Ancient Egyptians, DNA and origin stories – Afrocentrism as therapeutic pseudoscience

Ancient Egypt has long been recognised as a treasure trove for the archaeologist – no pun intended. The subject of numerous documentaries, popular movies and biblical mythology, the ancient Egyptians have been the target of an enduring fascination. However, one question that keeps arising about that civilisation exposes our own misconceptions about the ancient Egyptians.

What race were the ancient Egyptians? This question is misleading for a number of reasons. Egypt has been conquered by successive waves of empires – Greek Macedonian, Assyrian, Roman – among others. Did these waves of new conquerors change the genetic makeup of the Egyptian population? Ancient Egypt did not think in terms of race; we are applying a misconceived 18th century categorisation and imposing it on a civilisation that was multicoloured in the first place.

To be certain, white supremacists have long deployed pseudo archaeological fantasies to claim that the ancient Egyptians were of white Nordic descent. Alfred Rosenberg, the Nazi party ideologist and racist, made the claim in his writings that the ancient Egyptians (including Tutankhamen) were of Northern European white ancestry. Today’s white nationalist groups have followed in his footsteps. In this way, white supremacists seek to illegitimately acquire ancient Egyptian credibility for their ancestry, as opposed to the putatively ‘lesser’ Semitic races.

Sub-Saharan Africa had numerous empires and civilisations for centuries prior to European colonisation. While Europe remained a backwater, Africa had the Kingdom of Zimbabwe, and the west African Malian empire, to name but two examples.

There is the stereotypical of the African bushman in a loincloth hunting their prey with a spear – but I would venture to suggest that there is no a single cent of difference in intelligence between the Zulu and the Oxford don. The latter possesses technical intelligence; the former possesses a practical knowledge of their environment and culture.

Ancient DNA

Over the last two years, there has been an increase in news stories covering the scientific results of ancient DNA findings. Extracting ancient DNA does pose its own problems, but they are not insurmountable. Egypt is not exactly a hospitable environment for DNA; in the hot Egyptian sun, DNA is usually incinerated. The pyramids, trapping humidity, are also a hostile environment for ancient DNA.

What if ancient DNA could be extracted from mummified bodies? Surely teeth and bones, even preserved hair and skin, can provide DNA from the bodies of ancient Egyptians, thus resolving the question of what racial background predominated? A team of geneticists and researchers did just that.

Johannes Krause, a geneticist from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany – and his team – managed to successfully extract ancient DNA from mummified remains. The mummies, ranging from between 2000 and 3000 years old, originated from middle Egypt in a region called Abusir el-Meleq. The remains date from a period of pharaonic Egypt dating from the New Kingdom, up to the time of Roman rule.

What the researchers found was not entirely surprising – the ancient Egyptians were most closely related to the people of the Levant. The latter comprises the current nations of Palestine/Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey. In other words, the ancient Egyptians were not black African, but close in genealogy to the Arabic speaking nations.

The conquerors of Egypt did not have a significant impact on the genomes of the population. In fact, the presence of sub-Saharan black African DNA in the Egyptian population increased in the centuries after the Roman conquest had ended. This was due to increased trade and intermixing after the decline of the pharaonic period.

Ancient Egypt was never a black African empire, even though today’s Afrocentric writers have engaged in an exercise in Kemet-speculation. To be fair, the drive by Afrocentric scholars to prioritise the teaching of African civilisations is legitimate and commendable. They are responding to the centuries of European colonial subjugation and denial of sub-Saharan cultures and knowledge.

No, black separatism is not ‘just as racist’ as white nationalism. The latter is the offending structure; black Afrocentrism developed as a response to the suppression and denial of African history. Let’s have a respectful disagreement with Afrocentrism, the latter being a therapeutic mythology, in the words of one expert of African history.

It is completely erroneous to pressure-fit Ancient Egypt into modern racial categories. In fact, Afrocentrism has a distinctive anti-Arab and anti-Muslim undercurrent to it. We have departed a long way from the 1960s, when Malcolm X and W E B Du Bois upheld Nasser’s Egypt, and revolutionary Algeria, as solid Arab allies of the pan-Africanist cause.

The Islamic Arab invasion of North Africa, while violent, did not result in mass racial displacement or the extermination of the original inhabitants. Let’s not overstate the impact of the Islamic invasion. Egyptians were not displaced, but rather absorbed by the new conquerors. This particular interpretation gained traction, in alliance with American evangelical churches, to drive a wedge between the Arab and African peoples.

Progressive and leftist voices are being drowned out by parochial nativists, Afrocentrism in particular being a kind of black Zionism. Do not break down the bonds of solidarity between sub-Saharan Africans and Arabs. Afrocentrism wrongly portrays the Near Eastern Arabs as violent intruders and marauders into an otherwise pristine Africa.

Distorting the history and legacy of ancient Egypt only serves to reinforce divisions between sub-Saharan Africa and the Arab nations of Northern Africa.

Italian Americans get sick and tired of being asked about the mafia

What is one question you hate to be asked? Explain.

I was thinking about ways to answer the question above. Rather than talk about myself, I have decided to approach this prompt from a different angle.

Each ethnic group attracts its particular stereotypes. Being of Egyptian Armenian background – Armenians born and raised in Egypt, I get asked all kinds of irritating questions, based on the obnoxious and laughably ignorant stereotypes about people from Egypt.

In similar vein, Italian Americans have expressed their despair and irritation at being asked about one subject in particular – the mafia. My precise answer to the prompt above is please stop employing crude mafia stereotypes when interacting with Italian Americans – or Australians of Italian descent, for that matter.

John Cottone is a psychologist, the clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the Renaissance school of medicine at Stony Brook University. He is also an Italian American, and wrote about the subject of Hollywood promoting harmful cultural stereotypes regarding Italians.

The movies which we have all seen and loved, The Godfather trilogy, Goodfellas, Casino, and more recently the new special House of Gucci, all in their own way deploy the stereotypes of Italian American men as ravenously libidinous, cunning and barely literate mafiosi, and Italian American women as volatile, temperamental ‘ball-busting bitches’ with garish jewellery who can cook up a mean pasta fazool.

