Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Imperial Presidency

...let's not forget reality. Barack Obama did not win an election to be president of Goodwill Industries, or the YMCA, or the Ford Foundation. He may be remarkable in many ways, but he is also president of the United States which means that he is head honcho for the globe's single great garrison state which now, to a significant extent, lives off war and the preparations for future war.

So writes Tom Engelhardt over at TomDispatch.com. You would think this would go without saying, that the election of Barack Obama while an achievement does not dismantle the American Empire. But at times, it seems that as long as the guy crossing the Rubicon is a charming, charasmatic and good-natured person, many lose sight of this perspective.

Certainly those who hold the reins of power now aren't some neoconservative cabal with dreams of a Pax Americana. Yet neither are they willing to confront America's imperial ambitions. In fact, most Americans seem to believe in the notion of an "exceptional America"--that is fated, or destined, to run the world. Either that, or the rest of the world is supposed to work the way we want them to.

Sure you can elect who you want in your foreign country, but if we don't like him or her, we will levy sanctions, frame them as global pariahs and support (openly or covertly) their opposition.

Sure you're free to trade your own resources, but make sure we get it at a price that's beneficial to us--not your own people. And if you don't, democratically elected or not, you may get on our bad side.

It's wrong to kill innocent men and women to achieve your objectives--unless its one of our drones or airstrikes, which is just collateral damage.

And yeah, we have a right to spend more on military might than the rest of the world combined, with bases ringing the globe, but that's because the other people with far less weaponry is the real "threat."

That's the America Barack Obama inherited. Like the "one ring" the imperial presidency is filled with power and potential; but it's yet to be seen whether anyone can wield it for good rather than for ill.

Tom Engelhardt's full article here.


Monday, June 15, 2009

A New Iranian Revolution ?

Protests. Riots. Unrest. Iran 2009 is today looking a lot like Iran 1979. But this time the former revolutionaries are holding the reins of power, and new voices are calling for reform. The election between Mahmud Ahmadinejad and his main rival Mir-Hosein Mousavi have unleashed tensions that have simmered beneath the surface of the seemingly orderly society run by the country's religious orthodoxy. How far it will go is anyone's guess.

For more, read below...

Last week a contentious election was held in Iran, pitting incumbent President Mahmud Ahmadinejad against his main rival and pro-reformist Mir-Hosein Mousavi. An Ahmadinejad win seemed certain, until later polls began showing Mousavi running neck-and-neck--a definitely bad sign for any incumbent. When results came in, Ahmadinejad was declared the winner in what was reported to be a landslide.

But Mousavi and his supporters--mostly young and urban--have decried the elections as a sham. Unrest throughout the country has flared up to levels unprecedented since the turbulent 1970s which brought down the Western-backed Shah. Anger and frustration has boiled over into mass protests, riots and clashes with the police. Scenes of cars on fire and young Iranians smashing building windows in fury while fighting with authorities have now traveled the globe. And, in a defiance of a ban on protests, hundreds of thousands showed up in the streets of Tehran today to voice their anger and give their support to Mousavi.

Today in a surprise move that appears to be a reaction to the unrest, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the state's most powerful figure, though previously sanctioning the election results, has called for an official probe to root out any possible fraud. In 10 days the findings of this probe are to be delivered.

In the West there doesn't seem to be much need for a probe to determine what's going on. The dominant news cycle has been focused on the rioting and protests. And given Ahmadinejad's global "pariah" status, not surprisingly there is a definite tilt towards the election being "stolen." France, Britain and the U.S. have voiced their own doubts over what they see as "irregularities" in the elections--and have refused to recognize them. This is the height of irony, as these same Western critics regularly legitimize the ruling powers in countries like Egypt where elections are rigged by the suppression of any reasonable opposition, and in others like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait where monarchies do not even hold elections.

Political commentators in the West of varied stripes, from astute analysts like Juan Cole to often misinformed bloviators like Thomas Friedman, seem to also conclude the elections were stolen. However there is a dissenting view, from commentators like Abbas Barzegar and some Mid-East think tanks, who have all spent the past weeks in pre-election Iran talking and surveying everyday Iranians. They posit the West perhaps underestimated Ahmadinejad's support among the poorer masses, and focused too intensely on the very vocal (but minority) urban, young internet demographic--thus taking away a skewed perspective of the actual atmosphere and mood in the country. In truth, the Western media may be reading the nature of the elections themselves through rose-colored glasses.

