Berliner Festspiele: «Fake history, distorted world-views»

Below is the transcript of the Power Point speech by the global historian of ideas Dag Herbjørnsrud at the
festival Maerz Musik 2019, part of the Berliner Festspiele. This was the first paper of the «Thinking Together» conference, «Circluding History I» (More info here.)

Date: March 23, 2019, 15:00–16:00. Venue: Haus der Berliner Festspiele, Berlin, Germany.

(NB! On Monday, March 25 2019, Herbjørnsrud held the workshop «Beyond Eurocentrism and Tribal History: Towards Decolonization and Connected Histories».

First, introduction by Berno Polzer, the curator of the Maerz Musik festival. Then Herbjørnsrud:

Thank you very much for having this great conference on “Thinking Together”; I think this – thinking together – is what we need now more than ever. I will try to follow up on Timothy Morton’s and Berno Polzer’s talk by saying some words about what I call “fake history” and “distorted world-views”. If you have any questions, feel free to ask. Sie können Fragen auf Deutsch stellen.

Now, this illustration shows Pangaia (Greek: «Whole world»), and this is how the world was connected 200 million years ago: All of today’s continents were joined together in one continent.

PANGAIA: Ca 200 million BCE. Ill: WikiCommons.

My question is: Is it possible to also understand our human history, and ourselves as global citizens of the 21st century, as this Pangaia? As connected history? Even though our continents are now split by oceans, can our ideas still be interwoven and move easily back and forth, across abysses, mountains, and borders?

Before we continue, let’s listen to some music. As Friedrich Nietzsche said: “Without music, life would be a mistake” (Ohne Musik wäre das Leben ein Irrtum).

This is not Mozart, but it is a painting of him. Let’s listen to violin concerto in D major:(Play music 1: From 00:00 to 58 seconds) (Bologne: Violin concerto in D Major, op. 3, no 1)

Now, here is a painting of someone else, who lived at the same time as Mozart.

COMPOSER: Joseph Bologne (1745-1799), born in the Caribbean.

Joseph Bologne (1745-1799), or Chevalier des Saint-Georges, was born in Guadeloupe, in the Caribbean, to a slave. His mother was Anne Nanon, from Western Africa.

When Bologne was seven, he and his mother moved to Paris and because of his French father, he got the best education, excelling in fencing and classical music. In 1772, Bologne made his debut as a soloist, playing violin concertos. He actually wrote twelve violin concertos, two symphonies, eight symphonie-concertantes, and three operas. In addition, he became director of the Concert des Amateurs, described as “the best orchestra for symphonies in Paris, perhaps in all of Europe”.

Also, Bologne was a close friend of the queen Marie Antoinette, and he was also recognized as the best fencer in France. No wonder John Adams, later the US president, wrote in his diary, in May 1779, that Bologne was “the most accomplished man in Europe”.

In the 1780s, he became the director of Le Concert Olympique, and in 1785, he commissioned Joseph Haydn to compose six new symphonies for his orchestra. These symphonies are known as the “Paris symphonies”, and two years later, Bologne was leading their debut performance in Paris. Bologne also became a hero of the French Revolution, heading the first Black Regiment, and also supporting the revolution in Haiti.

Mozart is surely greater than Bologne today. But Bologne was undoubtedly greater at that time: He was a super-star in the foremost city of Europe, Paris, and he lived twenty years longer than Mozart. They possibly lived in the same house in Paris in the summer of 1778, when Mozart was 26 and travelled Europe with his mother looking for work. Mozart was no longer a child star. In addition, it seems clear that Mozart was inspired by Bologne’s composition, as we can tell from Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante, written after his visit to Paris.

As the musician Chi-chi Nwanoku has demonstrated at BBC Radio 4, Bologne’s violin concertos were more advanced than Mozart’s, possibly because of his fencing skills, forcing the violinists to play an octave higher. What is the difference compared to Mozart? Let’s listen to violin concerto no 4, also in D. (Play music 2: from 55 seconds until 2:10)

Now, if you have trouble differentiating between the two performances, no wonder. The first violin concerto we heard, when we saw the picture of Mozart, was composed by Bologne. While the last concerto, when the picture of Bologne was shown, was composed by Mozart.

This musical example says something about who we define as the insiders and outsiders of history. Why are someone hailed as champions of an era while others are not? Is it only a question of quality or importance, or could it also be because of something else?

