The Dangers of Politicized History
We are now seeing the consequences of 50 years of the Left's academic malfeasance.
Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
The New York Times’ “1619 Project,” a “woke” racialist rewrite of American history, is just the latest in the decades-long track record of leftist distortions of history. Like everything else corrupting our culture, its roots lie in Cultural Marxism and its assault on social institutions, especially education, as the means for achieving the Marxist paradise that the proletariat had betrayed by not rising up against their capitalist taskmasters and collectivizing the means of production.
The universities, of course, have been the seed-bed of such propaganda. A seemingly silly spasm of outrage over Israeli movie actress Gal Gadot (pictured above) being cast as Cleopatra illustrates how fake history and “cancel culture”––their roots in an academic fashion from decades earlier that at the time was dismissed as the typical hijinks of egghead professors––have infected people’s minds with patent nonsense.
The “woke” mob are put out with Gadot and her director, Patty Jenkins, because Gadot is a “bland” and “too pretty” white woman, whereas Cleopatra was Egyptian and hence presumably swarthy and more “exotic” looking. More noxious to critics is that Gadot is an Israeli. Journalist Sameera Khan on Twitter huffed, “shame on you, Gal Gadot. Your country steals Arab land & you’re stealing their movie roles.” The sheer ignorance of this observation is staggering. Christian Egypt didn’t become an Arab nation until 645 A.D. with the Muslim conquest. Today’s Arab Egyptians, then, with the exception of the minority Christian Copts, are the descendants of conquerors, occupiers, and colonizers. So who has a much longer record of “stealing” land?
But assuming Cleopatra was ethnic Egyptian is another historical solecism. She was a Macedonian Greek, descended from Ptolemy, Alexander the Great’s general who in 305 B.C. seized the rich territory of Egypt during the “game of thrones” over Alexander’s conquests after his death. The Ptolemies, as the dynasty is called, adopted much of the ceremony and iconography of the pharaohs in order to make their rule over a culturally, ethnically, religiously, and linguistically different peoples more manageable. But ethnically they were Macedonians, who tended to be fairer even than the southern Greeks, let alone Semites.
As for Cleopatra’s ethnicity, Professor Emeritus of Classics and Archaeology, Duane W. Roller, author of Cleopatra: A Biography, writes on the Oxford University Press blog: “To sum up: it is quite possible that Cleopatra was pure Macedonian Greek. But it is probable that she had some Egyptian blood, although the amount is uncertain. Certainly it was no more than half, and probably less. The best evidence is that she was three-quarters Macedonian Greek and one-quarter Egyptian. There is no room for anything else, certainly not for any black African blood.” In other words, Gal Gadot is more likely to resemble the historical Cleopatra than a modern Arab actress.
Roller’s reference to Cleopatra being black brings us to the academic controversy from several decades ago that illustrates an early example of politicized history that was defended by trying to “cancel” a critic of its manifest errors. In 1987 Martin Bernal published Black Athena, the first of three volumes arguing that ancient Greek culture had “Afroasiatic roots,” as the subtitle had it. The most famous claim derived from Bernal’s book was that ancient Greek civilization was the product of African Egyptians. Thirty years later, an American classicist claimed that one of the book’s purposes was to “effectively combat today’s use of Greece and Rome by white nationalists.” Presumably, the “grandeur that was Greece, and the glory that was Rome” had been hijacked by racist “white supremacists,” who ignored the Classical world’s “Afroasiatic” roots in order to racialize its achievements. The history of Classics comprised a “stolen legacy.”
Bernal’s book became widely known when it was used by Afrocentrism, a movement to correct allegedly racist, Eurocentric history by restoring the role played by peoples of African descent. Much of the work produced is closer to identity politics propaganda than to historical fact––an early example of the same activist history one sees in the “1619 Project.” Also similar is the production of Afrocentric curricula for schools. One can judge the intellectual seriousness of Afrocentrism from a remark by Al Sharpton in a 1994 talk delivered at, horribile dictu, a college: “We taught philosophy and astrology and mathematics before Socrates and them Greek homos ever got around to it.”
