Martin Luther King

Benjamin Banneker, America’s First Black Mathematician

October is Black History Month, and there’s a concern to find and publicise the scientific achievements of Black people. Leafing through David Wells’ The Penguin Book of Curious and Interesting Mathematics (London: Penguin 1997), I found this chapter about the pioneering Black American mathematician, Benjamin Banneker. I should warn readers that the quotation seems to come from a rather dated text, and uses the term ‘Negro’, which many Black people don’t like. However, don’t let it put you off the passage, which is well worth reading and clearly comes from someone profoundly impressed by Banneker’s achievements.

‘There is much to admire in the life of Benjamin Banneker (1731-1806). He was the first American Negro mathematician; he published a very meritorious almanac from 1792 to 1806, making his own astronomical calculations; using a borrowed watch as a model, he constructed entirely from hard wood a clock that served as a reliable timepiece for over twenty years; he won the enthusiastic praise of Thomas Jefferson, who was then the Secretary of State; he served as a surveyor on the Commission appointed to determine the boundaries of the District of Columbia; he was known far and wide for his ability in solving difficult arithmetical problems and mathematical puzzles quickly and accurately. These achievements are all the more remarkable in that he had almost no formal schooling and was therefore largely self-taught, studying his mathematics and astronomy from borrowed books while he worked for a living as a farmer.

‘But laudable as all the accomplishments of Benjamin Banneker mentioned above are, there is a further item that perhaps draws stronger applause. In his almanac of 1793, he included a proposal for the establishment of the office of Secretary of Peace in the President’s Cabinet, and laid out an idealistic pacifist plan to insure national peace. Every country in the world has the equivalent of a Secretary of War. Had Benjamin Banneker’s proposal been sufficiently heeded, the United States of America might have been the first country to have a Secretary of Peace! The possibility of realizing this honour still exists – and the time for it is overripe.’ (p. 97).

He must have been an amazing man, not just intelligent, but also highly determined to educated himself and rise so far in American society at a time when Blacks were enslaved and heavily discriminated against, even as free people. And he clearly puts the lie to the belief that Blacks are automatically thicker than everyone else, although the racists now are careful not to state this quite so explicitly.

Last Sunday, the Doctor and her friends traveled back to ’50s America to meet Rosa Parks. Parks was the lady of colour, whose refusal to stand for a White passenger started the bus boycott that became one of the major starting points of the Civil Rights movement. And on the way, they also met Dr. Martin Luther King, who was then a pastor at her local church. It was good, inspiring stuff, co-written by prize-winning children’s writer, Malorie Blackman. Who is herself Black.

The Doctor, as he/she flies back and forth across time, regularly meets the great figures of the past, like Shakespeare, Richard the Lionheart and so on. In a David Tennant story, the Doctor travels back in time to Pompeii, just before it erupts. This is caused by the presence of aliens, made of stone, deep within the volcano. Bending the laws of time, he saves one Roman who would otherwise have been destined to perish. This is a young man, who wants to grow up to be a philosopher. The Doctor rescues him, and encourages him to pursue his dream of studying the deep nature of reality. If the Beeb ever decides they want to try a similar storyline in which the Doctor meets a Black scientist or mathematician of the past, looking at this they should choose Banneker.

And we definitely, definitely need his plan for a Secretary of State. The various departments and ministries of war have no been renamed ‘Defence’ following World War II, at least in the West. But the world’s countries are just as belligerent, and the wars now being fought by the West in the Middle East are still for reasons of economic imperialism, however much they’re being sold to the public as humanitarian interventions.

And it’s all the more pressing now that we have governments in America and Britain determined to sell arms to the bloodiest of dictators and despots. Trump is withdrawing from an anti-nuclear treaty with Russia and gearing up for an invasion of Iran.

We’ve had a Black president in the shape of Barack Obama, but Banneker’s dream is still to be realized. Perhaps if more people became aware of him and his achievements, more people would come to support a Secretary of Peace. And perhaps ending wars before they could even begin.

Conspiracy Book’s Debunking of Anti-Semitic Forgery ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’

A week or so ago I put up a post about The Mammoth Book of Cover-Ups by Jon E. Lewis, and its chapter roundly debunking Holocaust denial. The book is a popular volume on conspiracy theories, describing and frequently debunking 100 such conspiratorial beliefs about the death of Princess Diana, the Men In Black, the assassination of J.F.K., and Martin Luther King, Area 51, Ronald Reagan, the Priory of Zion of Holy Blood, Holy Grail infamy and many more, including Holocaust denial.

Another infamous anti-Semitic conspiracy theory, that also gets thoroughly disproven, is the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which the book gives in its full title, the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, and deals with on pages 433 to 450. The Protocols are a notorious forgery, concocted by the tsar’s secret police, the Okhrana, to encourage Nicholas II to be even more anti-Semitic and persecute the Jews even worse than he already was. It is one of the leading sources of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and was read and influenced many Fascists. It was proven to be a forgery as long ago as the 1920, but even after this was revealed, some of those, who had read it continued to be maintain that it was symbolically true, even if it wasn’t factually. Unfortunately, the book continues to have a very wide circulation, particularly in the Middle East and in eastern Europe.

