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When Historians Go Bananas
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When Historians Go Bananas

The relentless search for racism in the past has reached the point of diminishing returns.

(Photo from Getty Images)

Hey, 

If you’re a conservative of a certain age, it’s almost impossible you haven’t heard some version of the joke about the New York Times (or Washington Post) covering an impending extinction-causing asteroid impact: “World Ending Tomorrow; Women, Minorities Hardest Hit.”

Well, here’s a BBC story on how the Black Death, aka the Great Pestilence, aka the Great Mortality, hit women of color hardest.

Researchers at the Museum of London conducted a study which, in the words of the BBC, “found there were significantly higher proportions of people of colour and those of Black African descent in plague burials compared to non-plague burials.”   

I mean, don’t get me wrong. This is actually interesting. A lot of folks understandably assume there were no people of African descent in places like Britain until relatively recently. That’s not true

But let me offer just a little bit of skepticism. The study is based on the remains of 145 individuals from a total of three cemeteries. And, according to the researchers, the disproportionate share of black women demonstrates the “devastating effects” of “premodern structural racism.”  

According the BBC article, the Black Death killed 35,000 Londoners, or up to half the population in 1348. Call me crazy, but that suggests there were a lot more than three cemeteries full of plague victims (not counting all the bodies that were burned or thrown in the Thames). In fact, we know there were lots of mass graves because, you know, a staggering number of people died. According to the write-up in the Guardian, of the 145 bodies examined at those three cemeteries, about a third (49) died from the plague. And of those, nine victims were of African ancestry. 

From this we are to conclude that London suffered from “premodern structural racism?” 

Eh, maybe. 

Or maybe the bodies disposed of in these cemeteries died near these cemeteries and that’s why they were put there. Or maybe when the plague afflicted a certain part of the city where African-descended Londoners were overrepresented, these cemeteries were the ones that were open for business. It’s also possible that black Londoners were of sufficiently low status—they were disproportionately domestic servants—that these mass graves were designated as the place for low-status victims. 

I mean outbreaks of the plague don’t occur uniformly across cities. In Ancient Rome, you might get an outbreak of some terrible pestilence in the Greek quarter. But going by that information alone doesn’t mean we can conclude that an Ancient Roman gravesite is proof of structural anti-Hellenism (which, in fairness, was a thing). If a plague hit New York City, it’s entirely plausible that, five centuries later, the mass graves near Chinatown would be disproportionately filled with Asian corpses. That wouldn’t necessarily mean future researchers could conclude that New York was structurally anti-Asian. 

The past screws with historians all the time. We know a lot more about the ancient Roman trade in things that were transported in amphora than we know about the trade in other things because clay pots can survive in shipwrecks indefinitely. That doesn’t mean that they didn’t trade other stuff. 

Look, I’m not trying to be a jerk here. I’m sure poor women of African descent in medieval London didn’t have it great compared to rich aristocrats or even poor “white” women, who also died in droves from the plague. But it’s also worth noting that medieval Europe sucked in virtually every material way compared to today (we’ll leave the spiritual comparisons for another time). Were women and minorities hardest hit? In some ways, sure, absolutely. In other ways, probably not.  

In other words, racism could explain why they were disproportionately buried in these places while not being proof that they disproportionately died from the plague or that disproportionately dying from the plague is by itself evidence of “structural racism.”  Heck, I’m sure there are some plague-truthers who’d be eager to point out that there are “shockingly” few Jewish plague victims in mid-14th century mass graves. Of course, that wouldn’t be because the Jews were “tipped off” about the plague or, as RFK Jr. might speculate, because the plague was designed to spare Ashkenazi Jews. It would be because the entire Jewish population had been expelled in 1290.

“[The plague] is portrayed as being an indiscriminate killer, but we actually know it wasn’t,” Rebecca Redfern, one of the authors of the study, told the Guardian. Because, as the Guardian notes, “Previous studies have shown those who experienced poor nutrition in the famine that preceded the plague had a higher risk of dying from the disease.” 

Well, yeah. That makes sense. But I still think it’s fine to say that the plague was an indiscriminate killer in that it didn’t discriminate about who it infected. It was just more effective in killing the weak and undernourished because that’s how most plagues roll. Onyeka Nubia, a scholar of black history in Britain, “cautioned” that “historical evidence be treated objectively,” in the words of the Guardian. He says, “We have a responsibility to make sure that this information does not get divided between left and right in a culture war.”

Look, I’m pretty down on needless culture war brouhahas. But this strikes me as working the refs. The very idea of imposing concepts like “structural racism” to 1300s London is itself a salvo in the culture war. After all, the actual concept of structural racism depends on ideas about race that literally hadn’t been invented yet. I mean, if this is true, what happens to all of the work the left has invested in the idea that the Enlightenment invented racism?

The retroactive imposition of modern concepts on the past is always fraught. For instance, some academics now insist that you can’t even tell the difference between male and female skeletons not because that’s what science says—scientists definitely can tell the difference—but because that’s what the new fads about sex differences and transgenderism demand. 

Still, I have no doubt that anti-black bigotry existed in some form in pre-modern London. But to think that “structural racism” is a concept that significantly illuminates 14th century England is bananas. And the relentless search for racism as some kind of Rosetta stone for the past—and the present—has reached the point of diminishing returns. 

Ba-na-nah.

Speaking of bananas, have you ever heard that it’s bad luck to bring a banana on a boat?  Well, strap in.

