John Anthony West: Public "Exults" When Academics Don't Have the Answers to Ancient Mysteries
The Disinformation Company, a publisher of conspiracy theories, has recently released a new edition of its Disinformation Guide to Ancient Aliens, Lost Civilizations, Astonishing Archaeology, and Hidden History. The first edition was published in 2005 and was unread by me, coming as it did just after I had finished writing The Cult of Alien Gods and four years before the rise of Ancient Aliens on the History Channel. The book collects a series of essays by luminaries in the field of alternative history, including Michael Cremo, John Anthony West, Erich von Däniken, Robert Schoch, and many more.
Not that this is particularly relevant, but in the interest of disclosure, Disinformation rejected a book proposal from me several years ago (before I was known for debunking) for a book that would have been a journalistic (i.e. not necessarily skeptical) account of the alternative history movement. I believe just about every publisher has rejected at least one of my proposals, so it’s not particularly shocking or anything I hold against them personally.
The volume begins with Michael Cremo expressing his anger at the academic establishment for proposing and defending a Darwinist “paradigm” that refuses to allow for his Krishna-inspired concept that humanity “devolved” (with its reverse-teleological assumptions) from pure Krishna-consciousness to base matter. Summarizing his earlier work, the article concludes by suggesting that prayer and meditation can free our “pure” consciousness from matter, and that this is the purpose of life. Cremo thus reveals that his Forbidden Archaeology is not about science but faith, that he needs reality to conform to his spiritual vision so he can join Krishna in the sky.
The tone of anger with academia continues in the second essay, by John Anthony West, who has become ever-more-strident in his hatred of the ivory tower. Consider the very first words of his essay, which was written for the 2005 edition: “Academics abhor a mystery the way nature abhors a vacuum, yet in nature there are no vacuums, while in academia there are many mysteries. In no field of science or scholarship are there more (or more glaring) mysteries than in Egyptology. Yet, at the same time, there is no field in which mysteries are more systematically denied.”
Again, full disclosure: When I tried asking questions of West a decade ago, he immediately accused me of working “to trash whoever and whatever does not correspond to your foregone conclusions” and refused to speak with me forever after.
In his essay, West next complains that Egyptologists agree on “everything except the most insignificant details,” especially their insistence that the pyramids of Giza and Dashur were tombs built in historic times. That other pyramids were tombs he does not dispute, but these are different because… I guess because he likes them best. But the mysticism is secondary to West’s real problem: people with degrees who act like studying something professionally means they might know something more than he does. Worse, they’re probably nasty atheists anyway:
No doubts ruffle the calm, smooth surface of Lake Consensus, that bottomless pool where the Church of Progress’ (un)faithful go for solace, baptism and to pledge undying allegiance to the Great God Status Quo. (This act of intellectual servitude is called, in the quaint terminology particular to their Church, “critical thinking,” and sometimes even “reason.”)
There are plenty of disputes in Egyptology. Taking a look at the academic literature that West so forcefully disdains, I found disputes over whether ancient Egypt had private ownership of land, the degree to which modern economic theory applies to Egyptian economics, the exact chronology of Egyptian history (which would be a pretty big deal), the degree of influence of ancient Egypt outside the Nile valley, etc. But these are mere “details” about how untold thousands of people lived and worked in the past, not the “bigger” picture of what one specific building and one statue were used for. It is almost as though he does not care at all about the people who live among the stones...
He goes on for several more paragraphs about his anger about academics and his joy that a “vast public” is ready to reject academia, and, “indeed, exults in their discomfiture when unwelcome facts breach the walls of their fortified ivory towers.” He praises the media for presenting “heretical” ideas but bemoans “organized debunkers” for pressuring the media through an “intellectual inquisition,” offering thanks that today we no longer allow churches to torture people for their beliefs. Otherwise, he implies, he would not be spared the rack. Hilariously, he further complains that the “loony” theories of Erich von Däniken (whose essay sits in this book with his own) get more media attention than “serious” heresies because the public he just praised are too dim to appreciate West’s favorite alternative ideas, preferring aliens and other ideas that require no “rigorous scholarship.” The irony is spackled on rather thick.
