4 Ways America Fails Hard At Understanding History
Pretty much since the beginning of the USA, conservative political movements have claimed that they’re the inheritors of some idealized image of the past to give legitimacy to social grievances: whether they’re Trump or Reagan, they want to make America great again—the implication being that they’re reclaiming a greatness that is now lost. My counterargument is that this is indicative of a medical condition known as assbrains.
In an era when comment sections about historical films explode into racist tirades at the mere possibility that Black people may have actually existed before 1971’s Shaft, it’s worth taking the time to ask ourselves why the modern American right loves to bring up their own hagiographic version of history. Here are some common examples, and why those examples are all indicative of terminal assbrains.
“Greco-Roman Culture Was A Bastion Of Traditional Masculinity!”
Right-wing weirdos absolutely love ancient Greece and Rome. Laconophilia has been a hallmark of right-wing militaristic cultures pretty much forever, from Hitler’s Third Reich terminology to the British Empire’s penchant for Latin and incest to Mussolini naming fascism after a Roman symbol of authority. (Sadly, fascism is not named after the fascinus, a magical flying penis fashionable Romans wore around as necklaces.)
In the case of Greece you would think that a proto-democracy wherein a bunch of dudes in towels sat around, sipped wine, and bickered about philosophy would be kind of a turn-off to the cellphones-on-belt-holsters crowd, but alas, Greco-Roman iconography is more popular than ever. Maybe you’ve seen some variation of this dumb crap plastered on the back of your local coal-rollin’ monstrosity that never seems to actually haul things:
This says “Molon Labe,” which means (probably inaccurately) “come and take them,” attributed by Plutarch to Leonidas I in response to Xerxes I telling him to have his armies lay down his arms. It’s a common shibboleth among NRA types, a way for them to recognize their own in case the Big Dog t-shirts and wraparound sunglasses weren’t enough. It’s weird that they chose the Spartans as the mascots for defiant-against-nothing gun-nuttery, since at the time of the battle of Thermopylae Plutarch recorded Spartans as finding bows to be a “womanish” weapon. I can’t help but wonder what a Spartan would say about a weapon that allows a man to kill his enemy while expending less energy than it takes to lick spanakopita grease from a pudgy, nail-bitten finger.
The particular repurposing of the ancient Spartans as mascots for gun lunatics is hilarious, but it’s far from the only way ancient Greco-Roman imagery keeps cropping up in fashy circles. It’s used as a sort of visual shorthand for “traditional” masculinity, whatever the absolute hell that even means besides projecting our own insecurities onto the past. And, to some extent, I get the impetus here! It’s extremely cool that a bunch of beefy boys conquered most of the known world and formed one of the greatest fighting forces in the history of the planet. But the fact they’re used as a synecdoche for a very particular idea of what it means to be a man is … well, let’s use an example from 300, a film and comic book that I actually very much enjoy despite it being ahistorical propaganda written by Frank Miller.
There’s a scene in the film in which Leonidas, king of the Spartans, refers to Athenians as “boy-lovers” in a tone dripping with contempt. Which is weird, because the Spartans were unapologetically a gay bunch. The Spartan king Agesilaus was mocked by his friends for refusing the kiss of Megabytes, a “very pretty boy” who had a name that wouldn’t sound out of place in a '90s movie about hackers. Young Spartan men (eromenos) were paired with older mentor figures (erastes), a relationship which could be (but was not always) sexual. Basically, ancient Hellenic cultures were just hot muscular olive-skinned dudes giving each other brojobs for thousands of years.
And yes, of course, I am aware that ancient conceptions of sexuality don’t match up 1:1 to modern ones—the Romans, for example, didn’t view sexuality on a hetero-homo dichotomous spectrum as much as an active-passive one. Which is to say that doing butt stuff to dudes was seen as a masculine “dudes rock” moment, but getting butt stuff done to you was seen as feminine and shameful, so I guess it was a good time to be a top.
Now I want to be really clear here: I absolutely do not believe that a person’s relative “masculinity” is in any way affected by who they have sex or in what way they choose to do it. But do the guys with the Spartan helmet rear window decals believe that, too? What’s the over/under on this guy, before he changed his ways, having been a champion of LGBT+ rights, reading Judith Butler essays and inviting over the lads to watch Kenneth Anger films?
