“Culture Wars” is a store on the custom apparel website TeePublic.com that advertises itself as “designs in support of European culture and civilization.” Like another online apparel store that Pharos has documented, “Culture Wars” offers many shirts with classical images and themes that promote both coded and explicit racism, homophobia, and misogyny. But whereas the previously documented site promoted a violent and hyper-masculine vision of the classical past, “Culture Wars” takes the approach of attempting to mask much of its hatred with humor.
Often the humor of these shirts resides in a winking parody of familiar genres of shirts. A series of designs parodying “World Tour” shirts from rock concerts list the dates of famous battles and so celebrate the violent and imperialist campaigns of ancient military leaders such as Alexander, Julius Caesar, and Scipio Africanus. More complicit in white nationalist politics is a series of shirts playing on President Donald Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again”: “Make Athens Great Again,” “Make Greece Great Again,” and “Make Rome Great Again.” The Rome shirt even has a passable Latin version, Fac Romam Magnam Iterum. Besides the fact that the slogan has become for many a symbol of ascendant white nationalism in the United States the Rome version of the shirts features the acronym S.P.Q.R. which is itself often used by white supremacists, as Pharos has documented.
Interpreting these references requires some knowledge of the tropes of white supremacist rhetoric, but in the realm of misogyny “Culture Wars” feels free to make their politics more explicit, as in a shirt advertised as a “Julius Caesar wordplay t-shirt” that rearranges the words of Caesar’s description of a particularly short battle to glorify sexual assault as a form of conquest: “I saw, I conquered, I came.” The site invites those who “like dirty jokes” to buy this shirt, and says that Caesar, “who conquered many lands and many women,” would have endorsed this misogynist remix of his quote.
Another misogynist shirt expresses contempt for research that attempts to correct the male-centric version of history that still dominates the popular imagination: it shows a figure in a toga with the text “I study men’s studies, also known as history.” Even more explicit is the misogyny on a shirt showing a crossed-out feminist symbol above “Offended? Good. I just saved 2 minutes of my life by not talking to you.” This “anti-feminism shirt,” as the site calls it, is for those who are “tired of talking to a girl only to find out she is a feminist” and who want “to attract quality conservative girls while keeping the leftists at bay.”
Not every shirt contains a joke, or at least one that is recognizable, but even those without humor often intersect with hateful politics. “Culture Wars” sells shirts with quotes from Stoic philosophers like Marcus Aurelius and Seneca that are beloved by misogynists online, and shirts with an ancient Greek phrase, Molon Labe, meaning “Come and take them,” that has become a slogan for the militia movement in the US. One shirt advertised as a “Right-wing T-Shirt” and a “Great design for all who love traditional European civilization and culture” has the logo Europa Invicta, “Europe Unconquered” with an image of a famous sculpture of the emperor Augustus taken at such an angle that the emperor appears to be giving a salute that most people associate with Adolf Hitler but that neo-Nazis are attempting to rebrand “the Roman salute.” Even the banner image of the “Culture Wars” site uses a classical reference as a coded message to white nationalists: it shows the “Destruction” panel of Thomas Cole’s series The Course of Empire on the rise and collapse of a state that is obviously informed by classical tropes: the choice of the image portraying the collapse of that state, along with the caption “Designs in support of European culture and civilization,” should be read as a gesture toward white nationalist fears about the supposed “decline” of “Western Civilization.”
Other shirts lack classical referents but nevertheless reflect the hateful politics of the “Culture Wars” collection. A shirt with the slogan “Love Your People” features the Odal Rune, which was a Nazi symbol and has continued to be used by white supremacists; numerous other shirts celebrate an ahistorical version of Vikings that white supremacists cling to. A further riff on “Make America great again” says “Make Zimbabwe Rhodesia Again,” thus calling for the restoration of racist, colonial rule in a country whose redistribution of land to black citizens preoccupies white supremacists that Pharos has documented.
And they don’t stop there. An Islamophobic variation says “Make Constantinople Greek Again,” a call to “reconquer” Istanbul, which was conquered by Ottoman Muslims in the fifteenth century. Anti-Muslim sentiments recur frequently: there’s a shirt that says deus vult (“God wills it”), a phrase from the Crusades that has become a slogan for Islamophobes, and a shirt commemorating the Battle of Tours where, according to the site, Charles Martel “preserved Christianity as the controlling faith in Europe.” Martel is, as Pharos has documented, a favorite figure of racists and xenophobes and he appears more than once in “Culture Wars'” designs: another Martel-themed shirt says, in French, je suis Charles Martel (“I am Charles Martel”), an imitation of the phrase je suis Charlie that became common after the 2015 attack on the offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. The shirt takes a phrase that originally expressed support for the victims of the attack and for the principles of freedom of speech and the press and, because the two gunmen identified themselves as Al-Qaeda operatives, turns it into an expression of hatred of Muslims.
These shirts are real-world versions of the memes that internet-savvy hate groups use online: what to one person may look like a "harmless" joke, to another is a coded reference to white nationalism
In a sense, however, the shirt that defines the “Culture Wars” collection is not itself explicitly hateful. It is a shirt that says “You find it offensive? I find it funny. That’s why I am happier than you.” Many of the shirts that “Culture Wars” sells advertise themselves as being funny: for example the misogynist shirt using Julius Caesar’s quote is for those who “like ancient Rome and dirty jokes” and the shirt that equates “men’s studies” and “history” is described as a “funny politically incorrect tee.” This second example brings together two major strategies that contemporary white supremacy uses to defend, distract from, and make palatable their hateful politics: humor and complaining about “political correctness.” These shirts are real-world versions of the memes that internet-savvy hate groups use online: what to one person may look like a “harmless” joke, to another is a coded reference to white nationalism, and in the most sinister case, to yet another person may serve as a gateway to more explicitly white nationalist ideas. And like memes, these shirts can travel the world, into our communities, our schools, our workplaces. They need to be recognized for what they are: not just jokes but vehicles for spreading hate.