These kinds of stereotypes seep their way into the public consciousness, and leave the non-Italian communities with a deeply flawed picture of Italians in the diaspora. Michael Parenti, Italian American socialist academic and author of numerous books on political science, writes of his experiences in dealing with the question of the mafia stereotype as an Italian interacting with the wider Anglo majority society.

To be certain, the 1951 Kefauver committee exposed the inner workings and structure of Italian organised crime. Parenti writes that while Al Scarface Capone and Lucky Luciano were already figures of infamy, the Kefauver commission uncovered, among other things, the multitudinous variety of personalities that made up the mafiosi:

…Lucky Luciano, Scarface Al Capone, Sammy the Bull Gravano, Joey Bananas Bonanno, Crazy Joey Gallo, Jimmy the Weasel Fratiano, Sonny Red Indelicato, and Sonny Black Napolitano.

One could go on with Joey Kneecap Santorielli, Johnny Bingo Bosco, Itchy Fingers Zambino, Big Paulie Castellano,and Lupo the Wolf Saietta. Also Johnny Blind Man Biaggio, Vinny Gorgeous Basciano, and Fredo the Plumber Giardino.

Finally, none of us will ever forget AnthonyChicken F**ker Bastoni (don’t ask).

Parenti relates that in one job interview for a teaching position at a university, he was asked about the mafia – the interviewers referenced the Godfather movie as their source regarding close-knit relationships among immigrant communities. He tried unsuccessfully to steer the discussion towards the rich variety of Italian authors, scientists and sociologists, but somehow the mafia was the subject which captivated the interview board.

We all know that the mafia come from Italy. That much is unmistakable. However, what is less well known is how such an organisation started. In the Mezzogiorno – Southern Italy – the majority of land was owned by absentee landlords. The latter protected their latifundia from peasant uprisings and foreign invasions by hiring middlemen guardians.

These organised gangs, serving their absentee landlord bosses, formed the first instances of a parasitic organisation based on hostility to the peasantry. It is worthwhile to note that until today, the mafia is hostile to peasants, and is an enemy of the working class. Yes, there are ordinary working class people who, motivated by opportunistic reasons, join the mafia. In fact, in the Hollywood depictions, mafiosi are often portrayed as enterprising, self-motivated people, but in an antihero kind of way.

As the capitalist system became the dominant mode of production in a unified Italy, the mafia adapted their ways, parasitising the newly rising labouring class. Capitalist economic relations opened up a transoceanic migratory network for capital export.

The other distinguishing feature of the mafiosi is its parochial racism. It is no exaggeration to state that the mafia are a kind of Sicilian Klan. Like the Klan, the mafiosi claim to respect ancient codes of honour and respect. Strongly patriarchal, the mafiosi claim hostility to the powers that be, but are not averse to cooperating with those authorities as footsoldiers deployed against trade unions, labour and peasant organisations.

Instead of asking about the mafia, how about we ask Italian Americans about Enrico Fermi, the Italian born American scientist who worked on the Manhattan project? Instead of referencing Scarface Capone, or Joey Bananas, or Frankie the pastry chef Cacciatore, how about we ask about Petrarch, Vivaldi, Galileo, Machiavelli, and Giordano Bruno.

As for myself, please don’t ask me about the pyramids, or Tutankhamen, or the curse of the Mummy, or Moses and the Hebrew captives in the fictional Exodus. Let’s also stop recycling regressive stereotypes about Italian Americans – there’s more to Italy than marital problems, cooking pasta, temperamental volatility and organised crime.

Hindutva nationalism is becoming more visible in Anglophone countries

At Jubilee Park, Parramatta – western Sydney – the Indian community contributed to the setting up of a statue to Mahatma Gandhi. This statue is in recognition of the courageous and principled struggle of Gandhi and his supporters to establish a culturally tolerant, democratic India. Sadly, the current Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and his Hindu sectarian Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), follows the ideological tradition of Gandhi’s assassin. Hindutva is steadily making inroads into the Indian diaspora communities in Australia, Britain and the United States.

Hindutva is an ethnonationalist political ideology which advocates for a purely Hindu majoritarian state. An ultranationalist philosophy, Hindutva partisans demand the expulsion of non-Hindu minorities, such as India’s Muslim community, from the lands of historic India. To be certain, Hindutva exploits the religion of Hinduism for political and ethnosupremacist reasons. There is no suggestion that every Hindu is an extremist or fanatic. Please do not conflate Hindutva with Hinduism.

Jacobin magazine has been regularly covering the rise of BJP-affiliated Hindutva lobby groups in the United States. Azad Essa, in an extensive article, details the rise and operations of Hindu sectarian organisations. The Overseas Friends of the BJP, (OFBJP), has been active in projecting a Hindutva image of India externally. Founded in 1991, it has grown into a powerful lobby group in the halls of the US Congress.

To be sure, projecting a Hindutva image of India overseas is nothing new. In the early 1990s, the destruction of the Babri Masjid (mosque) in Ayodhya, carried out by Hindu nationalists (under the protection of the authorities), created a public relations problem for India.

The Hindutva supporters overseas quickly mobilised to promote a Hindu supremacist rationalisation of the mosque demolition, framing it as a legitimate reclamation of land by majoritarian Hindu forces. The Indian Muslim community has long been stigmatised as the products of foreign invaders.

Indeed, the main philosopher behind the ideology of the BJP and its associated Hindutva organisations, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (1883 – 1966) was an outspoken Hindu supremacist. Savarkar, the creator of this ethnonationalist ideology, was anti-immigrant, Islamophobic, and anti-British. Let’s clarify that while he opposed Britain, he was never an anti-imperialist. His opposition to Britain was based on his hostility to non-Hindus.

It is no exaggeration to state that Savarkar is Modi’s original inspiration. In fact, Gandhi’s assassin, Nathuram Godse, was motivated by Savarkar’s vision of a Hindu supremacist India. Savarkar expounded his views, which included the expulsion of Muslims from India.