So before we proceed, I would stress that I don’t aim to give answers, I’m just raising questions. I will not say what is correct history, but I can say what is false history – like if Bologne or Poland’s/England’s black musician George Bridgetower (1778-1860) – who in 1803 played a vital concert with Beethoven, who again dedicated a sonate to him – were erased from the canon of classical music.

Over the past years I’ve gone through some vital parts of how history and facts are defined in Europe. Oddly, there seems to be some kind of selective pattern, as I will demonstrate more in the workshop on Monday.

I’m not saying everything is wrong, I’m just saying that what is defined as important – what is canonized, what has been through some kind of ideological selecting, what we’re being told is vital – is far too often distorted. We are surrounded by “fake facts/fake history” every day.

So, my main problem is not fake news, nor the media or the politicians. My main issue is rather with the encyclopedias, the universities, the official curriculums of schools. If these institutions don’t give a balanced presentation of the world, people are more inclined to believe in fake news in social media, and that is a threat to us all.

If we add these stories together, the map won’t match the terrain. And talking about maps and distortions: Here is the map of the world as we know it today.

GOOGLE DISTORTION: Map by Google, from 2005.

This is the map we wake up to every day. It frames how we think, how we dream, how we live. But this map is a choice, which Google made in 2005. This map is not based on the terrain – but rather on the oceans. When the Flemish Mercator created this projection in 1569, he stressed in his title that it should only be used for navigating across the oceans (Latin: “ad usum Navigantium”). This projection was never meant to be used in the schools’ text books or on the two-dimensional screens of our smartphones and computers.

For some reason this version – one of many projections – was canonized during the colonial era. As we can see, Greenland is as big as Africa. That is odd, because Greenland is 2.2 million square kilometers while Africa is 30.8 – which means that Africa is 14 times bigger in reality. India is 1.5 times bigger than Greenland on the Earth, but looks far smaller on the map. Norway (which is only 6 kilometers wide at its slimmest) looks bigger than India, even though India is ten times its size. The former colonial states are made larger, while the Global South is diminished. So how does the globe look, really?

Our world looks like this. This picture, known as “The Blue Marble”, was taken by the crew of “Apollo 17” on their way to the Moon in December 1972. It’s the only picture of a completely lit globe, half of it at least, that has ever been taken by a human.

What we can see is mostly Africa, including Madagascar, and the Arabian Peninsula. Europe is not on the radar. Or as the astronauts said to Houston when they reported from space:

“The African continent dominates the world right now”. Reality check.

It’s not easy to make a globe into a 2D map, but how would the world look like if we based it on the true sizes of the countries, in a non-colonial and non-ideological way? Like this…

THE MAP: The best projection. Autagraph by Hajime Narukawa, 2016.

This is a new prize-winning map, known as Autagraph, made by Hajime Narukawa. It is factually correct, in that it shows the true sizes of the countries – based on pictures.

This is a map better for kids and adults. This is how the world is. And by chance, 60 percent of the world’s population lives close to the center of this visualization of the projection.

Historically, this is also the region for the world’s earliest and most vital culture of world heritage, and the most texts. Most of the world’s purchasing power (before and after the colonial period) is also concentrated in this area, not in Greenwich. It’s no good to use this Autagraph map if you want to navigate across the Pacific Ocean in a boat but it is the most accurate map if we want to navigate in the world as it is.

By chance, this is also, almost, how maps used in this area of the world looked in the early 1400s.

KANGNIDO-MAP, 1402: By Yi Hoe and Kwon Kun, Korea.

This is the “Kangnido-map” by Yi Hoe and Kwon Kun, made in Korea in 1402, possibly based on the Chinese Li Zemin’s earlier map. There are 35 African place names mentioned, like Alexandria, Mogadishu, and dozens of European names, including “Alemania” (Germany). After Pax Mongolica, such maps and such information paved the way for the Chinese Zheng He (1371-1433), the Muslim captain of the royal fleet, and his crew from 1405, when they sailed from China to Africa.

The Muslim captain Zheng He – Islam has been in China since the late 600s – took 27,000 men on several expeditions between 1405 and 1430. They traded goods in India, Yemen, and Somalia on the east coast of Africa – and Zheng He also went to Mecca. His largest ship, of a fleet of 317, was 123 meters long, more than four times the size of Columbus‘ «Santa Maria.»

