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History as Mystery

History as Mystery

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by Michael Parenti

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In a lively challenge to mainstream history, Michael Parenti does battle with a number of mass-marketed historical myths. He shows how history's victors distort and suppress the documentary record in order to perpetuate their power and privilege. And he demonstrates how historians are influenced by the professional and class environment in which they work. Pursuing


In a lively challenge to mainstream history, Michael Parenti does battle with a number of mass-marketed historical myths. He shows how history's victors distort and suppress the documentary record in order to perpetuate their power and privilege. And he demonstrates how historians are influenced by the professional and class environment in which they work. Pursuing themes ranging from antiquity to modern times, from the Inquisition and Joan of Arc to the anti-labor bias of present-day history books, History as Mystery demonstrates how past and present can inform each other and how history can be a truly exciting and engaging subject.

"Michael Parenti, always provocative and eloquent, gives us a lively as well as valuable critique of orthodoxy posing as ‘history.’"—Howard Zinn, author of A People's History of the United States

"Deserves to become an instant classic." —Bertell Ollman, author of Dialectical Investigations

Those who keep secret the past, and lie about it, condemn us to repeat it. Michael Parenti unveils the history of falsified history, from the early Christian church to the present: a fascinating, darkly revelatory tale." —Daniel Ellsberg, author of The Pentagon Papers

"Solid if surely controversial stuff."—Kirkus

Michael Parenti, PhD Yale, is an internationally known author and lecturer. He is one of the nation's leadiing progressive political analysts. He is the author of over 275 published articles and twenty books, including Against Empire, Dirty Truths, and Blackshirts and Reds. His writings are published in popular periodicals, scholarly journals, and his op-ed pieces have been in leading newspapers such as the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. His informative and entertaining books and talks have reached a wide range of audiences in North America and abroad.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Parenti (Democracy for the Few, etc.) argues that history is written by the victors, and he doesn't like it one bit. That's mostly because, as a progressive, his sympathies lie largely with history's losers. Historians, Parenti insists, have promoted gross miseducation across the board, abandoning "what really happened" in favor of a "pro-business, anti-labor" view of history. In his effort to "set things right," he turns, first, to the writings of historical textbooks, blaming "the powers that be"--historians, publicists, publishers, Publishers Weekly, the culture at large--for sustaining a "mainstream orthodoxy." Parenti then turns to Christianity's suppression of paganism, seen microscopically in Constantine's silencing of Porphyry, to conclude that, as with all hegemonies, Christian teaching and preaching is really just an "ideological justification for the worldly interests of a ruthless slaveholding class." The problem is that Parenti is a much better complainer than he is an explainer. He's at his best when he localizes his argument in a chapter that takes on the "strange death" of President Zachary Taylor. Only there is the mysterious process by which speculation transforms into official record given ample analysis. Parenti wants a people's history, not just another account of the "gentrification of history." Yet the actual story here is slanted, jumbled--tailored to fit Parenti's all-too-familiar contentions, illustrated at times with bullet points. (Sept.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A somewhat scattered but well-considered manifesto for a history that serves as a weapon "in the age-old war for our intellectual emancipation." A quarter of college seniors cannot come within 50 years of pinpointing Columbus's arrival in America; 40 percent cannot give the dates of the Civil War; most cannot distinguish WWI from WWII, except to guess that one preceded the other. Small wonder, says left-wing historian Parenti (Dirty Truths, 1996, etc.), for most written history is "an ideologically safe commodity" that serves the interests of the ruling class—and that in any event is generally pretty uninteresting fare. At points in this collection of essays, Parenti examines the nature of American history textbooks, which, he believes, ignore or undervalue the contributions of ethnic minorities, women, and labor; considers the influence of Christianity on European culture, a tradition, he argues, that is replete with misogyny, anti-Semitism, and book-burning; and generally offers assessments of the nation's past that would give Lynne Cheney and William Bennett fits. Opponents of left-wing points of view will immediately dismiss Parenti's arguments as more liberal breast-beating; proponents of those points of view will likely admire this book, which suffers only from a tendency to repeat attention-getting slogans on matters of racism, sexism, and classism. Historically minded readers on the left and right alike will find Parenti's account of the 1991 exhumation of President Zachary Taylor—who, some scholars have suspected, was assassinated by poisoning—to be of much interest. Parenti takes issue with the conclusions of that long-after-the-fact inquest, writing that "thechief medical examiner's investigation pretended to a precision and thoroughness it never attained," while the media "eagerly cloaked the inquest with an undeserved conclusiveness." Solid if surely controversial stuff.

