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...

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