I suspect no. Same goes for anybody who has a Spartan shield as their avatar on Twitter. There’s a certain irony in dipshits like the Proud Boys pontificating on the masculinity of Greco-Roman culture as something that society must reclaim while also indulging in a level of casual homophobia usually only seen in Midwestern high school football coaches. Identity Evropa, a hate group that gets as close to being Nazis as you can be without calling yourself a Nazi, uses a “v” in place of a “u” in Europe to intentionally call to mind Latin, which didn’t have the letter “u.” It probably goes without saying that these dorks won’t be attending a Rocky Horror screening any time soon.
"Society Is More Sexually Deviant Than Ever!"
So, this little chestnut tends to be trotted out whenever there’s a conversation about legalizing sex work. There’s a belief that contemporary American society is quickly becoming a nonstop re-enactment of Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, which is hilarious both because that film takes place in fascist Italy and because the US has such deeply Puritanical tendencies in its DNA that the average French children’s program meant to teach l’alphabet has more nudity than every blockbuster American film of the past twenty years combined. I defy you to find anything in American film canon hornier than an Italian car commercial. I mean, we’re the country that deemed showing a corpse’s butt on Hannibal was too extreme, so it was covered with blood and gore to make it acceptable.
But we’re not talking about America’s squeamishness about sex. We’re talking about how the right appeals to an imagined history to give legitimacy to their social grievances—you know, real hilarious comedy fodder! Over and over again the right will condemn things like OnlyFans or the cosmos of pornography available online, usually with some bullshit claim about how “it didn’t used to be like this!” Which, as a film major, I can absolutely assure is nonsense – pretty much as soon as film cameras were invented people were like “hey, we could totally pork in front of this!”
A certain type of moron will claim that prostitution is a relatively new phenomenon, the implication being that sex work is a yet another Evil of Modernity like veganism or immigration or Mom saying you have to take a shower every single day—sic semper matres! The claim that prostitution is a relatively recent phenomenon is ridiculous as Flat-Earth Theory, or using crystals to treat disease, or “Crazy” Ted Satler’s Mattress Prices.
Sex work has been around forever. Cavepeople were probably trading hides and particularly interesting rocks for hand stuff and mammoth meat for mouth stuff. The Epic of Gilgamesh, the world’s oldest work of fiction, has a part where Gilgamesh’s BFF, the beast-man Enkidu, needs to become civilized so Gilgamesh takes him to the harlot Shamat. They needed a normal thing to make a dude more normal, and the normalest thing ol’ Gilgy could think of was a visit to the cathouse. And that’s just in the first tablet!
So yeah, sex work is not new. I mean, monkeys do it. Prostitution has always existed—except for that perpetual 50-year period before the present, of course. Look at this stupid Tweet:
The guy's claiming that mainland Europe didn’t have porn before the Romans, as if the Venus of Willendorf wasn’t some ancient dude’s personal BBW whack-off material from 25,000 years ago. The man making that claim is Varg Vikernes, notorious black metal musician and murderer. (He also made his own tabletop RPG because he didn’t think D&D was racist enough.)
Varg is a follower of Odalism, which is what happens when white supremacists read Beowulf. Odalists believe that Europe must return to a Pre-Christian state, which they think was some kind of moral utopia, free from the horrific moral scourge of prostitution—weirdly there’s no mention of slavery being bad, though. I’ve mostly been talking about one particular flavor of fallacious appeal to history, but if you can name a time period there’s someone claiming it was a chaste paradise that we must return to, be it Victorian England or the United States in the 1950s or Mughal Empire India. Sorry, but in all of history, people were doin' it. Even your grandmother. Especially your grandmother.
That’s just one group of weirdos, though. The animus against sex workers from the right is pervasive. Remember in 2018 when some jerkoffs tried to report sex workers to the IRS for underreporting income? It was a dumb thing to do, but it’s hardly surprising it happened because, for the worst type of power-starved dweeb, it combined their two favorite thing: tattling and not having sex. Even FetLife has had to grapple with racism—is nothing sacred?
"Lefties Only Exist Because There’s No Hard Times!"
Perhaps, upon one of your many excursions on this here internet, you’ve encountered some version of this meme:
This is part of a longtime belief on the right that the reason that there’s now actual leftist political organizations with some actual political pull is because a bunch of entitled young folks don’t know how good they have it. A common corollary to this idea is that leftist movements in the US are primarily led by young people who just want “free stuff.” Yeah! Screw those people who think that, what, just because they work full time and are vastly more productive than previous generations, that they’re entitled to housing? And medical care? And PAID VACATION? Just because virtually every other country in the world does it? What’s next, a modicum of comfort and dignity for all citizens? Slow down there, BERNIE STALIN-TROTSKY ROBINETTE MARX!
