I’ve written about multiple books fairly recently that were at least in part about how the contemporary right wing (media, think tanks, politicians, judges, etc.) have intentionally falsified history to serve their ideological purposes, including What’s the Matter With Kansas? and Pity the Billionaire by Thomas Frank, and The Whites of Their Eyes by Jill Lepore. Several other books I’ve read have at least touched on this area.
America’s Stolen Narrative is similar in some ways to those books, but differs in some ways too. One difference is tone. Neither Lepore nor Frank are particularly dry and stodgy, nor is it all that hard to see where their sympathies lie, but Parry is even more brutally frank. The anger and indignation is clearer. He’s more willing to flat out call right wingers liars.
I was momentarily taken aback by that, but with even minimal reflection I didn’t have a problem with it.
It’s hammered into us our whole lives that being objective and unbiased means presenting two sides to every issue with no passion and certainly with no indication that one side has more merit than the other. This is an utterly bogus interpretation of what it means to be objective, but when someone clearly deviates from it it’s to be expected that it will seem somehow wrong. If I—who consciously reject such a conception and have argued against it on many occasions—even briefly felt uncomfortable with his frankness, I can only imagine how normal readers who have never had occasion to question the equation of objectivity with bland neutrality would respond to him.
What journalists, academics, textbook writers, etc. genuinely owe us is not neutrality on every issue between the two most common positions taken by those of power and prominence, but truth. To be objective, what they should be doing is rationally assessing all the available evidence and presenting the positions best supported by that evidence, including when that happens to be controversial or when it happens to inconvenience some political party or religion or whatever.
And in fact, where Parry in this book violates the bogus version of objectivity, it looks to me like he’s generally on the money. A lot of the historical specifics he cites I did not know, but as far as his conclusions about how people of the Right routinely, consciously, pathologically, deceive in order to further their ideological ends, I’ve been harping on that for years.
At the very beginning of the book, in the Introduction, he makes it clear where he stands. I can take or leave the science fiction analogy, but the point he’s making is something I feel like I’ve been trying to alert people to forever (as well as being very similar to Thomas Frank’s thesis in Pity the Billionaire):
There was always something surreal about George W. Bush’s presidency, like a science fiction disaster movie in which an alien force seizes illegitimate control of a nation, saps its wealth, wreaks devastation on its people, but is finally dislodged and forced to depart amid human hope for a rebirth. In Bush’s case, there was even a satisfying concluding scene as a new human leader takes power amid cheers of a liberated populace. The alien flees aboard a form of air transportation (in this case, a helicopter), departing to the jeers of thousands and many wishes of good riddance.
But then the depleted country must turn to rebuilding and recovery. Many of the humans find their jobs are gone, or their stock portfolios, or their homes. They grow disillusioned and impatient. It turns out that many of the alien’s allies remain in positions of power, a stay-behind force, especially within the nation’s propaganda structure as well as at high levels of the government, courts and business. These operatives quickly get to work erasing memories of how the catastrophe occurred. They write a new narrative that shifts the blame to the new leader.
Facts are selectively presented to convince millions of people that they should welcome another alien to rule them. Indeed, much of the population begins to accept a story line that places the alien conquest within the context of the nation’s origins. It’s all what the Founders intended. What the aliens understand—since they have studied this population for many years—is that they can direct the people by shaping the historical narrative. If the narrative can be shifted or falsified, the course of the nation can be redirected. By tinkering with the past or blacking out some key facts, the aliens can make their behavior appear normal, even admirable.
The book consists of various items from American history that have been falsified or covered up in the right wing’s efforts to control the historical narrative, and that have resulted in people having much different beliefs and attitudes about present day issues than they would if they knew the truth.
The first he talks about is the attempts to make the Founders into states’ rights advocates and economic libertarians who opposed government—especially federal government—regulation of business. For example, Tea Partiers dressing up in goofy Revolutionary War costumes and ranting about how Obamacare—and pretty much everything Obama does, says, or thinks—is an unconstitutional infringement of liberty.
Basically they’re pretending the Anti-Federalists won the debate with the Federalists, and the Articles of Confederation was never replaced by the Constitution. In order to do this they have to take quotes out of context.
