excerpts from the book
History As Mystery
by Michael Parenti
City Lights Books, 1999
Prologue - page xv
A dissenting view invites us to test the
prevailing explanations and open ourselves to neglected ones.
Through this clash of viewpoints we have a better chance of moving
toward a closer approximation of historical truth.
Dissidents (or revisionists, as they have
been called) are not drifting with the mainstream but swimming
against it, struggling against the prevailing range of respectable
opinion. They are deprived of what Alvin Gouldner called "the
background assumptions," the implicit, unexamined. but commonly
embraced notions that invite self-confirming acceptance because
of their conformity to what is already accepted as properly true.
This established familiarity and unanimity of bias is frequently
treated as "objectivity." For this reason dissidents
are constantly having to defend themselves and argue closely from
In contrast, orthodoxy can rest on its
own unstated axioms and mystifications, remaining heedless of
marginalized critics who are denied a means of reaching mass audiences.
Orthodoxy promotes its views through the unexamined repetition
that comes with monopoly control of the major communication and
educational systems. In sum, while dissidents can make mistakes
of their own, they are less likely to go unchallenged for it.
Not so with orthodoxy. It remains the most insidious form of ideology
for it parades the dominant view as the objective one, the only
plausible and credible one.
... 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
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.
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. That the school has pretty much fulfilled its system-sustaining
role is no accident. The educational system is both a purveyor
of the dominant political culture and a product of it.
Those who celebrate Christianity's contributions to Western civilization
might want to remind themselves of one of the church's most appalling
gifts to human tyranny, the Inquisition, a heresy hunt ordained
by the papacy that wreaked misery upon Europe from the early thirteenth
century until well into the eighteenth. Endowed with nearly limitless
authority, shrouded in secrecy, and freed from all accountability,
the inquisitors indulged in unfettered butchery and rapacity,
taking lives and confiscating property, growing rich in the process,
treating the accused as having no rights, and treating everyone,
from the meanest to the highest, as potentially suspect.
The victim's guilt was assumed in advance
and confession was to be extracted by guile or ordeal. One's regular
church attendance and generous oblations, one's verbal professions
of strict devotion to orthodox doctrine, one's willingness to
subscribe to whatever was demanded by the tribune-all were as
naught. For the accused might still be nursing a secret heresy.
The Inquisition had to uncover the impossible: the unspoken thoughts
in a person's head. But luckily, the task was made easier by the
procedure itself. The victim need not be proven guilty; suspicion
alone was enough to bring on the fatal judgment. The inquiry almost
always ended in execution or, less frequently, life incarceration
in a dark dungeon.
Along with its judges, the Inquisition
had its armed retainers, extortionists, spies, and of course,
torturers and executioners. Lea writes that, except among the
Visigoths, torture had been "unknown among the barbarians
who founded the commonwealths of Europe, and their system of jurisprudence
had grown up free from its contamination." Not until the
thirteenth century did it begin to be employed "sparingly
and hesitatingly" in judicial proceedings, after which it
rapidly won its way into the Inquisition, administered at first
only by secular authorities- on command from the Inquisitional
tribune. In 1252, church canons prohibited ecclesiastics from
being present when torture was administered, perhaps an implicit
admission that the procedure was morally tainted. Yet within a
few years, inquisitors and their servitors were absolving each
other of "irregularities" under the papal bull so that
they might directly supervise torture sessions.
Those who confessed were burned as admitted
heretics. Those who withstood all pain and mutilation and did
not confess were burned as unrepentent heretics. Heresy itself
retained a conveniently vague and elastic meaning. Prisoners who
confessed under torture were tortured again to gain information
about other evil-doers among their own family and friends, then
tortured again if they subsequently recanted any of the coerced
testimony-after which they were burned at the stake. Witnesses
too were sometimes tortured in order to extract properly damning
testimony. Anyone who showed sympathy or support for the accused,
who dared to question the relentlessly self-confirming process,
was doomed to meet the same fate.
