But the claim I’ve been running into more and more frequently is that it is inappropriate to ever mention the background, motivations, or qualifications of a fringe history figure. Surely it is relevant, for example, to understanding Wayne May’s advocacy of diffusion from the Old World to the New that May is a Mormon with a literalist view of the Book of Mormon, indeed an extremist view of its literal truth.
Instead, while the fringe figure is free to attack the critic’s background or to make wild accusations of dark conspiracies, his critics are to be restricted to offering only bone-dry recitations of fact. Obviously, this is self-serving, creating a double standard that benefits only the fringe theorist. We all know that the audience fringe writers wish to reach does not judge claims based only on evidence and reasoning but rather on a combination of logos, pathos, and ethos, the facets of rhetorical argumentation. Fringe writers want their critics to abandon the elements of argumentation in favor of syllogisms while they retain access to the full range of rhetorical expression.
But there is a point buried beneath the hypocrisy. In terms of evaluating claims, the identity of the claimant isn’t relevant. But is criticizing fringe history limited only to the specific claims fringe historians make? I would argue no, and for this reason: Fringe historians make their work about themselves, and as such their motivations, background, personalities, and controversies become inseparable from the ideas they offer. This isn’t limited just to fringe history, of course.
Right now I’m reading Irving Finkel’s new book The Ark before Noah, and it is a mainstream book that proposes some new ideas about the transmission of the Flood myth. But it is impossible to talk about this without acknowledging that Finkel himself makes the first quarter of the book into an autobiography, explaining his Jewish heritage, his background in cuneiform studies, and his years of experience in Assyriology and in curating Near East antiquities for the British Museum. He made himself the central actor in the story, and the book (at least in its early chapters) therefore is as much the story of how Irving Finkel translated a new tablet as it is about the contents of that tablet. This is what separates his popular treatment of the subject from his academic journal articles on the same, and it is a completely legitimate way of writing a popular book. But, as with writers like Malcolm Gladwell, it promotes the identification of the idea with the author.
Similarly, fringe historians make themselves the heroes of their own narratives, making their work less about the specific claims in the work than about the cult of personality surrounding the author, whose life and times serve as fodder for self-hagiography designed to give concrete form to what originates as ephemeral speculation.
Consider the opening words of Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods (1968): “It took courage to write this book…” It begins with the author mythologizing himself! The remainder of the book offers frequent authorial interjections where the author, as hero, talks directly to the reader as truth-teller and sage. Is this enough to warrant us entering into evidence the fact that von Däniken is a convicted felon, or that the court-appointed psychologist found him to be a compulsive liar? Perhaps not by itself, but the fact that there is no way to evaluate his claims scientifically since, by his own admission, he makes no claims, merely asks “questions,” renders it all but impossible to discuss “facts” independent of the man. But here von Däniken has little ground to complain if someone does bring up his conviction because he made the fact more than relevant in his sequel, Gods from Outer Space (1970), where he opens the book by announcing that he had written it “during my imprisonment.” The implication was that von Däniken was a martyr for having dared to dream too big. In Chariots he has already told readers that a conspiracy was afoot to suppress his work: “scholars will call it nonsense and put it on the Index of those books which are better left unmentioned.” In its sequel, his dark warnings have come to fruition at the cost of his liberty.
Let’s take another case. Robert Temple, the ancient astronaut theorist who misunderstood the ancient sage Oannes as a space-frog from Sirius, presents himself as a scholar and takes great pains to cultivate that image through membership in scholarly organizations and through what he describes as visiting professorships at universities. Strictly speaking, it isn’t relevant to the question of flying space frogs that Temple’s memberships are in organizations like the Royal Astronomical Society open to anyone with cash, or that the schools where he claims to be a professor could not or would not confirm his employment. But if it is forbidden to examine his biography, how are we evaluate his unverifiable assertion that “certain security agencies, most notably the American ones” were working to destroy him and discredit his Sirius Mystery to hide the truth of the space frogs? Again, Temple made such assertions in print, in his own 1998 update to The Sirius Mystery—to which assertions he in 2009 added the “hypnosis community” among his enemies—and cast himself as the hero who boldly risks the censure of the CIA and the world’s hypnotists to bring you the truth about aliens and mind control.
The works of David Childress don’t even pretend to be logical arguments; they are travelogues whose effectiveness depends entirely upon the reader identifying with the character of “David Childress, World Explorer” and taking him for a rotund and jolly guide to mystery and adventure. It is in this character that Childress as writer proposed himself as the honest broker who uncovered a vast Smithsonian conspiracy, during a period of his career (1984-2004) when he identified himself in print as a “maverick archaeologist.” To point out that Childress was no professional archaeologist—that he never even completed a bachelor’s program—was directly relevant to evaluating the image of the honest broker who could be trusted to present undocumented claims truthfully, and thus whether there was any reason to give credence to his second- and third-hand anecdotes about Smithsonian efforts to destroy tons (literally tons) of artifacts “they” don’t want you to know about.
