Recently, I’ve spent time reading books on a number of contemporary issues. In the process, I discovered what is casually called The Narrative — the story, almost always politically based and biased, about where we are and where we’re going.
Let me begin with Sharyl Attkisson’s excellent Slanted: How the News Media Taught Us to Love Censorship and Hate Journalism. She describes The Narrative and its use by the news media to create a desired public opinion. The Narrative is simply a news story told the way in which certain powerful interests, either corporate, political, or both, would have it told. Its shaping may involve self-censorship, the selective inclusion or omission of facts to give the proper impression, and even an occasional fiction. Once established, those who speak and write in conflict with or “outside the narrative” are “contraversialized” or simply smeared or ostracized.
The author devotes many pages to what others have called “Trump Derangement” — the compelling need to damage and even destroy Donald Trump as a viable political figure. His mere slips of the tongue were labeled “lies.” Faced with Joe Biden’s gift for stating the untrue, the media settled on the word “gaffe” to describe his spoken missteps. Trump was a liar, but Biden was just amusingly unaware — just an old gaffer.
The Narrative is simply a news story told the way in which certain powerful interests, either corporate, political, or both, would have it told.
Attkisson refers to one story in the news — the one describing the Trump-Russia collusion — as “the mother of all narratives,” considering its twists and turns, so complex that most “news consumers” hadn’t the knowledge or even the time to figure them out. Her interview with Carter Page, a scholarly and respectable businessman with past service in the US Navy, reveals him as perhaps the truest narrative victim. He became the suspected go-between in the alleged Trump-Putin collaboration. As such, he was “hounded by the press” and “smeared by slanted news coverage.” During the interview, Page stated that he had never even met Donald Trump.
Another common use of a narrative in a “smear” involves the Pandemic. Attkisson points to an article that attacks the late Rush Limbaugh as a “vile and foolish man with blood on his hands” for playing down the “coronovirus crisis.” My own response to that controversy is, “Whose blood on whose hands?” Americans have endured worse epidemics without shutting down the country, causing businesses to close, many for all time, and creating hardships for owners, employees, and their families. Masks and social distancing likely prevented the development of natural immunity that would have ended the so-called crisis much sooner and actually saved lives. That’s right; I’m a full-fledged denier, while Attkisson appears devoted to those silly masks. Still, I’m reluctant to criticize this author, who somehow resembles a Nordic heroine. In her first chapter, entitled “CBS Tales: Death by a Thousand Cuts,” she describes some of her best stories, written while a CBS reporter, but never given broadcast time. The rejections led her to quit the network before her contract ended. A later chapter entitled “The New York Times: All the Narratives Fit to Print,” reveals a Gray Lady devoted to the anti-Trump narrative — and with an oddly pliant executive editor.
Slanted is especially useful in listing pure-news (narrative-free) sources and those news people associated with pure journalism. Along with this information is a final section, an Appendix subtitled “Major Media Mistakes in the Era of Trump.” It describes 131 such mistakes, and the reader is left to wonder about the imperatives that led putatively rational news people to report such things. Whatever these imperatives, they helped put Joe Biden in the Oval Office and give us the chaotic and tragic Afghanistan withdrawal, the chaotic Mexican border situation, inflation and prospects for greater inflation, to say nothing of a president who appears to have a reality problem.
Trump was a liar, but Biden was just amusingly unaware — just an old gaffer.
For a change of pace, and because of my interest in the period of history it described, I next read John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr’s In Denial: Historians, Communism, and Espionage. Published in 2003, the book covers the springtime of academic collectivism. It deals with something puzzling — the curious drift of intellectuals toward seats of vast political power, judging tyrannical leaders by their stated intentions, and overlooking their enormities, while turning away from capitalism and freedom. The authors have this to say in their introduction: “The intellectual Cold War, alas, is not over. Academic revisionists who color the history of American communism in benign hues see their teaching and their writing as the preparation of a new crop of radicals for the task of overthrowing American capitalism and its democratic constitutional order in the name of social justice and peace.” I regret that I didn’t read this book sooner.