During the campaign, as many supporters of reform flocked to his green banner, Mousavi became (in the eyes of a Western press corps looking for an easy story) the Obama of Iran--a breath of fresh air who would bring change. How far this analogy can be taken remains to be seen. Mousavi after all is still a conservative. And those in the press who have acted as if his win would signal an Iran ready to hold hands with Israel, kow-tow to US demands and allow in Wal-Marts in a few months, misread completely where most Iranians stand on issues. While most find Ahmadinejad too restrictive, too wedded to power, too brash and even embarrassing with his seeming obsession with engaging in historical fallacies like Holocaust denial, they also are wary of a U.S. with troops next door, what often seem as bullying Western powers and a saber-rattling nuclear armed Israel whose own recent elections have made it a right-wing state. Mousavi's win would certainly open up avenues closed to (or by) a controversial figure like Ahmadinejad; but it wouldn't erase the memories of Western dealings towards Iran---from the overthrow of Mossadeq, to the backing of the repressive Shah to the military support of Saddam Hussein's aggressive war which claimed hundreds of thousands of Iranian lives. Not surprising that some Iranian policy advocates like Trita Parsi have stated that it is essential that whatever the West believes, staying out of the Iranian elections and letting the Iranians sort it out themselves is the wisest course--as any direct intervention would be seen as unwanted meddling.

“The framing that Ahmadinejad is presenting is one in which essentially the whole [opposition] is a Western media conspiracy. If the administration is saying things or doing things before Moussavi and the opposition figures out what the plan is, then that’s a real problem, because then it seems like it’s between Ahmadinejad and the west and not Ahmadinejad and the opposition. So the administration is doing exactly the right thing. They’re not rushing in and they’re not playing favorites. They might prefer the democratic process to be respected, but that’s different than [supporting a] specific faction.”

As for right-wing American neoconservatives urging the Obama administration to immediately support Mousavi and the opposition, Parsi chided their tactics.
“They’re saying ‘Support Moussavi.’ Well, did you talk to Moussavi to learn if this is helpful? A lot of people seem to have the propensity of knowing what the Iranian people want or what specific people want but [don't] contact them. And in past it’s been detrimental" [If such American politicians have] “not learned from that, it’s sad.”

read full article with Parsi quotes here.

So where are we now? Mousavi has appealed for calm, even while disputing the election results, urging that the legal process determine the truth of things. Meanwhile Ahmadinejad remains steadfast, describing the dissenters as disgruntled troublemakers with American and Western backing, holding mass rallies of his own supporters. Tonight the situation has grown even more tense, as a protester became the first casualty of the unrest--killed in a hail of gunfire during an attack on a pro-government militia.

What the actual truth is regarding these elections is hard to discern from afar. There were no independent UN observers, just as there aren't any in this country. And between the secretive Iranian government who regularly censors information, and the Western propaganda machine which regularly sends out disinformation to destabilize the regime, it's often impossible to tell which way is up, left or right. But what is not in dispute is that whatever the actual election outcome, there is a strong wave of dissent in Iran that is making its presence felt. Given the country's strategic importance and its previous revolutionary history, what happens next is anyone's guess. But the whole world is watching.


Friday, June 12, 2009

Free Trade Massacre

The notion that so-called "free trade" neo-liberal policies have led to increased poverty throughout the developing world is one that has ample evidence to back it up. It isn't so far-fetched to say that by marginalizing the world's poor through these economic policies has increased the global mortality rate. Recent occurrences in Peru however underline that the effects of free trade need not be so indirect:

During the last week, deep in the Peruvian Amazon, confrontations between nonviolent indigenous protesters and police have left up to 100 people dead. The vast majority of the casualties are civilians, who have been conducting peaceful demonstrations in defense of the Amazon rain forest. For almost two months, as many as 30,000 indigenous people have been blocking road and river traffic, demanding the repeal of presidential decrees issued last year to facilitate implementation of the US-Peru FTA.