He sympathised with Nazi and fascist movements in Europe, and expressed his support for Zionism, as an allied ideology committed to building an ethnonationalist state in Palestine. Shared hostility to Muslims contributed to this burgeoning ideological correspondence.

Islamophobia is a potent ideological glue, cementing alliances between various ultrarightist political groups. Hindutva organisations, such as the BJP, have long been Islamophobic, agitating for the violent expulsion of India’s Muslims. However, since 2001 and the launch of the purported war on terror, Islamophobic ideology moved to a new level of state policy.

From Azad Essa’s article, the following observation is directly relevant here:

The War on Terror didn’t merely usher in programs of surveillance and racism against the Muslim community. It also facilitated the cross-pollination of essentially right-wing ethnonationalisms and helped normalize anti-Muslim bigotry in different parts of the globe.

In the 2000s, Hindu nationalist groups have learned from political lobbying organisations, in particular from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Modelled on AIPAC, Hindutva organisations are creating a new generation of politically engaged Indians in the diaspora. One of their main goals is forging agitating closer cooperation between Washington, Tel Aviv and New Delhi.

When Indian PM Modi travels to the US, he is welcomed by a near-rock star reception by Indian audiences. Since becoming PM, the Indian government has oriented strongly towards Tel Aviv, providing support to the Zionist state. Hindutva organisations in the US and Britain have dutifully circulated anti-Muslim and pro-Israeli propaganda, in contrast to India’s traditional support for the Palestinians.

Abdulla Moaswes, writing in 972 magazine, states that in similar fashion to the Israeli government, the BJP intends to make membership of a religion the political basis of citizenship. Modi has constructed the most Israel-friendly government in independent India’s history. Savarkar, the ideological forebear of the BJP and Hindutva organisations, expressed his support for the Zionist ethnostate.

This is not to suggest that there is no opposition to the BJP and its ideology inside India – in fact, opposition to the Hindutva ethnonationalist vision of the BJP is growing. However, we must not allow the Indian communities in the diaspora to become unchallenged partisans of Hindutva philosophy. The ghost of Gandhi’s assassin needs to be exorcised.

Jesse Owens, and the black American Olympians of 1936, were not snubbed by Hitler, but by their own society

The Berlin Olympics of 1936 were a showcase for Nazi Germany, and for Hitler personally. Germany won more medals than any other nation at those games. The most famous story emerging from the 1936 Olympics is the triumph of black American athlete, Jesse Owens. The latter, a star track and field competitor for the US team, won four gold medals, thus demolishing the myth of white Aryan racial superiority. Hitler, incensed at this outcome, snubbed Owens and left the stadium.

A nice story – except that it is not true. Owens, and the 17 other African American athletes, were not snubbed by Hitler at all, but by their own government. Not a single US President, until Barack Obama, acknowledged the accomplishments of these 18 black Olympians. They achieved enormous triumphs and accolades in Nazi Germany, only to be ignored and discriminated against by their home nation. Even Eisenhower, in 1955, nominated Owens as an ambassador of sport. That is all well and good, but hardly recognition for the achievements of the African American athletes.

In one of the great ironies of history, the black American athletes lived in a racially integrated Olympic village for the duration of their stay in Berlin. That state of affairs was impossible at that time in the US. Returning home, they had to go back to the legalised racial segregation practiced by their home nation.

John Woodruff, a fellow athlete, won gold in the 800 meters race in Berlin. He explained in an interview decades after the event the feeling of exhilaration, destroying the widely held myth of white supremacy in the heart of Nazi Germany. Yet, when Woodruff returned to the US, he encountered the following:

After the Olympics, we had a track meet to run at Annapolis, at the Naval Academy. Now here I am, an Olympic champion, and they told the coach that I couldn’t run. I couldn’t come. So I had to stay home, because of discrimination. That let me know just what the situation was. Things hadn’t changed. Things hadn’t changed.

While Owens gained international attention after the Berlin Olympics, the accomplishments of the other athletes faded into obscurity. This is unfortunate – while Owens deserves recognition and admiration, the myth of being ‘snubbed by Hitler’ has served to eclipse the equally remarkable sporting achievements of Owens’ athletic colleagues.

In fact, Owens achieved remarkable popularity among the German crowds during his time at the Berlin Olympics. He received ear-shattering ovations, with chants of ‘Oh-vens!’ reverberating throughout the Olympic stadium. The Nazi government, for its part, toned down the antisemitic rhetoric and propaganda posters for the duration of the Olympics.

Hitler, on the first day of the Olympic competition, congratulated only the winning German athletes. The governing Olympic committee advised him that this was against protocol – receive all the winners or none at all. So from the second day onwards, Hitler did not receive any athletes. Owens, who was gaining popularity and being mobbed by adoring German fans for an autograph, was greeted by a Nazi salute from Hitler in the stands. Owens waved back, and continued with the competition.

As Owens explained in the years after the 1936 Olympics, it was not Hitler who snubbed him, but the American president. Franklin Delano Roosevelt pointedly ignored the black American athletes, and invited only the white athletes to visit him in the Oval Office. FDR did not even send a telegram of congratulations to the African American team, Owens commented.

In the decades after his Olympic career was over, Owens worked various jobs. The commercial endorsements, and mini-celebrity status, achieved by retired athletes, was denied to Owens. There were times when Owens was forced to declare bankruptcy. Becoming a heavy smoker, Owens passed away of lung cancer in 1980.

The story of Hitler-didn’t-shake-hands-with-Owens is one of those comforting urban legends. Taking grains of truth from real events, they achieve a life of their own, snowballing into an agglomeration of untruths and soothing falsehoods.

In 1936, America had no inclination to tackle the rising threat of European fascism; indeed, American companies continued to do business with large German conglomerates implicated in supporting the Nazi party and its war machine. Big American companies, such Du Pont, Coca Cola and General Electric, had investments in Nazi enterprises.

