One of the most frequent refrains I receive from my critics is that it is inappropriate to discuss the connections between fringe history and broader social and political trends, particularly where they overlap with alt-right and white nationalist politics. Patrick Iber, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, recently dealt with this problem by explaining that history and politics cannot be separated.
That is because, however committed to a neutral empiricism in method, the work of history is inevitably political. It is political precisely because politics requires myth-building: Politics makes use of powerful stories that guide our understanding of the world. These might come in the form of myths of the legitimacy of power, or myths of a national, regional, or racial past. As these myths are made out of the raw material of historical events, they depend on remembering, but also on forgetting. […] We know the kinds of stories that people tell to make themselves powerful, and we see through them. […] The job cannot help being political, as long as storytelling and mythmaking are part of politics.
So today I’d like to show you that this is nothing new, and it really isn’t possible to separate bad ideas about history from their employment as social and political reflections of contemporary culture. To do so, I’d like to take a look at a book often considered the platonic ideal of fringe history, Ignatius Donnelly’s Atlantis: The Antediluvian World.
Donnelly is best known today for his pseudo-historical works, both Atlantis (1882) and its quasi-sequel, Ragnarok: The Age of Fire and Gravel (1883), but in his own day Donnelly was better known as an aggressive advocate of liberal and progressive politics. As a congressman from Minnesota, he fought for the abolition of slavery, for example, but like many of his era, he proved a somewhat corrupt politician. He served the interests of the railroads, and happily took $10,000 in “free” stock from one railroad, which he alleged was a gift for “valuable services rendered” while in office. He lost his reelection bid in 1870 after delivering an angry diatribe against a fellow congressman, who used his influence to deny Donnelly the Republican party nomination. In those days the Republicans were the liberal party.
In 1878, Donnelly tried to make a comeback to the House on the platform of standing “between the few who seek to grasp all power and wealth, and the many who seek to preserve their rights as American citizens and freemen.” He wanted to break the power of the wealthy, and he promptly lost his election to the brother of the congressman he had denounced in 1870. Donnelly contested the 1878 election and charged his opponent with bribing his way into office. The case went all the way to the floor of the House. In 1880—in the last months of the 1879-1881 Congress, the House Committee on Elections found Donnelly was correct and should have had his seat restored to him, but the full House declined to take up the case when one of Donnelly’s friends tried to frame the chairman of the Committee on Elections for bribery in an attempt to blackmail him into supporting Donnelly.
Donnelly issued a plaintive cry that he was innocent of involvement. He was, he said, too poor to bribe anyone. He had once been rich, but he lost much of his money in the panic of 1857. By 1880, his farm was failing, and the local sheriff served him summons for the debts he had accumulated during his years out of office.
It was this embittering loss that left Donnelly isolated in his rural manse in Nininger, Minn., where he consoled himself by reading in his library, said to have been one of the largest private collections of books in the eastern United States, rivaled only by H. H. Bancroft’s massive library in California. There, he read Plato’s Timaeus and Critias, and he became interested in their tale of Atlantis not because he had a dispassionate scientific interest in prehistory, but because Plato’s dialogues reminded him of contemporary America and the problems he foresaw if the Democrats and conservative Republicans succeeded in undoing the progressive gains made in the first years of Reconstruction. The Atlanteans as descrbied in Critias 121b must have resonated particularly with Donnelly: “to those who had no eye to see the true happiness,” Plato had written, “they appeared glorious and blessed at the very time when they were full of avarice and unrighteous power” (trans. Benjamin Jowett). After reading Plato’s account of cultural decay and corruption, Donnelly commented that there was “nothing improbable” about it.
The basic idea to write a book about Atlantis had started forming in Donnelly’s head when he obtained a new text, just released, John Thomas Short’s 1880 book The North Americans of Antiquity. Short had a long chapter about Atlantis that Donnelly, basically, plagiarized, sometimes word for word, as he expanded that chapter into his own Atlantis: The Antediluvian World, which cites Short copiously. While Short’s book is remembered as a work of popular science, that’s not how Short intended it, or how his readers understood it. Even though Short announced that his book was based in “inquiry” rather than “advocacy,” he explicitly identified is as a political work, meant to foster American nationalism to combat the prestige created in England by George Smith’s Mesopotamian discoveries and in Germany by Heinrich Schliemann’s Trojan research. “The recent discoveries by Geo. Smith, Cesnola, and Schliemann naturally cause us to turn with national pride to the rich antiquarian fields in our own land,” Short said. He did not need to carry the thought explicitly through the book since in those days archaeology and national pride were inexorably interconnected.