After Boris Yeltsin opened the Russian archives, authors Haynes and Klehr made separate trips to Moscow to examine them, each at a separate stage of revelation. In so doing, they discovered evidence showing that the “communist conspiracy” was real, that the Communist Party USA was financed by the Soviets, and that the usual suspects (e.g., Alger Hiss, Laughlin Currie, Harry Dexter White, Nathan Silvermaster, Julius Rosenberg) were guilty of espionage for the USSR, as were others of lesser notoriety. The authors published the results of their researches in two previous books, praised by many but not by the “revisionist historians” who had populated the academy by that time. Theirs was a nostalgic view of far-left romanticism, as Haynes and Klehr concede. But some must have entertained the idea that human nature is impermanent and can be shaped by an appropriate environment into The Socialist Man. Perhaps it could, in some cases, if the shaping were accomplished with nonsense instead of truth, and directed at naive studentries.
As it happened, the Soviets had been financing communism in America with “Moscow Gold” as early as 1920.
As Richard Pipes puts it in his Concise History of the Russian Revolution, “Communism failed because it proceeded from the erroneous doctrine of the Enlightenment, perhaps the most pernicious doctrine in the history of human thought, that man is merely a material compound, devoid of either soul or innate ideas, and as such, a passive product of an infinitely malleable social environment.”
In Denial carries an extensive commentary on the so-called revisionist historians who sought to offset the traditionalists’ anticommunism but could no longer defend American Communists accused of spying for the USSR with counteraccusations of lying and frameups. The revisionists had denied that the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) was participating in espionage for, and getting money from, the Soviet Union. The Venona decryptions, messages from KGB operatives in America to those in the USSR and decoded by American Intelligence workers, confirmed the CPUSA’s spying and the sources of its financing. As it happened, the Soviets had been financing communism in America with “Moscow Gold” as early as 1920. That was the year in which tragic leftist-convert John Reed was captured in Finland on his way to America. The Finns caught him carrying a million dollars in glittering fungibles.
In the face of abundant evidence, the revisionists ceased denying and began minimizing the damage done and praising the spies’ idealism. Harry Dexter White, apparently gifted in the art of administration, was named by ex-communist Time editor Whittaker Chambers as a source for the latter’s 1930s communist network. At the time of Chambers’s revelations, White had climbed the ladder of success, becoming Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in 1945 and American Director of the International Monetary Fund in 1946. Ah, but then Elizabeth Bentley, an executive for a communist-front shipping firm, named him as a member of the Nathan Silvermaster espionage network. White appeared before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), where he denied everything except knowing members of the Silvermaster group. But he did deny knowing of their Communist sympathies. Three days later, he suffered a heart attack and died. As Haynes and Klehr point out, “those who believed Bentley and Chambers were liars also believed that the Red Scare killed Harry Dexter White.”
At one point in the book, the authors use the term “bad history in the service of bad politics.” An example of this is the revisionist tendency to ignore the evidence of atrocities committed by the Soviets, or at least to dig for some rationale that showed the original figures were wrong or exaggerated. The authors point to the discovery of mass graves in the Katyn Forest, the burial place of 20,000 Polish officers. The Soviet files contained a copy of the order to shoot them — signed by Stalin. And In Denial carries an Appendix that lists the names and the trades of 141 Finnish Americans, who, in the 1930s, ventured to the Soviet Union, only to be murdered by the KGB. Most revisionists were silent in the face of clear evidence of Soviet participation in the Katyn outrage. Gabriel Kolko was an out-and-out apologist. The idealistic Finns had ventured to Karelia to work in its timberlands, but were caught up in the Karelian purges, part of the Stalinist terror of the late 1930s. This, too, was largely overlooked — especially by the Encyclopedia of the American Left.
In discussing the revisionist historians, Haynes and Klehr name names and point out their inaccuracies and even their nontruths.