Deflecting attention from US involvement in Nazi Germany’s economy, in particular after the full revelations of the horrors of the Nazi-run concentration camps – and their role in provisioning slave labour – the Owens-was-snubbed-by-Hitler story serves as a retroactive application of moral principles. After all, Owens giving Hitler a reason to be incensed, provides Americans with a salve to their collective conscience.

Who need bother with the story of IBM corporation, and its involvement in German enterprises during the Holocaust, when we can soothe ourselves with the knowledge’ that already in 1936, we knew what a bad man Hitler was by the way he allegedly ignored Jesse Owens?

Yes, we all understand the criminal and racist nature of the Nazi party, and the vitriolic ideology of its chief exponent. White supremacist ideology led to the concentration camps. However, let’s examine the history of the US honestly, and learn the lessons it can teach us today.

The Confederacy’s Lost Cause makeover, the slave trade, and the cinematic version of the South

The Confederacy – the slave owning plantation economy which was militarily defeated in 1865 after its secessionist war – may seem to be relegated to the status of a historical curiosity. What contemporary relevance would that entity have? Plenty, actually. The rehabilitation of the Confederacy will not bring back slavery, but it serves as a necessary buttress for the low-level white supremacist insurgency, which exploded with various political forces on January 6, 2021.

One of the participants in the attempted coup d’état by ultranationalist forces on January 6, Kevin Seefried, was sentenced to three years in prison for carrying the Confederate flag into the Capitol Hill building. Brandishing it in the face of a black police officer, Seefried claimed in his defence that he never intended to spread a message of hate. Unaware of its true meaning, Seefried’s legal defence team argued, he was only upholding what he believed to be his heritage.

Let’s focus on his legal defence; Seefried’s team was taking a position that has been used by apologists for the Confederacy at least since the 1960s – defence of Southern heritage. That is quite baffling, considering the abundance of materials, including declarations by the Southern secessionist states, that explicitly state the preservation of slavery as the main reason for the 1861 secession and subsequent civil war.

In December 1860, South Carolina legislators held a secession congress where they repudiated the US constitution, and clearly stated that they were leaving the Union because they wanted to keep slavery. Other seceding states, such as Mississippi and Texas, followed the same proslavery logic as South Carolina.

Once again, let’s reiterate; the American civil war was not fought over states’ rights. The excuse of states’ rights as a reason for secession arose, not during the crisis of the 1850s and 1860s, but from the 1890s onwards, long after the civil war ended. The 1890s marked an upsurge in white supremacist rebellion, the building of Confederate statues, and the search for anything-but-slavery reasons to excuse the actions of the Confederacy.

The claim of states’ rights is a convenient nonracial refuge from the morally repugnant underlying reason – the preservation of slavery. The Southern slaveholders were actually quite happy with federal authority when it suited their interests. The 1857 Dred Scott decision by the federal court, denying black Americans citizenship and compelling the return of fugitive slaves in the North to their owners in the South, was welcomed by the Southern slave holding oligarchy.

In fact, Southern slaveholders dreamt of an international slave owning empire. The racialised transatlantic slave trade was global in scope and operations. As the American frontier expanded in the 1840s and 50s, and the gold rushes became prominent, Southern plantation owners desired the expansion of slavery into these newly opened indigenous territories. Expanding beyond the borders of the continental United States was a long sought after objective.

Let’s say, for the moment, that Seefried is telling the truth; that leaves us with another question – are there Americans who matriculate from the school system unaware of the true meaning of the Confederate flag? Is the education system solely to blame? There is a deeper sociopolitical process here; America’s wars overseas are creating a climate of racism and militarisation at home. The Confederacy was a militarised, autocratic society, intent on expanding its economic interests.

Imperialist wars overseas create and reinforce a political dynamic of their own. In the immediate aftermath of the Confederacy’s defeat, the southern secessionist whites were marginalised. However, gradually, as the US developed imperial ambitions of its own, the Confederacy gained a cultural and sociopolitical rehabilitation.

These are not just my sentiments, but rather the manifestation of the fraudulent Lost Cause mythology. As the defeated Southern secessionists launched their own low-level campaign of domestic terror aimed at African Americans, indigenous people and ethnic minorities, they also perpetuated a reframing of the Confederacy.

Matthew Rozsa, writing in Salon magazine in October last year, notes that while Lincoln never pledged to abolish slavery, only limit its expansion, his election as President in 1860 triggered the treasonous secession of the slave owning states. No, Lincoln did not cause the civil war. The southern slaveholding class were intent on preserving and expanding their slavocracy.

Lincoln himself was not an abolitionist, but once the Southern slaveholders rebelled, he committed himself to the defeat of the white supremacist insurgency – and such a victory could not be achieved without the emancipation of the slaves. The defeated Southerners, in their quest to revive white supremacy, resorted to a systematic rewriting of history. The Confederate flag became, not a symbol of racism and hatred, but of an innocuous Southern ‘pride.’

The Confederate battle flag, rather than being a neutral expression of cultural pride, is actually a symbol of white insurrection. It found adherents on January 6 2021, including South Vietnamese Saigon loyalists. Lost causes find common ground in a collective longing for a mythical past.

There are still thousands of Confederate statues and memorials across the United States. It is more than time for Americans to come to grips with their own history of civil war and white nationalism. Engaging in a cinematic Lost Cause, engaging a neo-Confederate perspective of the civil war, will only ensure that more would-be insurrectionists like Kevin Seefried are produced.

DNA, the genomic age and human behaviour – time to move beyond the framework of the selfish gene

We are all familiar with the dominant paradigm of our genomic age – it’s in the DNA. This claim – it’s in the genes – has washed over the fields of psychology, sociology, biology and everyday conversation. This metaphor is closely related to the tenet of the selfish gene, popularised by Professor Richard Dawkins. Let’s dig deeper into this subject – and by doing so, we will find that we have been thinking about genes and DNA incorrectly.

