OLIVER STONE’S AGITPROP: BRUCE THORNTON
Editor’s note: The following is an introduction written to a series of articles Frontpage will be running in the days ahead in response to Oliver Stone’s revisionist documentary series, “The Untold History of the United States,” currently airing Mondays on Showtime. Frontpage will be reviewing each episode of the Stone series, exposing the leftist hateful lies about America and setting the record straight. To see Daniel Greenfield’s review of “The Bomb,” the third episode of the series, click here. Stay tuned for more hard-hitting exposés of Stone’s distortions of U.S. history in the coming issues of Frontpage Magazine.
The American left has always lived by the slogan of “The Party” in Orwell’s 1984: “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” The politicizing of history in the academy has led to an ideologically distorted interpretation of American history that has trickled down into the K-12 curriculum, shaping the perceptions of generations of Americans, and determining how U.S. history is presented in popular culture. Oliver Stone’s 10-part “documentary” on the Cold War airing on the Showtime cable channel, “The Untold History of the United States,” is merely the latest version of American history presented as left-wing propaganda.
Despite Stone’s claim that this leftist story of American history has been “untold,” or, as he told London’s Guardian, that the “dirty story” of America has been “sanitized,” it has long been a ubiquitous, tired cliché. Indeed, even before Howard Zinn’s 1980 masterpiece of agitprop, A People’s History of the United States––which has sold over 2 million copies and is a staple of university and high school reading lists––the melodrama of American historical crimes and oppression was a staple of progressive received wisdom. Indeed, so entrenched is this narrative in American culture that purveyors of it like Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, and Oliver Stone––who is worth $50 million––have become rich peddling it. And contrary to Stone’s assertion that, though his version of the American story may have been “told” by “cutting edge” academic experts, it remains “unlearned” by students and the larger culture, some version of his view of history can be found in most American history textbooks from grade school to university. That’s why despising America for its historical crimes is an intellectual fashion marker, one of those things that everyone sophisticated and smart just knows, and that sets them apart from the mass of patriotic oafs who believe what Stone and his co-writer Peter Kuznick sneeringly deny––that America is “the world’s greatest nation.”
Why leftists like Stone hate America has long been obvious. The ability of free-market capitalism and liberal democracy to provide prosperity and personal freedom to an unprecedentedly large number of people has discredited the socialist and communist ideologies that have failed miserably and bloodily to achieve the extravagant utopian goals of the left. As Raymond Aron wrote in 1955, the left hates America because it “has succeeded by means which were not laid down in the revolutionary code. Prosperity, power, the tendency towards uniformity of economic conditions––these results have been achieved by private initiative, by competition rather than State intervention, in other words by capitalism, which every well-brought-up intellectual has been taught to despise.” Reinvigorating and promoting the socialist revolution thus requires slandering its most successful enemy. So too today, the rationale for those, like Barack Obama and Oliver Stone, who are eager to expand government power and control over society and the economy is found in what during his international “apology tour” Obama called America’s “arrogant, dismissive, derisive” behavior and the “darker periods in our history.” More political power is necessary for correcting and compensating for that oppressive record, and steering the locomotive of history back towards the internationalist leftist utopia.
But this leftist view of history results from facts and events evaluated in terms of some impossible utopian standard, instead of the record of how peoples and states have typically acted over time. As such it commits the mortal historiographical sin: presentism, the projection onto the past of contemporary standards, categories, and expectations. Thus the politically correct historian castigates the European and American violent collision with the Indians in the New World as a historically unprecedented crime, an act of ”genocide” and a bloody stage of imperialist expansion. In historical reality, it was yet another instance of the major dynamic of world history: the migrations of people to obtain land, and the violent appropriation of it from those already there. Indeed, long before the coming of the white man, Indian tribes in America were violently seizing land from other tribes. For Indians, title was conferred by force, not by documents, as the Oglala Sioux chief Black Hawk said at a conference with the U.S. cavalry in 1851: “These lands once belonged to the Kiowa and the Crows, but we whipped those nations out of them, and in this we did what the white men do when they want the lands of the Indians.” Perhaps you can argue Americans should have known better, but then you’d have to admit they are better in some respect, something the America-hater vehemently denies.
Or we hear a lot about American slavery, as though it too was a historically unique phenomenon. But slavery has been universal among humans, with the exception of those peoples or tribes not strong enough to enslave others. What is remarkable is not the existence of slavery, but the rise of an anti-slavery movement that convinced people slavery was morally wrong, a movement powerful enough to spark in the United States a civil war in which 650,000 Americans died. It is the exceptions in American history that we need to study and acknowledge, not just the endless recitation of sins common among mankind. And even when judging those “crimes and misfortunes” of history, as Voltaire put it, we must locate them in the context of what humans over time have typically done. We must define our standard of judgment and be clear where that standard comes from. For genuine historians, the standard comes from the record of human behavior over time. For Stone and his ilk, the standard is a utopian one that no human society, comprising as it must flawed human beings, will ever live up to.
From that impossible perspective, then, history can be only a lurid melodrama of cardboard heroes and villains. For the left, this means defining “villain” in Marxist-Leninist terms. Hence leftists obsess over “imperialism,” a word that communist ideologues transformed into a crude smear. It has become one of what historian Robert Conquest calls “mind-blockers and thought-extinguishers,” the function of which is “mainly to confuse, and of course to replace, the complex and needed process of understanding with the simple and unneeded process of inflammation.” “Imperialism” automatically denotes a self-evident evil, so all we have to do is attach the label to the United States in order to signify its oppression and exploitation.
But once again, the absence of intellectual precision and a reasonable standard of comparison leads to simplistic and misleading interpretations of historical events. Just say “imperialism” and you can reinterpret the Cold War against Soviet communist expansion as the pretext for America’s global power-grab. Of course, you have to ignore the fact that no careful historian would call America an “empire,” nor simplify its military action abroad into “imperialism.” And to call the Cold War camouflage for imperialist expansion is to ignore the massive amounts of evidence––much of it available even before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 released definitive evidence from Soviet archives––that the communist superpower was actively subverting other countries through violence and espionage in order to expand its empire and to bring about the triumph of communism.
Equally important, any fair comparison of the United States’ behavior to that of other countries enjoying such overwhelming military and economic power will show that America has been remarkable not for its excesses, but for its restraint. What other country has spent billions rehabilitating a defeated foe, as the U.S. did after World War II, or providing humanitarian and foreign aid? Does Stone think the Romans would have honored the sort of rules of engagement or limitations on air power that the United States has demonstrated in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan? They would have made a desert and called it peace. Or has there been any other country that has welcomed in foreigners, and then allowed them to slander and vilify the very people who have given them freedom and opportunity? What other country allows its citizens not just to voice slanted and false criticisms of it, but to get rich doing it? This restraint and openness have sometimes been a consequence of tactical or pragmatic calculations, but they also reflect the foundational principles of the American political order and its commitment to freedom and individual rights.
The story that needs telling, then, is not the story of America’s sins, which have been the sins of an imperfect humanity found in every time and every place. We have heard that story over and over for the last half-century. The story we should be hearing is the story of America’s exceptional virtues, the dedication to personal freedom and rights that, no matter how often betrayed in the past, today remains a monument to those virtues. As the stale clichés of left-wing history saturating our culture and schools show, that’s the real “untold” and “unlearned” story of America.
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