As I’m sure most of you saw, I managed to complete my review of last night’s America Unearthed just two minutes after the show ended last night. I admit that I pushed myself to get it done especially fast because here in upstate New York we were in the throes of a snowstorm, and I correctly assumed that I would spend most of the morning digging out. With nearly a foot of snow on the ground, it took me a long time to dig the house out this morning, and with the snow continuing to fall, I’ll probably have to shovel again later this afternoon.
In short: Don’t expect me to be able to complete future reviews that fast. It was a one-time deal, made possible because I had already written about the history of the Rockwall rock wall and because the show was exceptionally light on facts. The first season was daffy, but at least it had enough going on each hour to keep the viewer’s attention. Last night’s episode was painfully boring and repetitive.
One thing that struck me is that the episode almost seemed to bend over backward to address my criticisms of the content season one, while somehow creating more problems in terms of style. This week Scott Wolter actually relied on an academic (!) to find the “truth,” and he came to the correct scientific conclusion. He expressed doubt about a wacky religious theory about Biblical giants (albeit without ever mentioning the Bible), and he attempted, however halfheartedly, to acknowledge the existence of native peoples, though not without adding the Chinese into the mix. The show purposely avoided mentioning any Europeans even though the most prominent “theories” about who built the wall prior to the modern creationist flare up about giants made the builders the Romans, the Phoenicians, and the Carthaginians.
But as a geologist Scott Wolter obviously recognized that the wall was natural long before he ever got to Rockwall. There was never any doubt about that—I was confident enough about the scientific consensus that I wrote two-thirds of my review of the episode before the show even aired.
I can’t help but think that the producers made those halfhearted stabs at “investigating” (i.e. “speculating”) about Chinese, Caddo, or Paleoindian builders as a way of cynically creating a video trail of evidence that they are not obsessed with white European visitors to America. By manipulating claims made for the wall to emphasize Native Americans (Wolter even called the “giants” large-framed Native people) at a site they already knew was not a genuine ancient construction, it becomes all the easier for the production team to spend the remainder of the season looking for white people. Indeed, the two future episodes teased during the hour promised adventures in search of (a) medieval Viking colonies in New England and (b) Templar-Freemason goddess worship cults from the colonial period to today.
And that bothers me: The production team purposely manipulates even fringe claims to tell a story they want to tell. Count Byron de Prorok declared the site “Carthaginian” in 1925, but the show elided this as mere a prehistoric civilization, purposely leaving out the specific identity. The giants are mentioned, but their Biblical association is swapped out for claims that they were Native American giants. Other claims—such as the speculation that the wall was built by survivors of Atlantis—were never mentioned at all.
This was really a missed opportunity. Rather than waste so much time endlessly repeating the same information, the show could have done something interesting and explored why so many are so invested in so many mutually contradictory theories about which group of white people really built the wall. But the show isn’t comfortable with the questions of why and wherefore. That road leads to the uncomfortable truth that almost no one who advocates an artificial origin for the wall actually attributes it to Native Americans. My literature review found no claims for either Caddo or Paleoindian builders, or even a mention of Chinese builders, though perhaps Gavin Menzies might have said something about that of which I am unaware.
I knew when writing my review that I’d be criticized for mentioning Megyn Kelly’s comments about the skin color of Santa Claus and Jesus, and I think it’s important to address two criticisms head on:
The first point is the easier one to address. I have never criticized anyone’s sincere commitment to belief in a higher power, or anyone’s devotion to or love of Jesus Christ. Whatever faith one chooses to practice, or to practice or believe in none, is not and never will be the subject of any criticism or critique. Instead, I have criticized specific truth claims, mostly derived from evangelical fundamentalism but also Mormonism, such as the claim that the Fallen Angels’ children were giants with physical bodies who left behind archaeologically-detectable remains, or the claim that Jesus had children whose Holy Bloodline is genetically traceable and the subject of a vast conspiracy, or the claim that the Lost Tribes of Israel colonized America. Criticizing truth claims made in the name of religion is not the same as attacking the concept of faith (that’s the New Atheists, not me).
