Posts Tagged ‘Russian’

Old ‘Financial Times’ Review by Caryl Phillips of Books on Afrocentrism and Black Identity

August 1, 2020

This is another very old clipping from my scrapbooks. Titled ‘Burdened by white men’s perceptions’, its a review by the Black British writer Caryl Phillips of the books Afrocentrism: Mythical Pasts and Imagined Homes by Stephen Howe, and Masks: Blackness, Race and the Imagination by Adam Lively. Its from the Financial Times’ edition for August 15th/16th 1998, and so nearly a quarter of a century old. Nevertheless, these are issues that are still present and which are still strongly influencing contemporary racial politics and motivating activist movements like Black Lives Matter.

Phillips begins his review with the book on Afrocentrism. This is a Black historical view that sees ancient Egypt as a Black African civilisation and the true source of the western cultural and intellectual tradition, which was appropriated by the ancient Greeks and Romans. He then moves on to the second book, which is about the issue of Black identity in majority White culture and the effects of White perceptions. Phillips writes

Stephen Howe’s candid book goes right to the heart of one of the most vexing of contemporary America’s problems: the question of “Afrocentrism”, and its legitimacy as an alternative system of thought to the “white racism” which has dominated American intellectual, social and political life. Howe (who is white) quotes the African-American professor, Manning Marable, who defines Afrocentrism as a system of thought which “looks to a romantic, mythical reconstruction of yesterday to find some understanding of the cultural basis of today’s racial and class challenges.” Howe agrees with Marable that Afrocentrism is not only romantic and mythical, but he sees it as ultimately dangerous.

His book is divided into three parts. In the first section Howe looks at the “roots” of Afrocentrism, rightly identifying the writings o the 19th-century writer Edward Wilmot Blyden as being perhaps at the head of this tradition. In 1866 Blyden travelled to Egypt, determined to see evidence of great Black achievements. He was overwhelmed by a sense of racial pride on first seeing the Pyramids: “This, thought I, was the work of my African progenitors … Feelings came over me far different from those I have ever felt when looking at the mighty works of European genius. I felt that I had a peculiar heritage in the Great Pyramid built … by the enterprising sons of Ham, from which I am descended …”

In the second part of his book, Howe focuses largely upon the Senegalese scholar Cheikh Anta Diop (1923-86), identifying him as the originator of many of the ideas that form the basis of modern Afrocentrism. Diop believed that the biological origin of humanity took place in Africa, and that Egypt was the cradle of a Black civilisation that was appropriated by the Ancient Greeks. His writings and scholarship all speak to a need for those of Africa to see beyond the obfuscation created by European racism and colonialism,  and reclaim their glorious past.

The final part of Howe’s book looks at the current manifestations of Afrocentric thought, particularly in American academic life. He rightly castigates the anti-Semitism of Afrocentric “scholars”  such as Leonard Jeffries and Tony Martin, and is tough but even-handed in his case against Molefi Asante (whom Howe calls the “Godfather of Afrocentrism”). The pseudo-scientific racism, the homophobia, and the lack of any serious scholarship which underpins the work of modern-day Afrocentrism is laid bare in a devastating, and at times humorous manner.

This book performs a great service for all who are interested in the intellectual study of race and racism in the US. Howe builds his case upon facts, which most Afrocentric “scholars” seem incapable of doing. However, what Howe does not do is to ask the pressing question which arises out of his book: why is it that so many African Americans both leaders and followers, are prepared to invest in such an ahistorical sense of their world and their history?

The first half of Adam Lively’s book provides some kind of an answer, castigating as it does the European attempts to place Africa and people of African origin at the bottom of the evolutionary chain. Lively traces what he terms “the invention of race” in the modern world, and looks at racial theories in 18th and 19th-century Britain, examined how they clashed with Christianity, and Darwinism.

The second half of the book turns to the US. Lively announces his shift of locale and time, by stating that in the earlier period “If the African answered back, the European didn’t hear. In America by contrast … the American Negro could and did answer back to the White man.” This is not strictly true. Olaudah Equiano’s autobiographical narrative published in 1789 went into eight British editions, and was also published in German, Dutch and Russian. Equiano was but one of a host of contemporary Black writers who were undoubtedly heard by Europeans.