Nor can such a comment be dismissed as the vicious rhetoric of a professional race-baiter. But then as now, corporate America, eager as always to cultivate brand loyalty, quickly got on board the Afrocentrism train. Not long after the Afrocentrism controversy, I recall walking through a university history building and noting its hallway walls covered with posters celebrating Black History Month. One depicted Cleopatra sporting a big Afro redolent of Seventies blaxploitation movies. Another showed the Carthaginian Hannibal, a descendant of the Semitic Phoenicians who colonized today’s Tunisia, looking like soul singer Isaac Hayes. The posters had been donated by Anheuser-Busch, brewers of Budweiser. No one seemed concern that fake history was being promoted by the history department of a California State University, with the help of a corporation that wanted to sell more beer to college students.
At the time of Sharpton’s comment the historiographical flaws of Bernal’s thesis had been meticulously laid bare a year earlier by esteemed Wellesley classicist Mary Lefkowitz in her article “Not Out of Africa,” and later in books like Black Athena Revisited (1996) and Not Out of Africa (1997). Her thorough research undercut one of the major arguments of Afrocentrism, that ancient Greek culture was a “stolen legacy” filched from African peoples, a thesis based on egregious mangling of historical facts. For example, at a 1993 lecture at Wellesley by Yosef A.A. Ben-Jochannan, author of the Afrocentric classic Africa: Mother of Western Civilization, Ben-Jochannan claimed that Aristotle had plagiarized his philosophy from the Library of Alexandria in Ptolemaic Egypt. During the Q&A, Lefkowitz asked Ben-Jochannan how would that have been possible, “when that Library had only been built after his death.”
The subsequent assault on Lefkowitz, documented in her 2008 book History Lessons, was an early example, of today’s “cancel culture,” and taking on the powerful black-identity politics academic lobby with such biting criticism was personally costly for Lefkowitz. Black studies professors and Afrocentric ideologues leveled against her vicious attacks, ranging from being dismissed as an “obscure drudge in the academic backwaters of a Classics department,” by the truly obscure black studies professor Wilson Jeremiah Moses; to the antisemitic smear of Lefkowitz as a “homosexual” and a “hook-nosed, lox-eating . . . so-called Jew,” by Khalid Abdul Muhammad of the Nation of Islam, whose active support of Afrocentrism was welcomed by many black studies professors.
Lefkowitz’s experience in defending history from political propaganda should have alerted both the academy and larger society to what was happening to higher education. But as we see today with the “1619 Project” and the nonsense of “white privilege,” Critical Race Theory, and “systemic racism,” politicized history has entrenched itself in the universities, and escaped from the rotting groves of academe to pollute K-12 curricula with Black Lives Matter and “1619” propaganda. Moreover, such fake history is poisoning our politics with an illiberal “cancel culture” that violates the First Amendment and the long tradition of academic freedom enshrined in the “1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure,” promulgated by what’s now known as the American Association of Colleges and Universities. Worse yet, federally mandated policies based on ill-written civil rights laws have provided campus ideologues with powerful weapons to intimidate and silence any voice not singing in harmony with the “woke” identity-politics chorus.
What appears to be just another attempt by “woke” activists to bully an industry and indulge its anti-Semitic bigotry against an Israeli actress should not be lightly brushed off as the politically correct hysteria du jour. Nor should we forget the academic scandal from nearly thirty years ago that helped to institutionalize this particular variety of fake history and illiberal assaults on free speech. Today we all can see the consequences of such negligence, as intellectual and professional malfeasance once confined to the university classroom is now fueling violence in our streets and furthering the corruption of our K-12 and university curricula.
The Jesuits used to say, give me the child, and I’ll show you the man. The left has had several generations of our children now for over fifty years, and their men and women are rampaging through our biggest cities, controlling our corporate boards, censoring social media, polluting our culture, demagoguing in our legislatures and courts, and actively working to dismantle the Constitutional order that protects our unalienable rights and political freedom.
It’s time to start seriously reforming our schools.