About Erika Harlitz-Kern

Erika Harlitz-Kern is a freelance writer and historian. She is a Faculty Fellow at the Honors College and Adjunct Instructor at the Department of History at FIU. She has been published by The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, The Week, Atlas Obscura, Aeon Magazine, Ploughshares, Book Riot, and Quirk Books, and has appeared on The Story of God with Morgan Freeman. She his currently working on a book about the Devil's Bible.

Apples, Oranges, and Totalitarian Eugenics. A Review of Yuval Noah Harari’s HOMO DEUS

What does it mean to present something new? What does it mean when someone is appointed the spokesperson of an age?

Does it mean that the anointed one is saying something that has never been said before? Or, does it mean that what is being said is the same old stuff but in new packaging and those who believe in the status quo lap it up as further validation of their beliefs?

These are the questions that I ask myself after reading Yuval Noah Harari’s book Homo Deus. A Brief History of Tomorrow. At the back of the book, critics rave about Harari as a rod for the Zeitgeist and his uncanny ability to predict where human civilization is going. After finishing this book, I agree with none of that. If Harari is a rod for the Zeitgeist and able to predict where humanity is headed, we are in trouble.

Harari’s thesis in Homo Deus is that famine, plague, and war has prevented humanity from realizing its full potential, but now in the twenty-first century when these three are about to be eradicated, humanity will move on to pursue the goals of immortality, happiness, and divinity. The goal is to make ourselves immortal. To upgrade ourselves from Homo sapiens to Homo deus. We will achieve this upgrade through biomechanical engineering, that is through the indefinite postponement of death.

The first couple of chapters of Homo deus are thought-worthy discussions where Harari sets up the parameters of his argument. The idea that we can change the future by abandoning how history has been written in the past is a compelling one and charts out a direction for twenty-first century historians working to save the discipline from its own sordid past. The discussion on how human’s fear of death drives creativity, compassion, and ingenuity is also interesting, although not particularly groundbreaking.

The purpose of these early discussions is for Harari to set the stage for an in-depth discussion about how human beings are biological machines who can, and should, be engineered for optimal performance. The premise here is that human beings do not have a soul. That is to say, Harari dehumanizes human beings by claiming that there is no humanity to them, only biology. Because humans beings are only biology, they are not sentient. What we perceive as consciousness are neurological responses to external stimuli. Conclusion: Non-sentient beings can be experimented upon without ethical implications.

As the book progresses, it becomes evident why Harari spends so much time removing humanity from human kind. Because what Harari ends up advocating for in our future is the engineering of humans. That is to say, Harari is an advocate for eugenics on a scale never seen before.

The future that Harari predicts is based on his own worldview, which by the end of the book has revealed itself as anti-democratic, anti-human rights, pro-eugenics, pro-totalitarianism, and racist. What began as an interesting discussion on how to change history writing as we move into the future has at the end morphed into a screed against liberalism as a political ideology, the complete dehumanization of humanity, and the promotion of the opaque, ill-defined new religion of Dataism.

To get there, Harari engages in hypotheticals of the type if-so-then-this, which are never backed up by evidence. The analytical leaps he takes are gigantic. The language is consistently vague. The comparisons are in the vein of comparing apples and oranges. Historical facts are either misrepresented so that liberal achievements are turned into socialist achievements or plain misunderstandings of history, period. Singapore is called a successful no-nonsense city state, the Soviet Union is called mighty, conquest and colonization of other (read: Black and Brown) civilizations is a good thing, and Hitler was right in principle but wrong in method.

Homo Deus is an incoherent argument in favor of eugenics, totalitarianism, and colonization. View anyone who agrees with this book with great suspicion, and whatever you do, keep them away from your human and civil rights.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

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The Diaspora and the Tyranny of the Primary Source. A Review of Judith Jesch’s THE VIKING DIASPORA

Beginning sometime during the late eighth century, people left Scandinavia in large numbers to raid, trade, and settle elsewhere. The Viking world, as we now call the area across which this movement of people took place, ended up reaching from North America in the west to the Caspian Sea in the east, the Arctic Ocean in the north, and the Mediterranean in the south.