Read rest of article below:

US-Peru FTA Sparks Indigenous Massacre

Thursday 11 June 2009

Tom Loudon, t r u t h o u t | Report

During the last week, deep in the Peruvian Amazon, confrontations between nonviolent indigenous protesters and police have left up to 100 people dead. The vast majority of the casualties are civilians, who have been conducting peaceful demonstrations in defense of the Amazon rain forest.

For almost two months, as many as 30,000 indigenous people have been blocking road and river traffic, demanding the repeal of presidential decrees issued last year to facilitate implementation of the US-Peru FTA. According to the indigenous leaders, several of these decrees directly threaten indigenous territories and rights. After having attempted several times to negotiate with the government the repeal of the most egregious of the decrees, and faced with a permanent influx of extraction equipment into the region, the people decided it was imperative to "put their bodies in front of the machines" in order to prevent this equipment from entering their territory.

On Friday, June 5, the government decided the protests needed to end and launched an aggressive assault against the people protesting on the road outside of Bagua. The dislocation was conducted from helicopters and the ground, with police and army using automatic weapons and heavy equipment against people armed with only rocks and spears. As videos, photos and testimonies from the region slowly emerge, it is clear that this was designed to inflict as many civilian casualties as possible, and deter those in other regions from continuing protests. Pictures circulating on the Internet depict snipers in uniform firing at protesters from the streets, tanks and from on top of buildings. On Saturday, in Lima, Peru's capital, a large spontaneous demonstration in support of the Amazonian indigenous was broken up by police.

Read full article here.


Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Angry, Right & White America

It was just eleven days ago that an anti-abortion militant with white supremacist ties gunned down reproductive rights doctor George Tiller in a Kansas church. Just this past April, three Pittsburgh police officers were killed by a teen who believed the government was going to take his guns away, and had frequented white nationalists sites like Stormfront. In the heat of the presidential campaign last June, a gunman walked into a Unitarian Church and opened fire, killing two parisoners during a children's play; the shooter would claim the church's liberal values drove him to violence. And since the election of the first African-American president, gun-sales have risen alongside the daily dosage of rhetoric from conservative right-wing media. So today, after a right-wing white supremacist walked into the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC and opened fire, killing an African-American security guard, why is anyone even remotely surprised?

More after the fold...

It feels like de ja vu, after just covering these themes in the Tiller death. But I find it necessary to again point out that it was just this past April that the Obama administration's Department of Homeland Security released a memo warning of homegrown right-wing radical groups and their propensity for violence. Conservatives--both pundits and politicians--had a meltdown, claiming the government was outlawing opposing opinions and claiming they were being lumped in with racist hate groups. The American Legion soon jumped in, taking issue with the report's warnings of violent right-wing extremists recruiting disaffected one-time members of the armed forced. It was all utter nonsense of course, as the brief on domestic terrorism made no links to conservatism--the conservatives made that link themselves. And the concern of ex-military joining white supremacist groups is based on very recent facts, and in no way tarnishes all veterans. What should have been seen as a tempest in a teapot gained steam however as the media played in, allowing conservatives and right-wing ideologues--backed up by conservative leaning veterans groups--to cast themselves as victims of a liberal witch hunt. In days Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was making an apology for the "language" in the report.

But in the conservative and right-wing cries of foul over this memo, perhaps the lady doth protest too much.

While conservative pundits applaud and sensationalize FBI stings on terrorist fantasies of would-be "jihadists" (often suspiciously funded and aided by government informants), real-life acts of mayhem and murder by domestic right-wing terrorists go on right under our noses. Worse still, many of the most rabid conspiracy theories spouted by the likes of Glenn Beck, Michael Savage and Glenn Beck, serve as "intellectual" fodder for these gunmen. Yet no one in conservative television and radio noise machine is willing to take any responsibility or at the least tone down their rhetoric. In fact, they tend to lash out verbally at any insinuation places even a bit of blame on them. In the wake of George Tiller's death FOX host Bill O'Reilly, who had repeatedly called the doctor a "baby killer," claimed he himself in fact was a victim of the far-left.

