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ColoradoGuy
08-02-2008, 11:02 PM
A recent Times Literary Supplement revisits (http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/the_tls/article4343455.ece) the notorious Black Athena controversy, which stemmed from Martin Bernal's book (http://books.google.com/books?id=zzEPfGYudxMC&dq=black+athena&pg=PP1&ots=u41YsiWwFB&sig=zU2Br1iqm8zeWFDtlJwgDRrQ6oA&hl=en&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=1&ct=result#PPA115,M1) of the same name. He claimed, in a nutshell, that Greek culture, and therefore Western European culture, was largely derivative, having taken ("stolen" quickly became the watchword, accompanied by the assertion that ancient Egyptians were black) all the good bits from Egypt. This might have remained a minor academic squabble had not a vocal proponent of the theory (Tony Martin) sued an equally vocal opponent (Mary Lefkowitz) for libel, following which he made a variety of racist and anti-Semitic comments about her. Both were professors at Wellesley. The suit dragged on for years and was ultimately dismissed. Lefkowitz just published a memoir of the whole affair, History Lesson: A Race Odyssey, which is what the TLS review is about.

Why does any of this still matter? For one thing, it raises the fundamental question of our ability to know anything about the past, if there is anything such as historical truth. There is always a tendency to mine the archives for a past that is politically useful to the present (in this case Afrocentricity). One detail of this particular controversy is amusing because both sides quote Herodotus, called both the "Father of History" and the "Father of Lies."

The ideological divide over this incident continues. Lefkowitz's book received a predictably favorable review (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB120821739801814533.html) by John Leo in the Wall Street Journal, who concludes his praise of Lefkowitz with this shot aimed at Black Athena proponents: "What should the university do when a professor insists on teaching demonstrable untruths? No prattle about academic freedom, please." (Leo works at the generally right-wing Manhattan Institute (http://www.manhattan-institute.org/index.htm).)

Google will give you a mound of invective about the controversy, but two reasonably balanced summaries are here (http://faculty.vassar.edu/jolott/old_courses/crosscurrents2001/blackathena/reaction.html) and here (http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/bmcr/2000/2000-05-05.html).

Ruv Draba
08-03-2008, 12:24 AM
Why does any of this still matter? For one thing, it raises the fundamental question of our ability to know anything about the past, if there is anything such as historical truth.I think it's not quite as bad as that. We don't have the ability to know everything about the past, but we can know without reasonable doubt some things, build reasonable working consensus about many other things, and develop interesting speculation about many more.

Whether that's acceptable and constructive depends on a much deeper and more problematic question: why do you want to know in the first place? And it's here that I think that history often departs from the physical sciences, say.

We can study stars forever, because in the physical sciences the answer to why do you want to know is most frequently because I want to know how things work. That answer tacitly submits the physical sciences to an impartial external arbiter (physical repeatability) and at the same time depoliticises the results. While there are politics of consensus in the physical sciences, there are also agreed methods for achieving it.

But in history the answer can vary: Because I want to know how we got here; because I want to know who we are; because I want to know why we are who we are. Each of these answers is inherently political in the sense of seeking to create an authoritative narrative about a culture - a matter in which individually and collectively we hold vested interest. That's dangerous enough, but add to that the issues of using a mixture of physical and model-theoretic reasoning, and you've opened the way for conspiracists, supremacists, apologists and other barrow-pushin' crackpots.

Higgins' thread on Popper and falsifiability (http://absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?t=110901) holds some light here I think. Before we advocate for a proposition I think it's worthwhile to classify it as likely to be provable by physical evidence, or verifiable only by model-theoretic results, or simply speculative. To my mind, there's no use calling for ideological revolution on a merely speculative piece of work -- until there's strong physical evidence to support it. Such invention is cheap and abundant. Authors like Dan Brown specialise in it.

