History as Mystery

by Michael Parenti

"Unraveling the Mystery of History"
Dan Brook

This review was recently published, in slightly different forms, in both *Z Magazine* and *Jewish Currents* (March 2001). It is presented here with full permission of the author.

"The writing of history, Voltaire believed, should be one form of battle in the age-old war for our intellectual emancipation." So begins Michael Parenti’s History as Mystery (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1999, 273 pp., $14.95 pbk., ISBN 0-87286-357-3). Having written other books, which I also recommend, such as The Sword and the Dollar (on US foreign policy), Democracy for the Few (on American government and politics), Make-Believe Media and Inventing Reality (on the corporate mass media), among others, Parenti now trenchantly cuts a radical swath through the thickets of history and historiography. This eloquent and persuasive book is for anyone interested in history, of course, but also for those with an interest in sociology, politics, psychology, pedagogy, media criticism, and the on-going culture wars. Parenti is an antidote to the stultifying conventions imposed upon us, encouraging us to unlearn the dominant ideologies and relearn—and reclaim—our common heritage.

In History as Mystery, Parenti turns his critical eye towards the biases of historiography via politicians, popes, professors, text book authors and corporations, the mass media, and other class ceilings. He also examines the ascendancy and later hegemony of a social system: "Christianity", which Parenti adeptly argues, "supported secular and ecclesiastical autocracy [Paul, Augustine, and other Christian leaders urge servants and slaves to be dutifully obedient and lovingly faithful to their masters, "as unto Christ", and "we repeatedly encounter a ready acceptance of autocratic secular power and an eagerness to enlist it to hunt down heretics, free thinkers, reformers, and other purveyors of heterodoxy"], class oppression ["if early church fathers...championed a church of the indigent and oppressed, of slaves and penniless peasants, they gave remarkably little evidence of it...the established ecclesiastics usually sided with the princes against the peasants, showing little sympathy for the democratic rights of commoners"; "Rather than sharing the wealth, the upper clergy shared in the wealth"], slavery ["for centuries, the church was itself the largest slaveholder in Europe"], sexism ["male church leaders repeatedly proclaimed the inferior nature of women", piling on restrictions and burning "tens of thousands of women" for their various "transgressions"], and anti-Semitism [leading the way to the Inquisition, many unnamed pogroms, and "preparing the Holocaust", numerous Christian leaders demonized the Jews "for the better part of two thousand years [through] papal proclamations, church sermons, pastoral letters, hymns, council edicts, and the pronouncements of bishops and leading theologians". There are, unfortunately, many notable examples, such as "In 1239, Pope Gregory IX attempted to cleanse western Europe of Jewish books, especially the Talmud"]. Indeed, Christianity "had a severely regressive effect upon just about every area of learning" including "such fields as literature, philosophy, art, theater, science, medicine, anatomy, astronomy, mathematics, and commerce...The burning of books was part of the advent and imposition of Christianity" (chs. 2-3).

Parenti also discusses in detail the mounting evidence supporting the theory of the acute and fatal arsenic poisoning of US President Zachary Taylor and its contemporary denial and historical implications (ch. 6). Through evidence too complex to address here, Parenti argues that there is much reason to believe that President Taylor, though himself a southerner and a slaveholder, was assassinated by people sympathetic to Vice President Fillmore’s opposing position vis-a-vis the extension of slavery into "the territorial spoils of the imperialist war against Mexico". Parenti tells this little-known and long-denied historical story with ample flair. Additionally, Parenti analyzes certain methods of "depoliticizing the political" via psychopolitics and psychohistory (ch. 7) and the "re-writing" of history even before it is written, which he refers to as "distortions" or "suppression" at "the point of origin" (ch. 4). In each case, we are shown the uses—and abuses—of history. Fortunately for us, Parenti provides rich analyses of impoverished histories.

Parenti delineates three main types of history: mainstream history, people’s history, and real history. Mainstream history is the majority of written history, constructing a particular version of reality from the dominant perspective and reflecting the interests of the elite. "It is the kind of history", Parenti says, "dished up by textbook authors, mainstream academicians, political leaders, government officials, and news and entertainment media". Parenti therefore also calls this type of history "orthodox", "conventional", and even "ruling-class".

A second type of history, often called "people’s history" or "history from below", goes beyond ruling-class history by not only giving ordinary people their due for performing "the work of civilization" (as the sociologist Thorstein Veblen put it), but for also recognizing that those ordinary people are the source for the majority of social advances in society. "To the princes and presidents, plutocrats and prime ministers", and other political parasites, Parenti exclaims, "we owe the horrors of war and conquest, the technologies of destruction and control, and the rapacious expropriation that has enriched the few and impoverished the many". Yet, he continues, "it is from the struggles of ordinary populations that gains have been made on behalf of whatever social betterment and democracy we have".

The third type of history, however, even going beyond people’s history, is what Parenti calls "real history". It is also the type of history that Parenti advocates and practices. "Real history goes the extra step and challenges existing icons, offering interpretations that have a healthy subverting effect on mainstream ideology." Real history asks more than the who and what, let alone the where and when, and seeks out the why of history. For example, "rather than debating whether it was Christopher Columbus, Lief Ericson, or Amerigo Vespucci who discovered America, real history argues that the Western Hemisphere was not ‘discovered’ but forcibly invaded in a series of brutal conquests that brought destruction to millions of indigenous inhabitants and hundreds of cultures. Real history deems the ‘New World’ a Eurocentric misnomer." Another example could be the slave era. Mainstream history typically rationalizes and sometimes regrets slavery, while people’s history tells the stories of the slaves, perhaps letting slaves speak for themselves, and documents resistance to, and uprisings against, slavery by slaves as well as other abolitionists. In contrast, real history interrogates society by asking why people were owned as slaves and why freed slaves weren’t given the political and economic tools (e.g., "forty acres and a mule") to help them assimilate and succeed in post-slavery society. Likewise with Parenti’s theory of President Taylor’s assassination. In addition to uncovering a wealth of historical evidence, Parenti assesses why people might have wanted the president killed and what was at stake (i.e., the extension and future of the slave system). Given the dramatic change in policy regarding slavery after Fillmore succeeded Taylor in 1850, the implications of Taylor’s assassination could indeed include the U.S. Civil War itself.

As Parenti indicates, there are a myriad of critical whys that need to be asked and answered in history, challenging the gossip, trivia, and prattle all too common in conventional accounts of the "great" individuals and events of history, which neglect the importance of social structures and systems.

In sum, Parenti seeks to "deconstruct some of the filters, to show that much of mainstream history we are commonly taught, the popular version of events that enjoys maximum circulation, is seriously distorted in ways that serve or certainly reflect dominant socio-economic interests". Parenti’s content is without doubt vital, while his style makes history—whether "ruling-class", "people’s", or "real"—come alive! Voltaire would be proud and readers will be grateful for Parenti’s unraveling of the mystery of history.