James Madison, for instance, is a big favorite of Tea Party types for some of what he wrote, but what they’re ignoring is that when he was assuring people that the kind of constitution he advocated wouldn’t mean an out-of-control federal government and wouldn’t be a radical departure from the Articles of Confederation, he was tactically downplaying the aspects of the proposed constitution that most alarmed the Anti-Federalists. Of course the proposed constitution was in some respects objectionable to the Anti-Federalists (the Tea Partiers of their day), but Madison was trying to mitigate their opposition by spinning it as being a bit less objectionable than they were claiming.
There’s a big difference between that and arguing in favor of the Anti-Federalist positions, which is what conservatives now attribute to Madison.
A particularly egregious example the author cites of misusing the Founders comes from Justice Scalia’s dissent in the Obamacare case, wherein the justice quotes Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist Papers seemingly warning against big government. Seen in context, though, Hamilton was presenting an Anti-Federalist position that he then argued against.
That would be like if someone stated that in this piece I claimed that “being objective and unbiased means presenting two sides to every issue with no passion and certainly with no indication that one side has more merit than the other.” Well, I did say that, in the fourth paragraph, but if someone read the whole paragraph is there any way they could think that quote reflects my own position?
This is a level of intellectual dishonesty rarely seen outside creationist circles. But then it is Scalia after all.
Next the author discusses how Richard Nixon and his campaign team convinced the South Vietnamese to scuttle peace talks in 1968 so as to make President Johnson—and by extension the Democratic Party and their presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey—look bad.
This is something I don’t recall hearing about before. Apparently the facts about it have trickled out over the course of decades. Much of the story was contained in tapes from wiretaps ordered by the Johnson Administration, which were long kept secret.
Johnson himself was furious at what Nixon’s people did, but while he threatened to expose it, in the end he and his advisors believed it would be too damaging to the country for the public to know that the new president they’d just elected had behaved so unethically and arguably treasonously.
Johnson felt personally betrayed because he had given detailed briefings to Nixon and Humphrey so that whoever the incoming president was would be fully up to speed on what was going on in the Vietnam negotiations. (Actually he claimed to have told Nixon more, which sounds plausible, given the contempt with which he always treated Humphrey, his vice-president.) Nixon then turned around and used that information to sabotage the peace talks, so that publicly he could gloat about how the Democrats were making no progress in ending the war.
Particularly galling was that Nixon personally lied to Johnson about it when Johnson confronted him on the phone, swearing up and down that he was rooting for the peace talks to succeed and would be more than happy to assist Johnson in making that happen any way he could.
The lesson Nixon learned from this, the author says, is that he could get away with pretty much anything. If he could blow up any chance of the war ending in the short term—thereby dooming thousands more Americans and hundreds of thousands more Vietnamese and Cambodians and other Asians to die unnecessarily—in order to get elected, and if even those who knew he did it kept quiet about it so as not to generate a scandal that would weaken the people’s faith in their elected officials, then what couldn’t he do? The path from that hubris to Watergate is clear.
Though actually Parry’s claim is not just that Nixon got overconfident about getting away with skullduggery after not get called out over his thwarting the Vietnam War peace talks, but that that experience led to the Watergate abuses in a more substantive way.
Nixon was obsessed with finding out who knew about his 1968 campaign’s underhanded conspiring with South Vietnam, how much they knew, what proof they had, whether they were going to go public, etc., since he feared it would sink his efforts to be reelected. There may also have been other dirt he feared would come to light during the 1972 campaign. (Who knows what all he and his people did that has still never been uncovered, given that they were such detestable criminals and liars.) So the bugging, stealing files, etc. was not only for gathering damaging information about his enemies and rivals, but for finding out what damaging information about him they might have.
Parry next discusses the Iran-Contra affair, especially the “October Surprise” hypothesis, which obviously is very similar to Nixon’s 1968 antics. He is very much a defender of this hypothesis—the claim that Iran-Contra didn’t start with illegally shipping arms to Iran in order to illegally raise money to give to the Contra terrorists in Nicaragua, bad as that was, but with agreements reached with Iran during the 1980 presidential campaign to supply them with weapons after Reagan’s election in exchange for their not releasing the American hostages until after the election.