As Donnelly wrote his Atlantis, his progressive politics colored his conclusions. As an American of the late 1800s, he had no doubt that white race was superior to all others, and he emphasized that Atlantis, his stand-in for the American and British Anglophone sphere, was always dominated by the white race, but as a progressive, he also understood that America was a melting pot of peoples and races. In an era of nativism and anti-immigrant sentiment, Donnelly stood for a progressive vision of a more inclusive America. To that end, his Atlantis reflected his ideal American society. Whites ruled, of course, but everyone had a share. “When science is able to disabuse itself of the Mortonian theory that the aborigines of America are all red men and all belong to one race,” he, referring to Samuel Morton’s Crania Americana, “we may hope that the confluence upon the continent of widely different races from different countries may come to be recognized and intelligently studied. There can be no doubt that red, white, black, and yellow men have united to form the original population of America.”
Although Donnelly never mentioned contemporary politics by name, he titled his final chapter “Atlantis Reconstructed,” echoing the failed Reconstruction that he had originally supported before. He described the fall of Atlantis as a long decline from perfection to corruption, and he referred to ways that “the Western nations” turned from Atlantean wisdom, and he explicitly compared Atlantis to the British Empire and its American spin-off. The message was unmissable: Just as Atlantis grew corrupt and fell, so, too, would America decline and fall unless it adopted progressive reforms meant to return it to a primitive Golden Age, before modern corruption and sin.
As soon as the book was published, Donnelly rushed a copy to William Gladstone, the prime minister of Great Britain and the world’s most famous liberal. Gladstone wrote Donnelly a mostly positive review—“I may not be able to accept all your propositions, but I am much disposed to believe in an Atlantis.” Donnelly was so thrilled when he received it that “I could have uttered a war-whoop of exultation,” and Gladstone’s endorsement took pride of place in Harper & Bros. marketing materials.
Most later readers of Atlantis have approached it as a book of (fake) science rather than a political statement about the failures of the Reconstruction Era. This is a mistake because the politics of the time are inseparable from Donnelly’s conception of Atlantis, its empire, and the peoples that comprised it. He saw the Atlantis he imagined as an analogue for the British Empire and the closing American frontier, and he saw in it, too, a warning about following an imperial path with haughty arrogance and a lack of concern for the common man. History, ultimately, became politics by other means.
7/27/2018 08:48:27 am
"One of the most frequent refrains I receive from my critics is that it is inappropriate to discuss the connections between fringe history and broader social and political trends, particularly where they overlap with alt-right and white nationalist politics."
7/27/2018 12:12:45 pm
They're only tenuous to those who refuse to see....
7/27/2018 01:04:14 pm
Case in point.
7/30/2018 01:30:26 pm
Nice attempt at silencing, Joe. Nope. Your attempts to claim that this is all just people being assholes to your Brave Soldier are a rhetorical technique that is quite well-known and by definition says nothing whatever about a reasoned response, because it wouldn't be rhetorical if it were reasoned.
7/30/2018 02:13:52 pm
I already made my point. Your initial response was a contradiction; not quite an argument. Now you're telling me I'm trying to silence people and in doing so tell me to go away. At least it can be fun bantering with you, so you do have my attention. Some here however, accuse people of fallacious arguments that simply aren't and mischaracterize my points out of either ignorance or willful malevolence . And in doing so, commit the very same fallacies for which they accuse others, thus illustrating their ignorance of the various forms and concepts. Funny yes, but it would take up a majority of blog space if I were to point by point go through their imbecility with them, and they'd never learn from it. Then they'd continue with more of the same. It would go on and on. So yeah, when I reach that point, I ignore them and hope they return the courtesy. But if I no longer engage them and yet they still nip at my ankles making derogatory remarks in my regard... well, you call it what you will and I'll apply my own label accordingly.
An Anonymous Nerd
7/27/2018 05:19:38 pm
7/27/2018 05:54:13 pm
Just for the sake of clarity, when you say, "special relationship between the Right and the Fringe", you mean a disproportionate numbers of right-wingers in the fringe, rather than something inherently fringey about conservatism, correct?
7/27/2018 06:50:16 pm
7/27/2018 06:51:31 pm
Before it begins, that is.
An Anonymous Nerd
7/27/2018 07:11:04 pm
[you mean a disproportionate numbers of right-wingers in the fringe, rather than something inherently fringey about conservatism, correct?]
7/27/2018 07:20:26 pm
Let me give an example which might help the sensitive flowers:
7/27/2018 09:24:23 pm
Joe Scales, thank you for your concern; Anonymous Nerd, thank you for breaking that down.
