Monthly Archives: January 2016
For most people, being described as a “flat Earther” is an insult. The idea of the Earth being flat is considered not only wrong, but a model of wrongness, the gold standard of being incorrect about something.
This being so, oddly enough, most people described pejoratively as “flat Earthers” do not actually believe that the Earth is flat. “Flat Earther” is simply a scientifically seasoned variation of “idiot”.
For a recent example, US President Barack Obama recently expressed impatience with the persistent objections put forward by climate change deniers by saying: “We don’t have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth Society.”
In a subsequent move that one can read as either very fortunate or very unfortunate, the real Flat Earth Society issued a statement in support the hypothesis of anthropogenic climate change.
What do we do, then, when someone actually does believe that the Earth is flat, as the American rapper B.o.B expressed recently? The usual path seems to be blocked; it’s difficult to insult someone with a term that they themselves happily adopt.
Edge of the world
But what exactly is a “flat Earth theory”? In fact, there never has been anything called “the flat Earth theory”. Different cultures at different times have posited a staggeringly diverse array worldviews which cannot easily be summed up with the phrase “flat Earth.” Nor is the idea of a flat Earth something that is exclusive to the Western world.
Even the most cursory historical survey shows that the idea that the Earth is flat has been a notion shared by an extraordinarily wide range of cultures and tied to vastly different metaphysical systems and cosmologies.
It was a common belief in ancient Greece, as well as in India, China and in a wide range of indigenous or “pre-state” cultures. Both the poets Homer and Hesiod described a flat Earth. This was maintained by Thales, considered by many one of the first philosophers, Lucretius, an avowed materialist, as well as Democritus, the founder of atomic theory.
The ancient Greek conception, in turn, has some parallels with that of early Egyptian and Mesopotamian thought, with both thinking that the Earth was a large disc surrounded by a gigantic body of water. The ancient Chinese were also virtually unanimous in their view of the Earth’s flatness, although – in this system – the heavens were spherical and the Earth was square.
A number of ancient Indian conceptions, common – with some degree of variation – to ancient Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism, tie their cosmography to botanical images, with the earth being comprised of four continents surrounding a mountain, akin to the way petals encircle the bud of a flower. Ancient Norse thought postulated a circular flat Earth surrounded by a sea inhabited by a giant serpent.
Others, like the Mountain Arapesh people of Papua New Guinea, envisage a world which ends at the horizon, the place where giant clouds gather. But even where commonalities exist across these traditions, vastly different metaphysical and cosmological narratives are at stake.
And, to complicate matters, to these we must add cultures and intellectual traditions for whom the shape of Earth is of no interest whatsoever. Many tribal or pre-state societies, for instance, have little concern for what might be considered cosmography.
Turtles all the way down
However, from at least the 6th century BCE, the theory of the flat Earth began to fall out of favour. By the time we get to Aristotle in the 4th century BCE, the idea of a spherical Earth is commonplace, at least among the educated classes. And by the 1st Century BCE it is considered an uncontroversial truth. Having said that, the theory of a flat Earth has continued as a minor tradition in thought, like a handful of theories in science, such as Lamarckianism and vitalism.
Despite the historical tide having long turned, the mid 20th century saw the establishment of the Flat Earth Society, started in 1956 by Samuel Shenton, whose work was continued by the retired aircraft mechanic, Charles K. Johnson, in 1972.
From California (where else?), Johnson functioned as president for The International Flat Earth Society. As its spokesman, he made a series of claims that have now become widespread outside the flat Earth community: the Apollo moon landings were faked, and that the correct view of the world is the traditional Christian one of the earth being flat.
Johnson, interestingly enough, didn’t get only his cosmology wrong, he got his history and theology wrong as well. Orthodox Christian thinkers, at least since 5th century on, have supported the idea of a spherical Earth, from Bede through to Thomas Aquinas.
Indeed, as the University of California historian Jeffrey Burton Russell has argued, very few educated people in the West after the 3rd century BCE thought that the world was flat. This goes directly against the common belief that most people in medieval times believed the Earth was flat.
How unenlightened they were
But, if the flat Earth serves as a kind if myth or fantasy for those who believe in it, there are also myths about the flat Earth that are just as widespread.
One of the most widely propagated myths in the contemporary world is the belief that Columbus was advised by the Catholic Church to abandon his journey on the basis that he risked falling off the edge of the world.
It’s source is the 19th century writer, Washington Irving, author of other rigorous historical accounts such as The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle.