In 1484 German princes were reluctant
to give the Roman Inquisition entry into Germany. The Inquisition
loomed as a rival authority, one inclined to go into business
for itself, condemning not only the poor but some of the rich
and well born and expropriating their estates. But the grave anxiety
occasioned by peasant insurrections made the princes more tractable.
The Inquisition opportunely arrived upon the scene, in Michelet's
words, "to terrorize the country and break down rebellious
spirits, burning as Sorcerers today the very men who would likely
enough tomorrow have been insurgents," channeling popular
restiveness away from the ruling interests and against witches
Some historians actually have apologetic
words for the Inquisition. Ignoring all evidence to the contrary,
Carlton Hayes and his associates claim that the Inquisition's
most frequent penalty was a mere fine and confiscation of property,
with imprisonment reserved only for the "more severe cases."
And some suspects were required to undertake expensive pilgrimages,
or "wear distinctive markings on their clothes." Hayes
makes no mention of torture, and claims that the death penalty
was applied only to the "relatively few" who refused
to recant their heresy or who relapsed after recantation. The
inquisitors, it seems, did not burn heretics but conscientiously
strove to save their immortal souls through conversion.
A different summation of the Inquisition
is offered by Lea, who has done the monumental study of this subject:
"Fanatic zeal, arbitrary cruelty, and insatiable cupidity
. . . it was a system which might well seem the invention of demons."
In fact, it was the invention of the Christian church of that
day. A religion is not something entirely apart from the crimes
committed in its name. The church's war against heresy began in
the first generation of its existence and continued without stint
for more than sixteen hundred years. Centuries of Christianity's
meanspirited, violent propagation of a monopoly faith created
the fertile soil upon which the Inquisition took root and flourished...
In California and the Caribbean, the [Christian] missions were
centers for enslaving indigenous populations, forcing the natives
to work under conditions that amounted to slave labor. Normally
healthy and vigorous people, the Indians sickened and died in
great numbers once they were confined to mission compounds.
For centuries, the church was itself the
largest slaveholder in Europe. As late as the sixteenth century
in Spain, Christians were still debating whether African slaves
had souls or were subhuman animal creations. Well into the nineteenth
century, in the United States, while some clergy joined the abolitionist
ranks, many more remained vigorous apologists for slavery, writing
almost half of all defenses on its behalf, often citing the Bible
as their authority. Prominent proslavery clergy could be found
in the North as well as the South.
It cannot be held that Christians preached
one thing on Sunday and practiced another the rest of the week.
In respect to slavery, preachment and practice coincided all too
well. Whether during the late Roman Empire or in the antebellum
United States, Christian teaching offered an ideological justification
for the worldly interests of a ruthless slaveholding class, and
Christians themselves were among the leading slaveowners. Few
of us were taught such things in Sunday school or any, other school.
U.S. leaders point with pride to the free flow of information
in our supposedly open society. Yet these same leaders regularly
withhold or destroy official materials, thereby seriously distorting
the historical record at the point of origin...
Perhaps the most famous disclosure controversy
in recent U.S. history concerns the study that became known as
the Pentagon Papers, an extensive top-secret history of U.S. involvement
in Indochina from World War II to May 1968. The report was commissioned
by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and compiled by thirty-six
anonymous historians, mostly academicians who worked for the State
Department and Defense Department. It revealed how for two decades
officials deceived the Congress and the U.S. public while pursuing
a war of aggression and attrition in Indochina. A Department of
Defense consultant, Daniel Ellsberg, risking prison and sacrificing
his government career, managed to copy the papers and get them
into the hands of the New York Times and the Washington Post with
a commitment to publish. In the interests of "national security,"
President Nixon's Justice Department went to court to get prior
judicial restraints placed upon publication of the documents.
