FROM THE PULPIT
Tackling the Propagandists
an American radio station staged a debate between the two sides. The opening statement from the doyen of black African studies, John Henrik Clarke, is as follows (I transcribe from the show which was filmed and is on the web): ‘The one single point I wish to get across before we start anything: I am not here to debate with anyone. I have devoted all of
THERE HAVE ALWAYS been, and always will be, nutters who make it their one object in life to attract attention. Most are quite harmless and can be left to celebrate their nucitude (Latin /nux nucis /3f. ‘nut’) in peace. But some are not. One thinks of Shoko Asahara, leader of a sect that used sarin gas to murder twelve commuters and injure thousands of others in a Tokyo subway in 1992, and Jim Jones, responsible for the Jonestown massacre in 1978. But at least there are forces of law and order that can (one hopes) deal with people like that. But then there are nutters whose purposes, while not obviously murderous, are directed at ends whose consequences certainly could be. These are more difficult to handle because we in the West, valuing ‘freedom of speech’, are loath to suppress the traffic in ideas. In the early 1990s one such individual, teaching in the department of Africana Studies at Wellesley, the private ladies’ college in Massachusetts, decided to train his fire on a professor of classics there, Mary Lefkowitz, who had the temerity to question what he was teaching. The issue turned on his insistence that the intellectual and cultural achievements of Greece and Rome were drawn largely from black Africa, a term including Egypt. This evidence-free hypothesis had recently been given a boost by the publication in 1987 of Black Athena, a hefty tome written by a trained sinologist and professor of government at Cornell in support of it. As a result, Lefkowitz found herself being asked why she did not teach her students that Socrates was black. The answer – because, as an Athenian citizen with an Athenian mother and father, he could not possibly have been – was not regarded as persuasive. One particularly idiotic claim was that Aristotle had plagiarised all his work from Egyptian scholars, which he had nicked from the famous library in Alexandria. This would have been a truly remarkable feat, since the library was built by Greeks in Egypt long after Aristotle had died. But facts did not matter: they were but steam clouding the mirror of Truth. Lefkowitz was shocked by this gross distortion of history. She felt, rightly, that it was an abnegation of all scholarly values for a university to employ someone peddling propaganda. She therefore raised the matter with the college and began writing about it in various newspapers and journals. Her tactics were ill-advised. The college, apparently, gave little support, and the nutters were not about to have their world-view publicly compromised by anything as trivial as evidence. Their followers rallied keenly to the cause, which was not put to rest until 1999, when Lefkowitz’s colleague lost the libel case he had brought against her. One incident is particularly telling. On 29 March 1996
my adult life to this subject. I only debate with my equals. All others I teach.’ This assertion was greeted with half a minute of cheers, shouting and whooping from the audience, which stopped only when the presenter called for order. Clarke went on, inevitably, to claim that Lefkowitz was part of a worldwide conspiracy. But if this attitude was an example of what the Greeks had learned about philosophy from Africa, they were rotten pupils. For Socrates, the unexamined life was not worth living. Had Clarke, as (presumably) a true heir of ancient African philosophy, been around at the time, Socrates would have been thrown out on his ear for daring to question The Master. Lefkowitz’s record of the matter, History Lesson: A Race Odyssey, has just been published by Yale University Press. She does not come out well from a score-settling account of what is now pretty cold cabbage, which should surely have been written by someone able to take a more objective view. Nevertheless, she was right to raise questions about the responsibilities of universities to monitor what was being taught in their name. In their research function, universities propagate ideas and technologies developed under the searchlight of evidence, experiment, reason, logic and peer review; and as educators, they pass on those priorities and methodologies to succeeding generations. So the issue is not, at heart, about freedom of speech – a meaningless mantra anyway, since all speech is controlled by the law of the land and the rules of the institution from which it issues. It is, in fact, about indoctrination. In other words, are students being invited into an open debate? Or are they being instructed in what to think, no questions welcomed, by the likes of John Henrik Clarke? It is not difficult to put in place procedures to rule on such matters, such as evidence of discriminatory marking, testimony from external examiners, and peer review. The point is that, with most nutters, there is simply no point in engaging in reasoned argument. It is not a concept with which they are acquainted. But universities, which should be temples to the exchange of ideas shaped on critical principles first expounded by ancient Greeks, have a duty to take on those in their own backyard. Lefkowitz may have mishandled the case but, if her account is accurate, Wellesley seems to have abnegated that basic responsibility.