It was an explosive allegation, and I remember if being debated back then. My sense was that there was a lot of evidence for it, but that it never achieved consensus status as having been proven. One of the key claims against it, as I recall, was that one of the sources claiming knowledge of the deal insisted there had been a secret meeting in Madrid involving Reagan campaign manager William Casey, but that evidence had subsequently been uncovered establishing Casey’s presence elsewhere on the date in question.
But according to the author, that debunking was subsequently definitively debunked itself. The evidence that purportedly showed Casey was elsewhere showed nothing of the kind.
The Congressional investigation into the affair was a whitewash of the Reagan administration figures, including George Bush, the president at the time of the investigation, and the vice-presidential candidate in 1980. One tidbit he mentions is that just as the committee was finishing up its work and preparing its final report declaring the October Surprise a myth, they were sent a Soviet intelligence file from among those recovered when the Soviet Union collapsed, which detailed that the Soviets had been monitoring the Carter and Reagan campaigns in 1980 and had discovered plenty of detail about the connections between the Reagan campaign and the Iranians back then. Those in charge of the investigation ignored and quickly buried that file.
He makes a good case that the hypothesis is very likely true. It’s still probably short of being definitively proven, but it’s certainly not the kind of laughable conspiracy theory that some have desperately tried to paint it as.
During his discussion of these events, the author mentions a telling, and in its way rather chilling, anecdote from an interview he did with an intelligence officer. Folks like the interviewee were wholeheartedly in favor of Reagan over Carter, on grounds that actually make Carter sound awfully good. The interviewee was appalled that Carter actually seemed to believe some of what he said about human rights and the imperative to act ethically in the world. It was fine to talk about such things, he said, to further the narrative that we’re better than the Soviets and all that, but Carter had to be a contemptible and dangerous naïf not to realize it’s all a lot of baloney, and that in reality in this world moral motives have no place for states, which must act according to the crudest dictates of realpolitik.
You really get the sense from something like that how minimal is any loyalty to the president, the Constitution, or democracy amongst many in the government, the military, and the intelligence community. Were any Democratic president really to stray very far toward the left, or to act from motives of ethics to more than the modest extent Carter did, I don’t think it’s far-fetched at all that that would be met by a violent response, not just by Tea Party types, but by plenty of people within the Establishment. (Some would say that’s already happened with the assassination of President Kennedy, but I don’t regard that particular conspiracy theory to be very credible.)
The weapons for Iran went through Israel (which comes across very poorly in this book), so not only did the Reagan and Bush administrations pull out all the stops to make sure the hypothesis was discredited, but so did Israel, the foreign country with by far the most clout in American politics, media, etc. In the end that was just too much influence lined up on one side of the issue, so the October Surprise cover-up proved more successful than the Watergate cover-up.
For part of this time the author worked at Newsweek. He says his higher ups fought him constantly on his Iran-Contra stories, and certainly didn’t want to pursue the October Surprise story, which eventually led to his departure from the magazine. (Decades later this would be repeated when Dan Rather was punished by CBS and its conservative allies for trying to tell inconvenient truths about George W. Bush.)
Their alleged reason—and this was a common attitude in the mainstream media at the time—was that the last thing they wanted was to be blamed for taking down another Republican administration—or really two: Reagan and Bush—so soon after Watergate. The conservative media bashing, they feared, would then be totally out of control. It was one thing to expose (some of) Nixon’s crimes, as they could be dismissed as flukes—as a one-time-only thing that deviated from how the country’s leaders usually function, as the acts of a flawed and paranoid individual—but if three consecutive Republican presidents were exposed as hopelessly corrupt it would be taken as conclusive evidence that the media had an ideological ax to grind, and it would generate a destabilizing crisis of confidence in the American system of government, with unpredictable but potentially horrendous consequences.
Recall that Johnson never followed through on his threats to reveal Nixon’s actions that he himself regarded as treasonous because he concluded it would be bad for the country. Throughout the book, Democrats and the media routinely hold their fire when faced with evidence of particularly egregious behavior by conservatives, always due to their supposed concern for the country, or at least their concern that the country will blame them as the bearers of bad news. Of course Ford’s stated reason for pardoning Nixon was that he didn’t want to put the country through the trauma of seeing an ex-president criminally prosecuted, and Obama refused to take any action against the torturers and other criminals of the George W. Bush administration, again because it would allegedly be bad for the country to focus on the past like that.