Robert Conquest described the death camps under Stalin, as well as the “terror famine’ of the early 1930s, and their enormous cost in human life. That these crimes against humanity were ignored by so many among the Western world’s intellectuals, seems in itself a crime — a complicity in the acts. Haynes and Klehr point to remarks by Marxist literary theorist Fredric Jameson: “Stalinism is disappearing not because it failed, but because it succeeded, and fulfilled its historical mission to force the rapid industrialization of an underdeveloped country (whence its adaptation as a model for many of the countries of the Third World).” But under free market capitalism, industrialization is a comparative dance — capital translates into the tools of production. As for the Third World — compare North Korea with South Korea. Whose people dream of going where?
One can open In Denial to any page and find some interesting fact, quotation, or insight. In discussing the revisionist historians, Haynes and Klehr name names and point out their inaccuracies and even their nontruths. And predictably, the decline in disciplined scholarship has, in the present day, led to greater absurdities in the service of anticapitalism.
As though this weren’t bad enough, I’ve discovered something equally troubling — the postmortem emergence of leftist historian Howard Zinn as a “political rock star.” He gained this appellation from his critic, Mary Grabar, for the broad readership and enduring influence of his book, A People’s History of the United States (1980). Its contemporary readership includes many naive young people still in school. There is now an edition of Zinn’s book just for them, i.e., A Young People’s History of the United States, as well as the nonprofit Zinn Educational Project (ZEP) that provides evidence of oppression by the good old USA.
I read Zinn’s A People’s History some time ago, but never took it seriously. After all, one could hardly expect a person bemused by an ideal of socialism to write history that can be taken seriously. Here I must quote a “bourgeois economist,” Ludwig von Mises, in The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality: “Life is a process, not a perseverance in a status quo. Yet the human mind has always been deluded by the image of an unchangeable existence. The avowed aim of all utopian movements is to put an end to history and establish a final and permanent calm.”
As for the Third World — compare North Korea with South Korea. Whose people dream of going where?
Sooner or later, socialist societies face a choice: either a free market with its organic pricing system, or massive, even murderous coercion. Consider these countries choosing socialism — Sweden, Venezuela, and North Korea. Sweden finally shifted to a free market to finance its welfare state. Venezuela was a stop on leftist Hollywood’s Caribbean tour until its leaders proved glaringly incompetent. North Korea is accurately described by Haynes and Klehr as “a bizarre nightmare state, a living hell that has starved millions of its own citizens to death and crippled an entire generation of children through malnutrition.” Need I mention Cuba?
Toleration, simple silence, or even justification in the face of such conditions helped create an atmosphere in which Howard Zinn could become a “rock star.” Mary Grabar describes Zinn’s rise to prominence in her own book, Debunking Howard Zinn: Exposing the Fake History That Turned a Generation Against America. Her introduction assures the reader that she will judge A People’s History by the fixed standards of the American Historical Association (AHA). These standards, she summarizes. She also quotes the influential liberal historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who called Zinn “a polemicist, not a historian.”
In subsequent chapters, she details Zinn’s political-activist life from his teaching at Spelman College in Atlanta, to his conflicts with John Silber, Democratic politician and president of Boston University, and Zinn’s widespread speaking engagements at student rallies and “teach-ins” during the 1960s. She points out that Zinn always preferred the more violent elements in social conflicts. For example, he favored H. Rap Brown’s SNCC over the relatively staid NAACP. In A People’s History, she finds descriptions of events meant to show that bourgeois America was forged and sustained through evil deeds. Grabar’s book is, in itself, a useful source for American history, naming some of those who recorded it more reliably than did Zinn.
Still, the collectivist dream remains. The door to earthly paradise will open, if we just get the tumblers to fall properly. But it’s the intellectuals, especially those associated with academia who have their collective hand on the dial, and they want that hand to stay there. It’s curious that, not long ago, a governor of a middle American state (Mitch Daniels of Indiana) denounced A People’s History as “a truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation that misstates American history on every page.” This, though perfectly true, produced a rebellion of the professoriate. Five years later, ZEP was still addressing its propaganda to educators and peddling a mock trial of Christopher Columbus for the murder of the Indians — before a hanging “jury” of grade-school students.
