Letter to The New York Times, March 16, 1996

The New York Times
Letters to the Editor
229 West 43rd Street
New York, NY 10036

To the Editor:

Glen Bowersock's February 25th book review of Professor Mary Lefkowitz's death-knell to Afrocentrist scholarship, "Not Out of Africa", was improperly titled. Instead of the heading "Rescuing the Greeks", his review should have been entitled "Rescuing Black Athena".

Professor Bowersock takes pains to distinguish Martin Bernal, the author of the revisionist "Black Athena", from other Afrocentrists insisting that they "are another matter". Your reviewer fails to recognize that it is precisely Bernal's "formidable array of erudition", his impressive command of historical argumentation as well as his demonstrated capacity for superior scholarship that makes Bernal's decision to so blatantly distort Greek and Egyptian history in pursuit of an ulterior political agenda so much more disturbing.

Bowersock does not even mention what should have been the obvious starting point of any review considering Bernal's work--that his theories, and particularly his methodology have long been discredited in higher academic circles even prior to Lefkowitz's definitive obsequy of "Black Athena". As pointed out by Professor Lefkowitz, a highly respected classics scholar, Bernal "although 'very learned,' is not an ancient historian."

Although Bowersock inventories how "Lefkowitz systematically demolishes Afrocentric contentions about ancient history", he nevertheless avoids critiquing the actual substance of the book's historiography where it specifically refutes Martin Bernal's absurd assertions.

Moreover, Bowersock understates the magnitude of Bernal's disingenuity of scholarship and wholly unsound analytical methods, conceding simply that Bernal's "research was full of easily refuted errors". Your reviewer instead chooses to rehabilitate Bernal by not only avoiding any further assessment of Bernal's specific factual and historical claims, but by further taking the position that "Mr. Bernal's mistakes should not be taken as an excuse to ignore the larger issues he raised." Yet these issues of racial and cultural bias by 19th century classicists are more appropriate to a political science or sociological approach, and should not be snuck into the forum of historical debate through the "back door" by manufacturing a false historical construct to justify their promotion.

Instead of first laying down this basic groundwork, Bowersock begins his review by paying an inordinate amount of lip service to such strained polemics against ancient Greece as "[and as] for democracy, what the Greeks practiced, with the ownership of slaves and the silencing of women, could hardly be promoted as a model for today." Far from being silenced, Sappho had been one of the most widely disseminated and admired poets of antiquity. And in a world of civilizations that knew nothing but tyrannies, oligarchies, and patriarchies, the Greeks' spontaneous invention of democracy, however imperfect when viewed with 2,500 years of hindsight, was truly a quantum leap forward in human political organization As with the obvious lack of historical perspective inhered in a view that would dismiss the inventor of the wheel for her failure to use vulcanized rubber, should we be as dismissive towards the ground-breaking liberties the Constitution secured for American citizens based on the lamentable fact that this instrument governed a slave-owning society for nearly half of our nation's existence?

Bowersock himself turns common sense on its head by characterizing Lefkowitz's well-reasoned, academic and methodologically sound scholarship as an angry "polemic" with a "rage that boils throughout" while failing to recognize Bernal's work as the personification of a politically and ideologically motivated sophism seething with resentment and driven by a pervading inferiority complex--all under the guise of scholarship.

Bowersock's review certainly deviated from the consensus of other commentators, who were far less hesitant in giving Professor Lefkowitz the credit she deserves for braving the gauntlet of political correctness in academia and weathering ongoing accusations of racism. Joan Beck's March 3rd Chicago Tribune Commentary, "Distorting History to Suit an Agenda", acknowledges Lefkowitz's Not Out of Africa as "a meticulous refutation of the major claims of Afrocentrism"; and David Mutch's March 11th Christian Science Monitor review applauds the text as "convincing", "admirable", "fascinating", "lucid and accessible" and concludes that "[r]esponsible academics will read and act on this book". The Washington Times' article, "Neither Cleopatra Nor Socrates Was Black" by Carol Innerst and The Atlanta Journal and Constitution's February 20th Editorial, "Truth Should Be Good Enough", by Tom Teepen similarly give positive coverage of Lefkowitz's book, which Teepen describes as being "as sharp as a whittled stick."