The people who settled in different places across the Viking world are the subject of The Viking Diaspora (Routledge, 2015) by Judith Jesch, Professor of Viking Studies at the University of Nottingham. Jesch is a trail blazer and a giant in the field of Viking Studies, being one of the first to work in the field as it developed during the final decades of the twentieth century.

The Viking Diaspora investigates whether the term “diaspora” can be applied to the Scandinavian settlements throughout the Viking world. This in-depth analysis of the term still reverberates across the field of Viking Studies today where “diaspora” and “the Viking world” have become nearly interchangeable.

Although I still agree that “diaspora” is a term that can be applied to the Scandinavian settlements that appeared between the ninth and eleventh centuries, I found myself being more convinced of its usefulness before reading this book than I am after. There are several reasons for this.

First, the term “diaspora” itself, and how it is defined as a theoretical term. To start the discussion about there having been a Viking diaspora, the nine criteria set up by sociologist Robert Cohen are listed, most of which are identified as applicable to the Viking world. The first two criteria on Cohen’s list define what a diaspora is as opposed to mass migration: a diaspora is migration caused by a traumatic dispersal from an original homeland, or an expansion from a homeland where large groups of people leave “in search of work, in pursuit of trade, or to further colonial ambitions.” (p. 70).

The discussion immediately gets into trouble here, because to be able to determine whether or not the migration from Scandinavia qualifies as a diaspora we need to know why people left. That is to say, we need to know why the Viking Age happened. Scholars have wrestled with this question for more than a century without reaching an answer, and, as can be expected, this book doesn’t answer the question either. It declares the traumatic event of people leaving Norway for Iceland in response to the repressive reign of Harald Fine-Hair as myth (which it is), and in the case of leaving the homeland in pursuit of opportunities and ambitions, it only manages to prove that raiding, trading, and settlement were the results of Scandinavian travels, not their cause.

Second, even though the research that the book presents is substantial, it is entirely focused on Scandinavian migration and settlement in the west. Scandinavian migration and settlements in the east are mentioned once in a while and in passing, even though there already in 2015 were enough evidence and available research of the same kinds of activities that are identified in the west.

The counterpoint to this counterpoint is one of scope. If the book were to have included the east in as much detail as it discusses the west, the book would have been too long and it probably never would have been finished. I think the problem here is that as scholars we tend to place ourselves under the tyranny of the primary source. Primary sources are important, obviously, but when we write syntheses, or present theoretical arguments like here with the term “diaspora,” too much focus on primary sources bog us down and prevent us from seeing the forest for the trees.

Third, the book declares that the Scandinavian settlements of the North Atlantic and the North Sea qualify as a diaspora because they fulfill Cohen’s criteria of collective memory, myth, and idealization of the homeland; a return movement; ethnic group consciousness maintained over time; troubled relationship with the society where the group has settled; co-responsibility for other settlements; and a distinctive creative life in the host society.

I do agree that the Scandinavian settlements in the west fulfill these criteria, but the question that the book never addresses is: What role did the kingdom of Norway and the Archdiocese of Nidaros play in this?

The Scandinavian settlements in the west were Norwegian tax lands (skattland), and their bishoprics belonged to the Archdiocese of Nidaros, which during the High Middle Ages was the largest archdiocese in medieval Europe. When reading the discussion about the Scandinavian diaspora, how and why it happened, you get the impression that the various western settlements, apart from Iceland after 1262, existed outside of any political or religious contexts, and any connections and exchanges between them happened because of individual initiatives.

The book mentions the kingdom of Norway once in its final chapter, and in doing so, it puts into question its entire argument: “This North Atlantic community was held together by the rule of the Norwegian king and then gradually fell apart.” (p. 198–199) The examples provided to illustrate how the community fell apart reveals a correlation between the retreat of the Norwegian kingdom from the North Atlantic and the collapse of the diaspora, which leads to the question: Was there a diaspora at all, or did it all hold together for as long as it did because of the kingdom of Norway?

Meanwhile in the east, neither the Swedish kingdom nor the Archdiocese of Uppsala ever reached into what is today Russia and Ukraine, and still, the Scandinavians who raided, traded, and settled there became part of society while maintaining a Scandinavian identity and connections to the homeland. Which leads to the question that perhaps there was a Scandinavian diaspora after all, but in the east? However, that is a different book.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

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Fort Mose. Where Freed Black Africans Enlisted with the Spanish and Fought Against the British.