Sooner or later, socialist societies face a choice: either a free market with its organic pricing system, or massive, even murderous coercion.
What is needed now, in this peculiar epoch, is a defense of capitalism with its organic pricing system, its free market, its private property, and its basis in limited government. And as Mises reminded us years ago, “The history of Western Civilization is the record of a ceaseless struggle for liberty.” How long that spirit will prevail, we do not know. But in the East we find hellholes like North Korea and one nearly as bad in China. Firsthand testimony is provided by Yeonmi Park, whose book, In Order to Live, tells of her family life in North Korea and her desperate, often tragic, journey with her mother through China, across the Gobi desert, and into Mongolia, thence to South Korea and freedom. Especially striking are the descriptions of a hungry Yeonmi climbing the hills near Hyesan, North Korea, to feed on insects and wild plants. During her journey through China, Yeonmi endures separation from her older sister Eunmi and the death of her father. Later, both Yeonmi and her mother are sold in the human-trafficking trade, as potential wives, through a procession of traffickers. A very young Yeonmi becomes the mistress of one of the traffickers and assists him in his trafficking activity — tragic steps in her progress toward freedom. At last, reaching Ulan Bator in Mongolia, she and her mother fly to freedom in South Korea. And there, miraculously, they find Eunmi.
Yeonmi’s book is one antidote to the influence of Zinn’s book and all its promoters. And for a truer history of the United States, I would suggest Paul Johnson’s A History of the American People. Its dedication is worth remembering: “This book is dedicated to the people of America — strong, outspoken, intense in their convictions, sometimes wrong-headed but always generous and brave, with a passion for justice no nation ever matched.”
And consider the book’s opening sentence: “The creation of the United States of America is the greatest of all human adventures.” Yes, there is something to be said for our country, and it’s time for all of us to consider what and why.
* * *
SOURCES AND FURTHER READING
Atlas, Dr. Scott. “Scott Atlas: The Last Word.” The Stanford Review, 7 March 2021 www.stanfordreview.org/scott-atlas-the-last-word/.
Brzezinski, Zbigniew. The Grand Failure: The Birth and Death of Communism in the Twentieth Century. New York: Collier Books, 1990.
Conquest, Robert. The Great Terror: A Reassessment. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1990.
_____. The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1986.
Friedman, Milton. Capitalism and Freedom. Fortieth Anniversary Ed. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2002.
Hayek, F.A. The Road to Serfdom. Ed. Bruce Caldwell. Chicago: The Univ. of Chicago Press, 2007.
Hoffer, Eric. The Ordeal of Change. New York: Perennial Library, 1967.
Lilla, Mark. The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics. New York: New York Review, 2001.
Mises, Ludwig von. The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality. Spring Mills, PA: Libertarian Press, 1972.
Pipes, Richard. A Concise History of the Russian Revolution. New York: Vintage Books, 1996.
Pongracic, Ivan, Jr. “Learning From Experience.” Foundation for Economic Education, www.fee.org/articles/learning-from-experience/.
Reed, Lawrence. “Why Not Socialism?” The Washington Times, October 6, 2016. www.washingtontimes.com/news/2016/oct/06/why-not-socialism/.
Williams, Walter E. “Young People Ignorant of History.” Columnists. Townhall, November 13, 2019. www.townhall.com/columnists/walterewilliams/2019/11/13/young-people-ignorant-of-history-n2556294.
* * *
Review of Slanted: How the News Media Taught Us to Love Censorship and Hate Journalism, by Sharyl Attkisson, New York: Harper Collins, 2020, 303 pp.; Debunking Howard Zinn: Exposing the Fake History That Turned a Generation Against America, by Mary Grabar. Washington, DC: Regnery History, 2019, 326 pp.; In Denial: Historians, Communism, and Espionage, by John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr. San Francisco: Encounter, 2003, 316 pp.; and In Order to Live, by Yeonmi Park, with Maryanne Vollers. New York: Penguin Books, 2016, 273 pp.