LITERARY REVIEW June 2008 CONTENTS
THIS MONTH’S PULPITis written by Peter Jones. He is the founder of Friends of Classics.
JOHNGRAYis the author of Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and The Death of Utopia(Allen Lane).
MICHAELBURLEIGH’s most recent book, Blood and Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism,is published by HarperPress.
JANERIDLEYis writing a biography of King Edward VII, to be published by Chatto & Windus.
JOHNCORNWELLis director of the Science and Human Dimension Project at Jesus College, Cambridge. His last book was Darwin’s Angel: An Angelic Riposte to the GodDelusion.
ADAMLEBORis the author of City of Oranges: Arabs and Jews in Jaffa (Bloomsbury).
RICHARDTOYEis a Senior Lecturer in the Department of History at the University of Exeter. He is the author of Lloyd George and Churchill: Rivals for Greatness(2007).
FRANKMCLYNNis the author of over twenty books. His most recent, Lionheart & Lackland, is available in paperback from Vintage.
PATRICKO’CONNORwas Consulting Editor to The New Grove Dictionaryof Opera. His books include The Amazing Blonde Woman(Bloomsbury).
JOHNKEAY’s new book, China: A History, is published next month by HarperPress.
ROGERBOYESis Germany and East Europe correspondent of The Times.
HARRYMOUNTis the author of Amo, Amas, Amat and All That: How to Become a Latin Lover(Short Books).
WORLD WAR TWO
RICHARDTOYE The Pain and the Privilege: The Women in Lloyd George’s Life Ffion Hague KEVINMYERS Paisley: From Demagogue to Democrat? Ed Moloney JANERIDLEY The Bolter: Idina Sackville – The Woman Who Scandalised 1920s Society and Became White Mischief’s Infamous Seductress Frances Osborne STEPHENAMIDON The Legend of Colton H Bryant Alexandra Fuller
FRANKMCLYNN The Comanche Empire Pekka Häämäälääinen ADAMLEBOR Paradise Lost: Smyrna 1922 – The Destruction of Islam’s City of Tolerance Giles Milton NIKOLAI TOLSTOY The Romanovs: Ruling Russia 1613–1917 Lindsey Hughes Ekaterinburg: The Last Days of the Romanovs Helen Rappaport RICHARDBARBER The Black Death: An Intimate History of the Plague John Hatcher JONATHANKEATES The Red Prince: The Fall of a Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Europe Timothy Snyder STEPHENHALLIDAY The Blackest Streets: The Life and Death of a Victorian Slum Sarah Wise
FRANCESWILSON Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Portraits of Married Life in London Literary Circles 1910–1939 Katie Roiphe BRUCEPALLING Semi-Invisible Man: The Life of Norman Lewis Julian Evans JEREMYLEWIS The Man Who Made Penguins: The Life of Sir William Emrys Williams Sander Meredeen
RICHARDOVERY Hitler’s Empire: Nazi Rule in Occupied Europe Mark Mazower DAVIDCESARANI Hitler, The Germans, and The Final Solution Ian Kershaw NIGELJONES The Zookeeper’s Wife Diane Ackerman Clara’s War Clara Kramer MRD FOOT Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilisation Nicholson Baker
DONALDRAYFIELD Stalin’s Children: Three Generations of Love and Betrayal Owen Matthews JOHNGRAY Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son’s Memoir David Reiff JOHNKEAY Halfway to Venus: A One-Armed Journey Sarah Anderson
Editor: NANCYSLADEK Deputy Editor: TOMFLEMING Editor-at-Large: JEREMYLEWIS Editorial Assistant: JONATHANBECKMAN
Contributing Editors: SEBASTIANSHAKESPEARE, PHILIPWOMACK Advertising Manager: TERRYFINNEGAN Classified Advertising: DAVIDSTURGE Founding Editor: DRANNESMITH Founding Father: AUBERONWAUGH Cover illustration by Chris Riddell Issue no. 355
LITERARY REVIEW June 2008