The American half of Lively’s book is largely composed of readings in 20th century American literature which support his central thesis that the contemporary imagination has great difficulty coping with a blackness that has been so deeply demonised by theories which originated in earlier centuries. However, whereas the first half of his book is underpinned by solid research, the second half becomes more speculative.

The book concludes with a short epilogue entitled “Beyond Race?” Unfortunately, here the text collapses into the infuriating academic doublespeak that the author has so eloquently avoided. “The idea of postethnicity accords with the modern tendency to see ethnicity as performative than essentialist. Blackness becomes a cultural style, a signifier that has floated free of its moorings in pigmentation. Stripped of any deterministic associations, its gift is the freedom (or, negatively, the alienation) of the mask.”

Blackness is not, and never will be, simply “a cultural style”. Being Black in the western world still means that one is burdened by White people’s perceptions of  one as either an object of taboo or one of sentiment. To scamper off into an imagined past of Afrocentric “achievement” is as foolish as the attempt to construct an imagined present of redemptive cultural equality based around baggy jeans and rap music. Lively ends his book with the following sentence: “The racial past cannot be erased, but it can be rendered impotent.” Neither Lively’s faith in postmodernism nor the Afrocentric’s “fake” history, will produce any viable solution to a problem that will dog us far into the next millennium.

I hope this prediction is far too pessimistic, and that this millennium won’t be as burdened with issues of race and racism as the previous. Regarding Afrocentrism, there is a serious point behind the romanticism. Egypt is geographically part of Africa, and the ancient Egyptians certainly portrayed themselves as darker skinned than the European peoples to the north. They traded extensively in the Mediterranean, including as far west as Spain, and did influence Greek and Roman culture. The White Afrocentrist historian, Basil Davidson, states that he believes that the Romans took their intellectual culture from Egypt because the Romans themselves said they did. On the other hand, it appears that the ancient Greeks took their mathematical knowledge from the ancient Near East, particularly Phrygia, rather than Egypt.

My problem with Afrocentrism is that, at its extreme, it just becomes a form of anti-White racism, the mirror image of White racist views of Black and African history. In the view of Afrocentric writers like Garakai Chengu, ancient Egypt was a superior Black civilisation that bestowed culture and learning on the backward White tribes of Europe. The Moors of Islamic Spain were ‘obviously Black’, and through their conquest brought backward, superstitious White Europeans enlightened philosophy and science. This isn’t history so much as a Black racist fantasy of imperialism and benign colonialism projected into the past. Chengu has apparently taught at Harvard, but when Counterpunch saw fit to publish a piece by him on their website the standard of scholarship was so poor that I really wondered how he got the job.

Ancient Egypt and the other great civilisations of Africa are awesome, inspiring and worth studying along with all the world’s great cultures. But this needs to be done without the grotesque distortions of racism, whether by Whites or Blacks.

VICE Report on Nationalist March in Poland

April 3, 2016

I’ve been blogging quite a bit recently about the frightening rise of the far Right in Europe, and especially eastern Europe. I put up a video yesterday about the cult of Stepan Bandera, the great, modern nationalist hero of Ukraine. Bandera fought for his country’s freedom from the Soviet Union during World War II. However, he did so by allying himself and collaborating with the invading Nazis. Poland has also seen the emergence of extreme Right-wing groups, such as the National Rebirth of Poland, which is now actively trying to recruit members from the Polish expatriate community living and working over here.

This piece from VICE is a report about this years Polish Independence Day march. This is held annually, and attracts crowds of extreme nationalists. In previous years it’s been marked by violence between these Fascist groups and the police. Many of the nationalists come from gangs of football hooligans. VICE’s reporter shows the march’s stewards, who are themselves drawn from the far Right, training under a bridge in Warsaw to deal with violence, including being bombarded with smoke bombs or CS gas.

After that, he then goes to the town of Lodz in the company of a member of the Ultras, the violent supporters group for the Widzew lower league team. Lodz appears to be quite a grim town. The reporter says it’s quite picturesque, but the area inhabited by the Ultras seems to be quite run down. It’s got an unemployment rate of 12 per cent, which, the presenter states, compares well with the national average, but there is little to distract its young men away from nationalism and violence. As they’re driving through it’s slightly run-down streets, the Ultra he’s with points out the two supporters of a rival team, and states quite plainly that if the presenter wasn’t there, he’d go after and attack them.

