Monday 27 March 2017

Written in Water 21: For Whom the World is Flat

You can actually buy this shirt.
Before I start: I haven't blogged for a couple of weeks. A combination of illness (mine and each of the members of my family, in turn) and a short term work contract I couldn't turn down meant that I either couldn't find the time to write or couldn't, period. The film reviews will resume tomorrow, probably with a piece about Picnic at Hanging Rock, and Simeon Smith's guest post about Pan's Labyrinth.

But today let's talk about the world being flat, or round, or whatever shape it is, which was triggered when I read a couple of weeks ago that basketball legend turned sports pundit Shaquille O'Neal had made a statement to that effect. In fact he was kidding, but he wasn't the first prominent American – and all of them people of colour – to say that.

One of the things that we have been taught to take on face value is that those silly people in the past thought that the world was flat and that it took people like Galileo and Copernicus and Columbus and Vasco da Gama to prove otherwise. Except that whenever we hear the preceding statement, it's invariably followed by a statement that goes: except actually they didn't because Aristotle proved the world was round in the fourth century BCE so in fact everyone with a bit of schooling and a keen eye has known this for nearly as long as this thing we call Western Civilisation has existed.

And that's really important to grasp. The statement "we think that People in Olden Days thought the world was flat but they didn't really" is qualitatively different to "People in Olden Days knew the world was kinda ball shaped". Because the first one carries the assumption that someone is stupid, either the person you're talking to or, more charitably, People in Olden Days. The assumption behind that statement is that Ye Olde People might not have thought the world was flat, but it's an understandable and reasonable thing to think because Ye Olde People were dumb and benighted. You phrase it that way, you're almost perpetuating the myth that our ancestors were that silly.

All of which prefixes the fact that people in general have not as a default thought that the world was flat for well over two thousand years, and when people make conscious statements to the contrary, they do so to make a point.

Case in point: the Biblical Topography of Cosmas Indicopleustes. Cosmas wrote in the sixth century, and was well travelled (his surname translates as "the man who sailed to India"). His work on the one hand gives an account of journeys to all sorts of destinations in the known world, written with a keen observer's eye. On the other, it presents an impassioned defence of the view that Heaven was a literal vault that lay above a flat world, and that there was nothing else. There was nothing earthly below, nothing heavenly above. Cosmas took the prevailing view that the world was a sphere and the sun and moon and stars revolved around it as an affront to his faith. If the Bible said the world had corners and edges, the world had corners and edges. His arguments appear to a modern reader as absurd, and consequently Cosmas Indicopleustes has been thought of as the harbinger of the Dark Ages, the end of anything good in science until the Renaissance, that he was the Middle Ages' most influential scholar.
Cosmas's map of the earth, and thanks Wikipedia
And this is of course rubbish. For one, you can't avoid the simple fact that no one writes a lengthy, strenuous and heartfelt argument that the world is flat, the world must be flat, the world has always been flat, can't you see that the world is flat, unless there's a reason to make the argument, the reason being: no one else really thinks the world is flat. You only argue desperately about something like this if there's an orthodoxy to argue against. 

It's useful here to bring in Photius, who was simultaneously the very best and very worst thing to happen to Byzantine literature. Photius, tenth century Patriarch of Alexandria, wrote the Bibliotheca (Library), which is a collection of summaries and reviews of books, and it's the best thing to happen to Byzantine scholarship because a lot of the books that Photius wrote about no longer exist, and Photius gives us the evidence of their existence and makes our knowledge of the ancient world that tiny bit richer. On the other hand, it's the worst thing because Photius really, literally read these books in order that the rest of us wouldn't have to, and a lot of books in the Bibliotheca no longer exist precisely because they're in the Bibliotheca. Which is useful to know, because it reflects how influential Photius was. His was the prevailing opinion on books: which ones were good, which ones were bad, and which ones were worth keeping.

Cosmas Indicopleustes, although his book survives, doesn't get a good review.
It begins with the defence of certain ecclesiastical dogmas by evidence drawn from the Scriptures. The style is poor, and the arrangement hardly up to the ordinary standard. He relates much that is incredible from an historical point of view, so that he may fairly be regarded as a fabulist rather than a trustworthy authority. The views on which he lays special stress are: that neither the sky nor the earth is spherical, but that the former is a kind of vault, and the latter a rectangular plane, twice as long as broad, to the ends of which the ends of the sky are united; that all the stars, with the help of the angels, are kept in motion; and other things of the same kind... (He says) that the angels do not dwell in heaven, but above the firmament and mingle with us; that Christ at His Ascension entered the space between the sky and the firmament, and that only this is the kingdom of heaven; and similar absurdities.
Photius, Bibliotheca 36
Photius is clear: it's fairy stories. Also, see the way in which Photius summarises Cosmas' work: Look at this idiot! He believes the Earth is a rectangle! That is, not only is Cosmas' work flat out bad, it's really silly.

