Posted on January 6, 2020

No Time for Heroes

Will Collins, National Review, January 3, 2020

It is a strange irony that heroes and villains have retreated from the classroom just as they’ve become ubiquitous in popular culture. Outsized personalities may be disappearing from social-studies textbooks and college history departments, but they live on in airport bookstores and bestseller lists. {snip} Half-forgotten dynasties populate obscure Twitter feeds. Eccentric historical figures are now fodder for rambling podcast episodes.

Great-man theory has long been out of favor with universities, where structural explanations — class, race, geography, gender, and the like — put Hannibal and Napoleon to flight decades ago.


Slowly but surely, a pedagogical approach that emphasizes structural factors over individuals is marching through our institutions. California’s proposed new high-school history curriculum is awash in race, gender, and class buzzwords. The New York Times’ 1619 Project, a monomaniacal reinterpretation of American history through the lens of slavery, comes complete with a high-school teaching guide.

Yet banishing biography and personal drama from the classroom hasn’t suppressed our collective fascination with the great figures of the past. It has merely displaced their study to the Internet, where unfashionable, disreputable, and downright offensive ideas live on forever. Far outside the realm of respectability lies the alt-right, which has enthusiastically appropriated the iconography and heroic pose of various historical figures, from Crusaders to Victorians to the statesmen and generals of classical antiquity.

{snip} Outsiders are starting to notice the alt-right’s historical fetishism. Paradox Games provoked a fan backlash when rumors leaked that it would scrub “Deus Vult!” (God Wills It) from an upcoming installment of the Crusader Kings franchise because of the phrase’s association with white nationalists. Donna Zuckerberg, a professor and editor of the online classics journal Eidolon, darkly warns that “radical online conservatives” are now championing Homer. {snip} It is difficult to penetrate the 17 levels of irony surrounding Bronze Age Pervert, a twitter personality whose self-published manifesto has found a surprisingly wide audience, but his followers are clearly interested in historical drama. Episodes of the Pervert’s podcast have covered ancient migrations, Charles of Anjou and the Sicilian Vespers, and Greek colonies in Bactria founded by Alexander the Great.


History’s leading men are surprisingly resilient. Having been driven from the classroom, they simply resurfaced online, where famous battle scenes become Twitter avatars and screen grabs of obscure historical texts get passed around like contraband in a high-school lunchroom. The lure of secret history and “disreputable” knowledge, combined with the drama and action inherent to any historical epoch, has proved irresistible to a certain subset of disaffected young men.