Eric Boehlert at Media Matters is having none of it however:

If Fox News is going to continue to traffic in hateful, vigilante-style rhetoric, then folks at Fox News, as well as their apologists in the GOP Noise Machine, are going to have to come up with better talking points to spin away the consequences of the right-wing madness they're so eager to incite....The Fox News crew is going to need better talking points because I fear the violence - the bouts of right-wing domestic terrorism - is likely to continue. As long as Fox News and the Noise Machine refuse to back off the incendiary language that they're actively mainstreaming, the political violence, visible just months into Obama's historic first term, may have only begun.

The reality is however that FOX News, while certainly wallowing in the cesspit of xenophobia, racism and intolerance to whip up the more fanatical of its base, did not invent any of this. They've certainly tapped into this angry sentiment and see it as a ratings bonanza, backing up faux-populist hate-rallies like the April "Tea Parties." Looks like Janane Garafalo was RIGHT.

But this type of racism and violence is unfortunately as American as apple pie and baseball, and follows a predictable pattern. When the economy falters and whites, usually disaffected angry males, feel under assault they find easy scapegoats they believe is behind their oppression. Fed along by media demagogues, a militarist gun-obsessed society, heroic vigilantism and an over-inflated patriarchal racial imaginings of their self-worth, they last out---often violently.

Back in 2006 during the emerging twilight of the Bush regime, retired veteran of the U.S. Army Special Forces Stan Goff wrote of this as a hypernormal state of Americana, which he asserts is normally racist, right-leaning and patriarchal if only on an institutional level:
These explicitly white supremacist groups, contrasted with the implicitly white supremacist Republican Party, for example, openly embrace a vision of fascism, and openly admire fascist leaders....We need to first see for how long white supremacy has been considered ab-normal in the United States; then we can see how ab-normal it is right now....What is seldom examined in public discourse outside the universities and a handful of anti-racist political formations, is the question of what it means to be “white.” Thinkers from Toni Morrison to Noel Ignatiev to bell hooks to Theodore Allen to Mab Segrest to David Roediger have studied whiteness extensively, in its economic, cultural and political dimensions, and conclude unanimously that there is no “objective” measure for what it means; but that it is a social construction linked absolutely to social power. The insistence on existence of a white race, by racists and non-racists alike, is symptomatic of a form of mystification that conceals the concrete relations of power behind a set of widely accepted abstractions. White supremacy as a beliefhas evolved out of the practice of people in power, who defined themselves as white as a way of differentiating themselves from those over whom they wielded that power. Some very well-known American presidents who made openly white supremacist pronouncements were Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Richard Nixon. Of course, until the dismantling of Jim Crow in the South, white supremacy was a norm, and before the Civil War, slavery was a norm. White supremacy was so normal in 1964 that after the defeat of Goldwater, the Republican Party adopted thinly veiled racist appeals to attract white voters who felt betrayed by the reluctant Democratic Party support for civil rights legislation. Openly racist public officials like Jesse Helms, Strom Thurmond and Trent Lott, even after their affiliations with white supremacist organizations were publicized, continued to be elected. The Republican appeals to white supremacy were cloaked as opposition to welfare, as “states rights,” and as concern about “crime.” As late as 1999 the Republican-controlled House of Representatives blocked a vote to condemn the Council of Conservative Citizens, a white supremacist organization with whom then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott had close ties. How normed does something have to be before we can say it is normal?

And this brings us to a problem with the media, and in part even this blog. The coverage of these specific acts of violence, or even the focus on the hate spewed by FOX News acolytes and others, perhaps obscures a larger more unsettling truth that speaks to the pervasive nature of racism and whiteness in this country. We usually paint these individuals as lone bizarre gunmen driven by senseless hate---bad apples in our otherwise rational and tolerant "post-racial" society. The larger problem however is that there are throngs of these disaffected Americans--mostly white males--prone to believe conspiracy theories that blame Jews, immigrants, blacks and others for their plight. They don't fall out of the sky or come from some strange and mysterious place. They are borne and raised right here, in a society that seems to easily create such individuals and provide them the proper atmosphere for their hatred, xenophobia and violent tendencies to flourish. Tackling that "hard truth" may provide us some greater insight, that is if we dare.


