Sunday, October 5, 2014

History as Mystery, Michael Parenti, a review

After stating in his introduction that “history is written and marketed... to enforce existing political orthodoxy” and that “Those who control the present take great pains to control our understanding of the past.”, Michael Parenti goes on to attempt to persuade the skeptical reader of the truth of those assertions. The persuasion takes the form of chapters on how those who have written history are of a certain class with predictable biases, how the victor's narrative is often the only one available, how the university keeps to the correct line, how publishing is kept orthodox, the death of President Zackary Taylor as example, and one of professional historians' methods of side-stepping class struggle.

Historians, Parenti argues, help influence history by shaping our understanding of things past and present. Josephus wrote his history of the Jewish uprising against Rome in the first century A.D., after playing a prominent political and military role in that struggle. The inquisitors kept records of the inquisition with predictable downplay of torture in extracting “confessions”. In the 19th century the historian Thiers wrote the history of bloody suppression and mass executions of thousands of revolutionary Parisian Communards, he who had presided over it. More recently we have patriot Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and the war criminal Henry Kissinger. I opened Winston's Churchill's history of world war II. at random, to a paragraph blaming the whole thing on communism, this while minimizing the major role of the Soviet Union in defeating Nazism.

Once the Christians came to power under Constantine they controlled the history which exaggerated, to this day, persecution of Christians, who were actually mostly tolerated in pre-christian Rome. The intolerance of the new rulers toward Pagans, far worse than when the shoe was on the other foot, is hardly mentioned in the church history. Early on wealthy converts were always given VIP treatment, often appointed Bishops from which positions wealth could be multiplied. Given the power of taxation and patronage the church became as corrupt as any regime before it. During Christianity's first thousand years “ leaders viciously persecuted heretics and Jews, championed the subjugation of women, propagated homophobic intolerance and collaborated with secular overlords in the oppression of the peasantry.” The great libraries of the period were purged by Christian zealotry. So much for the “Age of Faith”.

At the University, seen by the right as a bastion of leftists, there is actually a large middle-of-the-road (self described in one study) contingent of professors, a substantial right-leaning segment and a few lefties who have gotten tenure. Parenti himself was hired by a New York State University, almost slipping in but the university president discovered the hire and reversed it. The 50s hysteria was hard on left academics but it hasn't loosened up all that much, certainly not as portrayed by the right. In my own experience I had an amazing professor in art school who delighted in examining the received wisdom he knew most of the in-coming students shared. He did not last despite his credentials, popularity among students and professional accomplishments.

Noam Chomsky's books have been published by fringe publishers mostly. One he co-authored with Ed Herman was supported by a mainstream publisher, printing 20,000 copies with promotional materials printed and distributed, advertisements placed. Warner, the parent corporation, got wind of the book, decided it was “unpatriotic” and demanded cancelation, threatening to fire the publishers if they went ahead. The publishers suggested publishing a right wing book to balance it. After reluctantly agreeing to this compromise Warner changed its mind and closed down the subsidiary.

Another instance Parenti cites, among many, is the film JFK. Oliver Stone's movie was attacked long before it was completed and long after. Despite raising obvious and legitimate questions, the mainstream press seemed to take the stance that governmental authority would be undermined by this kind of inquiry.

The strange death of President Zackary Taylor is another. The writer Clara Rising was writing a book about Taylor and came to suspect he had been poisoned. Though a slave holder he opposed new states and territories coming in as slave states. She got permission from the family to exhume the body for testing. Tests proved negative for arsenic poisoning... arsenic was present but not in enough quantity to cause death. The media and establishment figures who criticized the idea of testing were jubilant and the results were widely disseminated. Closer examination however showed that the tests were inadequate, diluting the results through faulty methodology. Only the hair that had grown since the poisoning happened should have been tested. Including the hair that had grown before the poisoning skewered the results. This detail was ignored, the first “results” stood, and stand, as the authoritative word. Again, the establishment prefers inquiries that question authority to be suppressed or, failing that, to confirm preferred conclusions.

Finally, psychopolitics and psychohistory are “respectable” subfields which have received generous funding due to their dependability in coming to those preferred conclusions. These disciplines posit psychological explanations for behavior, usually based on traumatic incidents in childhood. Elaborate arguments are set forth but their utility, and popularity with the rulers, rests, again, on those conclusions, conclusions that avoid class-based exposes. Chomsky, Zinn, Parenti, Naomi Klein and many others demonstrate in their writings and activism that the 1% runs things for the benefit of the 1% and the detriment of the majority population. As Parenti demonstrates in this and his other books, they are quite effective, so far, at keeping these ideas out of the mainstream.

1 comment:

  1. Mr. Ferguson,
    Your political cartoon/illustration of this article is pure genius and should be seen by EVERYBODY! A picture worth 10,000,000 words.
    -Joe Ruesing