As Pankaj Mehta wrote in Jacobin, we have resorted to the ‘it’s in the DNA’ as a ready-made, intellectually lazy explanation for the entire gamut of human behaviour:

If you want to understand why humans wage wars, there is a gene for that. Want to understand why men rape women? There is a gene for that. Want to understand why the “national characters” of East Asia, the West, and Africa are different? We have those genes covered too. Indeed, if we are to believe most popular media, there is a gene for just about every inequality and inequity in modern society.

The one book which solidified our notion of humans driven by their DNA is the bestselling book by Professor Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene. In that book, Dawkins explicitly summarises the Gordon Gekko ‘greed is good’ philosophy, stating that we are nothing but vehicles for the replication of our underlying genes. Genetic determinism, now backed up by the successful mapping of the human genome in 2003, has made a strident comeback.

The economic and moral framework of our age has been strongly influenced by the selfish gene narrative. Surely capitalism, and the inequalities that is produces, are the inevitable products of our genetic makeup?

This view is not only a misappropriation of biological understanding to justify socioeconomic inequities, as the biologist the late Richard Lewontin pointed out. It is also flawed from a scientific point of view; human evolution, (and evolution generally), rather than being driven by ferocious competition, is actually the product of cooperation and mutually reinforcing networks of life.

When Darwin published his famous book On the Origin of Species, he was unaware of genes passing on adaptive traits. What he did do was incorporate the social ethos of his Victorian England, then an emerging industrial power, with its strict class differentiation. Social classes demonstrated, it was believed, the inevitably hierarchical structure of human society.

The popular notion of ‘struggle of the fittest’ was transposed onto the biological world. In particular, Herbert Spencer, an English anthropologist and philosopher, advocated a view of society as a harsh individualistic competition, where the ostensibly ‘strong’ would crush the ‘weak.’

Social Darwinism may have lost its original allure, given the horrific experiences of the twentieth century, and how sociobiologic misconceptions about race have lead to traumatic outcomes. However, the claim of evolution as competition was provided a boost by the discoverers of the double helix structure of genes.

As we all know, the gene was not popularised until the 20th century, with the publication of the work of the obscure Austrian monk, Gregor Mendel. Working away with peas, he discovered dominant and recessive genes. Dying in 1884, his work remained unknown until the early 1900s. Ironically, he never actually believed in evolution, but his work has done as much as Darwin’s to solidify evolutionary biology in the popular consciousness.

DNA became the most iconic biological molecule, with its deployment as metaphor ubiquitous in modern literature.

When Francis Crick and James Watson (not forgetting the crucial role of Rosalind Franklin) published their findings in the early 1950s, they borrowed metaphors from the newly emerging fields of computing and information theory. Our genes are ‘information’, much like the algorithms of a software platform – and humans are analogous to the computer, which houses and executes that software.

To be sure, the challenge to the idea of evolution as ruthless individual competition came, not from English scientists, but from Russian science. Darwin’s contemporary, the anarchist Peter Kropotkin (1842 – 1921), himself a serious scientist and scion of Russian nobility, presented the findings of his field research. Working the vast lands of Siberia, he found that individual cooperation, not competition, was the norm.

In the harsh geography of Siberia, individual organisms developed networks of cooperation in order to survive. He elaborated his results in his book Mutual Aid (1902). The late biologist and science writer, Stephen Jay Gould, emphasised that Russian scientists – no, not exclusively from the Marxist or socialist tradition – rejected the gladiatorial view of nature propounded by English Social Darwinism.

Kropotkin was not some muesli-eating, hippie-dippie stereotype that we associate with anarchism. He emerged from a serious scientific tradition in Russia, but because of political hostility between the UK and the western world generally against Russia, their scientific achievements, particularly during the Soviet period, are overlooked.

Prokaryotes and eukaryotes

Today, the growing field of epigenetics is a fundamental, if belated, recognition that genes are also influenced by the environment – our behaviours and milieu impact the way genes express themselves. There is no linear relationship straight from the gene to specific human social behaviour.

How about something very basic, such as the transition from single-celled organisms lacking a nucleus, prokaryotes, to multicellular organisms, eukaryotes? Surely there was competition at that level, so many billions of years ago? Yes, there was. However, the change from the overwhelmingly predominant type of life on Earth – prokaryotes – to eukaryotes, occurred not because of vicious competition, but through the emergence of a symbiotic union.

Eukaryotes had been devouring their prokaryotic neighbours for millions of years. However, a type of prokaryote was swallowed – the mitochondrion, and instead of being digested, the eukaryotic host and its new inhabitant began to work together. As every biology student knows, the mitochondrion is an energy powerhouse, and has its own DNA, and multicellular life took off. This is one of the most important transitions in the history of life on earth, and it occurred cooperatively.

Today, the term endosymbiosis is making its way into the popular lexicon. Eukaryotic cells emerged from different types of prokaryotic cells working together – an early biological example of teamwork.

Let’s wrap this up – the notion that we are all the inevitable product of genes which are programmed to reproduce and pass on to the next generation a predestined set of traits is a simple idea. However, it is fundamentally flawed and leads to a serious underappeciation of the role of cooperation in the emergence of life.

When immigrants become propagandists and foot-soldiers for US power – intersectional imperialism continues Cold War practices

Every imperialist empire recruits a section from the oppressed to become its foot-soldiers and propagandists. The ‘native’ recruit absorbs the outlook of imperial power, and does their level best to advocate further imperial expansion. The British practiced this technique, making the Gurkhas an invaluable propaganda tool for empire, as well as a reliable proxy force.

In the days of the British empire, their mandarins were taught all the main works of the Romans. The administrators and foot-soldiers of empire were taught that Rome represented the pinnacle of achievement. This kind of soft power propaganda not only created functionaries for empire, but also convinced selected minorities from the empire’s subjects to adopt the ideology of imperial benevolence.

So it is interesting to read that Kosovar Albanian troops are being deployed to the Malvinas, or Falklands Islands. Ostensibly on a training exercise, the Kosovo soldiers are assisting in solidifying the hold of the British over the disputed Malvinas/Falklands Islands. The latter, located in the South Atlantic, were seized by Britain in 1833.