Monday, June 8, 2009

Conservatives, the Radical Right and White Extremism

Last week an anti-choice militant named Scott Roeder walked into a Kansas church and gunned down reproductive doctor George Tiller. Roeder is part of a growing extremist segment of the American populace, often fed by right-wing media ideologues like Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck who while not outright calling for violence create an atmosphere of hate and paranoia. So it should come as little surprise that Scott Roeder in fact once belonged a white nationalist organization that preached the inferiority of other races, anti-Semitism and other Aryan-based fantasies.

When the Obama administration's Department of Homeland Security released a memo in April warning of homegrown right-wing radical groups, conservatives cried foul--insisting they were being unfairly lumped together with racist hate groups. This was nonsense of course, as the brief on domestic terrorism made no mention of conservatism in their warnings of right-wing extremists. But perhaps, there is more to this connection than many of us are willing to admit.

A brief article by Mother Jones traces the ideological connections that took Scott Roeder from white supremacy to religious fundamentalist militant and terrorist.


Friday, June 5, 2009

Rush & Newt Are Winning?

Rush and Newt are winning? When I first read that title by E.J. Dionne in the Washington Post, I was puzzled. Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich winning? If anything their over-the-top antics have mostly backfired. In their attempts to paint President Barack Obama as a socialist, un-American and the dangerous "black other," they have mostly managed to alienate themselves and their party. Obama's approval rating remains high and most seem pleased, or at least comfortable, with his overall performance. So I wasn't certain what Dionne could have meant. If anything, Rush and Newt appear to be losing. But after reading his article, I was left wondering if perhaps Dionne didn't have a good point.

Read more below...

Since the beginning of his presidency, we have been held hostage to acts of reckless stupidity from the GOP and its surrogates. From FOX News to Glenn Beck to Rush Limbaugh, the right-wing noise machine has been consistent with its outlandish reactionary attacks. In the face of this the GOP has been either silent or subservient, turning themselves into willing accomplices.

E.J. Dionne writes:

The power of the Limbaugh-Gingrich axis means that Obama is regularly cast as somewhere on the far left end of a truncated political spectrum. He's the guy who nominates a "racist" to the Supreme Court (though Gingrich retreated from the word yesterday), wants to weaken America's defenses against terrorism and is proposing a massive government takeover of the private economy. Steve Forbes, writing for his magazine, recently went so far as to compare Obama's economic policies to those of Juan Peron's Argentina.

The charges and accusations have been so absurd, so beyond the pale, that conservative politics and criticism has seemingly degenerated into a freak show. The problem is that where there are freaks, you can be certain our national media will follow.

Always one for sensationalism rather than substance, each and every charge hurled by the reactionary right-wing makes it into the corporate media cycle. That these criticisms are usually ludicrous and often wholly baseless doesn't seem to matter. Rush Limbaugh could claim Obama had three heads--rest assured mainstream media would trumpet his claim and have on talking heads to debate the number of heads the President has, and how this affects beltway politics.

Entertaining these claims not only reduces serious journalism to the level of the National Enquirer, as Dionne points out it stifles and obscures real substantive discussion regarding the Obama administration's policy decisions. Namely he points out that while the media is fixated on the freak show, and in turn forces Americans to gawk at the bizarre GOP circus, they ignore criticisms such as those leveled by progressives at a recent gathering:
While the right wing's rants get wall-to-wall airtime, you almost never hear from the sort of progressive members of Congress who were on an America's Future panel on Tuesday. Reps. Jared Polis of Colorado, Donna Edwards of Maryland and Raul Grijalva of Arizona....why are their voices muffled when they raise legitimate concerns, while Limbaugh's rants get amplified? Isn't Afghanistan a more important issue to debate than a single comment by Judge Sonia Sotomayor about the relative wisdom of Latinas?