It remains a fact that evangelical fundamentalism is a minority not just of the U.S. population but also within Christianity. In the United States, according to Pew Research, 78% of the population self-identifies as Christian, and only 26% of the population (one-third of U.S. Christians) identify as evangelical. A smaller subset of this number espouse extremist archaeological claims. Holy Bloodline believers are a still smaller set, and that belief is nominally incompatible with fundamentalism or with mainstream Christianity, although in practice many believers subscribe to more than one irreconcilable set of beliefs. Another small subset, a minority within the 7% who identify with Historically Black Churches, espouse Afrocentrism, another doctrine I have criticized.
At very best you could make the case that I am opposed to the fringe of evangelicalism, though I would say that my opposition is to specific truth claims at odds with science. Since I have also criticized the truth claims of Hindu fundamentalism, I think the problem may be the fundamentalism rather than its flavor.
This actually gets directly at the second claim. Ever since Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority, the third of American Christians who identify as evangelical have taken their faith to be both the majority of Christian views and also as the dominant cultural force in the United States. This was never the case, but the myth promotes ethnocentrism, which involves the idea that one’s own culture is the norm, average, and natural.
This is where we connect to the second claim. There is no racist master plan for cable TV shows. But there is ethnocentrism from people who are slapping together slipshod products based on cursory research, sensationalism, and their own beliefs. Because they don’t do real research, shows like America Unearthed promote an ethnocentric view that implicitly normalizes the upper middle class white American culture. When they envision history, they envision their history and see in it their own reflection. Note, however, that this is not limited to fringe thinkers. I have also criticized Sam Harris, the atheist writer, for his attempt to universalize upper middle class white American values as a “natural” and “scientific” form of ethics endorsed by the very laws of physics.
It is unconscious ethnocentrism born from a lack of real insight, perspective, or research into viewpoints other than their own that leads fringe thinkers to promote ideas that read as racist even though the individuals involved are not racists themselves. Judging by the broadcasted product and Scott Wolter’s written work, so far as America Unearthed is concerned it is simply a given that Europeans are active participants in history while Native Americans are the passive recipients of European actions. (Wolter, for example, makes Europeans the dominant force in the Mississippian collapse.) This may derive from outdated 1960s-era textbooks that normalized Euro-American culture as dominant or from the American broader culture that still devalues the voices of those who are not part of the dominant culture, and especially voices from outside the Anglophone world. I can’t claim to read their minds, but it is very obvious that they see European intervention as the essential force in American prehistory.
This is implicit in the idea of AMERICA Unearthed and its nationalist opening narrative, with its implicit acceptance of American exceptionalism (confirmed in the opening narration of S02E02 about the greatness of America), either out of conviction or the assumption that the audience wants to be told as much. Contrast, for example, with Chinese Sinocentrism; I will bet you dollars to doughnuts that America Unearthed will never conclude that the Chinese made a valid medieval land claim that warrants turning over much of the continent to Beijing the way Wolter advocates Templar land claims and implies that America is the God-chosen land of the Templars. It is not a coincidence that in America the U.S. is usually placed in the middle of the world map, while in China, the Middle Kingdom, whose very name proclaims it the center of the world, takes the honored spot.
In anthropology, overcoming ethnocentrism is one of the hardest of tasks, and in many ways the entire goal of modern anthropology is to challenge ethnocentric assumptions by seeing how people from other places and other times have done things. But this is also problematic because as a discipline anthropology was born of colonialism and imperialism and is tarred by the sins of its first practitioners, who, essentially, treated non-white people as animals and even exhibited Africans and Native Americans in cages alongside zoo animals. The long-standing joke was that anthropology was the “history of people without clothes.” The discipline worked hard after the 1960s to overcome the legacy of racism it inherited; in fact, it was only in the last few decades that anthropologists even began studying “civilized” (read: rich and white) people the same way they did the poor and brown.
So if Scott Wolter, with a bachelor’s degree in geology, and producer Maria Awes, a former TV news producer, can claim that their “expertise” qualifies them to expose hidden history, then my bachelor’s degree in anthropology and broadcast journalism qualifies me to identify ethnocentrism when and where I see it.
I hope that this explanation shows that when I make a comment about a TV show’s emphasis on Eurocentric ideology, or when I point to the uncritical use of imperialist, colonialist, or even fundamentalist religious claims there is more to it than “bigotry,” that I have in fact thought long and hard about the assumptions that all of us make in our daily lives and how those assumptions can seem natural unless and until they are challenged.
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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