It is quite reasonable to observe that the Kosovo Albanian troops are being transformed into the new Gurkhas for the British empire, even though the latter is a shrivelled, decrepit shell of its former self. The Malvinas/Falklands Islands, an outpost of British imperialism in the South Atlantic, was the target of an ill-conceived military invasion by the former Argentine dictatorship in 1982.

The military dictatorship which ruled Argentina for so many decades was a violently repressive government. However, most anti-imperialist nations and parties, while heavily rebuking the dictatorship in Buenos Aires, supported the right of Argentina to retake the Malvinas/Falklands Islands. The current Argentine government strongly criticised the deployment of Kosovo soldiers to the Islands, and has refused to send armaments to the US-backed Zelensky regime in Kyiv.

Intersectional imperialism and literary mercenaries

When it comes to the use and scope of soft power, the US empire is preeminent. Deploying weaponised immigrant stories in defence of American imperial interests is a technique of power projection perfected by the US imperial state. A large corporatised bureaucracy of mandarins churn out materials that are propaganda in all but name. Indeed, the correct term encapsulating this soft power projection is intersectional imperialism.

This involves deploying the tactic of diversity to misrepresent the political and economic agenda of imperialist power as inclusive and respectful of minorities. This technique is actually a new iteration of an old Cold War era tactic. Using manufactured dissidents as spokespersons of American empire dates back to the cultural and economic warfare of the US against the Soviet Union.

As veteran journalist and political commentator Yasha Levin writes:

These weaponized immigrants don’t get a lot of attention, but they are extremely important. They form the backbone of our Empire’s sprawling, multi-billion dollar soft (and not so soft) power apparatus. They inhabit everything from positions within the foreign policy structures of our government, to traditional media outlets and newspapers, to cleaned-up CIA fronts like Radio Liberty and Radio Free Asia, to privatized spook ops like the National Endowment for Democracy, to all sorts of oligarch funded non-profits and smaller regime change lobbies like Free Russia and the Uyghur Congress — and all the way down to half-forgotten rebranded Vietnamese terror groups and bizarre Chinese and Iranian cults.

This construction of a sophisticated imperialist soft power propaganda machine, pioneered by the CIA and conservative think tanks, has continued until today. The little-known National Endowment for Democracy (NED) is basically a second CIA, a repository of weaponised immigrant personnel churning out propaganda for empire.

Utilising ultranationalist and Nazi collaborator migrants from Eastern Europe, the US government provided a media platform for these ultrarightist insurgents to spread their messages of hate. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has its origins in this soft power propagandist campaign. Such outlets have promoted immigrant stories not out of any sense of multiculturalism, but as ideological weapons against the Eastern bloc. Such propaganda tactics have expanded to include migrants from a range of nations outside Eastern Europe.

It is one thing to oppose the policies of the Chinese government. Whether you agree or disagree with the Communist Party of China is a subject up for debate. However, the ultranationalist fanatics at the US-sponsored World Uyghur Congress (WUC) are doing much more than merely expressing their opinions. They are engaging as foot-soldiers and propagandists for a war with China. Beneath a veneer of respectability is an ideological commitment to Pan-Turkic racism, viewing themselves as the eastern most branch of an envisioned Pan-Turkic empire.

As an arm of imperial regime change, the Uyghur separatists have their political origins in the Turkic far right. One of the pioneers of this brand of separatism, Erkin Alptekin, has not only sought the resurrection of a greater Turkish empire encompassing all the Turkic peoples of Central Asia. As one of the first presidents of the WUC, he fully supported the US war on Vietnam. It is customary for the functionaries of empire to support imperialist wars fought by their benefactors around the world.

Questioning the pro-war narratives of the empire’s weaponised propagandists is a necessary condition to build an anti-war movement. Let’s avoid tobogganing towards further catastrophic wars by breaking down the corporatised imperial propaganda which saturates our lives and constructs a pro-war public.

The Holocaust is not only about the past, but also about how we understand the present – we can start by teaching about it in school

January 27 is the International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Every year, there are commemorations of the victims of the Holocaust. World leaders pay their respects to all victims of the genocidal policies of Nazism, and commemorative programmes abound. That date was chosen because on that day in 1945, Soviet troops liberated the survivors from the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.

Auschwitz has become the preeminent symbol of Nazi racist barbarism. Initiatives such as the January 27 Remembrance Day are intended to remind the world of the aphorism Never Again. Through knowledge and understanding of the past, we can chart a humane course for the future. However, here is something to consider – we never actually learned about the Holocaust in school; not even in senior high school.

To be sure, the details of the Holocaust can be emotionally distressing. However, school kids need to learn an accurate account of our history, including that of dispossession, colonialism and genocide. After all, succeeding generations are going to confront the disturbing realities of contemporary society. They need to have the information at hand to better prepare themselves for such confronting topics.

During World War 2, the United States and Canada refused to take in European Jews fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe. The reasons that Washington and Ottawa gave for denying sanctuary to Jewish refugees have similarities to contemporary anti-immigration and anti-refugee rhetoric from rightist politicians.

After 80 years, there is little to no excuse to remain ignorant of the Holocaust. Why 80 years? Writing in an article for the Guardian, Lindsay Hoyle observes that in 1942 (her article was published in 2022), then British foreign secretary Anthony Eden gave a speech to the House of Commons detailing the deportation and mass killings of Jews in German-occupied territories.

Information about what was happening in the concentration camps steadily filtered out of Europe. James Bulgin, head of public history at the Imperial War Museum, notes that while Hitler and the Nazi party advocated genocidal antisemitism, it would be a mistake to write off responsibility for the Holocaust exclusively as the deranged vision of one man. The perpetrators of genocide had many willing accomplices, particularly in the Baltic states and Eastern Europe. Ultranationalist Nazi collaborators helped construct the pathway to the Holocaust.

An extensive survey commissioned by Deakin University explored just how much Australians know about the Holocaust. The results were reported in the Sydney Morning Herald in January last year, and they demonstrate appalling results. The surveyors found that as many as one in four Australians have little to no knowledge of the Holocaust. The survey, conducted by researchers from Deakin, derived their results from 3500 respondents.

