The Sparta Fetish Is a Cultural Cancer - 2019-08-01
Last spring, 28 Tory hardliners unleashed another round of havoc on British politics, refusing to vote for Prime Minister Theresa May's compromise Brexit plan and paving the way for her replacement by Britain's Trump variant, Boris Johnson. The group of hardcore Euroskeptics dubbed themselves "Spartans" for their singleminded willingness to hold the line, to sacrifice anything in obedience to their convictions. British news outlets ran with the moniker; the Daily Mail praised the group's efforts to sink its own government as "The last stand of the Spartans."
Last August, Stewart Rhodes, the founder of the right-wing anti-government and anti-immigration American militia group Oath Keepers, appeared on conspiracy media outlet Infowars to announce the launch of "Spartan training groups" that would prepare armed Americans to defend the country from the "violent left." The Oath Keepers' website also invokes Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay "Self Reliance," which exhorts readers to "hear the whistle of a Spartan fife"—a nod to references in both Thucydides and Plutarch that the Spartans used the double-reeded, oboe-like aulos to keep in step while marching to battle.
Ancient Sparta's influence is all around us, providing a litany of patron saints for spectacular last stands. There's a word for this mania in Western cultures: laconophilia, taken from Laconia, the region the Spartans hailed from. Most of us have never heard of laconophilia, even as we live in a world so dramatically shaped by it, but it has a hand in everything from the French Revolution to the British educational system to the Ivy League to the Israeli Kibbutz movement. There are at least 39 municipalities named after Sparta in America alone, and I gave up counting the number of American and Canadian high school sports teams named "the Spartans" once I hit 100 (Michigan State and San Jose State, both NCAA Division I teams, are also named after them). The very word spartan transcends the historical city-state to which it once referred; it can now refer to anyone or anything marked by strict self-denial, frugality, or the avoidance of comfort—reflecting the legend of the Spartans, rather than who they actually were.