I’ve had a mild interest in nautical superstition ever since I was a kid. It’s probably because my name is Jonah. At summer camp, I met a kid who grew up around boats and he couldn’t believe that my parents would name me Jonah, given that the name was synonymous with bad luck. Here’s the pithy summary from Wikipedia: 

A “Jonah” is a long-established expression among sailors, meaning a person (either a sailor or a passenger) who is bad luck, which is based on the Biblical prophet JonahClergymen are considered bad luck, as they are all of Jonah’s ilk. Redheads and women are also to be avoided as passengers.

So good luck to any ginger priests—or priestesses!—named Jonah who want to go on a cruise. 

Anyway, the first time I was told that bananas were bad luck, I went on a deep dive into structural anti-bananaism. It turns out that it’s what social scientists would call an overdetermined phenomena—i.e., there are multiple sufficient explanations. 

Herewith some of them: 

Bananas, like hope, float. When a cargo ship carrying bananas and a bunch of other stuff sank, only the bananas would float to the surface. So the poor banana got the blame. 

Banana peels are slippery—they cause accidents and accidents are dangerous on boats. ‘Nuff said. 

Bananas “scare” away fish. Okay, they don’t actually scare away fish, at least to my knowledge. But because ships carrying bananas had to go very fast to get them to port before they spoiled, sailors trolling for fish were often going too fast to catch any fish. They blamed the bananas.

The Bermuda triangle or something. The trade route from the New World to Europe took ships through rough seas. Sailors often blamed the cargo for mishaps.

Bananas are the scythe of Chronos. Bananas emit ethylene gas as they ripen. The problem is that ethylene gas causes other fruits and vegetables to ripen very quickly (which is why if you want to get unripe fruit to ripen, put it in a bowl with a banana or two). Poorly ventilated cargo holds full of a wide variety of produce would arrive in port with the perfectly ripe, but incandescently evil, bananas sitting amid giant pools of rotted goo. Hence the bananas must be bad luck. 

Bananas, somewhat like rock ‘n’ roll,  cause spontaneous combustion. The same process of ethylene-induced hyper-ripening produces a byproduct: alcohol. Every now and then a stray spark would ignite the alcohol and the whole ship would burst into a banana-fueled inferno. 

Finally, bananas are the underground railroad for Satan’s minions. Because venomous spiders and snakes like to live in bananas, sailors carrying them would disproportionately get bitten and die or generally have a very unpleasant time at sea. Again, they blamed the bananas. 

Banana bias.

Now, why do I bring this up? Several reasons. I think it’s interesting. Because it’s my frick’n “news”letter, and I’ll talk about bananas if I want to. (Don’t try to appeal my banana musing.) 

But the most relevant reason is that I think this is a useful illustration of my earlier point about how the past can screw with us. We look backward a bit like the drunk who looks for his car keys under the traffic light because that’s where the light is good. We draw conclusions from the evidence the past deigns to bequeath us. 

Humans have the faculty of reason, but reasoning alone can steer us in all sorts of weird directions. In philosophy, this is called “availability error” and in statistics and psychology “availability bias.” It’s closely related to recency bias—we make decisions based on the stuff we remember, not the often really important stuff we forgot. This is true for individual people and whole societies, which is why some people in every era are convinced things have never been worse. 

It’s also closely related to, well, just bias. There are many kinds of bias—talk about overdetermined phenomena!—but here’s one way to think of it. When everyone is getting attention and praise because they’re talking about structural racism, climate change, economic inequality, Donald Trump, cultural Marxism, whatever, there’s a very strong incentive to shoehorn whatever you’re working on into that stuff, especially when you yourself are caught up in the hysteria.

The other day I discovered a prominent doctor in San Francisco, Rupa Marya, who literally argues that colonialism causes capitalism and racism. Wait, let me finish. That’s a highly debatable proposition, but hardly a novel or interesting claim these days. She goes on. Capitalism and racism in turn birth everything from white supremacy and—I defecate you negatory—“human supremacy,” femicide, child abuse, and then ultimately … wait for it … inflammation. I don’t mean inflammation of outrage at the lack of social justice or something. I mean like chronic inflammation of, like, internal organs and stuff. Medical inflammation.  And therefore … #FreePalestine

Okay, that was a pretty gratuitous tangent, I just thought it was funny enough to include. But it does get to my larger point. Humans are pattern-recognizing creatures. But pattern recognition alone does not a reasonable creature make. Those sailors were definitely onto something when they recognized the banana curve of death. But that doesn’t mean that bananas are cursed. Some archeologists found an interesting pattern in a snippet of mass death in 14th century London, but they—I believe—brought other biases into it to make sense of the pattern. Again, maybe not. But I’ll need more data before I come anywhere close to buying the idea that Edward III’s England was rife with structural racism in significant ways. And only someone—a medical doctor no less!—who has a lot of psychological and ideological baggage outside of their expertise can look at the more than 130 million Americans who suffer from chronic inflammation and declare, “Aha! It must be the colonialism!” (I mean a lot of rich, white, beneficiaries of capitalism suffer from chronic inflammation. If the perpetrators and the victims share the same ailment, maybe the theory is off?). 

On Friday, I wrote about antisemitism and the tendency of some people to look for things they don’t like, spot some Jews on the scene (or infer from their absence), and reason backward that “the Jews” were responsible for the bad thing. This too, is an example of letting your biases find the patterns you want in the noise of the past—or the present. 

And it’s all bananas. 

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving everybody. 

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.