The presenter also states that it’s not a mystery that there is so much nationalist sentiment and antagonism to refugees and Islam in Poland. The country now has a new government, and politicians have been appearing on television talking about the threat from Muslim refugees. The documentary shows television footage of one particular Polish politician stating that refugees don’t respect their host countries’ culture or ways of life, and once they’ve become firmly settled there, they then begin to make their sensitivities clear. The reporter then goes to the muster point for the march. This is at a Roman Catholic church, where the reporter says that they’re to thank God for Poland’s independence, and get Him on their side for the day. During the service the priest thanks the biker gangs that are in attendance for joining them. Standing outside the church are bikers and skinheads with Polish flags and armbands. The reporter states that he thinks the Nazis have ruined armbands, and that after them, no-one can wear them without it looking dodgy.

The march itself this year is strangely quiet and uneventful. There are no battles with the police. This is remarked upon approvingly by a couple of older ladies, who have joined the march. The marchers from Lodz carry their banner, showing their support of Widzew, which they made earlier down in the basement of one of the tower blocks. Along with the Polish flag, which the reporter’s companion from the Ultras has told him is ‘sacred’ to the Poles, are other banners for the National Rebirth of Poland. Several are explicitly anti-Islam. Some simply have the slogan ‘Stop Islam’, while others show a mosque with ‘stop’ traffic sign across it, familiar from Western anti-Islamic groups like the EDL over here and PEGIDA in Germany. The speeches at the march, included in this report, are also overtly anti-Islam. A young voice is heard over the loudspeaker system shouting, ‘Pride, pride, pride. We don’t want rape. We don’t want violence. The Gospel, not the Qu’ran!’ The reporter also briefly interviews a middle-aged Polish man, who makes it clear that the people there fear the influx of Muslim refugees. The man states that they don’t want immigrants to arrive in their country, ‘as we aren’t prepared for them. He also says that they don’t know who they – meaning the immigrants – are, and that they should have to wear armbands identifying them for two or three years. It’s exactly the same kind of rhetoric that’s coming out of Trump and Ted Cruz across the Atlantic in America.

Vice’s reporter ends the documentary by saying that although there hasn’t been any violence between the marchers and the police that day, if felt like a victory parade for the Polish far Right after they had conquered the state. The documentary itself ends with the statement that since it was made, hundreds of thousands have taken part in anti-government protests, and the EU is looking into the state of democracy in Poland.

The rise of the nationalist extreme Right in Poland, and the consequent increase in xenophobia and fear of Islam, and the deep link between Polish national identity and Roman Catholicism can partly be explained by the country’s history. Following the rule of Jan Sobieski, the Polish king who broke the Turkish siege of Vienna, Poland was conquered and divided between Prussia, and the Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires. They only gained their independence after the First World War, when they finally became a united nation once more under Marshal Pilsudski. They have had to fight for their survival as a people and nation in a way which we Brits, or at least, the English, are fortunate not to have to. In the Russian ruled areas, the official language, including that of the schools, was Russian. If schoolchildren were taught Polish, it was as a foreign language.

Secondly, the redistribution of territory following the First and Second World Wars, including the loss of parts of Ukraine, meant that Poland’s population were almost uniformly Roman Catholic. 98-99% of the Polish population belong to the Church, which became the focus of opposition to the Communist regime following the expansion of Soviet power as the Russians pushed the Germans back across Europe at the end of the War. The result is a powerful sense of national identity, which itself is deeply identified with Roman Catholicism, as well as a terrible sense of insecurity and threat from outsiders.