And what of Graham Hancock, who more than any other fringe writer of his generation made a career out of personalizing his theories as the work of a globe-trotting adventurer? When Hancock admitted that he developed his ideas while high on marijuana and that he had since moved on to ayahuasca and used the drug to meet with and battle demons, I received criticism for having discussed what Hancock himself admitted. But Hancock has made drug use the centerpiece of his philosophy, seeing it as a tool to exploring consciousness, based on his own personal experiences. How can we possibly evaluate his ideas independently of Hancock himself if the two are now one and the same?
The list goes on and on, of course, because it must. To be a fringe theorist is to cast oneself as the hero of one’s own story. It is the prerequisite of a successful fringe history book; all of the modern successes are personal narratives. This is, to an extent, a marked contrast to, say, Ignatius Donnelly’s Atlantis: The Antediluvian World (1882). Donnelly didn’t cast himself as the hero of his story, nor did he declare that there was a conspiracy to suppress the truth about Atlantis. His book is remarkably free of personal pronouns—about three-quarters of all appearances of the pronoun “I” occur in quoted matter. For what it was worth, Donnelly, a politician, saw himself as writing a scholarly book and making a scholarly argument, little different from what the British prime minister, William Gladstone, was doing across the Pond, producing works like Juventus Mundi (1869) that similarly argued for a widespread Phoenician influence on history. Today’s fringe historians, by contrast, see themselves not as proposing new analyses of established history as Donnelly and Gladstone did, but as opponents of mainstream academia, knights-errant titling against ivory towers.
Von Däniken spoke perhaps for all when he said in a 1974 Playboy interview that “There are only a few of us working on my theory, and it’s like a war we have to win.” It’s impossible to think of Donnelly saying the same, nor of admitting as von Däniken did that he was willing to fabricate evidence to win over readers.
You may argue that discussing von Däniken’s defiant assertion that he would fake evidence if he felt like it is a personal attack that isn’t relevant to whether aliens really influenced history, but as I hope I have shown, fringe history is only partially about its own claims. Its larger part is the presentation of the author as hero and the creation of an enemy (usually mainstream scholars) to better cast the author in a heroic light and create loyalty in the audience, who will then buy more of the author’s work to help him on his never-ending, rarely successful quest to overcome the forces of the eternal enemy.
This, then, is the real reason fringe figures feel comfortable launching their own personal attacks against their critics but cry foul when a volley is returned. Each and every time a critic points to personal factors or motivations that could distort or call into question the veracity and trustworthiness of the author, it cuts into the heroic image that is the heart of being a fringe scholar. Why do you think so many identify themselves with Indiana Jones?
This brings us to the difficult case of the diffusionist writer Frank Joseph. Joseph was convicted of child sex abuse, and under the name of Frank Collin he headed an American Nazi party.
How much of this is relevant to any specific claim he makes? What of his worldview in general? Is his Nazi connection relevant to discussing the fact that his view of history places white people in a privileged position?
There are no easy answers, but I know this: Other fringe historians recognize the problem. Despite the fact that Joseph was the longtime editor of Ancient American magazine, worked on an investigation with David Childress, published books featuring works from fringe writers including Wayne May and Scott Wolter, and originated the modern versions of many fringe history claims, today his name is never spoken in works of fringe history aimed at a general interest mainstream audience, even when directly relevant to the subject at hand. Scott Wolter, for example, makes no mention of him in his various discussions of Burrows Cave, including in his books and on America Unearthed—even though Frank Joseph is the only person other than Russell Burrows who claims to have seen inside the cave and could “confirm” its contents. Similarly, he is not mentioned in Wolter’s discussion of the alleged Aztec pyramid of Wisconsin despite having literally written the book on the subject (Atlantis in Wisconsin, 1995) and originated the modern legend of the pyramid in FATE magazine in 1989. The omission is striking and tacit testimony that the personal stories of fringe history advocates are relevant, at least in terms of how the public perceives claims.
So, in short, if it is wrong for me to mention the background of Frank Joseph in evaluating why he believes that Native Americans were not “dynamic” enough to build great works (yes, that is his word, from Atlantis in Wisconsin), then those who believe it is wrong need to turn their ire first to the History Channel and TV producers and demand that they put Frank Joseph on TV. And if they will not, ask them why.