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‘Reject Modernity, Embrace Masculinity’ Is a New Low Point For Meatheads

How a culture-war meme turned into a bodybuilding slogan

What does it mean to be modern? In colloquial usage, we take “modern” to mean “of the moment” or “right now” — something of the present. Yet the modern era encompasses the last 500 years of human history, including scientific and industrial revolutions, global colonialism and mechanized wars. It’s difficult to conceive of how we would unravel all this modernity.

Except when you’re making political shitposts, that’s kind of an afterthought.

“Reject Modernity, Embrace Tradition” has become a slogan of the far right, and especially the proponents of what is sometimes called the Dark Enlightenment: people who scorn ideals like liberal democracy and civil rights, yearning for the institutions of monarchy and Christian absolutism. In memes and videos, they contrast everything they hate about today (gender fluidity, junk food, social justice advocates) with whatever they find cool about the past (idealized representation of European whiteness, castles, Beethoven). It’s a childish understanding of how life was lived in 1800 or 1600, going no deeper than the aesthetics of painting and architecture from those periods, but it props up the notion of ours as a fallen or corrupted time. It’s also a shortcut to straight-up Nazi content. In this edit, degeneracy becomes a synonym of modernity:

In the way of all things online, the rallying cry has morphed into a joke — search the phrase “Reject Modernity, Embrace Tradition” and you’ll find far more parodies than authentic reactionary takes. This doesn’t mean, however, that we’re short on trad freaks who want to return (sometimes styled “retvrn” for Latinate effect) to a theoretical lost utopia, whether that means a cottagecore fantasy with an angelic blonde maiden churning butter or some kind of militaristic nation-state where buff semi-naked dudes can practice their spear-throwing all day. It’s the latter concept that seems to have given rise to “Reject Modernity, Embrace Masculinity.” 

According to this variant — now splashed across a number of social media channels — men were once “manly” but weakened by the feminizing influence of modernity. The solution, apparently, is to get incredibly muscular (to aggressive rave music). Role models include boxers, UFC fighters, weightlifters, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Lee, the Spartans of 300, Patrick Bateman from American Psycho, the troops, knights of the crusades, Hulk Hogan, Genghis Kahn, LeBron James and, of course, the occasional Nazi officer. 

The most influential character in this sphere is a meme in his own right: Zyzz, or Aziz Shavershian, an Australian bodybuilder who died in 2011, at the age of 22, from an undiagnosed heart defect. Before then, he’d been a fixture on 4chan’s /fit/ board and the forums, where his steroidal physique and catchphrases earned him a loyal following. Many “Reject Modernity, Embrace Masculinity” compilations feature a clip of him and/or the hashtag #zyzz — a suitable tribute given his well-known advice to “disregard females” and “acquire aesthetics,” i.e., peak form.       

In YouTube and TikTok comments, men register their approval for this content — and some say they use it as motivation before a workout. The majority, though, are interested in what you might call the dogma of manhood as it’s presented here, this myth of greatness diminished or under attack, the problems of feminism and eroding gender norms. “Seeing videos like these gives me hope that society isn’t too far gone,” writes one fan. “We’re only toxic to those who view truth as a poison,” says another

They seem entirely oblivious to the fact that the masculine bodies on the screen are products of the modernity they claim to abhor. Mike Tyson and Tom Brady aren’t classical heroes — they’re alive in the 21st century. Exactly how are dudes being prevented from going to the gym, joining the army or pursuing athletic achievement? Do “wokeness,” SJWs and the rest present any material obstacle to “masculine” self-fulfillment? 

They don’t care. Doesn’t matter. Stop asking. Accept the vision. The avatars for our supposedly hopeless modern culture are all picked from the usual marginalized groups that conservatives like to disparage — only this format gives that hatred a positive or motivational spin by encouraging men to pump iron as an act of resistance in a world gone soft. The truth is that those targets are innocent bystanders with pretty much no influence over what these dudes find valuable or admirable. Getting this upset that they have the autonomy to be and create community as themselves, well, it’s not very manly, is it. 

Then again, that’s never been the point.