7/27/2018 10:10:34 pm
"Mr. Scales falls back on a classic Fringe and Right tactic, dismissing me as a "cyber stalker," ...
7/27/2018 09:30:48 pm
Talking of something that sunk quickly like Atlantis;
7/27/2018 10:14:29 am
I really think it's time to consider some comment moderation system.
7/27/2018 10:55:41 am
I'm in complete agreement.
7/27/2018 11:10:46 am
Assuming my thoughts above put you off, I must admit that I don't often express agreement with Jason when our ideas fall in line together; though there is plenty of that from others. But being challenged does more to hone our arguments than 'attaboys, and to date I have not been admonished by our host for any of my contributions here. If I believe him to be inaccurate or unfair, I'll continue to let him know accordingly. Should he wish me not to participate on his blog, he simply has to write me privately with such a request and I would abide.
An Anonymous Nerd
7/27/2018 07:14:05 pm
Yet you yourself do not enjoy being contradicted or challenged, as you've insulted both me and Mr. Colavito (see your first reply to this thread as an example) in reply to our demonstrating you to be incorrect.
7/28/2018 03:06:37 pm
We've seen what you consider an "insult" to Jason. Please show us some examples of insults to YOU. Thanks in advance.
7/27/2018 11:11:23 am
What would be the point. Jason seems unwilling to monitor much of anything that is posted. He allows know it alls, like Americanegro, to post comment after comment and insult other commentators he disagrees with. He allows a complete troll, like Hal, to insult him personally. I mean Hal even insulted his one year old son and Jason did nothing.
7/27/2018 11:14:17 am
There is no need to comment about the history of the right wing politics of Christianity - and its baser offshoots
7/27/2018 12:11:53 pm
I can't spend every minute reading comments, Clete. I have a job and a kid and a life beyond writing this blog. I can either read comments and spend my life deleting them, or I can actually get work done. I check them when I can, but I only read perhaps 20-25% of them because I don't have the time to be online reading comments all day.
7/27/2018 12:46:31 pm
Well, Jason, tell you what, why don't you just either ban me or delete my comments. It should be easy, since I see no point in coming on this blog in the future.
7/27/2018 01:47:39 pm
Interesting interpretation of Donnelly's motivations for writing his "Atlantis" and probably as close as we can get to the writer's thinking. I have always felt that Donnelly was sincere and not a racist nor a white supremacist but rather a product of his times. As such, we shouldn't be so quick to try to categorize him as an Atlantis apologist nor as a scurrilous hack who plagiarized and pretended that he was an authoritative writer.
7/27/2018 02:37:18 pm
It should be noted that "progressive" ≠ "liberal".
7/27/2018 10:00:15 pm
Im not sure Jasons point here is correct. Donelly might have claimed to be a progressive but the progessives actual policy was about as antithetical as possble regarding a society based on virtue and liberty. The Spainish American was was a colonial grab, the frderal reserve created a financial oligarchy that has enriched the well connected and allowed for the war state. WWI, eugenics and on and on are wonderful examples of progressivism.
7/27/2018 11:29:28 pm
His point was to rationalize his political smears with Atlantis as a backdrop. Of course politics and history are intertwined. Though I suppose if fostering partisan back-slapping doesn't appeal to his critics, they must have alt-right or white supremacist leanings.
An Anonymous Nerd
7/30/2018 06:33:56 pm
It's really quite difficult to get that out of anything Mr. Colavito has said, unless of course you take any highlighting of the special relationship between the Fringe and the Right, or the mentioning of any related material, to be a "political smear."
This is an extraordinarily fair view on Ignatius Donnelly. Today, you mostly can read about Donnelly as allegedly the grandfather of racism in the 20th century, and "the Nazis" allegedly believing in Atlantis as allegedly Donnelly did. But the true course of history was much different. Ignatius Donnelly was no racist, at least not in terms of his own time, but rather the opposite, and the Nazis' racism came from Richard Wagner and certain French thinkers, not from Donnelly at all.
7/29/2018 02:30:49 pm
And where do you stand, politically? You write about Atlantis, although you do not believe it, as Plato wrote it. And more importantly, where do you think Plato stood, politically, as he was the original writer about Atlantis? Do you think Plato believe it himself?....about Atlantis I mean! The Nazis believed anything their Fuhrer told them.
Frank, as a German it is difficult to explain my political view in terms of the American political system. It is a strange mixture between Democrats and Republicans. Maybe it is easier to say it in terms of the British system: Clearly conservative. But on the liberal side of conservatism. Roughly.
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I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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