What is important to understand is that the polemics surrounding the "Black Athena" debate reach far beyond the seemingly inconsequential squabble between the Afrocentrists and academia's classicists. The loss of perspective engendered by this century's deconstructionist and "anti-establishment" historians has produced a culture of revisionism that has undermined the very foundation of consensus about historical truth itself. Although healthy in controlled doses as a vaccine for academic complacency and doctrinal myopia, its widespread contagion has fostered everything from Holocaust Denial to elaborate and outlandish government conspiracies, often in support of incendiary ideologies and insidious agendas. Lefkowitz voiced similar concerns in Not Out of Africa, stating that "[t]here is a current tendency, at least among academics, to regard history as a form of fiction that can and should be written differently by each nation or each ethnic group."

Yet few groups have found themselves damaged by this disturbing trend more than the Greeks, for the simple reason that they have more history to lose. As Bowersock himself recognizes, "[t]he paradoxical conclusion to be drawn from Mary Lefkowitz's polemic is that the Greek legacy remains today so rich and attractive that even the most ardent foes of European civilization want to claim it for themselves." An unlikely and motley crew of pretenders have emerged to tear at almost every fragment of the brilliantly colored, multi-faceted and, above all, cohesive fabric of four millennia of Greek history. As widespread as Afrocentrist claims may seem, there are stickier fingers to be wary of.

The Turkish Government has launched a far more calculated and sinister campaign to undermine the very integrity of American academia by spending millions to reshape Ottoman as well as Greek history beyond recognition through the outright purchase of chairs in key universities.1 The outrage surrounding Princeton's decision to appoint Heath Lowry--an academic who had literally been on the payroll of the Turkish Governmen--to head its newly-created Turkish studies chair has raise a furor among academic circles. Lowry was widely discredited when his correspondence to the Turkish Embassy, in which he surreptitiously advised the Turkish Government on how to effectively deny the Armenian Genocide, was mistakenly included in a mailing. Retaining public relations moguls such as Hill & Knowlton, the Turkish Government is spending millions annually to neutralize its image as an outlaw nation and a pariah of human rights violations as part of its push for EU inclusion.

Among the distortions avidly promoted by the Turkish Government and its hired guns are: that the predominantly Hellenic or hellenized civilizations of Asia Minor that the invading Seljuk and Ottoman Turks displaced are somehow a part of Turkish history; that the civilizations that dominated western Asia Minor for much of its history were not Greek but rather "Ionian", "Aegean", etc., and that the Orthodox, Greek-speaking Byzantine Empire was not Greek but Latin; that Ottoman rule over the Greeks and other Christians of the Balkans--arguably the most brutal and culturally retarding overlordship a European people have had to endure in modern history--was actuall tolerant and progressive; that the Ottoman Empire did not all but annihilate the Byzantine civilization, but rather inherited it; that the genocide of 1.5 million Armenians and 300,000 Pontian Greeks during the early part of this century never occurred, and that in fact it was the Armenians who perpetrated a genocide against Moslems and Jews.

The Bulgarophonic population of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) has attempted to claim far more than simply the name of the geographic region their Slavic ancestors came to inhabit a millennium after Alexander placed Macedonia on the historical map. Their schoolbooks instruct their children that Alexander the Great was not Greek but "Macedonian" such as themselves. Until but a few months ago FYROM's flag prominently displayed the Star of Vergina, the suncrest symbol of Alexander's Macedonian dynasty. Maps in FYROM show the Greek province of Macedonia to be part of a larger Macedonian geographic region which mainstream nationalists in FYROM proclaim as their own; a claim that not only turns history on its head but also raises concerns about long-term territorial designs by FYROM on Greek territory.

