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'History as Mystery': Condemning mainstream history as a tool of elitism

A Class in the Essex Market School, before 1914
A Class in the Essex Market School, before 1914
By Jacob Riis (1849-1914) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

"History as Mystery" by Michael Parenti

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In his prologue, author Michael Parenti lets the reader know his view of history will be against the mainstream.

Much written history is an ideologically safe commodity. It might best be called ‘mainstream history,’ ‘orthodox history,’ and even ‘ruling-class history,’ because it presents the dominant perspective of the affluent and influential people who preside over the major institutions.” (p. xi)

Parenti (b. 1933) holds a Ph.D. from Yale University in political science. It’s his contention that history, and “mainstream historians” with less backbone than he, are made to serve the ruling elite by forgetting history inconvenient to them and promulgating myths that further their cause.

What better place to start with than history lessons in the schools, particularly in the United States? History taught in school is incredibly boring. This cannot be denied. Parenti sees a sinister reason for this:

To say that schools fail to produce an informed, critically minded, democratic citizenry is to overlook the fact that schools were never intended for that purpose. Their mission is to turn out loyal subjects who do not challenge the existing corporate-dominated social order." (p. 22)

As an example, Parenti cites the Monroe Doctrine as something schoolchildren are told was intended to be benign, protective of those in other countries. The wording of the document seems to bear this out.

Long ago and far away, my high school social studies teacher stated that the purpose of the Monroe Doctrine was to make the Caribbean “our lake,” to shoo European powers away. I went to a working class area high school in upstate New York in the mid-1970s, not, say, an alternative school run by counterculture experimentalists outside Berkley. I’m sure Mr. Allen, if he’s still around, would be surprised to hear that he taught us dangerous subversive stuff, but not any more surprised to hear that his real job was churning out subjects who knew their place in the corporate-dominated social order.

Parenti joyfully excoriates the Christian Church as allied with the ruling elite right from the beginning (at least beginning with the Emperor Constantine). This is not without merit, but there are some glaring exceptions. In upstate New York, there was a Russian Orthodox monastery founded by people escaping the Russian Revolution. This order of brothers had to flee to the ruling elite.

Another topic he takes up with glee is the 1990 reunification of Germany:

After the German Federal Republic (West Germany) annexed the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) in 1990 (misleadingly described as a “reunification”), GDR official records, libraries, and school texts were systematically purged of materials and ideas that conflicted with the orthodox procapitalist, anti-Communist, West German perspective." (p. 137)

The word the author is dancing is “Anschluß.” Oh, what, is that too inflammatory?

One final topic is the exhumation and study of the body of Zachary Taylor (1784-1850), 12th President of the U.S. His sudden death after July 4 celebrations and his anti-expansionist stance regarding slavery (though a slaveholder himself) led to rumors that he had been poisoned. In 1991, samples from his remains were analyzed for arsenic poisoning. The levels found were too low to be fatal.

It’s Parenti’s contention that the autopsy was slipshod, that the president was indeed poisoned. He even provides shadowy assassin—some disaffected Southerner. He does not provide any credible reason for covering up (in 1991) news of a then-140-year-old murder, much less a reason why it would serve the powers that be. He hints that the unwashed masses—I mean, the oppressed—might start to question things like the truth behind the official narrative of the Kennedy assassination, for instance.

The only person I could see served by a “cover-up” would be a coroner who purportedly bungled the autopsy and whether that happened or not is beyond my knowledge. Even if this were the case, it hardly serves Parenti’s thesis.

Parenti overstates his case almost without fail. Borrowing his worldview from Karl Marx (nothing inherently wrong with that), he sees history as nothing but a long struggle between classes of oppressed and oppressor. The weakness of the book and of Parenti’s arguments is that he’s eternally looking for a bad guy and a victim. Have there been bad guys in history? More can be counted. Have there been victims? Sadly, more than we will ever know. But the two groups are not mutually exclusive.

If that is the only lens one sees the long story of history through, one spends a lot of time simply stoking righteous indignation rather than learning.

The book is relatively short--less than 300 pages--and written in clear, if inflammatory, language, indictment after indictment. The old boy wants to stir the proletariat. I confess I know little about him outside of the book, but I have to wonder if Parenti would know a proletariat if one bit him.

*An earlier version of this book appeared on Epinions, a site which is no longer active. It has been rewritten*