Lessons for Scholars from the Songhai Empire

Conor, about 13, ski jumping. You should watch him now at 21

Hands down, my favorite recent podcast has to be Fall of Civilizations, put together by Paul M. M. Cooper. The episodes don’t come out that often (seems like he got rolling, but it turned into a twice-yearly deal) but they are just amazing. It’s almost like each one is a little book, or novella. And Paul has one of the dulcet, melancholy voices that’s perfectly evocative for his subject matter. I’ve listened to almost all of them, and each one is deeply insightful, and goes far to synthesize with the status quo on why things in a given empire fell apart.

Which is why the subject matter is so relevant today. In the U.S., we seem to be seized up with the idea that somehow our problems, as well as our opposition, are unique, or at least some incarnation of the devil. Nothing could be further from the truth. We are largely in the throes of a large scale revolution in human social dynamics, caused by the shift of timescales brought on by the Internet. As I discussed in this piece, what is truly new is the downshift of geography and proximity as the primary informational organizational principle in our society, due to the Internet. And the primary problems we face are NOT what the mainstream media would tell you — mis- and disinformation. So much of their critique is the fact that the reins of social control are slipping from their hands. The old playbook just doesn’t work.

And then there is the fact that the press is also memetically limited in how they tell their stories. Most of the current MSM seems to be innumerate as well — so the tools, agency and insight necessary to tell stories about how populations are moving around are beyond them. That’s why we get a story about one individual in a nation of 330 million people that’s supposed to move us to tears, as well as reinforce whatever the dominant narrative is. It happens on the Left and Right — and nothing could be more iconic than the ‘Q’ narrative. Most people, if confronted, would have no idea what the actual story is around ‘Q’ — and certainly it hasn’t changed anything by a microscopic fraction of actual politics. Yet extremes on both the Right and the Left are invested in the very idea, even though it’s far from representative of anything resembling a coherent social movement. And so it is amplified, by both supporters and detractors, mostly to show the other side is awful. I’ve written about this extensively here.

A nation that occupies so much of its collective mind with wild stories and superstition is not demonstrating memetically robust behavior, needless to say. And one of the worst exemplars, especially during the COVID pandemic, has been the behavior of our university system, who have elevated large groups of experts that mostly bully, but also manifest social phobia on a large scale about a virus that really certainly doesn’t affect their main demographic — students — at all, and really isn’t a big threat to its workforce either. It is true we have older faculty members, but if we would follow the script of the Great Barrington Declaration, we could manage that as well. Focus resources on the vulnerable. Sigh…

But the screaming and caterwauling across the academy does not bode well for long-term support by the public of the larger academic enterprise. You’d literally have to live under a rock to miss the direction of most of the dialogue, on sites like Twitter and elsewhere. Those in the laptop/ZOOM class intend to stay home and not do their jobs in person as long as they possibly can, while supported by “essential workers” who bring them food and goods from literally across the planet. Master/slave model, anyone?

And they’ll call those of us speaking out against the madness that’s driving this — the application of the various Non-Pharmaceutical Interventions (NPIs) all sorts of names, while denying the actual population’s needs, and conducting experiments that show the false efficacy of empathy disrupting interventions like masks. This goes as far as large ensembles of experiments on animal models like Syrian Golden Hamsters as proof that masks work. Even though they don’t. Clever minds (and academics are clever) can always pull something out of their hip pocket to justify their beliefs.

But it doesn’t stop what Scott Galloway, marketing prof. at NYU has called the “fist of stone coming for academia’s glass chin.” That punch will land.

That’s why it’s useful to consider things like Fall of Civilizations and the historical lessons of what happens when that fist does land.

And for that we might consider what happened in an empire I certainly did not know about — the Songhai Empire. The Songhai occupied a large part of West Africa, including the Niger River and environs, from about 1430-1592. The Wikipedia entry is not nearly as interesting nor detail-filled as Paul’s work, and I highly recommend the podcast. The major cities of the Songhai were the trading center of Gao, as well as the intellectual center of Timbuktu, known for its historic libraries full of African history. Timbuktu was a city of scholars, in many ways iconic and ahead of its time.

But when the empire came apart, and degenerated into smaller city-states, because of the development of the African/American slave trade, the locals rounded up the scholars and sold them into slavery. Cooper particularly notes this, without much reason. But I suspect (and this is my bias) it happened because the scholars were supported by the empire, and had alternately, as with the COVID majority crowd, sided with the elites in generating bullshit philosophy that did not help the people. And so when their time came — when the larger imperial mantle had vanished — the common folks knew what to do with those self-ordained elites. Off on a slave ship to a sugar plantation in the West Indies they went. You don’t sell into slavery people that are out there, helping everyone.

But there’s another part to the story — an earlier chapter involving one of the Emperors of the Songhai, Sunni Ali. Sunni Ali has a decidedly mixed picture in the history of the Songhai, alternately being praised by some as the greatest emperor (this is in the historical record) and founder of the empire, as well as being a cruel psychopath that really had it in for the scholarly community, which was centered around the city and libraries of Timbuktu. Sunni Ali invaded Timbuktu something like five times. The first time, Cooper details, and basically told all the scholars to leave the town by the following day, or he would put all the remainders to the sword. So most of the scholars packed their books and treasures, and hightailed it out of there. The thing about messing with scholars is we really can’t know the extent of Sunni Ali’s cruelty, because when you mess with people writing history, you’re not going to end up with a good look.

But there are still implications to read in between the lines. Let’s say Sunni Ali was indeed a psychopath. From other writing I’ve done on this blog, the percentage of psychopaths increase dramatically with a trauma-soaked society. Somehow, Sunni Ali got into his head, messed up though it may have been, that the scholars were the source of the problem. And once again, it’s a sign that walling yourself in your library, and likely producing philosophy that makes your patrons happy, is not the way to create reverence for your chosen passion. It becomes a numbers game about who’s going to knock on your door when the training wheels come off.

Modern scholars might reflect on their behavior during COVID, screaming for increased restrictions, for situations that never materialized, yet ended up projections of their own social phobias, and destroyed almost a whole arm of the economy. My advice has been simple — admit you’re wrong, and let’s get society going again. But that’s only recently being heeded, and the academic community is still largely on the wrong side of the science, and history on all of this.

Sword to the throat, or fist of stone to the glass chin, there’s a reason we have buried in our academic culture that commitment, in the face of adversity, to the real truth, as well as the public good. It’s a survival mechanism. And the fact that we have largely failed in that public mission with COVID does not bode well. I’d like to think there’s still time to get on the right side of both truth and history. But that time is running out — and just because academia controls the press now doesn’t mean people have no way of knowing their real, lived truth.

Ask not for whom the bell tolls.

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