And if Cosmas Indicopleustes really were an influential geographer, then there would surely be more than two surviving copies of his work (both incomplete, making for one complete text between the both of them). No. He was always an outlier.

Which brings us to another point. You don't argue something that's so at variance with the prevailing orthodoxy unless you have made a decision to believe it. You chose to believe it. This doesn't mean that it's insincere, or that it's a fake belief, but the fact is that we consciously choose the narratives through which we explain the world to ourselves, and sometimes we pick them for reasons other than simply because we think they're true.

So Cosmas partly chose to believe that the world was sort of like a table with a roof because the Bible said so, but also partly because the Catholics accepted the spherical earth as fact, and Cosmas wasn't a Catholic, he was a Nestorian (follower of a Christian group who believed that Jesus the man and Jesus the Son of God were two separate people, sort of and consequently condemned by the Catholics as heretics). And so he was taking a contrarian view because the prevailing view was held by people who had condemned his own people as evil.

And that brings us to the modern day flat earthers. Let's discount the jokey middle class English variety who are doing it because they can, and check out the American variety, who are... not white. It's hardly necessary to mention how messed up American race politics are (I mean, it's not exactly a recommendation to describe the British version as "not quite as terrible"), but it strikes me that when Black Americans – a sportsman, a rapper – say that the world is flat they're not just saying the world is flat. They're saying the world is flat because white people have told them that the world is round, and that white people have used science to do so, and you have to take this context seriously.

Because when John Scopes was put on trial for teaching the evolutionary ascent of man, the thing that triggered it was his teaching that white people were more evolved; that is, he wasn't teaching evolutionary science, he was teaching evolutionary science as race science. Because when the US Public Health Service did experiments (right up until 1972!) on what untreated syphilis did, they found  Black subjects with syphilis and did not treat them. In the name of science.

So in B.o.B's flat earth theory track Flatline, it is significant that the lyrics include this:
Flatline, flatline
There's no superior bloodline
Flatline, flatline,
You got me once but that die
I see only good things on the horizon
That's probably why the horizon is always rising
Indoctrinated in a cult called science
And graduated to a club full of liars
And yeah, then he goes on to cite a Holocaust denier, which is super problematic, but Holocaust denial is part of this, this deliberate abnegation of received wisdom. That is, guys like B.o.B aren't choosing to believe that the world is flat because they've come to that belief due to weighing up the facts, they're believing it because they have made the conscious choice to deny the truths that we take for granted, and that's because white people have told them this stuff. And white people's science has been a tool of oppression for a very long time. What people of colour who own flat earth theory are doing is culture jamming. They are disowning the culture of which they are an unwilling part by denying its truisms. A Black guy who says the world is flat is making a statement to the wider, white-dominated culture that says "I wouldn't even trust you if you told me the world was round."

And yeah, that can go to scary places, like Holocaust denial, but of all the ways one can culture jam, flat earthism is surely the most harmless. The shape of the earth (it's sort of wider round the middle, it turns out) is sort of interesting, but what actual difference does knowing this make?

I think that if you've been produced by a Western education system, it can be hard to wrap your brain around this. "But it's true!" is the most obvious response. But so what? It makes no difference either way to anyone who isn't working in aerospace or navigation. Even if you're communicating with people overseas, you don't have to know why time zones exist; just that they do.

Arguing that the Holocaust happened matters because it's the most important thing in the world that it not happen again. Arguing for something like human evolution (and doing it right – that is, not using it as a plank for white supremacy or Western cultural imperialism) matters because it has ramifications for medicine, for things that affect us directly and indirectly. But we're talking about a picture so big here we can't see the frame.

The flat earth is simultaneously so absurd and so peripheral that there really isn't a point in arguing against it, and it's interesting that when Neil DeGrasse Tyson got into his awful Twitter spat with B.o.B, Tyson argued repeatedly about the world being round, even to the extent of getting his nephew to record a response track, but didn't address the Holocaust denial part and that's sort of worrying; Tyson came over like a guy who insists to you that the world is round and the grass is green, over and over, and you're like, "why are you even bothering to say this? Everyone knows!" until you start to wonder if the other guy has something.

But the other guy isn't even arguing on those terms. No one who argues about the physical shape of the planet is really arguing about that. Their argument is about something bigger.