Tag Archives: Norman Totten

The Accidental Racist

A few weeks back, there was a big to-do over a letter by Mike McCormack, National Historian of the AOH (hopefully ex-Historian of the AOH by now, if that organisation has any respect for its good name at all!) in the magazine History Ireland. McCormack made a gratuitous, childish and entirely unwarranted attack on Liam Hogan, the Limerick historian who has done such excellent work in challenging the racist Irish Slavery Meme.

Bizarrely, McCormack characterised some of Hogan’s work as ‘Paddy-bashing’. Why? Well, Liam Hogan has been criticising the spread of the Irish Slavery meme among Irish Americans, and the way that racists and people who are ignorant of their own heritage have used this fake revisionist version of history to belittle the terrible injustices suffered by the African American community by saying that the Irish were slaves too and that they suffered worse than African Americans but they aren’t ‘bitching and moaning’. That this kind of racist nonsense has been spread far and wide, shared by hundreds of thousands of people of Irish descent, is undeniable. Go on line looking for Irish Slaves on social media and you will find plenty of hateful, nasty comments directed at groups like Black Lives Matter. Mike McCormack, in his absurd letter, claimed that Hogan is distorting the truth and exaggerating this racist presence on the internet in order to depict Irish Americans as racists. Apparently, because Mike McCormack doesn’t know any racists in the Irish American community, there aren’t any, and people like Hogan are being racist against Irish Americans by pointing out the spread of this racist poison in that community.

Liam Hogan isn’t a racist. Neither is Mike McCormack, judging by some of the articles he has written. The problem is that McCormack is refusing to look at the implications of the Irish Slavery meme honestly. There were no Irish slaves. There were Irish indentured servants, some of whom were involuntary (prisoners of war or effectively poor people kidnapped from Ireland). Their servitude was time-limited (even the prisoners, who were characteristically given servitude contracts of ten years). It was totally different from the slavery that African Americans were subjected to.

The problem with revisionist theories like the Irish Slavery Meme is that there are many people who don’t share the racist views of many of the people who spread them. They aren’t racists but the ideas they are spreading are clearly giving support to those who do hold racist views. To give just one example, one of the most popular Irish Slavery books is Rhetta Akamatsu’s book The Irish Slaves: Slavery, Indentured Servitude, and Contract Labor Among Irish Immigrants. Rhetta Akamatsu is presumably not a white supremacist, as her husband is of Japanese descent. But her book is badly researched and full of mistakes (for example, the Amazon Irish slaves of 1612, who didn’t exist), which is unsurprising in that she is not a proper historian but a writer specialising in books about the paranormal. One revealing article says that she often sits down to watch her favourite programmes, including Ancient Aliens! I’ll say nothing …

There are lots of these accidental racists. Gerry Adams of Sinn Féin ended up in hot water in 2016 with a badly-considered tweet about how three hundred thousand Irish were sold as slaves. Máirtín Ó Muilleoir of Sinn Féin is part of a media consortium which owns IrishCentral, which carried an appalling article peddling nonsense originating in the claims of a Holocaust-denier called Hoffmann. (I notice that the article is now no longer available on IrishCentral. Perhaps if they’re removing lies from that site, they could ditch the rubbish by Brendan Patrick Keane as well!) Neither Adams nor Ó Muilleoir are racists, and the policies of their party are clearly and unambiguously opposed to all forms of racism. The fact that they have found themselves on the wrong side in these debates is down to stupidity, not malice.

And it’s very interesting that, though Barry Fell was not a racist, the ideas that he spread about Europeans coming to the New World fit in well with a whole tradition about the spread of civilisation from the drowned continent of Atlantis, ideas which suggest that civilisation came from white people and wasn’t developed independently by Amerindians. (Norman Totten, a friend of Barry Fell’s, set up a straw man in his posthumous defence of Fell, which you can read here: http://www.equinox-project.com/esop81.htm In reality, none of the three comments quoted accuses Fell of being racist – they state, quite rightly, that Fell’s theories can have racist implications.)

It’s also interesting to note that while I’m sure Fell wasn’t a Maori-hater, he spent a long time in New Zealand and his ideas about white settlers in ancient times in the Pacific fits in with the ideas of 19th century writers like Tregear, whose beliefs were nonsense but were pro-Maori (author of The Aryan Maori: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Tregear). Fell’s ideas and Tregear’s theories have given rise to a looney-tune far-right movement in New Zealand which has completely reversed Tregear’s respect for the Maori and claims that Celts went to Aotearoa in ancient times and that the Maori are therefore just blow-ins who have no prior claim to the land. This is probably the closest correspondence you could find to the use of the White Slavery Meme as a means of attacking African Americans.

