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.