One of the largest studies of its kind undertaken in Australia, it makes for shocking reading. For instance:

It found one in four Australians could not identify basic facts about the Holocaust, including that 6 million Jewish people were murdered; that the Final Solution was the pursuit of the elimination of Jewish people from Europe; that Adolf Hitler rose to power through a democratic election in Germany, and that the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp was in Poland.

Mary Pat Higgins, president and CEO of the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum, wrote a powerful article in the Dallas Morning News regarding the maintenance of the memory of the Holocaust’s victims. She makes the basic point that the January 27 day includes honouring all victims of the Holocaust; Slavs, Roma, the LGBT community, among others.

Attributing the genocide of European Jewry to the singular evil of Adolf Hitler makes us miss a crucial feature of the Holocaust; the Nazi party’s ideology found fertile ground for acceptance. Higgins wrote:

The Holocaust did not occur randomly or in a vacuum; it was the culmination of cultural developments, political events, religious prejudice, fascist ideology, propaganda and millennia of anti-Jewish discrimination and marginalization. Coupled with modern “race science” the Jews were marked as “other.” This dehumanization led to the genocide of the Jews and from here moved on to affect other marginalized groups.

There are lessons for today, especially in monitoring racism and xenophobia. The rehabilitation of Baltic, Ukrainian and Eastern European ultranationalist Nazi collaborators is not only a deliberate falsification of history, but also helps to revive racist doctrines in contemporary politics.

Since the dissolution of the USSR, there has been a resurgence of fanatical ultranationalism in the former Soviet republics. Numerous fratricidal ethnic conflicts, such as the continuing dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the contested status of the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, have their origins in the breakup of the Soviet Union. Ultrarightist nationalism on both sides has resulted in the duration of that conflict, with pogroms and atrocities committed by both sides.

Georgian dissident and first postcommunist president of that country, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, was a fanatical racist who made numerous blood-curdling statements against the ethnic minorities in Georgia. Promising to cut up and burn out the non-Georgian nationalities, such as the Abkhazians and South Ossetians, the latter minorities broke away from Georgian control in the 1990s, effectively seceding.

Their cases have parallels in with the secessionist Kosovar Albanians, and the Russian speaking minority in the Donbas in Eastern Ukraine. While we cannot adequately address all the post-Soviet territorial changes in one article, we can make a number of observations here. The growth and eruption of fratricidal ethnic conflict in the former Soviet republics contains warning lessons in relation to a repeat of pogroms and ethnic cleansing.

I am not suggesting that another Holocaust-magnitude atrocity is on the horizon. However, we do need to exert greater efforts to educate ourselves, unlearning any kind of racial or ethnic hatred drilled into us by rightist authorities. Let’s take steps to construct a better future.

Saigon, Kyiv and the white supremacist basis of US foreign policy

The parallels between the former US-backed Saigon dictatorship of South Vietnam, and the current NATO-supported Kyiv regime in Ukraine, are becoming ever more apparent. Both regimes in their own way are proxy forces of Western imperial objectives. The foreign policy which the US implements is motivated by the concern that white lives are more important.

But wait a minute, I hear you say, the South Vietnamese Saigon loyalists were not white! True, but as I have explained before, they are accomplices to US imperialist policy that selectively privileges white lives over those of the global South. Let’s elaborate this topic.

Margaret Kimberly, writer and editor for Black Agenda Report, noted in March 2022 that US foreign policy is based on the premise that white lives matter more than others. The unmistakable blue and yellow colours of the Ukrainian flag adorn public buildings and Facebook avatars. Ukrainians, being fair-skinned and blue-eyed, constitute ‘good’ refugees, as opposed to Afghanis, Syrians, Palestinians, sub-Saharan Africans and so on.

Sonali Kolhatkar made the same point, writing that while European nations enthusiastically welcomed Ukrainians fleeing the conflict in their country, those same European countries were enforcing militarised borders against refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan. Several European politicians openly stated their preference for Ukrainian refugees, stating that the Middle East and African nations, unlike Ukraine, have been at war for centuries. They omitted to mention that imperialist interventions, both covert and open, are responsible for the duration of those conflicts.

In June 2020, Ukrainian football fans unfurled a banner stating ‘Free Derek Chauvin’, the racist police officer responsible for the asphyxiation death of African American George Floyd. As Margaret Kimberly observed, the latter’s death was a catalyst for the Black Lives movement. In October 2020, Ukrainian neo-Nazi group National Resistance marched with the banner ‘white lives matter’, a declaration of white supremacist solidarity.

October 14 is celebrated in Ukraine in honour of the UPA, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (the acronym is from the Ukrainian words). This army was a Nazi collaborationist formation which fought alongside the Germans in WW2, committing atrocities against Jews, Poles, Hungarians and antifascist Ukrainians. It is no secret that Ukraine, since the 2014 US-supported Maidan ultranationalist coup, has become a hub attracting white supremacists from around the world to Kyiv’s cause.

The normally staid, centre-of-the-road Washington Post, in May 2022, was forced to concede that Ukraine has become a proxy of the NATO powers, fighting as cannon fodder for a proxy war with Moscow. Getting others to do the heavy fighting has benefits for the imperial power – less of your own troops are directly deployed, and domestic criticism of overseas adventures is limited.

As the Washington Post writer stated:

The key to the strategy is to find a committed local partner — a proxy willing to do the killing and dying — and then load it up with the arms, money and intelligence needed to inflict shattering blows on a vulnerable rival. That’s just what Washington and its allies are doing to Russia today.

This strategy is not without historical precedent. The disturbing parallels between the current Ukraine conflict and the Vietnam war are not simply the exaggerated meanderings of my own imagination. Over at the Pearls and Irritations public policy blog, activist Rick Sterling notes the similarities, even in rhetoric, between the American war on Vietnam via its Saigon proxy, and the NATO induced war on capitalist Russia via the Ukrainian proxy.

