Rod Dreher, the American Conservative editor and blogger, has found himself in yet another race-related controversy. He was lately on vacation in the Azores, the archipelago of autonomous Portuguese islands in the mid-Atlantic, where he met a man named Miguel Monjardino. Dreher and Monjadino ate limpets on the island of Terceira, “grilled in their shell, in olive oil and chopped garlic.” They wandered around Angra do Heroísmo, the island’s capital, and discussed how it was once “vital to Portuguese trade in the East Indies,” back in the fifteenth century when Portugal claimed half the world. Lost empires were on the brain apparently, and that’s how Dreher ended up making this sweeping, provocative, and dubious claim:
The massive migration of barbarians into the Roman Empire, in the 4th through 6th centuries, changed European civilization permanently. They caused the fall of the Western Roman Empire, and centuries later, the rise of a new civilization there, based on the descendants of old Roman stock and Christianized Germanic tribes. Will the latter-day descendants of those Europeans be able to hold back the “barbarian invasions” from Africa in the 21st century? Or will they have to do as the Romans did and absorb the strangers, and, over centuries, create a new civilization? These are the stakes.
In a follow-up blog post, Dreher wrote of his disbelief at being called a racist for describing African people (whom he does not differentiate) as “barbarians.” It was “perfectly just,” he said. He is descended from the white barbarians, after all, he pointed out. Why is it such a crime to use the Greeks’ word for people who were not like them? It goes back to his point, a “loss of historical consciousness in the contemporary West.” In his time with Monjardino, they discussed “what it means that so many young people in the West today know nothing of the intellectual and cultural legacy of the West, much less care about it.” What a loss it is, that the young do not remember how the Greeks disdained “more primitive and therefore inferior” civilizations.
Dreher is wrong on the history of Rome, but the facts are not as worrisome as the ideological bias that has driven him to error. As we have seen repeatedly over the last year, elements of the right are mobilizing a historically fictional vision of a “white” past in order to glue their identity together in the contemporary world.
There was indeed a large wave of Germanic migration to Roman territories in the late fourth century, which Edward Gibbon called a “deluge” in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. But that migration is by no stretch of the imagination the sole reason that Roman power waned. For example, Gibbon also inaugurated the theory that Christianity helped to kill Roman dominance because it made people soft. The third century saw civil war blossom all over the empire, sucking military resources away from other places they were needed (on, say, trade routes). Corruption was rife in the Roman government. Taxation was in a mess. Agriculture, ditto. We could sit all day and list the various interconnected reasons why this particular state fell into disarray, because a state is a large and complex organ. The arrival of a bunch of blonde people from the north did not topple it alone.
So, Dreher’s history is poor. But that begs the further question of why it is poor. Describing the gradual transfer of power from one historical center to others as a “fall”—a fall that Dreher sees happening once more in our time—is a clue. The classical periods of Greek and Roman history are valorized in the West because we like to see ourselves in them, as if in a beautifying mirror that turns us into statues. When conservative pundits refer to “Western civilization” in the longue durée, they do it to lend legitimacy and a sense of heroic eternity to their identity.
As the scholar Donna Zuckerberg wrote at Eidolon, the worst bigots of the conservative fringe love Classics—her subject. She cited a piece by Milo Yiannopoulos (he of the Twitter handle @nero), in which he noted that the left’s attempts “to scrub Western history of its great figures are particularly galling to the alt-right, who in addition to the preservation of Western culture, care deeply about heroes and heroic virtues.” This scrubbing is driven by a hatred of powerful white men, the argument goes, and a lack of interest in the great power and heroism that those men have embodied in the past.
But those on the hard right who equate white Western civilization with the Roman empire are in profound error. As Zuckerberg wrote, “Your version of antiquity is shallow, poorly contextualized, and unnuanced.” Race as we know it is a construct of the colonial period. Although chauvinism of course existed in the Classical periods of Greece and Rome (they are wildly different times and places), there was little sense of ethnic exclusivity to Romanness. As Rebecca Futo Kennedy wrote, also at Eidolon, “You could be a Roman and be Greek, Syrian, Judean, Gallic, German, Spanish, Numidian, Nubian, Ethiopian, Egyptian, and more.”
“Classical texts and peoples themselves are not inherently ‘Western’ or ‘white,’” Kennedy added, “but there is a reason some people think so.” That reason underlies Dreher’s missives from the Azores. His vision of the past is clouded by metanarrative. Dreher is not interested in the material facts of the late stages of Roman dominance in the region; if he was, he might be interested in what the Romans’ habit of enslaving people did to the agrarian economy. Instead, he is interested in drawing a parallel between some idealized and biased vision of the Mediterranean past and the importance of his own anti-immigration beliefs in the contemporary world. The great (imaginary) white Western man is the cornerstone of these two Dreher visions, and it is what leads him to call people from Africa “barbarians.” Dreher is not Milo, but both these self-appointed defenders of “Western civilization” look to the classical past for a vision of white power.
It is not “perfectly just” to use a word that any thinking person knows is derogatory, that has been used for so long to refer to people of color. The very act of defending his poor historical analogy sees Dreher reclaim colonialist rhetoric; the kind of thinking that let the British justify the famine they engineered in India, for example (“They are a beastly people with a beastly religion,” Churchill said). This is how people talk about history when they want to pretend that certain human beings are beneath them. This is how they talk about history when they don’t want to talk about the people whose boats are sinking outside their windows.
Dreher wants to revert to the values of an older world, so he draws upon a totally outdated version of history. The “Western civilization” we choose says a lot about our politics. In invoking the West, Dreher could have looked at more recent hallmarks: the agreements forged in the aftermath of World War II on human rights, say, or the duty of rich nations to care for desperate people displaced by violence. Those norms and agreements are supposed to be the pillars organizing our world, the pillars on which the West’s very dominance is built, but on the right they seem to be slipping in favor of a new brand of historical parochialism. Tempora mutantur.