Safari Scholarship Reinvents History
Hollywood is usually the main peddler of historical fiction, the kind the public doesn't hesitate to accept as Bible from Sinai. For some time now, Hollywood has been getting stiff competition from unexpected quarters. Now coming to an African Studies department near you is some startling information: The venerable Greeks, the founders of Western Civilization, stole their philosophical and scientific know-how from Egypt. Egypt, and not Greece, is the fount of Western tradition.
In an unchronicled trip, Aristotle is said to have sojourned to Egypt with Alexander the Great, smuggled books out of the Alexandrian library, and slapped his name on these books, promoting them as his own. He wasn't alone. Socrates, Pythagoras and Plato were plagiarizers in their own right. Is there no end to the antics of those White Bad Boys?
You may never have given much thought to the skin color of the ancient Egyptians. Artifacts at least indicate that they were a diverse people, more Benetton than black. That the Egyptians were actually black Africans, then, must come as a surprise. Elizabeth Taylor had no business playing Cleopatra. The Macedonian of the Ptolemaic bloodline was really a long-limbed black woman. Even the Sphinx had negroid features. That is until it fell prey to one of the first 'documented,' racially motivated acts of vandalism. The facial crater the Sphinx stoically bears comes from being socked on the nose by Napoleon's racist troops. There go those White Boys again.
This mythistory is called Afrocentrism. It's promoted by a number of undistinguished African academics and taught to students across North America from grade school through to the university level. Accordingly, Africans have an ineffable claim against Europeans. For how does one put a price on the mugging of a civilization?
Unlike the equally nonsensical Holocaust denial, which immediately raises establishment and media ire, this remedial revisionism has been met with little objection. For the most part, rebutting this bunk has fallen to a Greek Classicist by the name of Mary Lefkowitz.
To this end, Lefkowitz would have mined Afrocentric books such as Black Athena by Cornell's Martin Bernal, Stolen Legacy by George G. M. James, and the school tracts known as the Portland African-American Baseline Essays. The Science Baseline Essay claims no less that thousands of years ago Egyptians-cum-blacks "flew in electroplated gold gliders, knew accurately the distance to the sun, and discovered the Theory of Evolution." According to Cheikh Anta Diop, a Senegalese Afrocentrist, Africans invented everything from Judaism, to engineering, to astronomy, including dialectical materialism (although Marxism is no cause for inventor's pride.)
One nagging question: Afrocentrics claim that practically every reprehensible occurrence in history is the doing of the Great White and his linear thinking. Why, if Eurocentric culture is so horrible, would they want to lay claim to it? By coveting it, aren't Afrocentrists providing the ultimate validation of Western Civilization?
Furthermore, entire civilizations are not typically the kleptomaniac's item of choice. As Lefkowitz points out in Not Out of Africa, "If the Greeks had learned their philosophy from a large theoretical literature produced by Egyptian writers, surely some trace of that literature would have remained in Egypt." But there's no point searching for congruity where there is only African chauvinism.
Nor should one search for methodological coherence. For scholars whose mission it is to promote a view of African superiority, Afrocentrists are doing a poor job. Their methodology consists in neglecting chronology, treating myths as history, and using citations fraudulently so that these don't support the crux of the argument. In Afrocentric works, hypothesis morphs into fact, authorities that don't bolster a thesis are recruited in its service, and absence of proof becomes evidence of conspiracy. Accompanying the dogged repetition of the lie are the vicious ad hominem attacks leveled at the few scholars who dare confront the evidence.
An example of the jarring deceptions is a reference to the Egyptian Mystery System whence the Greeks allegedly stole their philosophy: the reference comes not from an authentic historical text, but from eighteenth-century French fiction and Freemasonry. Also amusing is that the city of Alexandria was founded only after Alexander's conquest of Egypt, and the library from which Aristotle allegedly pilfered his genius was founded after the philosopher's death.
Such mythical thinking thrives and is nurtured in a culture that eschews objective truth. Where once there was an understanding that there exists a reality independent of the human observer, students are now taught that truth is a social construction, a function of the power and position—or lack of them—a person or groups hold in society.
Casting fact and objective truth as no more than a perspective is a handy bit of egalitarianism: if nothing is immutably true, then all positions are but a matter of preference and can claim equal validity. This vortex is the scaffolding for Afrocentrism; the public school system its perfect foil.
Why pedagogues haven't rejected Afrocentrism outright is because it's seen as a means to increase self-esteem among young Africans. Self-styled victim groups, notably natives and women, have had their suppurating historical wounds similarly tended with curricular concessions. Self-esteem no less than multiculturalism is an article of faith and a project of the public school system; it is the very embodiment and instantiation of the therapeutic state. Of course, the raison detre of public schooling lends itself just as well to teaching the mythology of Holocaust denial in order to allay the guilt that plagues students of German descent.
In the words of John S. Mill, "A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another." Imbibing politically correct victimology and its attendant myths is imperative in the scheme of things. Adapted to the public school system and its mission, history is doomed to be more palliative than factual.
©2001 Ilana Mercer
Special to LewRockwell.com