Some say: Why didn’t the Chinese occupy Africa, enslave its people, colonize them. I say: That’s rather a colonial question: occupation of other parts of the world is not a given, it has only happened once in human history

The scholar Matteo Salvadore has also demonstrated how the Ethiopians discovered, or rediscovered, Europe. The Ethiopian kingdom sent embassies to Rome from 1306, they succeeded in 1402, and established a church there from the 1470s.

And this is how the world was mapped in Europe in the 14th century. The Catalan Atlas of 1375 is the best pre-Columbian map from what we now call Europe, and it centers on the great Mali king, Mansa Musa (c. 1280-1337).

1375: The Catalan Atlas, made in Mallorca in 1375. Mansa Musa of the Mali empire illustrated to the bottom left. He’s holding a golden apple and a scepter, waring a golden crown. Ill: Wikicommons.

In 2015, scholars investigated the riches of people around the world, and Forbes/Money named Mansa Musa the richest man in history. He controlled the gold mines of Mali and reportedly half of the gold in the world at that time. When he went on a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324, he brought along his riches, stopped off in Cairo and handed out so much money that the economy in the Mediterranean was devalued for years. His capital Timbuktu was first and foremost known for its great libraries and its thousands of books on history, the natural sciences and the humanities. And most of these manuscripts are awaiting translation; the people of Mali have preserved them for centuries.

SIZE OF AFRICA: 30,8 millioner square kilometers. Ill: The Economist.

This map demonstrates not only the physical size of Africa, but also its intellectual size:

Egypt: This is where philosophy started, according to Plato and the Greeks – the word “mer-rekh” means “love of wisdom”, philosophy. Great texts were produced, from 2000-1000 BCE – on human affairs, poetry, philosophical tracts, love letters.

Carthage, in today’s Tunisia: The first democracy, the best regime, according to Aristotle in his “Politics”: More stable and better than that of Athens and the Greeks, which descends into chaos (killed Socrates)

Ethiopia: The first Christian state, Christian for at least 1,700 years. According to the New Testament, Acts 8, a rich Ethiopian nobleman working for the Ethiopian queen Candace was the first foreigner to be baptized by Philip, south of Jerusalem. Meanwhile Augustine, the African Church Council, and the Egyptian Desert Fathers (like Anthony), and Desert Mothers, were crucial for the evolution of Christianity; it is also important to mention the many Moritzkirches that we see in Germany, celebrating the African saint St. Maurice, from Thebes in Egypt, who in the 300s gave his life in the Alps against the non-Christian Roman emperor Maximian.

Nigeria: The site of the Benin bronzes, famous art from the 7th century. The city of Zimbabwe, the buildings of Mali, the Enlightenment philosophy of Zera Yacob in Ethiopia. The manuscripts of Mauretania… etc.

The past is not what we think. And neither is the present.

Acropolis, Athens: How it is presented today. Ill: WikiCommons.

SThis is the world as we know it. This is how the Acropolis, the statue of David, and the White House are presented to the public today. There’s just one problem… They are presenting a fake impression of the past, and thus of the present.

This is how recent research, and the leading scholar Vinzenz Brinkmann of Munich University, have revealed the true colors of the ancient Greek and Roman statues and buildings, using ultraviolet lasers.

ORIGINAL ACROPOLIS: A reconstruction of the true colors of Acropolis, in Tennessee, USA, in November 2016. Note: Not all colors are identified yet. Thus, not all colors are presented here.

Just like the Mercator map, white marbles are a 500-year old distortion. In Renaissance times, Leonardo da Vinci and his peers marveled at the white statues they found, but they forgot that the statues originally had colors: just like a skeleton, this is not how humans or statues looked 2,000 years ago. The Greek loved their colors, just as people today like the colors of their flags. If we removed the colors from flags, what then?

In the early 18-19th century, scientists found traces of colors – but at the British Museum they removed the colors of the Acropolis (Elgin) marbles. Colors were looked upon as ugly, as the public here in Berlin also stated in the late 1800s. They had gotten used to the fake white statues. This shows that we prefer fake history if we have been taught it from childhood – it’s easier that way.

That is why we will continue to use fake maps and distorted history. The past and the present are not what we think. Let me give you yet another example. This is how the city of York, in the east of England, looks today.

This is how the former Roman capital, looked earlier, in the 300s, 1700 years ago.