What a load of bullshit. You know what’s even worse for the country than having the people find out an alarmingly high percentage of those with the most political and economic power are Charles Manson-level criminals who don’t hesitate to prolong wars and such if it’s in their self-interest to do so? Having an alarmingly high percentage of those with the most political and economic power be Charles Manson-level criminals who don’t hesitate to prolong wars and such if it’s in their self-interest to do so, and the public not finding out.
Finally, the author cites an impressive number of reasons to regard Colin Powell and Robert Gates as particularly despicable, morally bankrupt liars and hypocrites who will do anything to advance their careers. I never had strong feelings one way or the other about these two, at least compared to politicians and such in general, but he makes a good case that their mostly positive reputations in the mainstream media are unearned.
But returning to the October Surprise, I’m still not a hundred percent sold on it, though I think it’s far more likely to be true than not. But just out of curiosity, I spent about an hour online looking up arguments on the other side, claiming it’s all a politically motivated myth. Now it may just be bad luck of what I happened to come across, and there may in fact be much stronger arguments on that side of the issue, but what I read was decidedly unimpressive.
The conservative response to arguments like those of Parry—again, based on what I happened to come across in that very limited time—seem to consist of ad hominem attacks, insistence that the whole thing was debunked long ago, and a lot of chortling about how it’s a “conspiracy theory” (and therefore automatically ludicrous I guess). Certainly nothing to make me think I’d been hasty in tentatively accepting Parry’s arguments.
The conspiracy theory charge is an interesting one, though. The author himself at one point warns against falling for conspiracy theories. In his mind what he’s doing is presenting a small number of cases of right wing lying and corruption at the top that have a great deal of evidence in their favor, which is not the same as going along with every outlandish theory one comes across on the Internet that attributes everything bad to a secret cabal pulling puppet strings.
But there’s still some overlap between the seemingly well-supported conspiracy theories discussed in this book, and the “bad” conspiracy theories. I think psychologically they can be appealing in some of the same ways, and disturbing in some of the same ways.
In both cases, you have people insisting that the world runs a lot differently from what most people—maybe even you the reader—assume, that in a lot of ways we’ve all been handed a bill of goods, manipulated to believe what it’s most in the self-interest of the propagandists for us to believe.
Now on the one hand, that can appeal to people’s desire to be in the minority that is no longer duped, to be among the happy few who actually have the truth. On the other hand, it can be quite unsettling to be told that the worldview that you and almost everyone in your life takes for granted is wrong in important respects; it’s natural that people would react against that and resist accepting it.
Again, I think these are true both of defensible conspiracy theories about false narratives, and of more goofy conspiracy theories about the 9/11 attacks being “false flag” operations and such.
You’d think that I’d be a lot more likely to respond to this book in the first, more positive, way, that is, by feeling good that America’s Stolen Narrative provides a few more well-argued specifics to bolster my pre-existing cynicism about the rich and powerful in this country, and the way the political Right uses propaganda to inculcate certain beliefs and emotions in the populace.
But for whatever reason, by the end of this book I found myself feeling a vague unease, a kind of hopelessness. The information presented here is just so relentlessly negative, up to and including multiple instances of treacherous and possibly treasonous actions to alter elections. It paints a picture of so many people at the top being so evil, or at least so easily made into stooges of those who are that evil, that it feels like they’ll never be defeated. It made me want to step outside and get some fresh air, and not think about what an Orwellian world we live in.
That’s not really a criticism of America’s Stolen Narrative, but more a statement about me. Even though I’m very cynical myself (not across the board, I’m actually very non-cynical about people in a lot of ways, I just think the process of getting to the top is even more corrupting than most people realize, and that therefore the degree of bullshit and general ill-behavior from the most prominent people in society that we are led to accept as leaders is shockingly high), to be told, in effect, “Yeah, things are every bit as bad as you think, maybe worse” is something I experienced as a real downer.
But I’ll get over it. In the end I still prefer people tell it like it is.