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City Lights Books
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History as Mystery

By Michael Parenti City Lights Books

Copyright © 1999 Michael Parenti
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780872863576

Chapter One

History as Miseducation

The term "history" refers both to past happenings and to the study of them, both the experiencing of a social process and the recording of it. However, the distinction is not an absolute one. For those who write history help influence the course of events by shaping our understanding of things past and present. Conversely, those who actively participate in a historical event, especially if they occupy elite policy positions, often manipulate the materials needed for documenting that event. In addition, there are some individuals who both make history and write it.

Mainstream Orthodoxy

    Among those involved in manufacturing history are political leaders, military commanders, journalists, television producers, government and corporate scribes, clergy, amateur investigators, textbook editors, schoolteachers, retooled fiction writers, and academics. An individual can be both a historian and an active participant in historic events. In antiquity, among those who both engaged in events and recorded them were Polybius, Cicero, Caesar, Sallust, and Dio Cassius. Polybius believed that experience in public affairs was an essential qualification for the historian: "Until that day comes, there will be norespite from the errors that historians will commit." Even if we agree with him that political experience is a necessary qualification, it is hardly a sufficient guarantee against error—and it often invites distortions of its own.

    In the first century A.D. Josephus wrote his history of the Jewish uprising against Rome after playing a prominent political and military role in that struggle. And centuries before, there was Thucydides, a military leader who wrote a monumental history of the very Peloponnesian War in which he had participated. The nineteenth century gave us Guizot, Macaulay, Mommsen, Rotteck, and Thiers. It was Thiers who presided over the bloody suppression and mass executions of thousands of revolutionary Parisian Communards.

    To any list of historian-cum-political officeholders, or political officeholder-cum-historians, we could add Gibbon, Tocqueville, Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, populist leader Tom Watson, and French socialist leader Jean Jaurès, who took time to write a history of the French Revolution. Later on, there were antifascist scholar-politicians like Herman Rauschning and Gaetano Salvemini. In our own day, alas, we must make do with Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Henry Kissinger, and Zbigniew Brzezinski.

    Winston Churchill was supposed to have assured his Tory associates, "History will be kind to us, gentlemen, for I plan to write it." With a concern that history be kind to them and with the additional inducement of munificent advances from their publishers, political leaders regularly produce self-serving memoirs whose contributions to historical truth are often parsimonious.

     Perhaps the premier example of the politician/historian is Churchill himself. Gordon Lewis sees Churchill as someone who could never quite make up his mind whether he was a historian writing about politics or a politician writing about history. My understanding of Churchill is that he strongly preferred vita activa to vita quieta; he was above all a political animal whose historiography served to justify his leadership and his worldview.

    How his history supported his politics and, more generally, British ruling-class ideology would itself be the subject of an interesting study. Clive Ponting relates how impressed he was by Churchill's study of World War II with its wonderful language and dramatic narrative. But years later, reading through war documents in the Public Record Office, he realized that much of the account had been oversimplified or omitted, and that Churchill's history "despite all its virtues ... is a politician's memoir designed to relate his version of events and to present the story as he wanted." Churchill portrayed his country as a lonely citadel of freedom valiantly holding out against Hitler, determined to fight to the bitter end on the beaches and in the towns. Without slighting the heroic dedication of the many Britons who sacrificed so much to help defeat Nazism, we should note that as early as 1940 Great Britain was financially depleted with few military or industrial assets at hand, yet expending much of its scarce and precious resources to keep the restive peoples of its vast empire forcibly subjugated. For the Tory government, maintaining the empire was at least as great an imperative as defeating the Nazis.

     British leaders seriously considered coming to peace terms with Berlin so that they might make common cause with the Nazis against their real bête noir, Russian Bolshevism. Most members of the British ruling class did not merely seek to appease Hitler but admired him and his anti-Soviet crusade. While ostensibly at war with Germany, Britain's Tory leaders sought passage of Allied forces through Scandinavia and Finland in order to launch an attack against the Soviet Union—an action Churchill supported even after the Finns had signed a peace treaty with Moscow in March 1940 and at a time when the Nazis were overrunning Europe. All this fits poorly with the image of a British government single-mindedly dedicated to resisting Nazism at all costs.