West, however, seems trapped in a weird paradigm of his own, where the scholarship of Victorian social Darwinists is taken at face value. The Victorians assumed that human cultures moved from savagery through barbarism to full-on civilization in a linear way. This hasn’t been the accepted model of social evolution for more than a century, and yet West tilts at windmills, complaining that scholars insist on viewing Egypt as one long decline from the Old Kingdom to the Roman era instead of a series of peak and troughs. (No, he does not see a contradiction there because scholars also allegedly ignore the miraculous popping into existence of Egypt in mere “centuries”—the nerve!) Has he read a modern history of ancient Egypt? That’s exactly how Egypt is described in the rather standard Oxford History of Ancient Egypt. West also accuses Egyptologists (who, remember, are supposedly insular dogmatists) of viewing Egyptian history as a “dry run for Greece” and thus through step-by-step progress to our incrementally improving World of Tomorrow. He believes scholars view human history as linear and heading in one direction—up.
Aside from being meaningless (what of the Bronze Age collapse, the Middle Ages, or any consideration of non-Western cultures?), it implies a teleological worldview incompatible with modern scholarship on the interactions between civilizations. It also suggests that dogmatic academics worship “progress” as an inevitable force, one West wants to replace with regression, an endless spiritual decline from Atlantis on down to sinful, miserable us. But what is “progress”? West wants us to reject social, political, and technological complexity as proxies for this nebulous “progress” but he won’t say what we should use instead. The implication—unstated—is that we should be looking at morality and spirituality as proxy for progress. In the past, of course, when humans sacrificed each other in unspeakable ways and institutionalized rape as pleasing to the gods, we were all much more moral and spiritually in tune with the universe. “Progress” and “regression” are not inherent qualities of civilization, nor does every aspect of a culture rise and fall at the same time or the same rate. Rome made great progress (from our perspective) on citizenship and rights during its gradual political and military decline.
As if to contradict himself and confirm my last point, in this essay West refers to the “advances” of science in our time and improved attitudes toward torture in the Western world since early modern times.
West next expresses bafflement that “Microsoft Word’s in-PC thesaurus” gives legend and falsehood as synonyms for myth but does not offer falsehood or legend as synonyms for one another. He apparently is not particularly aware that words can have more than one meaning, and “myth” has the older meaning of legend (well, it’s more complex, but let’s just go with that) and a newer meaning of falsehood. Just as a sole can be part of a shoe or a fish, the two meanings need not be identifiable with one another. Also: Microsoft Word thesaurus? Sigh.
West complains that “Victorians” made myths into lies through skepticism (though this grossly oversimplifies things) and that the succeeding Cambridge School ratified this (which even more grossly falsifies the myth-and-ritual hypothesis), but today (again with that unexpected progress!) scholars recognize the “profound” meaning in myths. He claims, without evidence, that myths encode not just astronomy and history but also genetics. No, I have no idea how.
Following this, West lies about Plato, claiming that he (a) proposed a series of five ages of man (gold down to iron) and (b) assigned these to a period of exactly 25,920 years. First, Plato proposed no such thing but rather referenced Hesiod’s ages of man in discussing the three types of souls (gold, silver, and bronze) in the Republic. Plato said nothing about 25,920 years, nor did anyone in the Platonic school. The number does not derive, as West says, from mystically significant multiples of six and twelve but rather from the (not-quite-true) approximation of the precession of the equinoxes as taking 72 years to travel one degree of arc, making 25,920 years for a full 360 degree circle of the sky. Sadly, the real number is closer to 71.6, which gives us the much less mystical 25,776 years. (Astronomers use 25,774 because 71.6 is also an approximation.) These are modern numbers. The closest approximation prior to Newton was a medieval Arabic text, the Zij-i Ilkhani, which gave 51 arc seconds per year, totaling 25,411 years for the full cycle. No known text prior to this gives anything close. West is confusing the Platonic “perfect year” from the Timaeus with the precession of the equinoxes, even though the Platonic “perfect year” referred to the time needed for sun, moon, and stars (in daily rotation, not revolution over eons) to all return to where they were at a given point. Ah, but that is that whole “rigorous scholarship” problem again...
West concludes by taking swipes at George W. Bush (which even in 2005 must have seemed bitter and mean enough to turn off whatever chunk of this book’s audience are not also political liberals), claiming Bush’s alleged mental failings were evidence that we have entered the End Times, the Kali Yuga of Hindu myth. Further evidence comes in the allegedly unprecedented violence recorded in newspapers of the day, which—honestly—is nothing compared to, say, the era between 1914 and 1945, or the period of the Thirty Years’ War. But since all alternative history has become a substitute spirituality, he offers tips on how to reverse the Kali Yuga and restart civilization, beginning with channeling “creative” energy (rather than negative academic study) to change things “in a hurry,” which contradicts everything the ancient texts said about the inevitability of cyclical time and instead tells us again that alternative history is not about ancient facts but about modern feelings, and a longing for a lost spiritual component of life that somehow the Enlightenment, Darwin, and “academics” have destroyed. Stop thinking and start feeling the truth!