In its final decision, the Supreme Court decided that the newspapers
could continue publishing the documents-an unusual instance in
which judicial action rescued a fragment of history from official
suppression. By exposing the deceptive and criminal methods of
the war waged in Indochina, the Pentagon Papers did not harm national
security, as some officials claimed, but it did raise troublesome
questions about the legitimacy of U.S. policy in Indochina, and
that I was the real cause for concern...
The CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies have had a ' close
collaboration with Guatemalan military and paramilitary forces,
dating back to the U.S.-sponsored overthrow of the democratically
elected reformist government in Guatemala in 1954. These U.S.
agencies have extensive files on the more than 200,000 murders
and disappearances in Guatemala. Under pressure from the CIA,
President Clinton retreated from earlier commitments to release
the files. In 1996, after much protest by critics of U.S. policy,
the Clinton administration declassified thousands of documents
concerning human rights abuses, mostly relating to cases in which
U.S. citizens in Guatemala had been raped, tortured, and killed.
Guatemalan officials hoped that the papers might reveal useful
information about the longstanding links between the CIA and the
Guatemalan military, which was accused of committing most of the
crimes. But the documents that arrived were so thoroughly excised
as to contain little that was not already known. ''[N]ot one of
these documents has any value at all in a judicial proceeding....
These are not declassified documents; they are censored documents,"
announced Julio Arango Escobar, head of the special prosecution
team appointed by the Guatemalan government. Guatemala's leading
newspaper, Prensa Libra, complained that, as in the past, "all
that became known was what the CIA wanted." And Helen Mack,
a human rights campaigner whose sister was killed by the Guatemalan
military, pointed out that Washington continued to cover up its
knowledge of abuses by exempting the CIA and the Defense Department
from public disclosure. In sum, much of the terrible history of
U.S.-sponsored political murder in Guatemala was suppressed by
the very agencies that participated in the deeds.
After several more years of pressure,
enough pertinent information was finally released for the Guatemalan
Historical Clarification Commission to report that the Guatamalan
military had committed "acts of genocide" against the
Mayans during the thirty-six-year war against the poor. The declassified
documents revealed how the United States government gave money
and training to the Guatamalan military, and along with U.S. private
companies "exercised pressure to maintain the country's archaic
and unjust socio-economic structure." In addition, the U.S.
government and its various agencies, including the CIA, lent direct
and indirect support to illicit state operations, many of which
were carried out "without respect for any legal principles
or the most elemental ethical and religious values, and in this
way completely lost any semblance of human morals.
The Freedom of Information Act [FOIA]
"allows the [CIA] to be exceedingly stingy in responding
to requests from historians, journalists and citizens for documents."
Confronted with an FOIA lawsuit regarding its role in the 1954
coup in Guatemala, the CIA released barely 1,400 of 180,000 relevant
pages, nearly half a century after the events. The agency reportedly
destroyed most of its files on other covert actions in the 1950s
and 1960s, including all records relating to its role in the overthrow
of reformist prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh of Iran in 1953.54
A volume of State Department papers on Iran, published in 1990,
omitted any mention of the CIA's part in that coup. In protest,
Warren I. Cohen, a historian at Michigan State, resigned his post
as chair of the State Department's advisory committee on historical
diplomatic documentation, complaining that "the State Department
is playing games with history." This expurgated Foreign Relations
of the United States volume now sits authoritatively on thousands
of library shelves.
The CIA promised that it would release
documents on the 1953 coup in Iran, the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion
of Cuba, its covert operations supporting political interests
in France and Italy in the 1940s and 1950s, insurgencies in Indonesia
and Tibet in the 1950s and 1960s, insurrections in the Belgian
Congo and the Dominican Republic in the 1960s, and secret actions
in North Korea and Laos. But little has been forthcoming. The
agency did not mention releasing materials about CIA involvement
in the brutal wars of attrition it waged against revolutionary
governments in Nicaragua, Mozambique, Angola, and Afghanistan
during the 1980s, which resulted in millions of deaths and laid
waste to all four countries. Nor was there any mention of its
support for the death squads that have killed hundreds of thousands
of peasants, trade unionists, students, clergy, and others throughout
Latin America and parts of Asia and Africa...