    As with most British and American accounts of the war, Churchill's history ignores the major role played by the Soviet Union in Nazism's defeat, and the horrendous losses in life and property sustained by the Soviets fighting on a scale that was many times greater than anything on the Western front.

    Much of the distortion within mainstream history is neither willful nor conscious, one may presume, since it is an outgrowth of the overall political ideology and culture. If there is no conscious intent to miseducate, it is because many historians who claim to be disciples of impartial scholarship have little sense of how they are wedded to ideological respectability and inhospitable to counterhegemonic views. This synchronicity between their individual beliefs and the dominant belief system is treated as "objectivity." Departures from this ideological orthodoxy are themselves dismissed as ideological.

    Let me add that much of the distortion is willful, perpetrated by those who are consciously dedicated to burying the past or shaping our understanding of it to suit their interests. In a moment of candor Churchill himself told William Deakin, who had helped him write The Second World War, "This is not history, this is my case."

    Few mainstream historians seem willing to reflect upon how the power structure of their society influences their discipline. Many, including some who claim to be on the left, are discomforted by such Marxist-sounding terms as "ruling class history." They consider the label undeserved because history is written by professionally trained academics and other independent investigators who are not members of any ruling class. But such history can still be heavily influenced by the ruling ideology. Nor do you have to be a member of the ruling class to serve its interests. That a religious belief is propagated by its lower clergy and ordinary adherents does not make it any less the hierarchy's dictum. Indeed, such lower echelon transmission is an essential factor in maintaining the belief's hegemony.

    It is also argued that there is no ruling class history because there is no ruling class in a pluralistic democratic country like the United States. In fact, it is a matter of public record that a tiny portion of the population controls the lion's share of the wealth and most of the command positions of state, manufacturing, banking, investment, publishing, higher education, philanthropy, and media. And while not totally immune to popular pressures, these individuals exercise a preponderant influence over what is passed off as public information and democratic discourse.

    The ruling class is the politically active component of the owning class, the top captains of finance and policy who set the standards for investment and concentration of capital at home and abroad. They play a dominant role in determining the wage scales and working conditions of millions. They strip away employee benefits and downsize whole workforces, while warring tirelessly against organized labor. They set rates of interest and they control the money supply, including the national currency itself. They enjoy oligarchic control of the principal technologies of industrial production and mass communication. They and their adjuncts populate the boards of directors (or trustees or regents) of corporations, universities, and foundations. They repeatedly commit serious corporate crimes but almost never go to prison. They raid the public treasury for corporate welfare subsidies, for risk capital, bailout capital, export capital, research and development capital, promotional capital, and equity capital. They plunder the public domain, dominating the airwaves, destroying ancient forests, polluting lands and waters with industrial effluent, depleting the ozone layer, and putting the planet's entire ecology at risk for the sake of quick profits. At home and abroad, they are faithfully served by the national security state with all its covert and repressive apparatus. Their faithful acolytes occupy the more powerful security agency positions and cabinet posts regardless of what party or personality controls the White House. They create international agreements like NAFTA and GATT that circumvent the democratic protections of sovereign states and undermine the ability of popular government to develop public-sector services for anyone other than these powerful interests. Their overall economic domination and their campaign contributions, media monopoly, high-paid lobbyists, and public relations experts regularly predetermine who will be treated as major political candidates and which policy parameters will prevail. These ruling elites are neither omnipotent nor infallible. They suffer confusions and setbacks, and have differences among themselves. They sometimes grope for ways to secure and advance their interests in the face of changing circumstances, learning by trial and error. Through all this, their capital accumulation continues unabated. Though relatively few in number they get the most of what there is to get. Their wealth serves their power, and their power serves their wealth.

The Hunt for Real History

    The most comprehensive federal survey, released by the U.S. Department of Education, finds that nearly six in ten high school seniors lack even a rudimentary knowledge of American history. A survey conducted by the Gallup Organization shows that 25 percent of college seniors cannot come within a half-century of locating the date of Columbus's voyage. About 40 percent do not know when the Civil War occurred. Most cannot describe the differences between World War I and World War II (though they suspect that World War II came after World War I). Another Gallup poll finds that 60 percent of adult Americans are unable to name the president who ordered the atomic bomb to be dropped on Japan, and 22 percent have no idea that such an attack ever occurred. A 1995 survey in the New York Times reports that only 49 percent of U.S. adults knew that the Soviet Union had been an ally of the United States during World War II, with the rest either having no opinion or thinking that the Soviets were noncombatants or on the enemy side.

