Monday, November 25, 2019

Bonus Book! Invented Knowledge

Invented Knowledge by Ronald H. Fritze
History (2009 - 255 pp.)

Invented Knowledge is an ambitious, fun, hilarious project that to the best of my knowledge has never been attempted before or since: a history of, according to the book's cover, "False History, Fake Science and Pseudo-religions". The book has six chapters, each featuring a subset of pseudohistory, starting with Atlantis, the progenitor of all modern pseudohistory; progressing to a chapter on theories of who really discovered the Americas before Columbus; to chapters on the Christian Identity and Nation of Islam movements; to the intertwining insanities of Immanuel Velikovsky, Charles Hapgood and their ilk; and then finally to the Black Athena controversy of the '80s and '90s. Rarely has historiography been so entertaining. If I ever teach a course on historiography, Invented Knowledge will probably be on the syllabus.

Although some pseudohistorical theories are simply wrong history, such as Ignatius Donnelly's Atlantis: The Antediluvean World (1871) and Martin Bernal's first Black Athena book (1987), other theories are so outlandish they would not be seen as realistic enough if they were movie scripts. Gavin Menzies's 1421 postulated that Chinese explorers under Admiral Zheng He circumnavigated the globe, besting Ferdinand Magellan by a century. While Zheng He is a favourite of speculative fiction writers due to the wide-ranging nature of his travels, there is no evidence any of his voyages went anywhere near Antarctica. When critics rightfully pointed out that Menzies omitted Europe, and no other continent, from the Chinese explorers' travels, Menzies responded with a sequel entitled 1434. In 1434, Menzies stated not only that Chinese explorers kickstarted the Italian Renaissance, but also that they visited England:
He has also suggested that the Chinese sailed up the Thames and visited London! But for some unfathomable reason no contemporary chronicler bothered to record these events, which could not have been anything other than astonishing to those Europeans who experienced the alleged Chinese visits. (103)
Charles Hapgood, a professor at Keene State University, would butcher the global map in a similar way when he asserted that the Piri Reis map, (200) dating to 1513, actually showed Antarctica at its southernmost point. Such a claim, as Fritze notes, would convert the Straits of Magellan into a land bridge. That Hapgood and Menzies contradict each other on whether South America and Antarctica were either sailed by the Chinese or connected by land is likely trivial.

The inability to back up claims with data or primary sources is a recurring theme in Invented Knowledge. Immanuel Velikovsky's Ages in Chaos (1952) and Martin Bernal's Black Athena agree on the pointed lack of an otherwise universally acknowledged Greek Dark Ages spanning approximately 1100-700 BC. Velikovsky's theory is that all modern archaeologists have their dates wrong, meaning that the Greek Dark Ages never existed. Bernal is only slightly subtler in stating that Egyptian and Phoenician culture prevented Greece from ever slipping into a Dark Age. Both theories, of course, completely contradict later scholarship like Eric Cline's 1177BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed, which borrows heavily from the historical and anthropological evidence of the period.

Pseudohistorians are characters in and of themselves. Sinking into the minds of key historical figures is a technique I've commented on before, that is also used in journalism and in historical fiction, and that Fritze uses effectively. In some cases, such as Donnelly, Fritze leans toward sympathy with a pseudohistorian who simply lacked our modern knowledge that would disprove his theory. In the case of Rudolf Steiner, an early proponent of the occult theory of Atlantis, Fritze points out that pseudohistorians were often multifaceted hobbyists who were capable of clever inventions:
Steiner did not attract the sort of controversy and scandal that seemed to follow Madame Blavatsky. He also managed to accomplish some genuinely positive things with his system of Waldorf schools, his Campbell Villages for the education of mentally disabled children, his methods of organic gardening and his holistic approach to medicine. (46)
Whether gardening would even be possible in a submerged Atlantis is unaddressed, either by Steiner or by Fritze. Charles Cayce, an early 20th-century Atlantis supporter, only had a seventh-grade education, yet apparently gave medical advice in his sleep. Much of that advice was surprisingly accurate. (46) Richard Brothers, meanwhile, was a very early influence on later pseudohistorical white supremacist movements. He swore off his naval officer's pension, resulting in a self-induced poverty that complemented his dubious claims to have been visited by God but that did not at all impress his landlords. (112) While Brothers did not make the advancements Steiner did, Brothers's tendency to sleep at his friends' houses demonstrates that pseudohistorians were capable of being popular.

