My favorite author of all time, Virgil, raised quite a bit of mischief over the years. Not only did he scandalize readers by describing in graphic (and poetic) detail the experience of surviving urban warfare in Book II of the Aeneid; he also brought readers into hysterical tears with the epic romance and breakup of Dido and Aeneas in Book IV. Augustine found the Dido story so overwhelming, he advised Christians against reading such epics, lest they begin to harbor strong emotions directed at anything other than God.
But Book VI of the Aeneid, in which Aeneas finds his father Anchises’s ghost in the underworld and receives from the latter a detailed prophecy about the future of Rome, has had arguably the most staggering effect on Western civilization. Virgil built on past representations of the underworld but added a geographic quality to them that would inspire Dante’s Divine Comedy.
And then too, in Book VI, Anchises reveals to Aeneas what the character of mighty Rome would be, in a passage that raised more than a few eyebrows over the centuries:
“you, Roman, be sure to rule the world (be these your arts), to crown peace with justice, to spare the vanquished and to crush the proud.”
Anchises tells Aeneas that he will found a nation literally born to rule–called by the fates and gods to their unique arts, which won’t be sculpture or literature, but rather, four things: “regere imperio populos”, to “rule people in your power”; “pacique imponere morem,” to impose peace and order; “parcere subiectis,” to provide for those who have been oppressed; and “debellare superbos”, to war against the arrogant and crush them.
That Romans could inflate themselves with such self-justifying theology terrified pacifists of later generations. Many, like William Blake, blamed Virgil for the desolation of Europe. Blake assumed that imperialists and violent conquerors across the world took Virgil’s words as a license to war against people in the name of peace, and to destroy in the name of order.
A close reading absolves Virgil of such ghastly allegations. Virgil’s text could not be clearer that this entire vision of Rome’s manifest destiny was a ludicrous fantasy. He probably intended for people to find the egotism off-putting and to see such declarations of being “born to rule” as delusional. To understand this you have to read what happens after Anchises tells Aeneas that his descendants will conquer the world in the name of goodness and obedience to the gods. Anchises literally shows Aeneas two gates through which one may pass in order to exit the underworld and come up to the living earth again.
One gate is described as plain, even ugly, made of simple horn. This is the gate of truth.
The other gate is described as gleaming and alluring, made of ivory. It is the gate of false dreams.
As Virgil writes it, Anchises leads his son straight to the gate of ivory and pushes him through it.
Did you get that? Aeneas’s father lays out a hypnotically self-righteous recipe for fascism and then basically tells his son that it’s all a gleaming but utterly fake dream. Or as Donald Trump would say, “phony!”
The Aeneid came into my head recently as I searched for the psychological roots of strange developments within the American Left. So much of the Left’s current structure bewilders people outside their political camp. We wonder how, for instance, a death of a Black man in Minneapolis at the hands of police leads to one hundred days of rioting with white LGBT groups in Portland, or how a ferocious MeToo movement can morph within a year into mass indifference toward the wrong types of sex abuse survivors (victims of Ed Buck and Terry Bean, or women wronged by Joe Biden, for instance).
What looks often like crass hypocrisy or shameless Machiavellian may be a case of those ivory gates Virgil wrote verses about. Like Aeneas, the Left seems to have received their prophecy: “others will excel at sculpture and astronomy, but you, progressive, remember–your art is to fight, and you must order peoples in your power, impose peace and law through your might, provide for the oppressed, and battle down the proud.”
Suddenly one day as I scrolled through liberal Twitter timelines for hours, the words spoken to Aeneas in Aeneid VI seemed to ring true for today’s Left. They believe their movement has been fated to rule the world and their doings find justification in the divine imperative to do the same four tasks the Romans believed obliged them: bring peace through might, impose laws upon the disorderly, console the oppressed, and of course, crush the arrogant.
But like Aeneas, the Left has been pushed through the gleaming ivory gates. Their pathway forward is seductive to the senses but ultimately a lot of false dreams. Unlike Aeneas, they are completely unaware that there are gates of horn or that any reality exists other than the illusions in which they labor.
So what are the Left’s Romanesque false dreams? Here are the biggest and most dangerous ones, I believe.
The false dream about fighting white supremacy.
“White supremacy” implies world-historical villainy. The term conjures images of Hitler. To claim that such a monstrous trend poses an imminent danger to Americans in 2020 is quite an ambitious postulate. But there you have it. The Left fills our media with references to white supremacists.