    The picture is no better in regard to current affairs. A survey by the National Assessment of Educational Programs reveals that 47 percent of the nation's high school juniors do not know that each state has two U.S. senators. A 1998 survey reports that nearly 95 percent of U.S. teenagers can name the lead actor in Fresh Prince of Bel Air, a television show, but less than 2 percent know the name of the chief justice of the Supreme Court. And while only 41 percent of teenagers can name the three branches of government, 59 percent can name the Three Stooges—demonstrating once again that television is a more commanding teacher than school.

    Almost all these surveys focus on U.S. history. Were questions asked about the history of other nations and pre-U.S. epochs, the figures would be even more dismal. This historical and political illiteracy should come as no surprise. Most states require not more than a year of history in high school, and some states—like Alaska, Michigan, and Pennsylvania—require no history of any kind. According to the National Center for Education Standards, as of 1994, fewer than 19 percent of high-school and middle-school social studies teachers had majored or minored in history.

    But something else is operating besides mass ignorance and mass media. The important question is, what is so desirable about knowing most of these facts in the first place, especially if they remain unconnected to any meaningful socio-historic explanation and often mask more than they reveal? To be sure, we cannot grasp the significance of an event or epoch if we do not even know it existed. But if all we know are a few bare facts, we comprehend little of importance. Contrary to the popular adage, it is seldom the case that the facts speak for themselves. While factual data are a prerequisite for understanding social realities, we must find ways of making sense of them, of appreciating their import and showing their relevance to larger developments. As Lord Acton put it: "History exhibits truths as well as facts—when [the facts] are seen not merely as they follow, but as they correspond; not merely as they have happened but as they are paralleled."

    Instead of just wishing more students knew that the Monroe Doctrine was issued in 1823 and that it attempted to discourage European colonization in the Western Hemisphere, we might want to ask why U.S. leaders felt compelled to introduce this "doctrine." Was it an altruistic gesture to protect Latin countries from European despotism, as some claimed at that time and many textbooks have maintained ever since? Was it to assure the peace and safety of the United States, as the doctrine itself declares? Or could a major consideration have been to guarantee a free hand for U.S. investors in the Western Hemisphere? Secretary of State John Quincy Adams (a principal shaper of the Monroe Doctrine) understood that even the British were aware that "the new Spanish-American markets simply had to be kept open" for U.S. commercial interests, and free from colonization by the continental powers.

    Such considerations could lead to others: Does U.S. foreign policy, as embodied in declarations such as the Monroe Doctrine, represent the interests of the American people? How so, or why not? Why would U.S. policy be so considerate of investor interests abroad? Why do U.S. corporate interests pursue overseas investments in the first place? What effects do these investments have on the people who inhabit these other lands and on our own people at home?

    Historical parallels could be entertained. Thus, how does the Monroe Doctrine compare to the Truman Doctrine, the Eisenhower Doctrine, the Nixon Doctrine, the Carter Doctrine, and other assertions of U.S. primacy in various regions of the world? Why do so many U.S. presidents feel compelled to promulgate such "doctrines"? Is there a common pattern behind these various proclamations? By linking the Monroe Doctrine to a broader set of questions about past and present events, we make it a more relevant and more interesting topic of study. The important thing is not just to identify specific historical events—as might a quiz show contestant—but to think intelligently and critically about them, and be able to relate them to broader social relations.

    If people know little about standard history, they know even less about the silenced, hidden parts of history. More meaningful than remembering the date of Columbus's voyage is knowing about the cold-blooded slaughter and plunder he perpetrated against Native Americans, a homicidal rapacity that was reenacted and surpassed by many who came after him, many whose crimes also are whitewashed in mainstream narratives.

    Other underplayed parts of North American history would include the early agrarian rebellions, the industrial class struggles of the last two centuries, the suppression of radical political dissent, the private plunder and spoliation of public resources, the bloody expansionism inflicted on indigenous peoples in North America and throughout the world, U.S. global expansionism, and U.S.-sponsored atrocities against revolutionaries and reformers throughout the Third World.