We wanted to do something to celebrate what would have been Ronnie James Dio’s 80th birthday, had he not died from stomach cancer in 2010. We decided to go on a road trip with Ronnie James Dio as our soundtrack. Our destination: Fort Mose, St Augustine, FL.

St Augustine is a fascinating place. It is the oldest still existing European city in the United States. Founded in 1565 by Spanish colonizers, St Augustine became the fortified town that served as a bulwark against the British colonies further north. Apart from a brief stint under the British between 1763 and 1783, Florida remained under Spanish rule until 1822 when the former Spanish provinces were formally made territories of the United States. Florida became the 27th state of the union in 1845.

The British and Spanish Empires clashed several times at St Augustine. To recruit soldiers and also as a jab to the British, the Spanish let it be known among the enslaved population of the Carolinas and Georgia that those who managed to escape to Florida and St Augustine would be granted their freedom provided that they swore loyalty to the king of Spain and converted to Catholicism.

The first enslaved Africans to successfully escape arrived in St Augustine in 1687. The group—eight men, two women, and one child—were the first of over a hundred people who made it through. In 1738, they were given their own town just north of St Augustine. It was named Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose. The purpose of the town was to serve as a first defense against British attack from the north. This is why the place is better known as Fort Mose (MOH-see).

Reenactors of the Spanish militia of free Black Africans at Fort Mose.
Source: Fort Mose Historical Society.

Fort Mose developed into a thriving agricultural community where people started families and grew crops on their own farms. Though located outside of St Augustine, life at Fort Mose was deeply connected to the town and to the Native Americans in the area. And even though those who escaped from the British colonies were granted their freedom upon arrival in Florida, this is not to say that slavery did not exist in the Spanish colony. Parts of St Augustine’s and Fort Mose’s populations were enslaved, but under Spanish law, not British. At the same time, there was a population of free Black Africans in St Augustine who had never been enslaved, but who had enlisted with the Spanish in the Mediterranean.

There were two settlements at Fort Mose, today known as Fort Mose I and Fort Mose II. Fort Mose I was destroyed when the British tried to take St Augustine in 1740 and failed. The population of Ft Mose was moved into St Augustine where they remained until 1752 when they were ordered to return to Ft Mose and rebuild it. Ft Mose was abandoned in 1763 when the British temporarily took control of Florida. Knowing that the British would enslave all Black inhabitants of the area, the people of Ft Mose relocated to Cuba.

Today, Fort Mose is a designated Florida Historic Park with a museum and a boardwalk to where the fort used to be. Nothing is visible above ground but extensive archaeological excavations have revealed much about the everyday life there. The museum at the park is small but informative. There is a boardwalk that will take you to an outlook over the area of Fort Moses I and II.

Fort Mose II.
The second settlement at Fort Mose was built on the island straight ahead. During Fort Mose’s existence, the fort was surrounded by agricultural fields and pastures. Today, these are brackish marshes caused by rising sea levels and human interference with Florida’s natural ecosystems.
Photo: Erika Harlitz Kern

Fort Mose is an important part of North American colonial history that speaks of the role that Black Africans played in the early hybrid communities that developed as a result of European imperialism. History is not a monolith, and the more we learn about the complexities of the past, the richer we are for it.

Sources:

Florida State Parks, “History of Fort Mose.”

Fort Mose Historical Society, “The Fort Mose Story.”

Florida Museum, “Fort Mose. America’s Black Colonial Fortress of Freedom.”

Wikipedia, “Fort Mose Historic State Park.”

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

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Update on the Codex Gigas/Devil’s Bible Book Project

Bookend of the Devil from the Devil’s Bible, purchased at the National Library in Sweden. Photo: Erika Harlitz-Kern

On this day, July 15, in 2015, I published a post on Book Riot that would take my life in a new direction. The post was titled 10 Things You Should Know about the Codex Gigas/Devil’s Bible. I chose the Devil’s Bible and the listicle format because I had problems coming up with an idea for a post, so I used to a simple format to write about something I already knew and that fascinated me.