The history of this vile book is briefly described on pages 433-5. The chapter states that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion was first published in 1897 as an appendix to the book, The Antichrist Is Near At Hand by the Russian writer, Sergei Nilus. It claims to be an instruction manual for a cabal of anonymous Jews planning to conquer and subdue the Christian world.

It states that the chief points of the Protocols are that the plot will remain invisible until it is so strong it cannot be overcome; government is to be increasingly centralized; press freedoms shall be restricted; gentile are to be distracted by games and amusements; and all non-Jewish religions will be swept away.

The book was immensely popular in Russia and the rest of the world. One enthusiast was the industrialist Henry Ford, of motor industry fame, who printed sections in his newspaper, the Dearborn Independent. He believed it exactly described the world situation as it was in his time, and used them to try to influence the US senate to stop America joining the League of Nations.

The first person to show that the Protocols were a forgery was Lucien Wolf. In his The Jewish Bogey and the Forged Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion of 1920 showed that sections of the Protocols had been lifted with only very minor changes from a satire written by a French lawyer, Maurice Joly, Dialogue aux Enfers entre Montesquieu et Machiavelli (“Dialogue in Hell between Montesquieu and Machiavelli”). This was itself influenced by Eugene Sue’s 1843 conspiracy novel, The Mysteries of Paris. The Protocols was also based on the 1868 novel, Biarritz, by the German spy Hermann Goedsche, written under the pseudonym Sir John Retcliffe. This had a chapter describing how a fictitious group of rabbis met at midnight every century in a cemetery to plan the further progress of Jewish world domination.

Lewis suggests the Protocols were probably forged by Matvei Golovinski, one of the agents of the Okhrana. He hoped to justify the tsarist regime’s persecution of the Jews by whipping up a scare about revolutionaries in the pay of the Jews planning the downfall of the monarchy. As a result, pogroms were launched against the Jews in 1905-6. And the truth of the conspiracy described by the Protocols was seen by all too many people as confirmed by the Russian Revolution of 1917, some of whose leaders happened to be Jews.

After the Nazi seizure of power in Germany, Adolf Hitler made the Protocols compulsory reading in schools. Lewis goes to describe how, despite or because of their influence in causing the Holocaust, the Protocols continue to be held as ‘fact’. Egyptian television broadcast a series in 2000 that claimed there was a connection between the Protocols and the foundation of Israel. The Protocols could also been found in al-Qaeda training camps. They’re also popular with Hamas, and in America they’re distributed by Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam. That section of the chapter ends

In fact, wherever anti-Semites gather you’ll find well-thumbed copies of the Protocols. That any of these organisations or their adherents could not discover within at most thirty seconds’ worth of research that the Protocols are, as a Swiss court described them as long ago as 1935, “ridiculous nonsense”, forgeries and plagiarism, beggars belief.

The book gives each conspiracy a threat level, according to how apparently plausible they are. You won’t be surprised to find that the threat level of the Protocols is zero.

The chapter also lists for further reading the following:

Norman Cohn, Warrant for Genocide: The Myth of the Jewish World Conspiracy and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, 1996.

Daniel Pipes, The Hidden Hand: Middle East Fears of Conspiracy, 1998.

Lucien Wolf, The Jewish Bogey and the Forged Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, 1920.

The book provides extracts from the main documents behind or about the various conspiracies, so that readers can make up their own minds. This includes the Protocols, extracts from which are reproduced on pages 436-50. Lewis obviously trusts his readers to follow his entirely correct judgement of the Protocols, and similarly realise that they are a forgery. This is also useful, because opponents of anti-Semitism, racism and Fascism can read them without having to give money to Nazis, anti-Semites and Islamists.

I wondered if they’re shouldn’t be a proper, scholarly edition of the Protocols, written by orthodox historians and opponents of anti-Semitism, aimed not just at debunking the Protocols, but also for decent people interested in its noxious influence on Nazism and other anti-Semitic ideologies. The Bavarian government did something like this a little while ago to Mein Kampf after it came out of copyright. The government had used its ownership of the book’s copyright to prevent its publication in Germany. When this expired, they decided that the best way to combat its adoption once again by neo-Nazis would be to prepare a properly annotated version by mainstream historian of the Third Reich.

The problem with suppressed literature is that it acquires a glamour simply by being forbidden. I doubt very many people in Britain have even heard of the Protocols, but they are published and read by Nazis, and briefly appeared on the shelves of one bookshop in the north of England during the conspiracy craze of the 1990s because they were cited by one of the UFO conspiracy theorists, Bill English, in his book, Behold a Pale Horse. In this situation, it is very good that apart from general books on Fascism and Nazism, there are works specifically dedicated to exposing and debunking this vile, murderous hoax.