There is also more at work here. By narrowing the discussion over President Obama's policies to fanatical critics like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, media outlets are giving Americans a false choice--either side with the moderate, liberal-leaning but centrist White House administration, or join the shouting chorus at the freak show. The voices of those in the progressive camp, who offer both praise and criticism of policies that range from the escalation of the Afghan war to health care, are left mute. Ironically this benefits no one more than the Obama administration, who can make their moderate centrism look progressive--especially when even the slightest move to the left is met with screams of socialism. No wonder many Democratic strategists welcome the GOP freakouts. Perhaps it's about time all of us--from the corporate media machine to the Democratic establishment to everyday progressives--stopped giving so much airtime, blog time and print space to the circus performers of the right-wing, and realize there are more legitimate voices that have yet to be heard.

E.J. Dionne's full article here.


Thursday, June 4, 2009

Judge Sonia Sotomayor & The New Racism

Last week President Barack Obama nominated Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court of the United States. What has transpired in the wake of this have been ceaseless attacks by right-wing politicians like Tom Tancredo and Newt Gingrich, along with the likes of Michael Savage, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter and more. What are these conservative luminaries charging the Latina with?


Say what?!?

I applaud the appointment of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the United States Supreme Court. It is a historic moment for the under represented and Judge Sotomayor seems amply qualified for the position. I'm not exactly ecstatic however. At first glance Judge Sotomayor doesn't appear to shift the court in any new direction. She seems an apt replacement for Justice David Souter, although where she stands on key issues is still unknown. Judge Sotomayor isn't close to a liberal/left answer to the likes of Thomas, Scalia or Alito. At best, her past rulings have indicated she's a liberal-leaning centrist. This all makes the right-wing rabid attack on her just that much more bizarre. Issues of immigration have seeped into the criticism directed her way, even though she's of Puerto Rican descent--and hence a legal U.S. citizen. And, in yet another indication that we've officially entered the Twilight Zone, some of the most offensive and rabidly intolerant right-wing commentators and politicians have dared to call the first female Latina Supreme Court nominee racist--all for stating something that should be plain common sense. If this were say, Marjorie Cohen, a dream pick were we playing Fantasy SCOTUS, I'd certainly see why the GOP would cringe. But the attacks so far from the Republican right have been so flimsy and personal, it only serves to make their issues with race, ethnicity and gender even more glaringly transparent.

Journalist William Rivers Pitt has defined this bizarre behavior as "Sotomayor Derangement Syndrome." But English and Cultural Studies professor Henry Giroux sees it as part of something more interwoven into the American fabric--what he calls the new racism, in which those who practice intolerance attempt to wrap themselves in victimhood while crying out against "reverse" discrimination. Giroux writes:

While many liberals suggest that with the election of Barack Obama to the presidency the United States has become a post-racial society, many conservatives have now taken the opposition position, prompted by the nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, that racism is alive and well in the republic.

Indeed what we are seeing with Sotomayor, as we have seen since the name Barack Obama was entered into the public discourse alongside the word "President," is American racism reinventing itself, adapting to current challenges and employing new tactics. By defining Sotomayor, or Obama, as the dangerous, irrational, unqualified "other," it is "whiteness" that is allowed to act as if it is under seige, even as it seeks to remain normalized. These new tricks by an old foe may be crude and untested, but rest assured they will continue. Because thus far, American history has shown that sooner or later they will strike the right chord.

The rest of Professor Giroux's article can be read here.


Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Daily Funny


Monday, June 1, 2009

Remembering Dr. Ivan van Sertima: 1935-2009

On May 31st, it was announced that the historian, linguist and anthropologist Dr. Ivan van Sertima passed away in his homeland of Guyana. For anyone remotely acquainted with African history, especially that deliriously exciting movement of historical Afrocentricity in the late 1980s and early 90s, Dr. van Sertima was a giant.

I remember when I first heard Dr. van Sertima speak. It was thrilling to hear someone with a familiar West Indian accent speaking forcefully and powerfully on African history. Dr. van Sertima made no apologies nor did he indulge in nuanced watered-down African history. His position was clear--Africa had a rich history spanning from antiquity to the early precolonial period, that had been purposefully distorted, misrepresented and white-washed by modern Eurocentric historians. He attributed his profound interest in African history to his life under colonial rule, during which time he learned more about the history of the British Empire than his own homeland. Like many others he found himself wondering where exactly people like him--people who looked like him--fit onto the historical map. Not satisfied with an Africa described and depicted as a "Dark Continent," and breaking with mentors who attempted to steer him elsewhere, Dr. van Sertima took it upon himself to traverse an academic path that would help uncover Africa's often ignored past. An adherent of the theories of the Senegalese historian, scientist and anthropologist Cheikh Anta Diop, the Guyanese scholar earned his doctorate and began teaching at Rutgers University in 1972.