In other words, you don’t have to be a racist to be an accessory to racist ideas. You should always check the accuracy of the ideas you are claiming. I don’t really care if Mike McCormack is a racist or not. But he should be as worried as I am about the spread of racist memes about Irish history. He should be doing everything in his power to stop such ideas in their tracks but because of his ignorance and lack of historical knowledge, he has helped to propagate the most vile pieces of nonsense and propaganda about the forced breeding of young Irish girls with ‘Mandingo warriors’, not because he is a white supremacist who hates black people, but because his sense of ancestral victimhood is more important to him than the truth.

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Micmac Paddy Whack

Recently, I have criticised Mike McCormack, National Historian of the Ancient Order of Hibernians for his fake research and ignorance, especially in relation to the Irish Slavery Meme. One of these criticisms centred on his gullible acceptance of the claims of the late Dr Barry Fell, who claimed that the Americas were peppered with inscriptions in various European and North African languages which prove that Celts, Libyans, Ancient Egyptians, Greeks and what have you were all happily involved in trade and exploration in the New World thousands of years ago.

I have already given links to some of Barry Fell’s claims and to refutations of Fell’s ridiculous theories. However, to a debunker like myself, Barry Fell’s ideas seemed worth looking at because of the strong odour of bullshit emanating from them. With that in mind, I ordered a second-hand copy of America BC.

I can fully understand why people of limited education would be impressed by the book and by Fell’s credentials. Fell was a Professor at Harvard. However, significantly, he was a Professor of Marine Biology, not of archaeology or linguistics or ancient languages. Mike McCormack was also impressed at the fact that he was President of the International Epigraphic Society, though it should be pointed out that Barry Fell founded the Epigraphic Society and it was pretty much a one-man band. The book is full of convincing illustrations and diagrams and maps. There are comparisons between Egyptian hieroglyphs and a writing system used a few hundred years ago by Micmac Indians, which look really convincing. More on that later.

The reaction of the world of academia to Barry Fell’s claims has been almost entirely negative. A close associate of Fell’s called Norman Totten was also an academic at Bentley College and a genuine epigrapher called David Kelley who worked on Mayan also took his work seriously. (Though Kelley criticised much of Fell’s work, he accepted the idea that there were genuine European rock-carvings in the Americas, a belief that is not shared by most experts in anthropology or history or archaeology.) However, these people were exceptions. The overwhelming majority of scholars reject Fell’s claims.

Of course, conspiracy theorists and other lovers of the arcane and weird will no doubt take the contempt of the academic establishment as proof that Fell was onto something rather than as proof that he was nuts.

As I’ve said, one of the things that has convinced many people is where Fell takes a hieroglyphic system which was in use by Micmac Indians. There are no petroglyphs (rock carvings) which use these Micmac hieroglyphs and many experts believe that the system was invented by a French priest, perhaps using some traditional mnemonic signs which had been painted on birch-bark by the Micmacs. Fell plays down the amount invented by the priest and stresses the antiquity of the system. He also presents extremely convincing (on first inspection) correspondences between a Christian religious text in the Micmac system and Ancient Egyptian. However, although I don’t know anything about Egyptian hieroglyphs (or Micmac, for that matter), I am suspicious for several reasons.

Firstly, if I used a hieroglyphic system to write a sentence of English and the same sentence in Irish so that the principal concepts were represented by signs and not by an alphabet, the signs wouldn’t appear in the same place in the two versions. Yet in Fell’s version, the Micmac and the Egyptian correspond perfectly. This is doubly surprising because it appears that the Micmac system was a mixture of logograms and phonetic elements (like Japanese writing), as was Ancient Egyptian. In most cases, the correspondences of the Micmac symbols and the Egyptian symbols given by Fell aren’t that similar, even in his version. While I would like to see a proper treatment of this by an Egyptologist, I have searched out a few Egyptian hieroglyphs, such as heaven, gold and silver and I have been unable to find the same versions given by Fell. In other words, Fell’s version of Ancient Egyptian doesn’t seem to be genuine.

Let’s take a look at one claim made by Fell in the book which gives a good indication of how he did things. We have already looked briefly at the ogham script in a previous post. This was a Celtic script found in Ireland and Britain, which used scratches around a stem line to represent letters. Fell often ‘identified’ letters where there were fairly random scratches and no stem line, which is like a fraction without a denominator.

