This week I’m going to be taking it a little easier since it is Christmas week, and I have other priorities besides writing about the latest crackpot ideas. My blog posts will probably be a bit on the short side this week. However, I do have a couple of thoughts to share today.
The Dinosaur of the Congo
First, some of you might remember my discussion a long time ago of Liévin-Bonaventure Proyart’s brief mention of a monstrous creature that later cryptozoologists have identified as Mokèlé-mbèmbé, the alleged “dinosaur” of the Congo. In 1776 Proyart reported that some passing missionaries had seen a large footprint sometime in the 1760s:
The Missionaries have observed, passing along a forest, the trail of an animal they have not seen but which must be monstrous: the marks of his claws were noted upon the earth, and these composed a footprint of about three feet in circumference. By observing the disposition of his footsteps, it was recognized that he was not running in his passage, and he carried his legs at the distance of seven to eight feet apart. (my trans.)
In my discussion, I suggested that either a rhinoceros or a hippopotamus would fit the description since both had historic ranges covering part of the area the missionaries visited. Anyway, the British Museum’s recent photo dump of one million uncategorized public domain illustrations has this interesting number from a French book about the Congo. It shows exactly the type of “monster” that in all likelihood made Proyart’s footprint.
It really puts into perspective the elaborate “dinosaur” theories spun from the Frenchman’s few words when you see an actual animal like that in the same general location where the “monster” supposedly resided.
The second thought isn’t really related to the first in any way, but it ties in to the way that half-understood history contributes to modern misunderstandings when ideology meets ignorance.
More than a decade ago, when I was in college, a friend of mine was assigned a dorm roommate who was both gay and Jewish. Let’s call him Jake. It’s not his real name, but I’m using the pseudonym to protect his identity. He was a very left wing liberal, and he was a political activist for gay rights, liberal causes, and Jewish causes.
When I was in school freshman weren’t allowed to have cars, but as soon as the school allowed him to have one, this fellow immediately decided to purchase a new automobile. In those years two of the most popular cars for young adults were the PT Cruiser (introduced in the fall of 2000 for the 2001 model year) and the VW Beetle. Both were small, compact cars that were relatively affordable.
After going to the Chrysler dealership, Jake got a really good price on a PT Cruiser, and his roommate and all of his friends assumed he was going to buy it. But when he drove up to campus the next day, he was riding in an apple green VW Beetle exactly like the one featured in Mandy Moore’s then-recent music video for “Candy.” I remember distinctly asking him why he chose the Beetle. I kept a very thorough diary back then, so I know pretty much exactly what he said in return:
“The PT Cruiser looks too much like a Hitler-mobile. I’m a Jew, and I don’t want to drive around in a Hitler car.”
Jake was reacting emotionally to the perceived symbolism of the PT Cruiser’s 1930s Art Deco-inflected design, which he wrongly associated with the Nazis, particularly Hitler’s touring car, the Mercedes-Benz W31, to which it bears a slight formal resemblance. As a result, he considered it a religious and ideological duty to oppose Nazism by refusing to embrace what he perceived as a revival of Nazi aesthetics.
So naturally he bought an actual Hitler-mobile. Or, the closest thing to it.
I didn’t have the heart that day to tell him that Adolf Hitler commissioned the first Volkswagen Beetle, or that he envisioned it as the car of the Master Race.
Many believe Hilter developed a concept sketch for what would become the 1938 Kraft durch Freude-Wagen (“strength through joy car”), popularly called the people's car or Volkswagen, but of the many sketches attributed to Hitler, only one is believed authentic. Because it is undated, we don’t know whether he drew it before or after Ferdinand Prosche had developed a similar design for 1931’s Type 12. Nevertheless, Hitler gave the commission to make a car for the masses to Ferdinand Porsche in 1934, and the Nazis developed and endorsed the Volkswagen Beetle as the car of the future, an affordable transport for the ideal Aryan family. The car was not put into mass production before World War II, and all of the Beetles produced before the fall of Nazi Germany were given to prominent Nazi officials. Here are some pictures of Hitler enjoying a new Beetle.
You can draw your own conclusions about whether it’s important to know the origins of the products, ideas, and ideologies we adopt, or whether associations from the past should carry forward into the future. (Henry Ford, for example, hated Jews and believed that Jews were conspiring to control world finance and enslave Christian Americans, but that doesn’t make the Ford Mustang anti-Semitism on wheels. Ford later apologized for his anti-Semitism but then blamed Jewish bankers for causing World War II.)
But this is the takeaway: Jake eventually found out that the Nazis were behind the Volkswagen, and he simply rationalized it away. The same person who opposed the PT Cruiser because it looked too Nazi now was unconcerned about the Beetle’s origins, claiming that the modern Beetle was too far removed from the Nazi car to be tainted by association. In other words, his beliefs changed to fit the circumstances, but he didn’t think he had ever changed his principles. As far as he was concerned, he was absolutely consistent in opposing all things Nazi. The only thing that change was the definition of what was “Nazi.”
This strikes me as being close to the situation of fringe writers who tell us that it’s not important or relevant that so many fringe ideas originate in racist, colonialist, and imperialist literature while at the same time telling us that we must be suspicious of the hidden dogma and bias behind every academic pronouncement by mainstream scholars. This is the same kind of logic that had David Childress railing against the supposed bias of academics and mainstream scholars while claiming to be oblivious to the fact that in reusing James Churchward’s and others’ old ideas for his early books he had proposed an ancient world where a white master race had literally enslaved the black and brown peoples of the world. (Archaeologist Charles Orser discussed Childress and the race issue in Race and Practice in Archaeological Interpretation .) It is the same logic that led Scott Wolter to rail against academics and historians for imposing a secret ideology while claiming that known ideologies were irrelevant and unimportant in his reuse of Victorian imperialist ideas and, literally, Nazi apologetics.
In short, such speculators all essentially claim, “My research is fair and honest while your research is riven with unexpressed ideology and bias.” Once you commit to an idea, you start to rationalize away any inconvenient facts and dismiss opponents as part of a conspiracy.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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