As editor of the Journal of African Civilization, in the 1980s thru early 1990s he helped provide a voice for numerous black scholars--both inside and outside academia--who attempted to correct what they saw as a concerted attempt to devalue and erase pre-colonial African history. From dynastic Egypt to medieval Islamic Spain to modern black scientists, Dr. van Sertima and his colleagues followed the trail of black history wherever it led, and did not shy away from oft-times heated debates with mainstream academic counterparts. They were however not working with the funding, and in some cases the training, the academic world provided. In their writings you sometimes see the attempt of an artist trying to recreate a fine portrait from broken fragments--bits of linguistics here, some archaeology there, history, art, whatever helped make the final picture work. Some of these works were genius, such as the deconstruction of racial categories that had permeated academia for well over a century. Others were admittedly far-fetched, entertaining the fringes of historicity. But much of it, even when falling short of the mark or deserving criticism, opened up avenues of discussion that had previously been closed--expanding the boundaries of black historical study.

Dr. van Sertima's most famous work would be the 1977 book They Came Before Columbus, in which he put forth the hypothesis that African seafarers reached the Americas before Columbus: during the ancient period congruous with the Olmec period (1400BCE to 400BCE) and other meetings during the late medieval era of the Aztec Empire. Dr. van Sertima marshalled an array of evidence: from agricultural sea crossings and favorable Atlantic ocean currents, to Mesoamerican writings and religious symbology. Most famously, he looked to the famed several ton Olmec heads which--with their oft-times thick lips and high cheekbones--many previous European archaeologists had asserted must have been of African origin. They Came Before Columbus became a bestseller, and was met with acclaim in the popular press, especially those looking to unseat Eurocentric hegemony. On July 7, 1987 Dr. van Sertima even appeared before a United States Congressional committee to give testimony that challenged the conventional wisdom that Christopher Columbus "discovered" America.

In academic circles however, They Came Before Columbus was ignored or ridiculed. Some anthropologists and historians openly called it "rubbish." Mesoamerican researchers charged it ignored and omitted facts. I ndigenous activists asserted that theories of African seafarers arriving to "enlighten" native peoples robbed them of their own history. And, most stinging to someone like Dr. van Sertima, his critics claimed he sought to replace Eurocentric hegemony with an African-centered model. Some outright called him a racist. Dr. van Sertima refuted these charges, firing off numerous rebuttals, often meeting the "racist" charge by pointing out that he considered himself a person of multi-racial heritage--a product of African and indigenous peoples who shared similar fates in the Atlantic world. He denied he was asserting Mesoamerican culture fell out of what he called some "Egypto-Nubian heaven" and dissuaded other Afrocentric scholars from drawing such conclusions from his work. But he was resolute in his theories, and would not submit to what he saw as more of the Eurocentric drubbing he had endured throughout his life and academic career.

I first read They Came Before Columbus in the early 1990s, and was enthralled by its premise. A person searching like so many others for when and where people who resembled me entered the historical stage, I was a convert. And any theory that knocked Christopher Columbus--that symbol of slavery, genocide and the terror of modernity--from his lofty perch was like therapy for a lifetime of mental educational abuse. But the one thing Dr. van Sertima always promoted was honesty in scholarship--and I often admired that he chided those who took on the mantle "Afrocentric" only to put forth exaggerated or absurd theories of psychic ability or so-called faces on Mars. In Dr. van Sertima's mind, such things hurt the cause of African history which already had so much to go up against. And even in the books he edited, he warned contributors to be rigorous in their scholarship and called them out when he found them wanting. As he was often fond of saying, African history is rich enough; there's no need to make things up.

