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 the evidence.

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 wealth.

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 and demons...

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 the brigade.

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 of all.

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 deportment.

Michael Parenti page

Authors page

Home Page