YORK, ca 318 AD: The funeral in the 300s of «The Ivory Bangle Lady», a rich woman from Africa, in today’s York, UK. Ill: Yorkshire Museum/Watson.

That was when UK and the continent were really multicultural. And people were proud of it. This illustration is a reconstruction of one of the African skeletons found in York: the rich woman with her belongings – “The Ivory Bangle Lady”. DNA research shows that she is from North Africa, like many others – like the Roman emperor Severus, who settled in York with his wife Domna, from Syria, in the early 200s.

This is how history, The Battle of Vienna of 1683, is presented today:

BATTLE OF VIENNA, 1683: The official plaque outside Vienna, erected in 1983. It celebrates the «300-year jubilee» of «the defence of Vienna from the Turks.» This is an ideological and fake presentation of history. Ill: Wikicommons.

Since September 12, 1983, a plaque by the Military Commando of Vienna, on the hill outside of Vienna has celebrated the 300-year “jubilee” of “the defence of Vienna from the Turks” (Abwehr der Türken). Another monument claims that the Polish king Sobieski “saved Christianity” (Rettung der Christendom). But is that true?

Regardless, this narrative inspired the terrorist who killed 77 people, most of them teenagers in 2011, after writing the “manifesto” “2083 – A declaration of European independence”. 2083 refers to his plan for the 400-year anniversary; and this was also the narrative that inspired the terrorist in New Zealand, who recently killed 50 people in two mosques, indirectly also the killings of teenagers in Munich on July 22nd 2016.

But what are the facts?

The truth is that Sobieski’s most vital soldiers were the Sunni Muslim Lipka Tatars, of the Lithuanian and Polish Commonwealth: This statue celebrating the Muslim soldiers was erected in the Orunia park in Gdansk, in another era: 2010.

ORUNIA PARK, GDANSK: This statue, erected in 2010 and opned by the Polish president, honors the contributions of the Muslim Lipka Tatars when it comes to defending Poland from 1397 to WWII. Ill: WikiCommons.

Then, the Polish president thanked the Muslims for being vital in every battle of the country’s history since 1397 – and in 1683 they saved Sobieski’s life at the Battle of Parkany on October 7th. No other European king has helped his own Muslim population so much as Sobieski. He granted them land and helped them build mosques. Sobieski did not save Christianity; rather he saved the natural place of Islam in Europe.

And why were Sobieski and the Muslim Tatars alone in helping Vienna? Because Protestant nations like the Nordic countries would not help the Catholic Habsburgs in Vienna; the 30-year war had only just finished. There was no united Christendom/Christianity, but rather animosity between the Catholics and the Protestants.

And on the Ottoman side? They answered a call from the Protestant Imre Thököly, who asked for help against the suppression of the Protestants in what is now Hungary/Slovenia. The Ottomans were allied with the French Sun King, a Catholic, and the longest peace alliance France has had so far, was with the Ottoman from the 1530s – while the Ottomans’ main enemy was Persia.

So the Battle of Vienna was anything but a clash of religions or civilizations: It was rather a good example of multiculturalism and a proof of cross-religious cooperation, of a connected cultural Pangaia.

What are the consequences of such false historical narratives?

This is Utøya – the heart-shaped island outside of Oslo. 69 people, most teenagers, were killed here on July 22nd 2011.

They and their killer were told that “East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet”, as Rudyard Kipling wrote. We all are being told that Pangaia is not possible. But that East-West quote is a fake quote; Kipling did not refer to humans – only to mountains that cannot meet (and they won’t until Pangaia is united in some million years).

So what did Kipling say when it comes to humans? Kipling, who grew up in India and learned Hindi before English, rather wrote:

But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!

“The Ballad of East and West” (1889) is about a Muslim soldier Kamal and a Christian colonel who meet in the Hindu Kush mountains, in today’s Pakistan, and evolve from enemies to close friends – becoming blood brothers.

By chance, that relationship mirrors the one between these two girls: Sharidyn, with a mother from New Zealand, was the youngest person killed on July 22nd 2011 – she had just turned 14 when she was shot in her back close to the love path. Her best friend was Modupe (15). The day before they were shot by the political terrorist – driven by his distorted historical views about Eurabia and the Battle of Vienna – these two girls had set up their tents together.

Kipling, Sharidyn, and Modupe also demonstrate for us that a human Pangaia – and a circlusion of history – is possible within our minds. But only if we really want it to be.

Thank you.


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