If you are attentive to red flags your skepticism should rear when you find the Left applying a scary label to lots of people based purely on conjecture and in contradiction to what these labeled people say about themselves. Even Richard Spencer, the famed bogeyman of the white nationalist movement, does not call himself a white supremacist, choosing to say “nationalist.”
The shootings by Dylan Roof in 2015 and by Robert Bowers in 2018 are chilling, yet they feel somewhat lost in the parade of mass shootings during the 2010s. That Roof and Bowers had racist motives does not seem to point to the ever-present danger of white supremacist terrorists. Certainly the vast majority of times that leftists refer to white supremacy, they are accusing someone of being perilously racist who denies it. The Proud Boys write in their mission statement that they oppose racism. Unless one believes in dog whistles or racism radar, and one assumes that white supremacist plans are hidden everywhere like Easter eggs for those “in the know” to retrieve them, one has to accept a fact that normal people find heartening but hellbent leftists will find disappointing.
White supremacy is overwhelmingly irrelevant to the lives of people in the United States. Racial inequality or social tensions involving race exist but these do not rise to the impossible standards of evil invoked by the term “white supremacy.”
The sheer dissonance between leftist dreams of heroic opposition to white supremacy and the non-existence of a white supremacist with any potential of gaining critical power points to the Freudian wishful thinking that drives today’s Left. Pumped up with grandiose expectations, they simply cannot devote themselves to a mundane cause like volunteering at a library and organizing a multicultural book festival. They don’t see everyday contributions to race relations as having any real value. They need their vision of manifest destiny because their inner ethos is, like Aeneas’s, fundamentally imperialist.
The fantasy that the nuclear family is a repressive construct
Since as long as I can remember the Left has despised the American nuclear family. Consider that the 1950s was one decade during which most popular media celebrated the intact and wholesome unit of mother, father, and children. For six decades following popular culture has been taking an ax to the model of a stable family unit. It started arguably with Brady Bunch, which threw together a man and woman who each had three children from a previous marriage. This sitcom made it seem fun and exciting to live with a host of people you aren’t biologically related to, almost like a kibbutz or commune. From there, however, the media’s representations of non-nuclear families grew darker and darker.
Movies like Kramer v. Kramer and Ordinary People pushed the notion that the nuclear family was really a suffocating cave-like system fostering drugs, suicides, abuse, and depression. The line of movies like this hit peak 90s with American Beauty, in which one suburban family is unraveling after a dad loses his jobs while the neighboring suburban family is headed by a repressed homosexual Marine who directs his self-loathing into murderous violence.
The gloom and misery of the barbaric nuclear family stands in vivid contrast to a slew of novel child-rearing formats that the liberal media has loved to push: transracial adoption (Diff’rent Strokes, Jesse), girls living together in a boarding school (Facts of Life), single moms or widows teaming up to raise kids (Alice, One Day at a Time, Kate and Allie), divorced co-parenting (Mrs. Doubtfire), blended families or children being sent to live with extended kin networks (True Colors, Fresh Prince of Bel Air), and surrogacy (New Normal). Countless shows like Jesse and Mr. Belvedere also promoted the idea that paid nannies or caregivers could be just as foundational in a child’s life as a biological parent. The 1990s version of Roald Dahl’s Matilda shows the protagonist happily whisked away from her crude and abusive mother and father to be raised by a pretty unmarried teacher; in The Hours, the suffocating 1950s home occupied by a repressed lesbian played by Julianne Moore, struggling to deal with her husband and son, is consciously contrasted against up-to-date Meryl Streep’s lesbian marriage with a bright and cheerful daughter played by Claire Danes; and in American Beauty, of course, the most well-adjusted and happy couple on the block are the aerobicized and well accessorized gay men living down the street from the corrosively heterosexual homes inhabited by the self-hating Marine and the sexually frustrated man dragged down by a nagging wife.
Through both positive and negative reinforcement, for half a century, the cultural Left has told us that nuclear families are barbaric and miserable, while virtually any innovation leads to the magical rise of creative, happy, well-adjusted, and successful children.