The Saigon dictatorship, whose loyalists were given refuge after the Vietnam war concluded in the 1970s in Australia and the US, received millions in funding and state-of-the-art weaponry from the imperialist powers. This obsessive compulsive desire to send the latest and greatest military technology, prevalent in Washington and London, finds its reflection today in the near-frenzied demands to send tanks eastwards to Kyiv.

Washington was not the only foreign backer of the Saigon regime – London played its part in propping up a repressive dictatorship. Britain, soon after the conclusion of WW2, provided sanctuary to thousands of Ukrainian and Baltic ultranationalist Nazi collaborators, overriding the legitimate concerns that war criminals were escaping justice.

London, throughout the Vietnam war, provided military and ideological support to the Saigon regime. The UK’s Foreign Office, having set up an Information Research Department (IRD), broadcast propaganda for the Saigon dictatorship. This effort was aimed at creating public support for the American war effort, and covering up the massacres of civilians and war crimes committed by American forces.

The atrocities committed by the Saigon loyalist forces were not seen as problematic because of the ethical outrage they would cause, but as damaging to the public relations image of the American war domestically. In June 1965, the then prime minister of South Vietnam, Major General Nyugen Cao Ky stated that he wished to see four or five Hitlers in Vietnam. It was difficult to reconcile the image of the ‘free world’ South Vietnamese regime which was headed by a Hitler-admiring dictator.

The British government set about reconstructing the popular image of the Saigon regime in their media releases and broadcasts to the public. Teams of public relations experts are managing, and even writing press releases for, Zelensky in Kyiv.

As long as US policymakers treat people like cannon fodder, more people will die in Ukraine. We must shine a spotlight on the darkest corners of imperialist foreign policy, for it is in the bright light of exposure that the process of accountability for US crimes can begin.

Why it is important to pronounce foreign names correctly

Australia is increasingly a multicultural nation, with more Australians from non-English speaking backgrounds (NESB). This presents a challenge – understanding how to pronounce non-Anglo names. We have people from all over the world – Vietnamese, Maltese, Hungarian, Indian, Pasifika, Arabic-speaking nations – you get the idea. Everyone has their unique name, and at first, it can be difficult to pronounce a person’s name correctly. Each language has its peculiarities.

However, Mr Aussie Larrikin, if you keep on mispronouncing a person’s name because it is ‘too foreign’ or difficult’ for you, then that is not only frustrating, but arrogantly disrespectful. Your intellectual laziness in failing to make an effort is not an excuse.

Ever since I can remember, my name has been the subject of numerous butcherings. It has been dismissed as too ‘difficult’, and I have been assigned nicknames for which I never asked. And that is just my first name.

Christine Afoa is a writer of Pasifika background. She wrote that among the Australian National Rugby League (NRL) competition, about 45% of the players are of Pasifika origin. It is not uncommon to hear names like Hopoate, Taupau, Takairangi, Papalii, Matagi – just to name a few examples. Back in the 1980s, it was not unusual to hear the names Peponis, Raudonikis, and so on.

Returning to Afoa’s story; sitting watching the NRL with her boyfriend and his mates, the football commentators came across the Pasifika name Yee-Huang ‘Young’ Tonumaipea. The commentators chortled, made noises, and subsequently referred to the player as ‘Mr Alphabet’. Her boyfriend and mates laughed and mocked his name throughout the match.

A person’s name is an integral part of their identity. Multiculturalism should be teaching us respect for each other’s cultural backgrounds. It is one thing to have a sense of humour; it is quite another to wilfully mispronounce a person’s foreign name, placing the onus back on the individual for being ‘difficult.’

Am I suggesting that you have a volcanic eruption of anger every time someone mispronounces your name? No, of course not. Does wrongly pronouncing your name automatically make the other person a racist? No, it does not. However, Mr Larrikin who thinks they are being hilariously funny or defying social conventions, mocking a person’s name, and not understanding where they originate from, is infuriating to the extreme.

My name is Armenian in origin, and both my parents are from Egypt. Yes, that’s right, Armenians are not ethnically Arabs. They have spread out across the Middle Eastern nations because of historical persecution, asylum seeking and migration. Yes, Egypt – the place you think of as the land of the pharaohs, Tutankhamen, the curse of the mummy, and Charlton Heston leading Hebrew slaves out of captivity – contains different nationalities.

Understanding foreign names is the first and large step in understanding other nationalities and cultures. When the Vietnamese refugees began arriving in Australia in the late 1970s and 80s, they were actually putting the new policy of multiculturalism to its first important test. Australia had strongly supported, and participated in, the American attack on Vietnam. When the US-supported Saigon regime was on the brink of defeat, policy planners in Canberra correctly predicted an outflow of refugees.

Confronting the negative public sentiment, the Vietnamese made Australia their new home. They did not simply forget their home nation, or abandon their language and culture en masse. They made the effort to settle in, all the while facing the uphill cultural battle to integrate into a predominant Anglo society. While the political beliefs of the Saigon loyalist refugees may be questionable, their presence in our society should never be disputed.

Vietnamese Australians make up 1.1% of the Australian population, and 3.5% of Australia’s overseas-born population. They have shown resilience through tough times, and the least we can do is make the effort to pronounce their names correctly.

The dissolution of the Soviet bloc, and the declaration of independence by various former Soviet republics (such as Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan) has increased the pool of nations from which there has been an outflow of refugees and migrants. This has produced a whole new level of foreign names to be assimilated into the Anglophone world.

Ok, even before the Soviet breakup, we had to learn the name of the last foreign minister of the USSR – Eduard Shevardnadze. Yes, a non-Russian rose to one of the highest positions in the Soviet presidium. The first post-communist president of Georgia? Zviad Gamsakhurdia. America’s favourite Georgian politician in the recent past? Mikhail Saakashvili. So the issue of pronouncing foreign names is not going away.

So, for a start, let’s make a conscious effort to learn and pronounce each other’s names correctly. Better understanding leads to improved communication and shared visions for the future.