Had this collective delusion claiming a history that was indisputably Hellenic been confined within FYROM's borders, perhaps it would have been easier to dismiss as a vestige of Tito's Cold War-era propaganda. Yet FYROM has lobbied for international recognition of what can only be characterized as a historical farce, and has been alarmingly successful at implementing it. Whereas prior to the break-up of Yugoslavia and the emergence of FYROM as a nation-state, the overwhelming consensus of academicians recognized the fact that Alexander the Great and the ancient Macedonians were a Greek peoples,2 FYROM's claims and the larger international community's sympathies for such a small, struggling nation at the fringe of an explosive war zone, have managed to cast a pall of doubt over this crucial part of Greek history.

For Greeks the irony in Bernal's central thesis, which attacks 19th century German classicists for aggrandizing Greek accomplishments at the expense of blacks and semites, is that it was just such a German classicist, Jakob Philipp Fallmerayer, who first created and propagated possibly one of the most virulent racist myths Hellenes are now burdened with; that modern Greeks are not descendants of their ancient ancestors, neither genetically nor culturally. It is a notion that was promulgated by Fallmerayer to safeguard Germany's alliance with the Turks and stem the philhellenic sentiment sweeping across Europe which supported the Greek struggle for independence from the Ottomans. Since then, Fallmerayer's subterfuge has time and again been resurrected by misograecist bigots to discredit or otherwise launch racist attacks against Greeks; widely-read travel writer Paul Theroux, for example, declares in his recent book, "The Pillars of Hercules: A Grand Tour of The Mediterranean", that "[t]he Greeks were not Greek, but rather the illiterate descendants of Slavs and Albanian fishermen, who spoke a debased Greek dialect and had little interest in the broken columns and temples except as places to graze their sheep."

An important reason why Hellenes seem so sensitive to such challenges to their history is because modern Greeks have been left with precious little of their once vast and highly accomplished cultural hegemony. Moreover, their voice in academia and the media seems to be either ignored, dismissed or minimalized, and they must often rely on initiatives by non-Greek scholars and academicians - who often do not understand Greek history from the modern Greek perspective, namely, as that of a closely integrated continuum leading up to the present. Having only fully emerged out of a five hundred year-long Dark Age at the beginning of this century, modern Greeks have had little time to rebuild themselves and few ruins left to rebuild from in both the physical and metaphorical sense. It is not simply their Elgin Marbles which have been taken from them, but revisionists with a wide variety of agendas have tried with increasing success to deny the Greeks of what is left of their unique cultural and historical inheritance.

Very truly yours,

Phillip Spyropoulos, Esq.

cc: Mary R. Lefkowitz
Glen Bowersock

(1) For example, Stanley Cohen, Professor of Criminology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem writes: Here, we are more interested in the collective level, what is sometimes called 'social amnesia'-the moe of forgetting by which a whole society separates itself from its discreditable past. This might happen at an organized, official, and conscious level--the deliberate coverup, the rewriting of histoy--or through the type of cultural slippage that occurs when information disappears. Let me comment briefly on these two types of collective denial . . . The nearest successful example [of deliberate denial] in the modern era is the 80 years of official denial by successive Turkish governments of the 1915-17 genocide against the Armenians in which some 1.5 million people lost their lives. This denial has been sustained by deliberate propaganda, lying and coverups, forging documents, suppression of archives, and bribing scholars. The West, especially the United States, has colluded by not refering to the massacres in the United Nations, ignoring memorial ceremonies, and surrendering to Turkish pressure in NATO and other strategic arenas of cooperation. Law and Social Inquiry, Vol. 20, No. 1, Winter 1995, pp. 7-50 (quote from pp. 13-14),published by the American Bar Foundation, University of Chicago Press.

(2) E.g.: "Ancient allegations that the Macedonians were non-Greeks all had their origin in Athens at the time of the struggle with Philip II. Then as now, a political struggle created the prejudice. d their fundamental Greek nationality was never doubted. Only as a consequence of the political disagreement with Macedonia was the question raised at all." p. 4, Malcolm Errington, A History of Macedo nia, 1990, Barnes & Noble Books, New York.

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