The ideological class values of historians largely govern what little history we learn in school and from mass media. Historians teach courses and/or write the books used in secondary and post-secondary schools. Also, their books provide the basis of mass media history presented to the public in the form of ‘news programs’ and ‘documentaries’.
Historians would have us believe that they study the remnant documents from past societies with the same detached unbiased objectivity of an astrophysicist interpreting electromagnetic waves from outer-space passing through telescopes, when in fact historians ‘see’ the past through the ideological ‘lens’ of their socioeconomic class or, more likely these days, their employer’s socioeconomic class.
Subjective class-value judgments govern the selection and interpretation of documents, and the narrative themes. Subjectively selected anecdotes are presented to students and the public as generalized representations of historic societies. Students and the public come to think of anecdotes as representations of the essence of the historic cultures.
A few ‘social historians’ such as Michael Parenti write the social history of the masses of ‘people’; trying to capture the prevailing living conditions and value system of the society as a whole, as opposed to the milieu of select groups in the society. Hence the sub-title of his book “The Assassination of Julius Caesar – A People’s History of Ancient Rome”
In the opening chapter of his book,Parenti discusses the ideological class values of prevailing historical narratives, which he characterizes as “Gentlemen’s History”; that is, the class values of the ‘history narratives that gentlemen write’.
The “Gentlemen” metaphor denotes the class values of historians exemplified by the eighteenth century ‘gentleman’ historian Edward Gibbon, who wrote the renowned “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”. Parenti writes:
“Gibbon was not just ‘an eighteenth-century Englishman,’ but an eighteenth-centruy English gentleman...a ‘gentleman’ was one who had a prosperous affluent lifestyle and properly schooled in the art of ethno-class supremacism.” (p. 14 emp.+)
In turn, the “ethno-class supremacism” of the gentlemen historian affects perceptions of reality and determines the character of the history narratives written:
“Gibbon perceived reality in accordance with the position he occupied in the social structure...as a gentleman scholar, he produced what I call ‘gentlemen’s history’, a genre heavily indebted to an upper-class ideological perspective.” (p. 14 emp. +)
Gibbon is not unique among historians, more generally:
“The writing of history has long been a privileged calling undertaken within the church, royal court, landed estate, affluent town house, government agency, university, and corporate-funded foundation. (p. 13 emp.+)
I emphasized ‘government agency’, ‘university’ and ‘corporate-funded foundation’ because they are the primary institutional sources of contemporary history books, professional publications and media presentations. They have displaced the church, royal court, landed estate, affluent town house as the institutional context in which history is written. They are the predominate employers of historians.
For example, consider the institutional affiliations of a few historians interviewed on November’s “C-Span’s Book TV” program:
She has been a contributor to the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Wired News and LA Weekly... twice been a finalist for the journalism awards of the Annenberg School of Communication,
Film critic for The Spectator, political commentary The Daily Telegraph, Jerusalem Post, Chicago Sun-Times, National Review, The Atlantic Monthly... appears on shows such as those of Rush Limbaugh, Hugh Hewitt, and Sean Hannity.
Gerald S. Blane & Lisa McCubbin
Gerald Blaine is a former U.S. Secret Service Agent, and Lisa McCubbin is an award-winning journalist who’s been a radio talk show host, a television news anchor, a travel writer and media consultant in Saudi Arabia.
Professor of history at Georgetown University
By ‘lumping’ government agency, university and corporate-funded foundation together with church, court, landed estate and affluent town house, Parenti is showing that the dominant institutions change over time, but the history narratives sponsored by dominant institutions (narratives written within the dominant institutions) always manifest the ideology of the dominant institutions. Moreover, virtually all historical narratives are written within an ideological institutional setting.
The characteristics of the upper-class Gentlemen, and the upper-class institutions changed overtime. However, illusions of democratic egalitarianism aside, today the upper-class still dominate and determine the content and nature of history taught in schools and presented to the public, albeit through more contemporary institutions and methods.
Consistent with the illusion of egalitarianism, the upper-class go to great pains to act as though they are just ‘folks’ like the rest of the working class ‘blokes’, having no special ideological affects on society. Nevertheless, from stealth cover behind university, corporate-foundation and think-tank boards of directors, the upper-class exercise political and financial prowess over working class historians.
The Historian as Laborer
To my mind the most significant point Parenti makes in his discussion of gentlemen historians is equating the writing of history with labor, and labor takes place within an institutional socio-economic context.
For example, he describes Gibbon’s ‘working’ context as follows:
“In 1773, we find Gibbon beginning work on “Decline...” while settled in a comfortable town house tended by half-a-dozen servants. Being immersed in what he called the ‘decent luxuries’, and saturated with his own upper-class prepossession...” (p.15 emp.+)
“The social and ideological context in which historians labor greatly influences the kind of history produced. (p.13 emp.+)
The social and ideological context that today’s historians work has changed since Gibbon’s day. As the above C-Span author’s lists indicate, today’s historians are not likely to be members of the upper-class. Rather they just work for the upper-class dominated institutions. This is to say, the writers and purveyors of history are ‘workers’.
Ostensively, university historians get paid for teaching. However, as implied by the old university adage “Publish or Parish”: wages, promotions and positions at prestigious universities are all contingent on writing. Ultimately, writing is the craft by which historians make a living and support their families.