What this suggests is that we are sometimes overly keen to enlist the past – or our version of the past – in our attempts to feel better about how enlightened we are and how benighted were our predecessors.
That, of course, does not mean that nobody believed the Earth was flat in the middle ages; nor does it entail that nobody believes it today. Mohammed Yusuf, the founder of Boko Haram, famously claimed to not believe in a whole series of modern ideas which he though were contrary to Islam – including the spherical shape of the Earth.
If there is anything truly astounding about BoB’s improbable cosmographical musings, it’s that the battle between him and Neil deGrasse Tyson is, at this stage at least, being carried out only through the medium of rap. That could be a historical first for cosmography.
The Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford campaign has drawn attention to the way Britain continues to live with the legacies of its empire – and the failure to confront the history of its imperial exploits.
Media attention on the campaign has focused primarily on a group of students’ attempt to remove a statue of the British imperialist Cecil John Rhodes. But a key component of the campaign is a quest to de-colonise Oxford’s curriculum by making it less eurocentric and by including more works by people of colour and women.
To be fair to Oxford, such a critique could be made of many – if not most – institutions of higher education in Britain and the West, not to mention primary and secondary schools. England’s new national history curriculum for five to 14-year-olds, which was rolled out in 2013, offers a case in point: it whitewashes empire and its legacies.
While the curriculum does cover the slave trade and aspects of the history of empire, it manages to avoid tackling the actual impact of empire on either colonised peoples on Britain – or its ongoing effects.
The curriculum embodies a tension between a “little island” version of history and a history that positions Britain as a part of global processes, contacts and connections. As the statutory guidance for history programmes of study puts it, students should know not only “the history of these islands as a coherent, chronological narrative”, but “how Britain has influenced and been influenced by the wider world”.
There is a non-statutory option (which schools are not required to teach) in Key Stage 3 of the curriculum (for 11 to 14-year-olds) on “the impact through time of the migration of people to, from and within the British Isles”. Apart from this there is very little in the curriculum on how Britain has been “influenced” by the wider world.
Narrating Empire as a triumph
The suggested topics relating to empire – all of which are in Key Stages 2 and 3 of the curriculum (for seven to 14-year-olds) – are all non-statutory, and focus predominantly on political, military and religious history. They all concentrate on the beginnings or ends of empire, not on what happened in between, therefore effectively ignoring the violence of empire and its effects.
The government’s guidance, for example, recommends that pupils study “the first colony in America” and the “first contact with India”. In other words, not the nature of British colonisation, its effects on indigenous peoples, or the ways in which it shaped Britain.
British colonialism in India crops up again in the guidance, but only in terms of “Indian independence and [the] end of Empire”. Children would therefore, presumably, have little idea at all what happened in India between “first contact” and Indian independence.
There is a similar treatment of the United States in the guidance, with the American War of Independence and the civil rights movement recommended as two additional topics. Such omissions of the periods in between make possible a triumphalist, nationalist historical narrative that renders empire a positive historical force in giving birth to nation states. This, the guidance implies, was a beneficial historical development – though colonial critics such as Mohandas Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore would undoubtedly have disagreed.
Ireland, perhaps even more astoundingly, receives similar short shrift in the guidance. Other key British colonies – such as Australia – are not mentioned at all.
A history of white men
The one seeming exception to such whitewashing is teaching of the transatlantic slave trade, which the guidance says should focus on both “its effects and its eventual abolition”. But again, not only is the study of slavery non-statutory, but the narrative of slavery suggested in the guidance is again a triumphalist one. It positions slavery as having a clear end, with no enduring legacies – at least on Britain and the peoples it colonised.
Such legacies are, instead, displaced onto the US, via the civil rights movement. The curriculum guidance sidesteps the whole issue of empire and violence. While it includes topics on the Holocaust and the two world wars, colonial genocides and what historian Mike Davis has termed the “late Victorian Holocausts” – droughts, crop failures and famines exacerbated by European imperialist policies in which as many as 60m people died – are completely elided.
The progenitor of colonial genocide, Cristóbal Colón (still referred to, in the guidance, by his anglicised name Christopher Columbus) is positioned as an example of a “significant individual” who has “contributed to national and international achievements”. Yet he wasn’t even the first person to “discover” America, but the last.
This history curriculum that the guidance lays out is ultimately a history of white men. Not only does it devote considerable attention to war, politics, and military history, but women’s and gender history are notably completely absent. Non-white peoples play a small role as historical agents, particularly in British or wider Western history.
We still have a long way to go in decolonising, de-racialising and de-masculinising our past.