    Despite the miseducation they may have endured—or because of it—many people are hungry for real history. Far from being bored, they start paying attention when history offers an analysis that advances their understanding of events. They enjoy history when it is written in an accessible way (but not necessarily in a facile, light-handed manner), when it presents interesting narrative and provocative observations that relate to broader questions of social conflict and development, when it offers revealing parallels to what is going on now, suggesting that current events are not merely the result of particular personalities and passing phenomena but have compelling analogues in times long past.

    Real history is interesting also when it deconstructs the pap we learned in school or from the media, when it demonstrates how we have been misled. More exciting than learning history is unlearning the disinformational history we have been taught. Real history goes the extra step and challenges existing icons, offering interpretations that have a healthy subverting effect on mainstream ideology.

    Attempts at real history are dismissed by conservatives as "revisionism." To use "revisionism" as an epithet is to say that there is no room for historical reinterpretation, that the standard version is objective and factual, and that any departure from it can only be ideological and faddish. Revisionism's real sin is that it challenges many time-honored bourgeois beliefs about the world, including the happy-faced image of America the Beautiful, the image "to which most Americans particularly those raised on 'consensus history' textbooks, [have] become accustomed."

    Revisionism also opens up new areas of inquiry. It is remarkable the things that most of us never learn in school about our own history, the topics and inquiries we are never introduced to. Consider this incomplete listing:

    § Why were human beings held in slavery through a good part of U.S. history? Why were they not given any land to till after their emancipation? Why were Native American Indians systematically massacred time and again?

    § What is property in the context of American civilization? What is wealth? How have large concentrations of capital been accumulated? Is there a causal relationship between wealth for the few and poverty for the many?

    § What role has government played in the formation of great fortunes and giant corporations? What effect has this had on the democratic process?

    § Why in past generations did people work twelve hours a day or longer, six and seven days a week? Where did the weekend and the eight-hour day come from? Why were labor unions considered unconstitutional through much of the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century?

    § Who were the Wobblies, the Knights of Labor, the Populists, and the Progressives? Why did tens of thousands of Americans consider themselves anarchists, socialists, or communists? Why did hundreds of thousands vote for radical candidates?

    § How did poor children get to go to public schools? How did communities get public libraries? What role has social class played in education and in American life in general?

    § How did we get laws on behalf of occupational safety, minimum wage, environmental protection, and retirement and disability benefits? How effective have they been? Who still opposes them and why?

    § What historic role has corporate America played in advancing or retarding the conditions of workers, women, African Americans, Native Americans, and various other ethnic groups? Why are most corporate decisions regarding investments, jobs, use of resources, and markets considered to be private?

    § Why have U.S. military forces intervened directly or indirectly in so many countries over the last century?

    § Why have U.S. leaders opposed revolutionary and even reformist governments, and supported right-wing autocracies around the world?

    Questions of this sort are seldom asked in our media, schools, or textbooks.


Excerpted from History as Mystery by Michael Parenti Copyright © 1999 by Michael Parenti. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

Bertell Ollman
Deserves to become an instant classic. (Bertell Ollman, author of Dialectical Investigation)
Daniel Ellsberg
Those who keep secret the past, and lie about it, condemn us to repeat it. Michael Parenti unveils the history of falsified history, from the early Christian church to the present: a fascinating, darkly revelatory tale. (Daniel Ellsberg, author of The Pentagon Papers)
Howard Zinn
With History as Mystery, Michael Parenti, always provocative and eloquent, gives us a lively as well as valuable critique of orthodoxy posing as ‘history.’

Meet the Author

Michael Parenti, PhD Yale, is an internationally known author and lecturer. He is one of the nation's leadiing progressive political analysts. He is the author of over 250 published articles and seventeen books. His writings are published in popular periodicals, scholarly journals, and his op-ed pieces have been in leading newspapers such as the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. His informative and entertaining books and talks have reached a wide range of audiences in North America and abroad.

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4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Great book! I managed to read the entire book in just one sitting! I just couldn't put it down. It was just amazing to hear all the various hidden truths about history, things that I never learned in school, including when I was in college. For anyone who has an avid interest in learnign more about history, I strongly recommend this book.