Three years later, in 2018, my listicle about the Codex Gigas was one of the evergreen Book Riot posts that drew traffic to the site. If I remember correctly, that post alone drove about 90,00 views to the site during the year of 2018. When I left Book Riot in June 2019, the post had already racked up more than 50,000 views during the first six months of that year.

In the late summer of 2018, I received a cold email from one of the producers of the TV-series The Story of God with Morgan Freeman. They had read my post on Book Riot and wondered if I would be interested in filming a segment about the manuscript. I of course accepted and spent an amazing 24 hrs in the Czech Republic. We filmed the segment about the Devil’s Bible at the Broumov Monastery using a life-sized replica of this fantastic manuscript as our prop. The segment would later become part of the first episode of the third season of The Story of God with Morgan Freeman, and aired on the National Geographic Channel in March 2019.

All of these things put together made me realize that there is a bigger interest in the Devil’s Bible than I had thought. I also realized that there was no book about the Devil’s Bible available in English.

So I decided to write one.

I have been working on this book about the Devil’s Bible since the spring of 2019. During this time, I have researched the manuscript’s history and the medieval history of the Czech Republic. I have learned about medieval book production, the history of monasticism, the history of evil, the history of Heaven and Hell, and the history of the Devil. I have gone through the digitized copy of the Codex Gigas and taken notes on every single page of the manuscript to get to know it and its creator better. This task alone took me almost nine months. I have written a first draft, which made clear to me that there were parts of my book project that needed additional research. This additional research took me another six months to complete.

Finally, this week, I started writing the second draft of my book, a draft I thought I would have started a year ago.

My book about the Codex Gigas/the Devil’s Bible is currently a work in progress. I expect to finish the second draft sometime early next year. I would be surprised if I finish sooner, considering that the university fall semester starts again in August.

When I finish the book, there is still no guarantee that it will be published. The journey towards publication is a different type of journey from writing with other forces at work. It could very well be that no agent or publisher is interested in picking up my book. It is a reality I must be ready to face.

But even if the book never gets published, researching and writing about the Codex Gigas/the Devil’s Bible has already been fulfilling and rewarding because I have learned so much in the process. Not only that, I have created a university course about the history of Central Europe based on what this project has taught me. If that turns out to be the only outcome of this project then that is a good one.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

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When It’s in the Walls… A Review of Nell Irivin Painter’s THE HISTORY OF WHITE PEOPLE.

From letters of recommendation for college applications to buying insurance, scratch the surface of any American institution and you will find racism, antisemitism, or both. Over the past number of years, voices have been raised in shock over the increase in American society and political discourse of overt White supremacy, the racist belief that White people are superior to all other races. This is not who we are! these voices exclaim. It’s un-American to be a racist! But as Nell Irvin Painter demonstrates in her book The History of White People, being a racist, and being a White supremacist, is as American as apple pie.

Though published already in 2010, Painter’s history of the White race in America is as relevant as ever. Flipping the coin on the historiography of race, Painter, Professor Emerita at Princeton University, puts the White race under the microscope to investigate how the group seen as the default in American culture invented itself.

Painter’s findings are as fascinating as they are revolting. Over and over, Painter demonstrates how scholars, intellectuals, philanthropists, and others turned themselves into intellectual contortionists in order to build pseudo-scientific arguments that prove why they, because of their pale skin and Protestant Christian beliefs, are superior to all other groups, especially Jews and Blacks. Particularly interesting to read is how these labyrinthine discussions over time created a contradictory, yet clear, origin of White Americans in Scandinavia.

As racism turned into race science, scholars made use of eugenics, genealogy, phrenology, anthropology, and history to create an internal hierarchy within the White race in America where Nordics, Anglo-Saxons, and Caucasians are the top three best groups to belong to. These three groups are intellectual products with no connection to reality, either in the United States or Europe, but as we have daily proof, the belief in them and the violence that this belief provokes is very much real. As Painter so convincingly demonstrates, even those of us who refute the ideas of racism and White supremacy can’t escape them, because racism and White supremacy are built into the walls of that shining city on a hill we call America.

The History of White People is essential reading to understanding racism, antisemitism, and White Supremacy in the United States today.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

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