The twinning roles of prophet and pseudohistorian continued into the 20th century. In the same way that Christian Identity drastically strains the meaning of the word "Christian", Wallace D. Fard's explanation of the ideology underlying the Nation of Islam hardly seems like "Islam" as we know it. In describing Fard, Fritze ventures the farthest into biography, even farther than when discussing Nation of Islam co-founder Elijah (Poole) Muhammad's various dalliances with underaged followers. Only Fard can fit such an outrageous description:
If anyone deserves the sobriquet of international man of mystery it is Wallace D. Fard. According to the testimony of committed members of the Nation of Islam, Fard declared, ‘I am Wallace D. Fard and I came from the Holy City of Mecca. More about myself I will not tell you yet, for the time has not yet come. I am your brother. You have not yet seen me in my royal robes.’ …Through some prophetic sense, Alphonse [Wallace’s father] recognized Wallace as someone with a cosmic destiny. (143)
"Cosmic destiny" need not only apply to Fard's ideology of resistance against white Americans; other pseudohistorians are content to take that phrase literally. Science fiction and horror bear a striking resemblance to some of their influences on pseudohistory. That Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea (1870) was published the year before Donnelly's Atlantis is no coincidence. (35) The interplanetary conspiracy theories go further. Regarding Wesley Swift and the Christian Identity writers he influenced, Fritze states:
They have developed a fusion of Paradise Lost and Star Wars. God’s angels and archangels patrolled the universe in spaceships but as the Adamic race was about to be created Satan started his civil war in the Heavens. He and the rebel angels used pre-Adamite blacks as their minions but to no avail. The Archangel Michael and a mighty armada of spaceships defeated them and the rebel survivors fled to the earth. (126)
Similarly, Velikovsky's ideas in Worlds in Collision (1950) appear at times to be little more than tosses at an interplanetary dartboard. Venus allegedly began life as a comet that almost struck Earth during Biblical times, which, while technically an explanation of how the Exodus occurred, was notably absent from my Bible studies growing up:
While the Earth and Venus almost colliding helped the Children of Israel to escape their Egyptian bondage, for the rest of the inhabitants of the Earth the event was a colossal disaster. (170)
Erich von Daniken's mid-20th-century theories of Heaven and Hell take a similar tack. In von Daniken's version of Old Testament events, "alien astronauts" paved the way for all human technology leading up to World War II:
But the ancient astronauts were not necessarily benevolent toward the improved humans either. Von Daniken claimed the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah resulted from a nuclear blast unleashed by irate aliens. (206)
Zechariah Sitchin went farther (not as far?) in claiming the existence of a tenth planet, Marduk, that is simply lost to modern observers. (211) Fritze ties these theories into the Cold War era when they arose: a time of the Space Race, the moon landing, copious amounts of high-quality science fiction on bookstore shelves, and media like the Twilight Zone and movie posters blasting imaginations out of this world. The difference between Philip K. Dick, Robert Heinlein, Rod Serling and the pseudohistorians is that the first three wrote their tales as allegories, illustrations, or entertainment. According to the pseudohistorians, and they alone, these events actually occurred: “Clearly Velikovsky was not exaggerating when he said that his ideas, if proven correct, would force every history textbook to be rewritten.” (174)

Lastly, there is the ironic possibility that postmodernism in academia actually enables pseudohistory. When every opinion is equally valid, does pseudohistory suddenly become just as justifiable as actual history? According to Bernal, yes. That is exactly what happened, which, in turn, Fritze claims allowed pseudohistory to blossom. (253) The antidote is unclear: more academic barriers to entry would keep out the hobbyists like Donnelly, but recall, Bernal was a professor at Cornell* when he published Black Athena. The Ivies housed pseudohistorians 32 years ago. 

As I said two weeks ago, a history book is best served when it is apolitical. Fritze refers to Christian Identity as “extremely conservative” (130) and refers to “right-wing racist groups” numerous times in the Christian Identity chapter, including but not limited to the Silent Brotherhood and the Aryan Revolutionary Army, yet provides no source for the proposition that any of these groups are conservative or right-wing in any meaningful sense. Christian Identity rejects almost all core beliefs of Catholicism and mainline Protestantism, both of which are associated with conservatism, and which Fritze states on multiple occasions. (126-134) Conservatives are typically the opposite of revolutionaries, going all the way back to the 1790s when conservatives opposed the French Revolution, so how could the Phineas Priesthood’s “fantasy of resistance” (132) possibly apply to conservatives? I would similarly avoid any identification of the Nation of Islam with modern left-wing movements, which Fritze does only sparingly. For a book that is essentially a 255-page screed on writers needing to source their assertions more thoroughly, this is a gaping hole.