After landing in Haiti in 1994, ostensibly to restore stability
l and democracy to that battered country, U.S. troops seized more
than 150,000 pages of documents and photographs from the headquarters
of the Haitian military and from FRAPH, the previous regime's
most feared paramilitary group. Officials of the democratically
elected government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide said that
the return of the documents was indispensable to their efforts
to disarm and prosecute human rights violators connected with
the previous military regime. Human rights groups in Haiti blamed
FRAPH for most of the three thousand people killed in the 1991-1994
period, along with thousands of other incidents of rape, torture,
beatings, and arson. But Washington continued to stall because,
in the view of one Aristide adviser, the purloined records were
likely to contain data about the finances and activities of U.S.-supported
Haitian death squads, as well as information about the location
of arms caches hidden around the country by rightist groups. Washington,
the adviser noted, did not want to see the assassins and torturers
go on trial in Haiti and "have it emerge that they were paid
and supported by American intelligence...
All over the United States monuments pay homage to military figures
who participated in unjust wars, including the defense of the
southern slavocracy and the slaughter of Native Americans, Mexicans,
Spaniards, Filipinos, and others. Far fewer are the monuments
to abolitionists, pacifists, anarchists, socialists, labor radicals,
civil libertarians, and other champions of egalitarianism whose
efforts have afforded us the modicum of democracy and social justice
we possess today. In the entire United States there exists not
a single monument to the heroic volunteer veterans of the Abraham
Lincoln Brigade who fought fascism in Spain during the Spanish
civil war (1936-1939), save one obscure memorial plaque at the
City College of New York to the fallen students who served in
For over thirty years the corporate-owned press and other mainstream
opinion makers have ignored the many unsettling revelations about
the Kennedy assassination unearthed by independent investigators.
Such research points to a conspiracy to assassinate the president
and a conspiracy to hide the crime. At the very least, the investigators
raise enough serious questions as to leave us unwilling to accept
the Warren Commission's official version of blaming Lee Harvey
Oswald for the killing of President Kennedy.
An end run around the media blackout was
achieved by Oliver Stone's film JFK Released in late 1991, the
movie exposed millions of viewers to the many disturbing aspects
of the assassination. JFK was repeatedly attacked seven months
before it was released, in just about every major print and broadcast
outlet, usually in the most caustic and general terms. The media's
ideological gatekeepers poured invective upon Stone, while avoiding
the more difficult task of rebutting the substantive points made
in his film, and without ever coming to grips with the critical
historical literature upon which the movie drew. A full exposure
of the assassination conspiracy, that might unearth CIA or military
intelligence involvement, would cast serious discredit upon the
nation's major institutions.
Oliver Stone's JFK continued to be attacked
years after its initial run. Stone was pilloried as a "ranting
maniac" and a "dangerous fellow," guilty of "near-pathological
monkeying with history." The idea of a conspiracy in high
places was ridiculed as a fanciful scenario that sprang from the
imagination of a filmmaker. Like the Warren Commission, the press
assumed a priori that Oswald was the lone killer. In 1978, when
a House Select Committee concluded that there was more than one
assassin involved in the Kennedy shooting, the Washington Post
editorialized that there still probably was no conspiracy, but
possibly "three or four societal outcasts" who acted
independently of each other spontaneously and simultaneously to
shoot the president. Instead of a conspiracy theory the Post created
a coincidence theory that might be the most fanciful explanation
Meanwhile, in answer to the question,
Did Oswald act alone? most independent investigators concluded
that he did not act at all. He was not one of the people who shot
Kennedy, although he was involved in another way, in his own words
as "a patsy," concluded the critics.
Most of the evil in history is perpetrated not by lunatics or
monsters but by individuals of responsibility and commitment,
whose most unsettling aspect is the apparent normality of their
Michael Parenti page