motives of all women who report sexual violence.
Oftentimes, the book feels visceral. Zuckerberg’s remark that “it is easier [for Red Pill groups] to fathom the idea that lying is inherent in female nature than to grapple with the inconsistent data about false allegations” became all too relevant in the midst of the negative backlash from many conservatives to Dr. Christine Blasey Ford's testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The narrative that women seek social and political vengeance through sexual assault allegations is a common refrain in Red Pill groups that has now seeped into the mainstream with devastating results.
In the book, Zuckerberg rightfully points to the statistics on false rape allegations, estimating it at perhaps closer to 8%. Yet FBI and academic studies on the topic are not generally accepted by Red Pill groups. Instead, they point to the 2006 Duke Lacrosse case or the 2014 rape alleged at the University of Virginia published in an article for Rolling Stone as examples that demonstrate their belief that most sexual assault allegations are false. We can see a parallel in terms of anecdotal argumentation with the manipulative way that University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts’ death was used by many conservative media outlets to justify their thesis that illegal immigration laws were necessary and that sanctuary cities should be made illegal. Red Pill groups often perform selective, privileged, and filtered reading of the sources they wish to weaponize.
In 2017, only a few months after the election of Donald Trump, The Washington Post added a new motto to their masthead: “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” Amazon owner Jeff Bezos said he had originally heard the phrase from legendary journalist Bob Woodward and wanted to add the slogan after acquiring ownership of the newspaper. To his mind, solid journalism was the light that would dispel the shadows and point to the truth. This book will no doubt incense those within many Red Pill communities, but Prof. Zuckerberg did not write this book for them. She wrote it for the thousands of readers who are unaware of the ideas and methods that these shadow communities employ.
Within the field of Classics, Prof. Zuckerberg and many of the writers at Eidolon, the journal she helped to found and which she remains editor-in-chief of, view their role similarly. A new generation of classicists, archaeologists, and premodern historians have begun to realize that an insulated approach to scholarship is itself a form of privileged monasticism that we can no longer retreat to. In Not All Dead White Men, Zuckerberg looks into the crevices of the internet and into academia with a jussive command: “Fiat lux” (Let there be light). It is up to us to keep the lights on.
Dr. Sarah E. Bond is Associate Professor of Classics at the University of Iowa and a regular contributor to Hyperallergic.com.
 See Denise Eileen McCoskey, Race : Antiquity and its legacy (London, 2012); “Bad to the Bone The Racist Application of DNA Science to Classical Antiquity” Eidolon (June 18, 2018).