The question of what academia should do with its heretics depends very much on whether they're reasonable heretics or unreasonable ones. Reasonable heretics may hold unpopular views but remain rigorous on what constitutes sufficient evidence. These people are part of the academic culture, but just happen to hold a different school of thought. They should be nurtured and protected.

But there are also crackpots whose qualifications don't necessarily admit them to work full-time in an institution dedicated to knowledge. These are people who either never knew or else have abandoned what constitutes sufficient evidence. They undermine the fundamental purpose of learning institutions and to my mind don't belong there. (*)

(However they can make good money writing populist books, and that's probably how they should fund their careers. :tongue)


There is always a tendency to mine the archives for a past that is politically useful to the present (in this case Afrocentricity). One detail of this particular controversy is amusing because both sides quote Herodotus, called both the "Father of History" and the "Father of Lies."Rarely do broad political arguments follow research. More often research arguments follow politics. There are two key reasons: funding and fame.

If there were no grant money available to make one or another social faction look good, and if the authors' names were removed from their publications (being replaced instead with their institution say), you could watch this sort of slap-fight disappear overnight.

I'm not offering that as a proposal for how academic institutions should behave, but it is a pointed comment on ethical standards in accepting grant money, and institutional accountability in endorsing the publications of their staff.

I'd add something general here about the effects of pushing postmodernism to the point where physical evidence is confused with speculative invention, but I find myself choking on my own vomit and unable to type. I'll merely refer the interested reader to the starred paragraph above. (*)

ColoradoGuy
08-03-2008, 12:55 AM
But there are also crackpots whose qualifications don't necessarily admit them to work full-time in an institution dedicated to knowledge. These are people who either never knew or else have abandoned what constitutes sufficient evidence. They undermine the fundamental purpose of learning institutions and to my mind don't belong there.
But the difficulty is in deciding who gets to determine who are the crackpots

If there were no grant money available to make one or another social faction look good
That's true in the sciences, but humanists only get peanuts, if anything.

. . and if the authors' names were removed from their publications (being replaced instead with their institution say), you could watch this sort of slap-fight disappear overnight.
That might help in some ways, but I want people to own, and be responsible for, their words.

I'd add something general here about the effects of pushing postmodernism to the point where physical evidence is confused with speculative invention, but I find myself choking on my own vomit and unable to type.
Good heavens -- don't ruin a perfectly good keyboard. But it seems to me that often the difficulty is in determining just where that point of confusion lies.

Ruv Draba
08-03-2008, 10:51 AM
But the difficulty is in deciding who gets to determine who are the crackpotsThis presumes that all reviews are political, which makes the problem largely self-fulfilling: 'History is politically-reviewed; therefore my research must be politically-motivated.'

How about this as an alternative: 'History is a scholarly discipline, therefore my theses must hold to acceptable standards of rigour, relevance, scholarship and testability'?

Who sets the standards? The practitioners of course - once they're properly educated in what rigour means. At present it seems clear that many are not. The presence of ad-hominem attacks in the backgrounders you linked show that they can't rely on rigour to make their points - which I think means that either the points are overstated, or their rigour is inadequate. Either way reflects on the practitioners.


Good heavens -- don't ruin a perfectly good keyboard. But it seems to me that often the difficulty is in determining just where that point of confusion lies.[Fortunately I had the foresight to bring a bucket before I started typing :D]

The point of confusion originates (I feel) in why this matters. Should it matter to us as a society if half Greek society was invented by Egyptians? We have a Hindu-Arabic number system, and our legal code was influenced by Hammurabi's. A great lump of our language originated in the north of India. Our steel-making originated in East Africa, and so did a lot of European livestock. Our gunpowder came from China and our tomatoes came from South America but syphillis didn't come from Asia or the South Pacific - we've had strains of it all along. Those are physically verifiable facts - and we know that we're very capable of acknowledging such stuff and incoporating it into our cultural narrative. So why the politics? This should have been a purely academic question all along. The fact that it has been politicised by certain authors reflects on their motives and their methods and speaks ill of their rigour.

Or so I think anyway.