Invented Knowledge is a fun read about flawed yet often well-intentioned people crafting theories no one in the mainstream will choose over established academia. As Fritze states, though, sometimes people would rather set aside dry academic tomes in order to be entertained.

Ease of Reading: 5
Educational Content: 6

*Cornell University is, of course, my alma mater. I like to think I didn't learn any pseudohistory there...

Thursday, November 21, 2019

It's Alive at the ROM!

I recently took a friend to "It's Alive", the Royal Ontario Museum exhibition of science fiction and horror art from the collection of Kirk Hammett. In this case, "art" is mostly movie posters but also includes statues/sculptures and memorabilia. Hammett is best known for being the lead guitarist of Metallica, but like many artists from metal's golden era, is also heavily into science fiction and horror. Besides, science fiction and horror are so metal.

Hammett's movie-branded guitars:

I hope he's used the White Zombie (1932) guitar to play "Black Sunshine"!

Posters of classic silent movies The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1921) and Metropolis (1927):

Poster of the 1953 edition of H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds:

There are many more, but surely I can't show you the whole exhibit. Some have a dash of comedy - be sure to see the poster of 1935's The Invisible Ray so you can learn about the Luminous Man!

The collection spans from the 1920s to approximately 1980. Non-poster highlights include the suit Boris Karloff wore for Black Cat (1934) and a life-sized statute of a saucer man from Invasion of the Saucer-Men (1957). (Whether an outlandishly unrealistic saucer man can be truly "life-sized" is a debate you're welcome to have during your next board game night.)

According to the caption beside the Saucer-Man poster, film companies would pitch interesting-sounding titles to advertisers. If the advertisers liked a title, the company would write, film and distribute the movie as fast as they could, based only on the title. Yet the younger generation wonders why some of those old movies weren't that great... the modern equivalent is SyFy's Book of Blood or Rock Monster.

All photos taken by me, with implicit permission from the ROM (they never told me to stop), and all items property of Kirk Hammett. The exhibit is on until January, so go!

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

My Photos on Google Maps Now Have over 300,000 Views!

Today, I reached over 300,000 views on my photos posted to Google Maps. As a result of my unpaid but enthusiastic submission of pictures to Google Maps, I was greeted with this cheerful screen this morning:

Here are some of my most celebrated photos from London, England this past summer (ignore the dates):

Here are a couple of my greatest hits, from Toronto, with location and (accurate) date:

This may be my one chance to simultaneously recommend a restaurant and a dog park, so yes, I recommend them both.

I assure you, many of my photos have more views than some of the meagre amounts posted here. I took a photo on Sunday in Hogg's Hollow that is now featured on Google Maps:

It's been fun. Google prompts me every chance it gets, which is often, because I enjoy taking photos. 

May we all discover a few more places than we would have before.

Monday, November 11, 2019

November's Book: The War That Ended Peace

The War That Ended Peace by Margaret MacMillan
History (2013 - 645 pp.)

The War That Ended Peace is Margaret MacMillan's fourth book I've read (Paris 1919, The Uses and Abuses of History, History's People). This is Margaret MacMillan's second appearance on this blog (History's People). Whereas Paris 1919 is understandably clumped within an approximately 18-month span, The Uses and Abuses of History is about historiography, and History's People is a set of interconnected biographies, The War That Ended Peace takes the veteran MacMillan reader to an unfamiliar place: the geopolitical strategy rooms of the two decades preceding World War I. In the setting, The War That Ended Peace brings James Joll's seminal Origins of the First World War to mind more than MacMillan's other works.

Like any holistic take on when, how and why World War I began, there can be no true thesis. Attempts to identify singular causes of World War I are sometimes extremely slanted: for example, following the French narrative of "German aggression", or following German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg's acidic remark that the British started the war through their neglect to rein in France and Russia. Similarly, narratives like "nationalism", "the alliance system" or "the cult of the offensive" are too vague to be accurate: as MacMillan reiterates over the course of the book, if these concepts were to blame, why did a general European war not erupt over Morocco or Bosnia? Stating that there were a multitude of factors is true, yet so unsatisfying and so uninsightful it scarcely needs to be said. The trigger events - the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand,* the responding Austro-Hungarian ultimatum toward Serbia, the Russian general mobilization order, Germany's violation of Belgian neutrality - are all well-known. What led to those trigger events, though, and why was it in the summer of 1914 that the guns, mortars and cannon were finally fired? That is the question MacMillan valiantly tries to answer.