As with all workers in all crafts, historians work at the behest of upper-class dominated institutional employers; if they do not produce a product consistent with the upper-class ideological perspective, they cannot expect to continue to be employed by upper-class dominated institutions or, in the case of tenured positions, they will be marginalized.
For example, recently the long time successful writer and popular political commentator Juan Williams, writer of historical works Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965 and Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary, and whose media commentary were generally put into historical context, was fired for making comments that were inconsistent with National Public Radio ideology.
In short, if historians want to work, they write what ‘de bossman’ wants written, and ‘de bossman’ wants his ideological value system instilled in the minds of the masses. Parenti uses the metaphor “Gentleman” to capture the concept of historians who are either a part of, or work for, the dominant class.
Juxtaposed to “Gentleman’s History is “People’s History”
“People’s History” is, in Parenti’s words:
“Any history that deals with the efforts of the populace to defend itself from the abuses of wealth and tyranny is people's history. Such history has been written over the past century by such notables as W.E.B. Du Bois, Philp Foner, Herbert Aptheker, Howard Zinn, etc. (p. 10)
However, People’s History is not limited to narratives about “the populace”, it is also a critique of the “anti-people” mainstream gentlemen’s histories. He writes:
“A people's history should be not only an account of popular struggle against oppression but an expose of the anti-people's history that has prevailed among generations of mainstream historians. It should be a critical history about a people's oppressors, those who propagated an elitist ideology and a loathing of the common people that distorts the historical record down to this day." (p. 10 emp.+)
This second quote goes a long way in explaining why Parenti “has been kicked out of the best universities in America”. He shows no respect for the “Gentlemen” who have sat and currently sit in the Chairs of Wisdom at the “best universities”. Parenti, in the spirit of Socrates, refused to accept the sophistry that university Sophist sell to students who can afford the tuition.
For example, Gibbon’s sophistry:
“Gibbon who hobnobbed with nobility, abhorred the ‘wild theories of equal and boundless freedom’ of the French Revolution...supported the British Empire...was against extending liberties to the American colonies.
In turn, such upper-class ideological values affected the characteristics of Gibbon's Roman narratives.
“Unsurprisingly he had no difficulty conjuring a glowing pastoral image of the Roman Empire:
“Domestic peace and union were the natural consequences of the moderate and comprehensive policy embraced by the Romans...The obedience of the Roman world was uniform, voluntary, and permanent. The vanquished nations blended into one great people, resigned the hope, nay even the wish, of resuming their independence... (p.15 emp.+)
Parenti points out that Gibbon conveniently ignored facts of Roman society that contradicted his upper-class British Empire oriented picture of Rome’s Empire.
“Not a word [from Gibbon] about an empire built upon sacked towns, shattered armies, slaughtered villages, raped women, enslaved prisoners, plundered lands, burned crops, and mercilessly overtaxed populations.
Gentilmen’s History Today
Note, in the above quote, Parenti refers to “those who propagated an elitist ideology and a loathing of the common people that distorts the historical record down to this day."
A quintessential example of Gibbon redux published in 2010 (seven years after Parenti’s book was published) is David Gilmour's “The Pursuit of Italy – A History of a Land, its Regions, and their Peoples.
First consider Gilmour’s very Gibbon-esque pedigree:
Sir David Robert Gilmour, 4th Baronet is the first son of Ian Gilmour, Baron Gilmour of Craigmillar, 3rd Baronet, and Lady Caroline Margaret Montagu-Douglas-Scott, the youngest daughter of the 8th Duke of Buccleuch. ‘Her Royal Highness’ Princess Margaret was his sponsor at his Christening.
(is this guy connected or what?)
Now consider what Sir David had to write about Rome, quoting Gibbon:
“The roman Empire engendered prosperity, encouraged by free trade and a common currency, provided justice as well as law, and had a broadmindedness about race and class that modern Europe has only recently striven to emulate
The age of Augustus, like the age of the Antonmines in the second century, was largely peaceful and broadly thriving. Edward Gibbon, writing in the 1770s, may have been right to identify the years AD 98-180 as 'the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous.' (p.48 emp.+)
In Gilmour’s book the word ‘slave’ does not appear in the table of context or the index. However, he does mention it in the narrative:
“Cato described Sicily as the ‘republic’s granary, the nurse at whose breast the roman people is fed. Most of the grain was produced by slave labour.”
In Sir David’s “gentlemen’s history” there is no contradiction between: “condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous” and “most of the grain was produced by slave labour.” I guess the slaves of Sicily were not considered part of the “human race”.
In the spirit of Parenti someone should point out to Sir David (although certainly not in the polite company of the Princess) that the American anti-bellum plantation South was also very peaceful and prosperous. Except for an occasional whipping of a Hand who got out-of-hand. And the post-bellum Jim Crow South was also very peaceful except of the occasional lynching of a Black man who took-a-stand.
Southern-Italian American students seeking knowledge of their historic Patria Meridionale roots must learn to read history critically. If they simply accept what they read as true because the writer has impressive credentials and works for a prestigious institution, then they will be indoctrinated instead of educated.
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A subsequent Part II discussion of Parenti’s book will deal with the details of the history of the Roman People and the implications it had for Caesar’s assassination.