When I led the short-lived International Children’s Rights Institute, I saw firsthand how the leftist fantasy of alternatives to family must be guarded at all costs by the Left, even viciously if necessary. We put forward three basic rights of children: (1) to be born free, neither bought nor sold, (2) to have a mother and father, and (3) to know where they come from. Basically we described the nuclear family in terms of the ways in which only this ancient and basic model of mother-father-children can fulfill certain obligations to children. At the core, every child has a mother and father because of basic genetics. The fifth commandment says, “honor thy father and thy mother,” placing these obligations at the core of the Ten Commandments.
But the Left reacted with uncommon vileness, and I still deal with the blacklisting and stigma directed at me over it. The research is clear that children thrive when they are raised in an intact home with their biological mother and father, provided that there is no abuse. The myriad other arrangements can provide some assistance to children but they all come with a loss of something that children in those houses will see others have, which they cannot have. The argument thrown at me during those debates was “well, what about someone whose father dies when the child is young, is that violating the child’s right?” This is foolhardy logic. First, to even conceive this question we would have to acknowledge that a child who loses a father at a young age experiences loss and grief, which means we have to acknowledge that fathers, like mothers, mean something very powerful to us. Second, to say that we can deny a child a father because some fathers die is like saying we have license to kill someone because sometimes people die in car accidents.
Whether it was women who yearned for motherhood without the patriarchal baggage of traditional homes, single people who wanted to have children, divorcees wanting to build a new life with a third parent, or gay and lesbian people wanting children, a long list of people fed the left’s love affair with alternative family structures and hate affair with the nuclear family.
And yet our biology and cultural heritage speak loudly to us. People can undertake studies measuring which households are better at getting children to brush their teeth and do their homework and then come up with the idea, “wow, there’s no difference in outcomes whether kids have a mom and dad or, on the other hand, they have three moms and two gender-nonbinary dads.” But the reality that we see is that these alternatives to the nuclear family impose deeply felt losses on children by severing their connections to their biological origins. These alternative family structures also become far more expensive and complicated then a man and woman simply marrying each other, having sex, having children, and raising them under their own roof. As more and more non-biological caregiving figures enter the picture, the chances rise of conflicting demands and stress on the children, as well as the possibility of adults demanding love and obedience before children are ready to give love and obedience to them. Many things go wrong, but the most trustworthy, efficient, and healthy model remains a mom and dad raising their kids together.
The Left hates this. I don’t know where their blind rage against the nuclear family really stems from. But it’s a hot, hot anger. Recently Black Lives Matter got itself in trouble by placing on their mission page a statement saying that they wanted to “disrupt” the Western nuclear family. The leaders of Black Lives Matter were speaking the language of good leftists. But the Left’s sixty-year fantasy about diverging family structures finally collided with reality as Black Lives Matter pushed their manifesto.
Black Lives Matter enjoyed a blossoming popularity in the days after George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, but support for the group waned quickly as people began to acquaint themselves with everything BLM stood for. Founded by queer women, the group’s hostility to the nuclear family was classic LGBT and feminist boilerplate, but it alienated many people who have never bought into the Left’s fantasy about re-engineered families.
Black people who are close to me did not like the implication in the BLM manifesto that fathers were unnecessary for Black families. This amounted to saying that Black men were disposable from Black children’s lives. At the core of the Black Lives Matter movement was the ostensible uplifting of Black males, who were the predominant targets of police brutality. To object to their being abused by police while not objecting to their being excluded from the lives of their own children felt so contradictory, it negated the entire movement for many people, especially Christians. The truth is that many children, Black and otherwise, have dealt with the stresses of non-nuclear families and did not come out of the experience feeling good about divorce, living with extended families, being sent to group homes or boarding school, being taken out of one home and given to another, or being sold through surrogacy, sperm banking, and adoption-on-demand. To have a Black father and not know and live with him is a deeply painful experience that many Black children have had to deal with.
The unceremonious removal of the anti-nuclear-family ideology from BLM’s main website was, however, a momentary glitch. I fully expect the Left to continue to push its fantasies about family. My prediction is that at some point people will snap out of this delusion the same way they realized in 1961 that the 1950s sitcom family was largely illusory and unattainable. They will realize, “no, it’s not that I’m not doing something right, or that I’m ungrateful, this arrangement was really hard for me and it scarred me and I hope people stop signing up for it.”