Fell also claimed that ogham was used as a kind of secret signalling system and he gives a table of hand signals which looks like some kind of deaf sign language. It doesn’t use vowels (which real ogham did), and the consonants are arranged into three groups of five, one with the left hand, one with the right and one with both hands. The claim that ogham was used for signalling is also found in Macalister’s Secret Languages of Ireland, but Macalister suggests that this was done in two ways, as Nose-Ogham, where the nose was used as the stem line and the fingers of one hand represent the letters, or as Leg-Ogham, where the fingers were arranged around the shinbone to represent letters. So where did Barry Fell’s two-handed version of the ogham signalling come from? There is no way of knowing, but the most likely conclusion is that Barry Fell made it up.

Then Fell looked at two Iberian statues which show people with fingers sticking out, corresponding to ‘letters’ on his made-up ogham chart. Apparently one of these, a naked statue, represents a warrior (because it’s naked and ancient Celtic warriors fought naked!) and his hands spell out the letters Q _ B. However, in the text, it says that it is Q _ T, representing the modern Irish word ‘cath’ meaning battle. (in other words, the caption and the text give two different versions of the two consonants!) He also shows a statue of a woman, whose hand signals supposedly correspond to Q _ N in Irish, or the modern Irish caoin, ‘mourn’. The hands of this female statue are simply stretched out in front of her with all digits extended, like someone who is offering a hug. Hmm.

To me, looking at these claims rationally, there are a number of possibilities, not just Fell’s certainty that he had solved a mystery and got it right:

  1. These statues have their fingers pointing in random ways and there is no significance to the way their hands are depicted.
  2. The fingers of the statues have some significance within the culture which produced the statues (a blessing, for example) but we don’t know what this was.
  3. Fell was right about the fingers having some alphabetic meaning but it could have been a completely different alphabetic system (since Fell’s version of ogham signalling is unsupported by any evidence).
  4. Fell got it right about the letters but was wrong about the language and it could have been some other language entirely.
  5. Fell got it right about the letters and the Celtic language but the meaning was completely different. After all, the letters q-n could stand for head, or dog, or harbour, or quiet, or gentle, or distant, depending on the vowels you choose to put in.

You could probably add to this list. I think 1. and 2. above are probable, while 3, 4 and 5 are highly improbable, or almost impossible. So, why did Fell believe he’d got it right if it wasn’t true?

I don’t know. There are some people who think they are always right, regardless of the subject. And though Fell was undoubtedly clever, there is no doubt that some clever people get the most outrageously stupid ideas in their heads and somehow manage to maintain them alongside more rational beliefs. (We have looked before at Charles Mackay, who was both one of the first identifiers of crankness and a major etymological crank.) I think Fell was one of those people who is mad with regard to one thing and rational about everything else. I could be wrong about that, but the fact that he identified Maui, the great Polynesian ancestor, as a Greek student of Eratosthenes, and ‘translated’ the mysterious Phaistos Disk, though he didn’t know what language it was written in (only that it was related to Luwian, apparently), don’t inspire confidence. Here is his confident and unfaltering ‘translation’ of the front of the Phaistos Disk:

The omens that you seek are explained in this tablet, every one. The omens that are sent forth for man’s destiny, every one. Whatever you may ask, great or small, if you are worried, is given (an answer), every one. Seek an omen by offering a sacrifice to the birds, that the Gods may be well disposed. Ask anything you wish, on this tablet is explained everything. You may ask anything by sacrificing an offering to the birds, that the Gods may from Heaven send forth an omen; everything is (answered) above the earth, deceiving never, everything. And so men may ask for protection, everyone. Should they (the Gods) be angered by something, or by the sacrifice, ill omens are released, all of them, signifying death or disaster; which appear upon asking, all of them.

Another reason to doubt Fell’s book is how old-fashioned it all looks now. It was published in the 70s but there is something very hippy about it. When I look through the photographs in the book, there are many photos of hairy archaeologists, often stripped to the waist, and line drawings of equally hairy ancients totally naked, some of which remind me of The Joy of Sex. (The Joy of Texts??) There is a lot of stuff about phallic cults. Apparently there are stone phalli in Vermont (no, not really) which have ‘ogham’ inscriptions referring to male fertility. Irish and Gaelic speakers will be very surprised to learn that ‘bog bod’ meant ‘erect penis’ to our ancestors. As the primary meaning of bog is soft, that doesn’t make any sense at all. Oh, and the adjective follows the noun in Irish.

In other words, America BC is a load of shite. Only an idiot would buy into this crap, and that’s why academia has ignored it – because there really is nothing of any value to it. Like the Irish Slavery meme, or Cassidy’s fake etymology, or the nonsense about Irish vampires, this is just fakery promoted by people who have no bullshit sensors and no common sense.