So there’s a belief that the surge of leftist politics is some sort of historical anomaly. In some sense it’s understandable why people would believe this: when most people think of leftist politics in the history of the US, they think of the HUAC, McCarthyism, and decades of anti-leftist crackdowns. That’s pretty much how it’s taught in school, right? America used the power of freedom to become the dominant economic force in the world and then a bunch of ungrateful reefer-smoking beatniks wanted a bigger piece of the pie. But there’s a difference between ignorance and knowingly spinning a false history to make leftists seem like anti-American upstarts.
But here’s the thing. The relatively recent surge of leftist positions into the mainstream isn’t a new phenomenon—it’s a return to form. America has a strong history of workers' rights and redistributive policies, which sounds as shocking as claiming that our country was actually founded by Bigfoots. I’ve written before about how John Steinbeck’s 1939 anti-capitalist novel The Grapes of Wrath was a bigger public sensation than even the Harry Potter franchise. Ever hear of the Haymarket Massacre? It was an 1886 demonstration in Chicago in favor of a totally unreasonable demand: an 8-hour work day, meant to replace the previous standard work day length of “why can’t you just live here?” Good thing we’re way beyond that!
People were willing to die for worker’s rights in 1886. And, sidebar, everything you need to know about Chicago is that the South Side has a monument to the workers who died in the Haymarket Massacre and the North Side has a monument to the cops who died in the Haymarket Massacre.
Eugene V. Debs ran for president as a socialist several times, and in 1920 he won nearly a million votes while campaigning from a prison cell. There was such a strong pro-worker movement that when May Day started to become a popularly-recognized holiday, Grover Cleveland moved Labor Day to September to make it seem less radical and less associated with the Haymarket Massacre, which was clearly a naked attempt to defang socialist sentiment, but also gave us an additional five months in which we can wear white.
There have always been what we might call leftist movements in the United States. Just look at how many socialists have come from the Quakers—are you gonna try to tell me if there were podcasts in the 1700s that they wouldn’t have been all over that shit? There’s a certain faction of the right who want to paint America before the '60s as a place where the only two political positions were The Rich Shouldn’t Have to Obey Any Laws and The Rich Shouldn’t Have to Obey Most Laws. It’s just another pseudo-historical feint. The current left isn’t a reactionary movement from having it too easy growing up in the 90s, no matter what your Boomer relatives’ awful Facebook memes might say.
Appealing To History Is Dumb Anyway
I’ve spent a lot of time debunking specific examples, but honestly I probably wasted a lot of your time because the whole premise of appealing to history is flawed from the start, like abstinence-only education or Oops! All Berries Captain Crunch.
It’s nonsense to appeal to the concept of History because just because something is old doesn’t make it good. Just look at Henry Kissinger, who is treated like a wise grandpa despite overseeing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Cambodian civilians. The point is that there’s plenty of history that’s extremely messed up. We used to do human sacrifices to try and appease angry wind gods, but hell, we don’t do that anymore.
Anyone who tries to tell you something is inherently moral because it used to be that way is pushing an agenda. Because fash types don’t actually care about history. They only care about the idea of history insofar as they can use it to paint themselves as righteous crusaders reclaiming a legacy that progressivism has robbed them of. And so they can LARP as a cool tough guy after they got kicked out of their D&D group for making the women in it really uncomfortable.
The historian Mark Sedgwick argued that traditionalism is postmodern. He was probably making a much more nuanced point than I inferred, but it’s something worth keeping in mind anytime you hear someone making an appeal to history. Appeals to history are inherently ahistorical and reactionary, like saying if you brought the Founding Fathers into the present using a time machine they would have strong opinions on any modern hot button issue. (What would actually happen is they would have one single bite of a Cheeto and start crying and writing poetry about the experience.)
Consider making a donation to the Southern Poverty Law Center to fight against hate groups. William Kuechenberg is a repped screenwriter and Nicholl Top 50 Finalist looking to get staffed or be a writer’s assistant in your room! He is also on Bad Movies for Bad People, the world’s FIRST and ONLY comedy podcast about movies (available on all major podcast platforms!).