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.
12/15/2013 07:46:11 am
12/15/2013 08:35:12 am
Sorry I should have given more context on the Saar refererence...the Saar region was controlled by France for about 20 years after WWI..in 35 they had an election to see if the region wanted to reunite with Germany or stay a separate country..the Nazi's were in power at the time of the election..and that was my point..here you had an area of Germany which by all accounts was the least pro Nazi...and they voted overwhelmingly to reunite with a nation run by the Nazi party...
12/15/2013 01:49:40 pm
12/16/2013 12:29:16 am
12/16/2013 01:17:32 am
Titus, do you think Megyn's comments were right or wrong? If wrong, why do you care where they get mentioned? And what parts of Jason's justification for using it where he has do you disagree with?
12/16/2013 02:01:59 am
I will say this, Titus--if Ms. Kelly was trying to be sarcastic or joking, she should be censured for being so piss-poor BAD at it.
An Over-Educated Grunt
12/16/2013 01:38:18 am
The problem I see with this is that it's kind of like the response to your Ancient Aliens reviews versus the response to your America Unearthed reviews. I see where you're going with this, and I'm totally on board with you, and I expect for a lot of people here, you're preaching to the choir. It's the people who file in once a week to fill the pews, stick around for 30 seconds to fling their horse-apple, and then go right back out the door, that this post is directed toward, and I'm unsure any of them will read it.
12/16/2013 02:13:38 am
Yes! Grunt, I agree, I was totally hoping America Unearthed would be like the history class that I had in college, where my prof challenged the high-school view of Pilgrims-Manifest Destiny-poor, uncivilized Natives with "The Puritans survived largely by grave-robbing, the Cherokee sued the Federal government to keep their land in the Carolinas AND WON (and were promptly shafted by a bigoted president Jackson), and the Apache got inoculated against smallpox before even the white 'settlers' did." (I think it was the Apache. I could easily have the wrong tribe, it's been a couple years.) The could even have kept the tagline "This history we all know is wrong," because they'd be addressing the myths that are still repeatedly taught in schools. I shudder every Thanksgiving with all the "Pilgrims" crap, for instance.
12/16/2013 02:56:40 am
Ethnocentrism represents human evolutionary success. Just look at the poverty and squalor in Eastern Europe - forget about non-whites.
An Over-Educated Grunt
12/16/2013 04:28:18 am
That's part of where I was headed, but there's plenty of little-known "white" history to go in there as well, some of which even fits the background of a forensic geologist. There's the work of James Eads at New Orleans, where silting was a serious problem that the Corps of Engineers spent years trying to address before he came up with the channel control strategy. There's the actual difficulty of building DC, which is built in a swamp a hundred miles from the nearest source of building materials - and for that matter, the fact that DC had to be rebuilt. There are plenty of hidden gems of history in the United States that a geologist could have addressed... but instead, it's the Templars, the Templars, the Templars... none of which even impacted "American" history, because accepting even the broadest definition of "American," the first settlement in the United States that stuck was at St. Augustine. Even there, he could have traced all the failed attempts to settle in the United States, and it would have been fascinating. There's a perfect AU open in La Salle's settlement, where his own first mate betrayed him. Looking for evidence of conspiracy and skulduggery? Look no further, it's all there! And there's even room for a geologist who wants to pretend to be an archaeologist, because that site's been found!
"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."
12/16/2013 03:21:13 am
I agree with your post, save that every world map I have ever seen places the prime meridian at the center.
12/16/2013 03:54:33 am
Here's a link to some of the different world maps: http://lifesanonion.blogspot.com/2009/10/omphalos-syndrome.html
12/16/2013 04:10:33 am
The facts speak for themselves. It's left up to the individual how to treat them.
12/16/2013 08:40:15 am
Wow. Granted I started kindergarten in 1989 so maybe they had just recently gotten all new maps and such but I never saw that US-centric one. What a terrible map design to have the split go straight through the middle of Asia.
12/16/2013 05:02:05 am
I went to IMDB.com earlier and found an interesting subject in the message boards for America Unearthed. The heading was, "This program starts with racist assumptions and tries to prove them".
12/16/2013 05:11:59 am
I hope it's clear that Scott Wolter isn't a racist. His program, however, is so uncritical in its use of old racist and ethnocentric claims (and new ones, too) that it creates a narrative that systematically devalues Native American history and heritage in favor of an imagined European history, if for no other reason than by telling viewers that Euro-American experiences and perspectives are the only ones worth investigating.
12/16/2013 07:08:45 am
Maybe it's a matter of partial misunderstanding. I can't help wondering whether the program may be using aspects of old and new racist and ethnocentric claims (your words) in ways that may be different than the ways they were used before--if they are in fact guilty of being uncritical of using such claims. In other words, are "claims" being made in the same way, and for devious purposes, as earlier in history? If not, maybe the harm isn't as great as one might imagine. I don't think Wolter deserves the punishment you seem to want for him. For what? And do you want side-by-side Native American input with every episode? How far should one go with this political correctness, or else be scorned?
12/16/2013 04:17:32 pm
Perhaps if he included possible racial or political influences behind the claims he investigates, it would further highlight the need to investigate them in the first place. "What reasons led people to believe _____? Did these reasons help to blur the truth behind such claims?"
12/17/2013 05:23:06 am
"If you wanted to prove any chance of impact on their culture due to European contact, why not talk to them?"
12/17/2013 06:08:22 am
Any discussion with religion as the topic, just like politics, will invariably lead to strong opinions from either side. Still, both are intricately dove-tailed with history, so the discussion will have its place. The important thing is to not let the opinions stifle valid input from the participants.
12/16/2013 05:26:56 am
I managed to see the East Texas trek Finding Bigfoot's team took.
12/16/2013 05:35:35 am
correction --- BRYAN SYKES
12/24/2013 04:27:08 am
I will first start by saying that Mr. Wolters theories are just that. Theories. Every theory should rightly be open to skepticism and conjecture. Also it is my humble opinion that most of American history is ethno/eurocentric. I do not believe that Mr. Wolter is anymore ethnocentric than any other American history scholar or theorist. He also in fact worked with the Eastern Cherokee in obtaining the Bat Creek artifacts from the Smithsonian, stating (I am paraphrasing) "These artifacts are part of your history. They rightfully belong to you." Here is a link to his presentation on the Bat Creek Stone. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gro6BtNlmeo
12/24/2013 04:50:27 am
He did in fact do that. He then said that the Bat Creek Stone was Paleo-Hebrew and that the Lost Tribes of Israel were involved. In his view, today's Native Americans are the result of "intermarriage" between Israelites and early Native peoples and then between Knights Templar and later Native peoples.
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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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