The specific fear of Muslim immigration can strike Western Europeans as peculiar, given that Poland isn’t the destination of choice for refugees from Africa and the Middle East. These mostly want to settle in the more prosperous west of the continent. This, however, seems to be part of a general rise in Islamophobia in eastern Europe – in Hungary, and the Czech and Slovak Republics. There’s an interesting report linked to by the anti-Fascist, anti-Islamist organisation, Hope Not Hate, on the rise of militant anti-Islamic politics in the Slovak republic. This also comments on the fact that Slovakia is off the main migration route. However, the article traces the rise to the fact that the Slovaks, compared to Britain, Germany, France and Italy, are a small nation. There are only five million of them. They therefore fear that they will be swamped by mass immigration. And their politicians are also partly responsible, even the left-wing Socialist party, as they have attempted to boost their electoral support by playing on the fears of a mass influx of immigrants from outside Europe. The result has been the resurgence of ugly strands of nationalism, last seen in the collaborationist regime of Monsignor Tiso during the Second World War. Tiso was the Roman Catholic cardinal, who governed the country during its alliance with the Nazis, and was partly responsible for sending his country’s Jews to their deaths in the Holocaust. Tiso himself seems also to have been a hero of the Slovakian far Right for a very long time. I can remember reading in one of the Communist/ Trotskyist newspapers a friend of mine bought in the 1980s an article about the rise of the Fascist right in the Soviet bloc then. Along with a discussion of the notorious, and now defunct Russian Nazi group, Pamyat’, the article also mentioned with horror that the Slovaks were also putting a statue up to honour Tiso.

And finally, I think some of the rise of the extreme Right in eastern Europe is due to the social dislocation following the collapse of Communism. The democracy the peoples of Europe waited for did not bring the prosperity they expected. In fact I can remember talking to a girl, whose parents were Polish, who said that actual conditions in Poland seemed to her to have deteriorated after the Fall of
Communism, to the point where she didn’t feel safe travelling through the country. This was in the 1990s. It was about this time that the Russian economy also went into meltdown due to Yeltsin’s mass privatisation of the state industries. Millions were made unemployed, in a country which had no unemployment support system, as under Communism full employment, provided you kow-towed to the party, was guaranteed. It wouldn’t surprise me if something similar had also happened in the former Soviet satellites and break-away states. And with economic insecurity comes the desire to find a scapegoat, a terrible ‘other’, who can be blamed, or made the focus for all the fear and insecurity. And so in some of the former eastern bloc, it’s back to anti-Semitism and a hatred of the Jews, and now a fear of Muslims.

Computers Before Babbage: Schickard’s 17th Century Mechanical Calculator

May 26, 2013

Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine is now considered to be the first computer. Designed in the 19th century by the pioneeering mathematician, it was designed to prevent human error in the calculation of mathematical tables used for vital tasks, such as navigation. Wholly mechanical, it proved far too expensive for the British government to fund completely and so was never built. A replica of part of it stands in the Science Museum in London, while another replica was built for the home of Charles Simonyi, the vice-chair of Microsoft. As an icon of Victorian technological excellence and information technology, it has also been an inspiration to Steampunk Science Fiction novelists. This is most explicit in William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s 1990 The Difference Engine.

Yet there is a whole history of mechanical computers extending back as far as the 17th century. The first of these was the ‘calculating clock’ built by the German polymath, Wilhelm Schickard in 1623. Schickard was inspired by the calculating aid, Napier’s Bones and incorporated them into his own device. The Calculating Clock was the size of a typewriter using a direct gear drive and rotating wheels to perform addition and subtraction. The machine used Napier’s Bones in its upper section to multiply and divide.It could computer figures up to six digits in length. Below these were a line of wheels and dials for addition and subtraction lay below them. The wheels were arranged so that when one wheel made a complete turn, the next moved a tenth of a complete turn. The dials were connected by toothed internal wheels that brought forward one digit whenever the wheel passed from nine to zero. The dials were moved in different directions for addition and subtraction. If the result of the calculation could not be displayed because it was longer than six digits, a bell rang.

Unfortunately, like many great inventions, including Babbage’s Difference Engine, it was never built. Schickard was building a replica of the calculating clock for the great astronomer, Kepler, when his workshop was destroyed by a fire. He gave detailed instructions for its construction to Kepler, before Schickard and his family were all killed by the plague in the 1630s. It was only rediscovered in the 1950s amongst Kepler’s papers held in Russia.

Despite this, it’s an astonishing demonstration of the mathematical and engineering ingenuity of the early 17th century, and makes you wonder what else they were capable of, and even how unique are the modern scientific achievements of our own day.