So it was with this type of advice in mind that by the late 1990s I began to question some of the key premises put forth in They Came Before Columbus. Ironically it would be some of the very ideas put forth by Dr. van Sertima, especially his ceaseless deconstruction of scientific racializations like the "Hamitic hypothesis" (which turns numerous East and Northeastern Africans into "dark whites"), that led me to question the evidence he had marshaled for African seafarers visiting the Pre-Columbian Americas. Olmec heads no longer looked "African" to my eyes, as much as they merely resembled the variety of phenotypes that define even modern Central Americans. And the cultural basis for pyramids, not to mention their architectural designs, no long seemed to have definitive similarities. If Africans had reached the Americas before Columbus, I was no longer comfortable with saying that Dr. van Sertima's theories provided the evidence. And on a few online message boards and with friends and colleagues, I said so openly.

But I was always respectful. After all, far more improbable assertions had been made previously by those still respected in varied genres. The progenitors of disciplines like Egyptology and Anthropology were often eccentric, bizarre in their theories and at times outright racist. Yet they laid the foundations for their respective fields, and we are expected today to acknowledge their accomplishments despite their other failings. Dr. van Sertima may have jumped wrong on They Came Before Columbus, but it didn't invalidate numerous other contributions he gave to African history. Nor has Christopher Columbus's lofty perch gone unchallenged by others.

Why in the face of competing evidence did he remain steadfast in his theories, I can't say. Maybe he was too arrogant to back down, and unable to take his own advice. Perhaps he was reacting to the often condescending and thinly veiled race-baiting approach his (usually) white critics took. Or maybe he just honestly believed that he was correct. In a speech he once gave, Dr. van Sertima spoke of his "skills" with his hands as a youth in Guyana, during which time he gained local recognition for his ability and willingness to take on any challenger. Even as a scholar, it seems that fighting spirit didn't leave him.

So it was a bit surprising when Dr. van Sertima, who usually forcefully replied to his critics, remained oddly silent when a 1997 Journal of Current Anthropology article criticized (in rich detail) They Came Before Columbus. By then the Journal of African Civilization was in decline or out of print. Afrocentric scholarship had been beaten and hounded from much of academia, labeled a threat so great one Classicist claimed "barbarians were at the gate." And when I heard mention of Dr. Van Sertima again a few years later, I was told shocking news---that he was suffering from Alzheimer's. That a mind so astute would end up with such a fate seemed surreal. Dr. van Sertima seemed to disappear from public view, until this past weekend when a friend rung me about his death in Guyana.

In the end, whatever one thinks of the theories he put forth and supported, Dr. Ivan van Sertima served as a beacon in a field where black and African peoples had been relegated to invisibility or mere spectators. As one historian put it, his greatest crime wasn't that whether he was correct or not--it was that he dared to put forth the "plausibility" of African accomplishment and African genius that rivaled and directly challenged some of the most cherished precepts of Eurocentricity. In this regard Dr. van Sertima allowed African histories to escape the meager parameters they had been assigned, taking us on treks from early Europe to medieval Asia. He allowed us to think of ourselves as valuable participants in both the past and modern world, and helped us believe we could shape the future. His courage helped give us self-worth, and perhaps in the end that was his most valuable contribution.

by Dr. Ivan van Sertima:

Malegapuru William Makgoba, ed., African Renaissance, Mafube and Tafelberg, Sandton and Cape Town, 1999

Runoko Rashidi and Ivan van Sertima, ed., African Presence in Early Asia, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1995 (1985)

Ivan van Sertima, ed., African Presence in early Europe, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1985

____ Black Women in Antiquity, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1988

____ Blacks in Science: Ancient and Modern, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1983

____ Early America Revisited, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1998

____ Egypt: Child of Africa New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1994

____ Egypt Revisited, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1989

____ The Golden Age of the Moor, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1992

____ Great African Thinkers, Cheikh Anta Diop, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1986

____ Great Black Leaders: Ancient and Modern, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1988

____ They Came Before Columbus, New York: Random House, 1976

____ Early America revisited, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1988

____Cheikh Anta Diop, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1988

____Van Sertima before Congress: the Columbus myth United States. Congress. House. Committee on Post Office and Civil Service. Subcommittee on Census and Population.; Christopher Columbus Quincentenary Jubilee Commission. Highland Park, NJ : Audio Division, Journal of African Civilizations, 1988.