Time Warner's Home Box Office, joined by PepsiCo, is having a bit of trouble celebrating Black History Month in a truthful way. An HBO-Pepsi poster and advertisement honoring black achievement features a large picture of the pyramids, and many smaller images, including one of the Sphinx.
This means that two of America's best-known corporations have officially bought into the historical howler believed by many Afrocentrists: that blacks built the pyramids, and have been robbed of credit for it. Quoting the lyrics of a song, the poster says: "We are the builders of the pyramids, look what you did . . . so much to tell the world, the truth no longer hid . . ."
Worse, this stuff is being injected into the schools. HBO and Pepsi sent the posters, and other materials, to 20,000 predominantly black schools and community groups. So honest teachers in these schools now have to explain the corporate seal of approval given to a historical claim that isn't true.
"Sounds like we need a history lesson," the chairman of HBO said when his Black History poster was described to him. We sure do. Three years ago, for a column on Afrocentrism, I phoned seven Egyptologists at random around the country. All seven said it's not true that ancient Egypt was a black nation.
This is no isolated example. The culture is now seriously plagued with deeply felt assertions that aren't true, but are slowly sliding toward respectability anyway. Think back over the assertions that have won a measure of acceptance in the past year or two: the denial of the Holocaust; Oliver Stone's notion that a vast conspiracy to kill President Kennedy involved the Mafia, the military-industrial complex and many government officials; the idea, depicted in a TV documentary, that a black U.S. Army regiment liberated Dachau and Buchenwald (tough-minded, honest veterans of the regiment stood up and said it wasn't true); and the supposedly strong influence of Iroquois thought on the U.S. Constitution, now taught in many schools.
Behind the rise of rhetoric and pure assertion is a growing contempt for facts. "What we are witnessing is the transformation of facts into opinion," wrote the editors of The New Criterion. Note the number of times that commentators argue that the facts don't really matter. When the Tawana Brawley hoax was revealed, the Nation ran an article saying, "In cultural perspective, if not in fact, it doesn't matter whether the crime occurred or not." The facts were irrelevant, it seems, because Brawley's story line reflected the broader reality that whites have abused blacks over centuries. In other words, forget about facts. Just tell stories that convey emotional truth.
This is the climate HBO and Pepsi responded to, probably without much thought. Under different conditions, the corporations might have been just as willing to assert that the Irish invented jazz and the Cherokee developed Styrofoam.
"We're in a day and age in which I can make any claim I want," says Deborah Lipstadt, a professor at Emory University. "I can say I believe the Buffalo Bills won the Super Bowl. Then I say that it's my opinion and I have a right to it, and you're supposed to back off." Lipstadt should know. She is the author of Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory.
The Nazi slaughter of 6-million Jews is exhaustively documented. Many of the killers, survivors and soldiers who liberated the camps are still alive. Yet the people who deny that the Holocaust occurred have made great headway, simply by stating their claim loudly and often. A Gallup Poll last month showed that 33 percent of Americans think it seems possible that the Nazi extermination of Jews never happened.
"Good students come in and ask, 'How do we know there were gas chambers?' " Lipstadt says. "Not that they become deniers, but what happens is that in a subtle way, the attackers put history on the defensive." Denial slowly becomes just one more familiar and alternate way of thinking about Jews and Nazis. In a talk-show culture, all talkers have equal status, flat-earthers and round-earthers, Holocaust deniers and Holocaust historians, people who speak regularly to interplanetary aliens and people who don't.
Holocaust denial is only the most spectacular example of a broader assault on knowledge, facts and memory that is sweeping through the culture. A lot of it comes from some disastrous intellectual trends on campus. Deconstruction and its allied movements say that knowledge is constructed, texts are biased. Values and truth are nothing more than arbitrary products of a particular group. History is not true, merely a story imposed by the powerful on the weak. (Time Warner managed to pick up this theme in a Warner Bros. Records ad celebrating Black History Month. "History is written by the winners," the ad said, a quote from Alex Haley.)
At the extreme, some of these theories say there is no external reality at all, merely consciousness, and some say that personal experience or stories are the only source of truth. This is all intellectual junk, but it's having a profound effect in the real world. Everything is up for grabs now. Like the black veterans who blew the whistle on the false TV documentary, it's important for honest people to take a stand and not let lies slide by. Otherwise reasoned discussion in America will descend further into a fact-free opinion fest.
Universal Press Syndicate