Sunday, August 16, 2009

In which I finally manage to finish reading a book...

It took me a week, but I finally finished reading Michael Parenti's History as Mystery. I was nearly finished, but it took most of a week to make myself sit down and read the last ten pages or so, which are the end of a screed criticizing what he calls psychopolitics, the psychoanalysis of historical figures.

It isn't that I completely disagree with him on this, but it was also the part of the book where he explicitly (and finally) comes out as a Marxist historian, not my favorite way of analyzing history. As I said in an earlier post, it isn't because it's Marx, but that I find it a fairly simplistic way of looking at history. This is probably because I see a variety of things shaping historical events rather than just putting everything down to class conflict.

So, it was really funny to find Parenti, on page 265, calling psychopolitics "simplistic in its interpretation" and "reductionist", since that is pretty much how I view Marxist historical analysis. Just proves, to me anyway, that how you feel about historical analysis is relative, based on your own biases.

And, goodness knows, we all have our biases. I'm just more comfortable when a writer can recognize that they have biases and is willing to acknowledge them. My bias, then, related to my feelings about Parenti's book, is that, as I said, I don't like any analysis of history that reduce all causation to one single issue, such as class conflict. (Ouch! How many commas can I get into one sentence?) The world is a complicated place, motivations of the people who have shaped history are complicated, and to say that all of history comes down to any one aspect of all that is too simplistic for me.

Ah, well. It was an interesting book anyway, and Parenti has some interesting things to say. One of the most important things he writes about is the idea that "history", as it is viewed and taught in US public schools, is avoiding controversy and turning the student into a good citizen who does not question or criticize orthodox interpretations of How Things Should Be. This is not an original thesis, and has been explored by others, including Frances Fitzgerald in America Revised: History Schoolbooks in the Twentieth Century (Little, Brown: 1979) and James W. Loewen in Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong (New Press: 1995). Both are very good books and do a better, more thorough job than Parenti does in looking at how US history is taught in US public schools. I recommend both books; in fact, I'm about to go back and re-read Loewen's book, and perhaps Fitzgerald's, as well.

Parenti, on the other hand, goes farther afield and his scattershot approach, while uncovering some interesting issues in history and historiography, is sometimes a bit difficult to follow and I would have liked it better if he had taken more time and care to tie all the threads here together into a more coherent whole. As it is, despite the valuable places he goes in the book, I was left wondering what his point was, aside from the fact that he advocates Marxist historical analysis.

Maybe that was he only point, in the end. He could have said that more clearly, rather than just tacking a one-page "afterward" to the last chapter, the one on psychopolitics, where he sort of just sticks his tongue out at orthodox history and historians and essentially proclaims that "My historical analysis can beat up your historical analysis."