LESSONS OF TIMBUKTU

America’s cultural divide runs deep. The far-right’s vote for Donald Trump protested the “elites.” Considerable danger lies in this. We find a prime example in a region of the world usually ignored—sub-Saharan Africa.

What are elites? Trump supporters generally consider them to be inhabitants of big cities on either coast and holders of college and post-graduate degrees. Diplomas concentrate heavily in science—hard and soft—medicine, journalism, the humanities and the arts. Education aside, elites include artists and those involved with the arts.

What’s the gripe? These educations and careers invite and require continuously questioning assumptions. Traditional thoughts may be toppled. This makes conservatives uncomfortable.

Note that many college graduates voted for Trump. Still, Hillary Clinton carried grads 52% to 43% (Pew Research). I suspect that most Trump supporters with college degrees studied business, law and engineering. Some computer science. Trump also found favor with graduates of Christian evangelical institutions.

Where might dissatisfaction with elites lead America? Joshua Hammer offers an intriguing view in his New York Times (fake news?) best-seller (read by elites?) The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu and Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts.

Timbuktu in the West African nation of Mali constitutes a symbol of remoteness. Yet in the late 14th century, the town emerged as a center for Muslim religious and cultural scholarship. Academics visited from many corners of the Muslim world. Trade grew. Timbuktu became a wealthy city of the Songhai Empire. It did business with North African camel caravans trekking south through the Sahara Desert carrying salt and boats plying the Niger River from the Atlantic coast bringing goods from Europe. In 1375, Timbuktu appeared on a European map drawn by the Jewish cartographer Abraham Cresques.

“Despite the dedication to religious scholarship, the Islam that took root in Timbuktu was never very strict,” Hammer writes. Scholarship, inquiry and the city grew together. Unfortunately, the city fell more than once to rulers demanding their strict interpretation of Muslim law. They looted and destroyed Timbuktu’s vast libraries. Yet area residents hid hundreds of thousands of manuscripts and passed them down from generation to generation. Many survived in reasonable shape.

Hammer details the efforts of a young archivist, Abdel Kader Haidara, who over three decades starting in the 1980s located, purchased and brought to safety 350,000 centuries-old manuscripts. Yet Haidara found himself having to move protect the manuscripts he’d collected from jihadists of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, who loathe science, philosophy and literature.

Hammer’s book suggests a parallel in the United States. Trump’s base sees their America facing an existential threat from liberal elites who question their views of the Constitution, the Gospels, Christianity and “accepted” values. Political activism along with private Christian schools and colleges, and Christian home schooling, seek to keep unwanted ideas at bay. Faith replaces empiricism to negate the acknowledgment and understanding of such issues as evolution and global warming along with separation of church and state.

Today, Timbuktu is a backwater of 55,000 people living in mud-brick homes. The desert has encroached.

If the United States is to thrive as a democracy capable of providing for the wellbeing of all its people and maintain global relevance, we must appreciate what once made Timbuktu great. We must also guard against what destroyed that greatness.

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4 Comments


  1. Jim Shay
    Oct 06, 2017

    I highly recommend the book. It’s a great story of dedication and adventure. Wonderful read.


    • David
      Oct 06, 2017

      Indeed, it’s a wonderful book. Will non-elites read it? DO they read? (They can read.) I’m not sure.


  2. Tracy
    Oct 07, 2017

    so we need to form a posse to save the Constitution now? As if I didn’t have enough on my plate…

    shabbat shalom

    Tracy


    • David
      Oct 10, 2017

      Did I say that? Don’t believe I did. What we need to do is understand that attacks against knowledge and those who pursue and communicate it attack freedom of speech and the exchange of ideas—those we like and those we don’t. All totalitarian regimes seek to control knowledge and the means of communication.

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