Shaquille O'Neal Believes Europeans Colonized the Pre-Columbian Americas; Plus: Why So Much Time Travel on TV?
As reported on the Patheos blog, former basketball star Shaquille O’Neal, who holds a doctorate in education from Barry University, announced that he is a flat earth conspiracy theorist during his podcast this week, but what’s worse is that he also came out as a hyper-diffusionist who seems to have spent too much time watching cable TV “history” shows. He claimed that the Americas had already been colonized by white people long before Columbus reached the Caribbean:
… It’s true. The Earth is flat. The Earth is flat. Yeah, it is. Yes, it is. Listen, there’s three ways to manipulate the mind: What you read, what you see, and what you hear. In school, first thing they teach us is, “Oh, Columbus discovered America,” but when he got there, there were some fair-skinned people with the long hair smoking on the peace pipes. So, what does that tell you? Columbus didn’t discover America!
O’Neal is one of many current and former NBA stars to have been seduced by flat earth conspiracy theories, but he is the first I know of who has publicly endorsed the “lost white race” hypothesis for the peopling of the Americas.
Now, to be fair, O’Neal is somewhat correct in that (a) the Norse colonized part of Canada before Columbus and (b) Columbus did indeed report finding white-skinned Native peoples in the Caribbean, and this is something that “lost white race” and hyper-diffusionist speculators have long used as evidence. However, at the time Columbus wrote, modern racial categories had not yet been solidified, and his notice of the different skin tones of the Native peoples was not considered evidence of a European presence in the New World, at least not at first.
Well, I can’t take any more of this, so let’s talk about something completely different…
Last week in The Week entertainment journalist and critic Noel Murray published a piece asking why American TV is so suffused with time travel programs right now. The list of shows from the past year or two that are either premised on time travel or use the conceit regularly is almost ridiculously long: 11.22.63, 12 Monkeys, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, The Flash, Frequency, Making History, Outlander, Time after Time, Timeless, Travelers, and others I am sure I have forgotten. Add to that British time travel staple Doctor Who and Anglo-American coproduction Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, and it really starts to get silly, especially when the same historical events become fodder for multiple programs. The question for Murray, however, was how this trend arose and why it has come to dominate today’s airwaves.
Is the upsurge in time-travel TV part of the general apocalyptic strain in American popular culture, seen also in the waves of zombie tales and bleakly existential horror movies? Are we waking up to the potential world-ending threats of global warming, our depleted natural resources, and nuclear war; and are we wishing we had the power to do everything over again, but better?
Murray never quite comes to a conclusion in the article, throwing out a range of possible explanations, and omitting the most likely: copycat syndrome. Once one show succeeds, clones multiply like rabbits. That said, the current spate of time travel shows all seem to share a common, and somewhat pessimistic, fatalism, that somehow this is the best of all possible worlds, and no matter what we do, our actions are futile and unable to materially alter the predestined facts of creation. A disturbing number of these programs blather on and on about the sanctity of the “timeline,” and how certain “fixed points” in history can’t, or at least shouldn’t, be altered. Even when changing the timeline is the whole point of the show, there is still a great moral imperative to pretend that the present, no matter how awful it currently is, is the least bad of all options.
Murray doesn’t quite strike at that theme, but it is perhaps the clearest takeaway from the time travel genre. Our society, as a whole, seems to recognize that something has gone wrong. It’s not as apocalyptically bleak as, say, 1929-1945, but the sense of the established order spinning out of control is palpable. Time travel shows aren’t, as Murray suggests, simply flawed efforts at escape and nostalgia but rather fictitious justifications for why things have to be this way. Even on Time after Time, the most classic in form of all the time travel shows, H. G. Wells is deeply disappointed in our flawed future but comes to realize that it could always be worse.
And isn’t that the motto of our age? Hey, it could be worse.
We seem to be living in a new culture of cruelty, where every pundit and public official feels empowered to act out Social Darwinist fantasies of nature red in tooth and claw. In Florida, Katherine Fernandez Rundle, the state attorney for Miami-Dade since 1993 (!), refused on Friday to prosecute prison guards who essentially boiled an inmate to death in a 180° shower, claiming that watching a man succumb to burns and scream in agony as he died by their actions shows no disregard for safety. On the national stage, the Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, confessed that he had dreamed of limiting the poor’s access to health care since he was a drunken college student. The incidents, large and small, can be seen from coast to coast and among members of both political parties. Last week, 150 civil rights groups expressed concern about the tack toward anger, fear, and hate. There have always been cruel people, but today there are many fewer gatekeepers applying the breaks or standing up for compassion, or even basic human decency. Conservative pundit Erick Erickson even tweeted on Friday that Jesus’ words on compassion should be read as applying only to “Christians” and no one else. Surely there must be an irony award for so-called “Christians” embracing Social Darwinism?
It seems that 15 years ago, when Americans debated whether to torture our way to safety through the euphemism of “enhanced interrogation,” the critics who warned of a corrosive effect that cruelty would have on culture were right. Have you watched some of these cop shows, especially the ones CBS puts out, over the past decade or so? 24 is the obvious example, but the seemingly anodyne Hawaii Five-O is essentially torture fetish porn with palm trees, openly celebrating a team of rogue cops who act outside legal and constitutional restrictions on torture, unlawful seizure, and other niceties in the name of an all-powerful state government. Many of CBS’s other shows follow the same pattern, asking us to identify with characters who openly engage in acts of violence or extralegal police state tactics in pursuit of national security. Even family-friendly MacGyver asks us to assume that the government needs extralegal assistance from a team willing to break international law to get the job done. Don’t even get me started on the noxious politics of NBC’s Blacklist shows. At least ABC’s Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. recognizes that there are problems with fetishizing authoritarian disregard of the rule of law, even as it asks us to put our faith in people who operate outside and beyond the law.
The bottom line is that TV is reflecting—and helping to create—a contempt for the rule of law, and for the basic tenets of decency that once underpinned what we used to call civil society. You can’t sit through dozens of hours celebrating the worst of humanity every week without it having an effect. Look, we know most people don’t read—26% of Americans, including one-third of all men, read no books at all. If the relatively few gonzo programs on cable TV—the main vector of exposure—can infect millions of Americans with ancient astronaut theories and hyper-diffusionist beliefs (between 25% and 40% of Americans, according to Chapman University), certainly ten or twenty times the number of unethical and amoral crime dramas must have an effect orders of magnitude worse.
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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