History As Mystery


Francisco: City Lights Books,
273 pp.

Review by
Dan Brook

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
. Having written other books, which I also recommend, such as The
Sword and the Dollar (on U.S. 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.

In History
as Mystery
, Parenti turns his critical eye towards the biases of
historiography via politicians, popes, professors, textbooks, 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 (“persecuting heretics and Jews… for more than a thousand
years”; 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”), and that 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”).

Parenti also
discusses in detail the mounting evidence supporting the theory of the acute
and fatal arsenic poisoning of U.S. President Zachary Taylor and its
contemporary denial and historical implications. Through evidence too complex
to address here, Parenti argues that there is much reason to believe that
President Taylor, though 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 flair. Additionally, Parenti analyzes certain methods of
“depoliticizing the political” via psychopolitics and psychohistory and the
“re-writing” of history even before it is written, which he refers to as
“distortions” or “suppression” at “the point of origin.” In each case, we are
shown the uses—and abuses—of history. Fortunately for us, Parenti provides
rich analyses of impoverished histories.

discusses 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 also
calls this type of history “orthodox,” “conventional,” and even

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 Thor- stein 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

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 assasssination. 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. 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” people and events of history.

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.                          Z


Dan Brook
is a freelance instructor of sociology and a member of the

Socialist Review
editorial collective in San Francisco. Some of his
writings can be found in the
American Journal of Economics and
Sociology, From the Left, Journal of Political Ecology, Peace Review,
Vegetarian Journal
, and Z Magazine.