Like Mary McAuliffe's Twilight of the Belle Epoque, which I reviewed back in June/July, The War That Ended Peace opens at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900. MacMillan deals with some of McAuliffe's characters in her chapter "What Were They Thinking?" (247), but the Exposition Universelle portion showcases MacMillan's own characters perfectly: each nation has its own pavillion, replete with artifacts of national pride. (3-5) The year 1900 was twenty-nine years since the close of the last major European war (the Franco-Prussian War), but the Great Powers would become increasingly violent as the 20th century wore on.

The commonly cited, and not entirely accurate, World War I alliance map commonly shown in high school history classrooms was far from a certainty, especially where the United Kingdom was concerned. Early in the twentieth century, Germany and the United Kingdom had frequent alliance discussions. Shocking as it might seem today, the largest obstacle to an Anglo-German alliance was frequently Germany's desire to build its strength while the United Kingdom went to war against Russia: "Much better for Germany, [German Chancellor Bernhard von Bulow] felt, to remain neutral between Britain and Russia in their continuing conflict." (86) In 1905, two radical peers in the British Parliament formed the Anglo-German Friendship Committee. (298) Over a decade later, when William II would step down at the end of World War I, he suggested becoming a British-style constitutional monarch. It is fitting, then, that so much of the first quarter of the book discusses the background behind the Entente Cordiale. Although the United Kingdom and France were allies during the Crimean War, British public opinion had backed Prussia in 1870, and the Fashoda Crisis in 1898 nearly put the United Kingdom and France at war. Although Fashoda was temporally detached from World War I,** MacMillan's account is hilarious, including Major Jean-Baptiste Marchand's futile trek across a substantial portion of Africa, map included. (144)

That the United Kingdom and France would sign the Entente Cordiale in 1904 was a miracle. Even then, British politicians (especially Edward Grey) waffled on how far they would honour it, right up until the start of the war, intent on maintaining a "free hand" in European affairs. The only scenario that seemed assured was that France and Germany would not end up on the same side of a general European war. Britain, cognizant of this, knew that in siding with France, it was rejecting Germany. The ongoing Anglo-German naval race, which bled into the political sphere as German Admiral von Tirpitz and British Admiral Jacky Fisher constantly lobbied for naval spending increases,^ further pushed the United Kingdom toward France. Austria-Hungary was a useful partner for the naval status quo in the Mediterranean, but the French navy easily inherited that role as World War I drew nearer.

So much of the pre-World War I world is locked in a time capsule, unable to ever be recovered, at once romantic and barbaric. The Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman Empires have no clear modern equivalents, and what once was the German Empire is vastly different now. MacMillan's best comparison between the world of then and the world of today is in how major countries compared failed states: "Where today the international community sees failed or failing states as a problem, in the age of imperialism the powers saw them as an opportunity." (165) These were the days of Fotochrom, of Ruritanian romances and of the invention of Fry's Turkish delight.

Although the Ottoman Empire was targeted in Austria-Hungary's annexation of Bosnia in 1908, and again in the Balkan Wars (1912-1913), Austria-Hungary and Russia would fail sooner. During the Russo-Japanese War, the Russian Navy accidentally set off the Dogger Bank incident, in which Russian ships sunk British merchant ships and the British almost declared war in response. France, by then Russia's ally and the United Kingdom's friend, had to mediate the dispute. (173) This was all the more embarrassing when considering the Russian ships' ultimate destination: they belonged to the fleet that would be massacred by the Japanese at Tsushima. For years afterward, the Russians would call any foreign policy blunder "a diplomatic Tsushima". Outmuscled by Japan in the Far East, and then outmaneuvered by Austria-Hungary over the Bosnian Crisis, Russia's foreign policy was in tatters. The Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907, which guaranteed nothing except peace in Persia and Afghanistan, was cold comfort. Russia's domestic politics were even worse: "Between 1905 and 1909 nearly 1,500 provincial governors and officials were assassinated." (177)

Austria-Hungary lacked such military or diplomatic defeats, and was nowhere near as politically violent, but its nationalist stirrings and lack of a succession pipeline would prove fatal during the war. MacMillan presents a thoughtful mini-biography of Franz Josef von Habsburg, the last great Austrian emperor (219-223), capped by her poetic summary of his life view: "Franz Joseph soldiered on, working methodically through his piles of papers as though, through sheer hard work and attention to detail, he could stave off chaos and hold his empire together." (223) As voting rights expanded and nationalist groups formed in what would become Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and (an expanded) Romania, the image of an emperor holding up his empire became less realistic. When Franz Josef died in 1916, an astonishing sixty-eight years into his reign, his most likely successors had all predeceased him.