It’s truly amazing the nasty language and utter vitriol alternative types spew when they think no one but their loyal fans are reading or listening. I don’t know if I can bring myself to read more of these essays. They make my head hurt.
8/20/2013 07:59:49 am
West has legitimate reason to be seriously frustrated.He is getting very very old and is either totally ignored or unknown by the latest generations of ancient mysteries aficionados.The man went from major player in the New school of alternative Egyptologists,to a total has been.It must be pretty tough for the old coot.
Tara, perhaps one day you will be an old coot, too, even paying for your intolerable child's education.
8/20/2013 06:43:28 pm
Gunn.Old coot is not an insult.In the past I often labeled you as an "adorable old coot",but John Anthony West is a very angry old man.A demon in human shape ;)
Okay, and I'll have to admit that I am an adorable old coot. But of course my wife of over 30 years may beg to differ. (She won't.)
8/21/2013 06:25:37 am
Be my guest.Tara sounds like a cute name for a doggie bitch.Usually my friends call me "Tara the Hun" .I am delighted to inspire people ;)
Bishop of the North
8/21/2013 06:08:14 pm
Ummm...Vikings were Christian...remember the two cathedrals in Greenland?
8/20/2013 09:20:23 am
West's idea of myths containing genetics reminds of the Assassin's Creed video series where the main character gets into a machine that reads his DNA to watch/play his ancestors memories to battle Templars. It has a lot of alternative 2012, advanced ancient civilizations an of course Templar running the world type of stuff.
8/21/2013 02:40:43 am
I'm sure we're just a season of America Unearthed away from Scott Wolter hunting for the Apple now. Naturally Ubisoft will be implicated in the covering-up of Templar achievements for suggesting the Assassins were the true heirs of the gods!
The Other J.
8/20/2013 10:34:54 am
Disinfo took a weird tack after Richard Metzger pulled out. It was never really more than a repository for odd and outcast ideas, but in its first decade or so, it had a kind of jester-ish, anarchic, Church of the SubGenius feel. It was fun, and the only thing it seemed to take seriously was its presentation. This might be just my reading of it, but back then I got the sense that it looked askance at its own material in a similar way as its material looked askance at the social norms it toyed with and deconstructed. (I could very well be selectively misreading here; back then, I worked in a bookstore that stocked Disinfo material right next to the SubGenius material and The Onion material, so I may be granting early Disinfo more levity than it deserves.)
8/20/2013 01:28:11 pm
That's an interesting observation re: the timing, which I'd peg around 2006 (around the time the Bush II administration fell apart through a mix of the Iraq War and Katrina, which they paid for at the polls that year). If I had to guess, it was around that time that a lot of the liberal anger got turned into electoral success and was removed from the political fringe, leaving the alt-politics world much more in the hands of right-wing populists like Beck, Paul, and Jones amongst others.
8/20/2013 02:04:39 pm
It's certainly not the right place for the type of work I do now, but I haven't always written skeptical material, nor (as I outlined in my Cult of Alien Gods) was I always a skeptic. I used to be into mysteries for their own sake, and I had drafted some mystery-mongering work when I was young that had gained interest from some publishers. I'm retroactively glad I never went through with publishing it (it was too hard to be in school and write a book at the same time), though I guess it could have put me on the gravy train.
8/20/2013 03:54:56 pm
Isn't there a dog food called Gravy Train?
8/20/2013 09:27:59 pm
Can you be stoned and right?.
I would have to say that being stoned has nothing to do with the truth, and if you are equating being right with the truth, you won't be wrong no matter how stoned you are. Right?
8/21/2013 06:34:48 am
Gunn,You are talking to the wrong babe.I never did drugs,I dont drink alcohol (not even coffee).I have no tattoo,no piercing.I am certainly not a "modern girl" by today`s standards.
8/21/2013 01:27:11 pm
Well, that's strange. It sounds like an acute case of pain avoidance, to the point of circumventing unknown outcomes (in the case of drugs). It's a way of being sure of yourself...but untested. I'm not suggesting drugs...though a whiff of bud may calm you down while blogging. Like, peace and love, Sister.
8/21/2013 04:48:19 pm
"It sounds like an acute case of pain avoidance....".
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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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