The fantasy of the perfectly virtuous woman
Though the Left has been home to feminism, the Left has never come close to the feminist goal of lifting stifling stereotypes from women. On the surface, for much of history, women were idealized in saccharine flattery, called the fair sex and assumed to lack the dangerous violent inclinations of men. People assumed that women were naturally more sexually restrained, more caring, more compassionate, and more tactful. Betty Friedan and indeed the massive second wave of feminism rejected these notions about women because they were, after all, oppressive. Women who did not meet these elevated expectations often found themselves treated with the opposite extreme of temperaments: they were seen as whores, old maids, nags, or hussies and treated severely.
From the feminist hatred of the idealized stereotype came much of the sexual revolution, the revolt against standards of niceness, the rejection of beauty standards like shaving their legs, and their insistence on being given access to jobs in policing, the military, bartending, or physical trades. Women said, “don’t tell us to be ladylike, because we won’t be confined in those limits from now on!”
But the Left never made peace with the feminists’ rejection of the idealized female stereotype. Sometimes incorporating feminism into larger leftist goals or using feminist causes to win elections, the Left certainly paid lip service to women’s empowerment. But they never quite got around to admitting that women make mistakes, women can be cruel, women can be depraved, women can abuse, or women can lie and steal. The MeToo movement should not have become entirely focused on men abusing women since men can be victims of abuse by men or by women, women can abuse women, and women can lie about men for nefarious motives.
Yet MeToo marched on throughout 2017 and 2018, with women destroying men’s reputations over damning accusations that had little evidence or over petty discomforts that had lots of evidence. Brett Kavanaugh was accused of being a gang rapist as a teen, with zero evidence, and almost didn’t make it to the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, men in countless professions lost their jobs for stating unpopular opinions regarding women, for asking women out on dates too much, or for complimenting women. Sexual harassment of the kind we all oppose — cornering women at their jobs and threatening to fire them if they won’t give their boss sex — had long vanished from the standards of sexual harassment law. The old standards were “persisted, unwanted, and severe” actions that a “reasonable person” would find offensive, and to prove a charge there had to exist a “preponderance of evidence.” The new standard was that women had no statute of limitations, women could bring up any misconduct even if it only happened once a long time ago, resulted from the female’s interest, and wasn’t that bad. And now the evidence was merely the “possibility standard,” as was applied to Christine Blasey Ford when she accused Kavanaugh. Without any concrete evidence and not remembering any specific details like the date or location of the alleged attack, Ford was still afforded credibility from the Left because they could conceive how her story was possible. “Yes, she could have blacked out from trauma and just not known the date or location. She could have remained silent for decades out of fear or trauma. She could have been to this party because she lived in the same neighborhood as Brett Kavanaugh. It’s possible, so let’s take it seriously.”
During the rage of MeToo, in addition, women’s roles in abuse were completely elided. Many men I knew who suffered same-sex abuse could point to women who were friends with the perpetrators and who helped cover up the abuse or gaslight victims. There are actually high rates of intimate partner violence in female-female relationships. And Ghislaine Maxwell reminds us that women are perfectly capable of assisting in sex trafficking and manipulating girls who are caught in cycles of abuse. We should have known this simply from reading about women running whorehouses like in La Celestina.
Men have long complained that women abuse men through family courts and the legal system. They call 911 based on a fake domestic abuse charge just to get a man burdened with a domestic violence record, which prevents him from owning a gun. Divorce court often fleeces men (I’ve seen this in many men close to me.) And child visitations or joint custody can become a living Hell for men being rammed through courts with judges who believe wives and moms are naturally more ethical and pure than husbands and fathers.
The shift from gender to race in leftist activism brought about certain changes in 2020. It seems to me that the leftist fantasy about “women who can do no wrong” has to break down, first and foremost because the year began with a bizarre obsession with “Karens,” women who terrorize other people with accusations and entitled condescension. The spike in discussion about Karens, coming just before the Floyd killing, seemed like an eruption from a country that had had enough of MeToo and could no longer maintain the farce that women are any more moral than men are.
The Left’s fantasy about idealized women betrays feminism at its core by reducing women to a life that’s only half human. When people don’t acknowledge that women can be evil and should be held accountable when they are, there is a loss for women. They lose the complexity of a full human life. They lose some of their agency if they internalize the idea that they have to be super-nice all the time simply because they have a uterus.
Many more leftist fantasies to write about
The gates of ivory call us with their brilliant allure, but they lead to false dreams. The Left has revealed its addiction to the ivory gates this year. I have more fantasies to analyze. I’ll be back with a follow-up soon.