Some of the landmark plans of the early 20th century were made by men who would not survive to see the outbreak of war. Alois von Aehrenthal, Austria-Hungary's foreign minister during the annexation of Bosnia in 1908, died in 1912. One of his more infamous legacies was a charged meeting at Buchlau castle, now in the Czech Republic, with Alexander Izvolsky, the Russian foreign minister. As has always been common in diplomatic meetings, each man walked away from the castle with a vastly different story to tell his respective emperor. (423) The Schlieffen plan's creator, Alfred von Schlieffen, died in 1913, although the German army insisted on relying on that plan to the exclusion of ever discussing its implications with civilian leaders: "Germany's war plan, the most controversial to this day, was locked in an iron safe to which the chief of staff held the key, and only a small circle knew its strategic goals." (336) Joseph Chamberlain, who held almost every major British political position except Prime Minister, died a month before the war began. Jean Jaures, the French socialist leader, was assassinated on July 30, 1914, less than a week before German troops set foot in his home country. (618) Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination takes up most of a chapter, was known before the war for being perhaps the one man who could have brokered long-term peace with Austria-Hungary's South Slav populations. Franz Ferdinand's train ride from Vienna to Trieste was so spooky, leading up to the inexplicably disregarded reports of terrorist activity in Sarajevo, that his death almost seemed foreordained. (550)

MacMillan's discussions of the declarations of war is the book's highlight. In those crucial weeks from the June 28 assassination until August Madness, the Great Powers were locked in tension. The Russian general mobilization order came after Nicholas II seriously considered a mobilization on only the Austrian border, which could have contained the war but would have opened the long German-Russian border to a German preemptive attack. Ironically, Sergei Sazonov was able to convince the Tsar that a general war might be the only way to save his throne.^^ After Nicholas II authorized Sazonov to enact the order, Sazonov phoned General Nicholas Yanushkevich; Sazonov then said, dramatically, "Smash your phone." (603) Germany declared war on Russia in response to this order. Friedrich von Pourtales, the German ambassador to Russia, pled with Sazonov to stop the Russian mobilization, but Sazonov refused, leading Pourtales to hand him Germany's declaration of war: "In that case, sir, I am instructed by my Government to hand you this note." (616) Finally, the United Kingdom's declaration of war on Germany in response to Germany's violation of Belgian neutrality shattered Karl von Lichnowsky, the German ambassador to the United Kingdom, who tirelessly worked to keep those two countries at peace. (624)

My only qualm with The War That Ended Peace is the use of modern political terms to refer to now-antiquated events and precepts, including erroneous comparisons to modern times. This is repeated, and I have to assume deliberate. To call certain factions "conservative" or "liberal" in now-defunct countries with political systems that make no sense to a 21st-century North American is heavily misleading. While the Conservative and Liberal parties in the United Kingdom can rightly be referred to by their party names, and the Social Democratic Party in Germany was quite obviously socialist, going much further falls into the dreaded trap of tunnel-visioning history. People in the Russian Empire or the Ottoman Empire saw their worlds so drastically differently from modern English-language readers, few words can describe peoples' political predilections in all those places.

MacMillan's epilogue is a blisteringly fast twelve-page outtake on World War I. After everything from Queen Victoria's jubilee to the tales of "Foxy" Ferdinand of Bulgaria, the war finally arrives just in time for the end. After the war, Harry Kessler, a German diplomat, revisits a house of his that he had not visited since 1913. Kessler's diary entry on the experience is among the most nostalgic passages I have ever read. (640)

Finally, as exciting as the diplomatic intrigue leading up to World War I was, there is so much more to commemorate. That is why this review is being posted on Remembrance Day (Armistice Day or Veterans Day). Last year, I visited the World War I monuments in Prospect Cemetery in Toronto, and then visited the Toronto Archives collection of newspapers from the date of the armistice in 1918 in anticipation of the hundredth anniversary of the end of World War I. The more we read, the less we forget.

Ease of Reading: 4
Educational Content: 10

*In the interest of theming my experiences, as I often do in regard to this blog, I am listening to Franz Ferdinand (2004) while writing this review.

**The Fashoda Crisis happened sixteen years before World War I. A good comparison is considering the armistice in 1918 in assessing motives for the extremely ill-fated German-Polish non-aggression pact of 1934.

^MacMillan spends far more time with the Anglo-German naval race than I have here. The topic demands its own book, and is already the subject of many.

^^For all the book, and many other sources, mentions the eerily accurate predictions regarding World War I, this has to be the worst World War I prediction I have ever seen.