I Thought Howard Zinn was Bad Enough. Now We Have to Learn Our History from Oliver Stone
“Stalin,” he says, “has a complete other story.” Sure, and it is one being told today by contemporary Russian apologists who long for the good old days of the Gulag, as well as by a scant number of the still existing fans of Stalin in our country, such as an obscure English professor at Montclair State University in New Jersey and, of course, the apologist for the Vietnamese Communists, H. Bruce Franklin, author of The Essential Stalin (1972). In that book, Franklin wrote: “I used to think of Joseph Stalin as a tyrant and butcher who jailed and killed millions. ... But, to about a billion people today, Stalin is the opposite of what we in the capitalist world have been programmed to believe. ... If we are to understand Stalin at all, and evaluate him from the point of view of either of the two major opposing classes, we must see him, like all historical figures, as a being created by his times and containing the contradictions of those times. ... From a Communist point of view, Stalin was certainly one of the greatest of revolutionary leaders. ...”
As Stone sees it, “a more factual representation” will paint Stalin as the man who “fought the German war machine” and hence as an individual who cannot be judged as “only ‘bad’ or ‘good.’” As for Stalin’s arch nemesis Hitler -- who for a while Stalin of course not only admired but became an ally of -- Stone says he is “an easy scapegoat throughout history.” That means Stone will make a film that lets viewers “walk in Stalin’s shoes and Hitler’s shoes to understand their point of view.” So let me take Stone’s orientation a bit more seriously. His explanation suggests that as long as these monsters were enemies of the United States, which Stone evidently thinks puts them in a position where we have to understand them, audiences need a new balanced interpretation of their actions.
Stone notes that we must have “empathy for the person you may hate.” Really? Why? Perhaps the genocide against Europe’s Jews perpetrated by Hitler and the Nazis is reason enough not to have empathy for him. Perhaps Stalin’s millions killed in state induced famines and the hundreds of thousands sent to the Gulag for political crimes is sufficient reason not to have empathy for Stalin. Many serious and responsible historians have written major books explaining what caused both Nazism and Communism to thrive for too many long years. They have done so carefully and with scholarly exploration, all without having empathy for two of the major mass murderers of the last century.
Has Stone’s lead writer, Peter Kuznick, read any of these? He tells us that he intends to describe Hitler, Stalin and Mao as “historical phenomenon,” and not just as people “who appeared out of nowhere.” This is original? Indeed, that is what good historians have been doing for a long time. Do we really need Oliver Stone, a man who knows nothing about how to write history and everything about how to trivialize it and portray it as a series of conspiracies, to give us his specious interpretation?
To head off opposition, he tells us in advance that, as he says, “Rush Limbaugh is not going to like this history.” I’m sure that is so. But neither, I suspect, will Marty Peretz, Leon Wieseltier, Jeffrey Herf, Jeffrey Goldberg, Sean Wilentz, Alonzo Hamby, Ron Rosenbaum, or hundreds of other writers, journalists, and historians I can think of. Stone’s ploy is obvious. By naming only Limbaugh, he hopes in advance to write off his critics as knee-jerk “right-wingers,” so that anyone who responds negatively will be seen as part of what leftists usually call “the right-wing echo machine.”
To show his objectivity, Stone puts in some nasty words for Barack Obama. As he sees it, Obama is “trapped” in the same military-industrial complex he dealt with in JFK, which is why he argues “Obama is following in Bush’s footsteps in Afghanistan.” It’s the system. The same system and complex that is funding and will be showing his new documentary series.
Like Zinn, Stone hopes that his Secret History will go to high schools as part of the “teaching curriculum.” If so, look forward to a new generation knowing even less about America’s past.
After writing the above, I was informed by a reader about Peter Kuznick, who turns out to be an actual historian who teaches at American University. I admit to not being aware of him and his work beforehand. But reading about him has if anything reinforced the analysis I provided in my post. Prof. Kuznick turns out to be yet another of the politically correct tenured radicals; a man of far left sympathies who considers Oliver Stone a man of great insight and profound truths. The university posts a profile of him that you can read here.
You can read what students say about his classes on the university’s “Rate my Professors” site. The many comments are quite revealing. Read them yourself. They range from those who are critical and comment that Prof. Kuznick sees history “as one giant conspiracy,” to a man who thinks Kuznick is “cool” because he ties “pop culture to history,” to another who writes that he “teaches a polemic, not history,” to one who writes that Kuznick “is a little insane at the height of his lectures,” to another student who found the class to be “fun” but who warns others “that some of the lectures get very political (prof swings very much to the left).”
It seems evident that Kuznick is indeed the type we have become all too familiar with in academia -- the left-wing activist whose concept of education verges on indoctrination, not scholarly inquiry. And it also is apparent that American University sanctions this approach by now allowing Kuznick to teach a course called “Oliver Stone’s America.” (One wonders whether it would approve a historian of Germany teaching a course called “Leni Riefenstahl’s Germany.”) I will gladly recommend that David Horowitz add him to any future edition of his book One-Party Classroom: How Radical Professors at America's Top Colleges Indoctrinate Students and Undermine Our Democracy or his previous book The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America.
I’m certain Prof. Kuznick would be delighted to be included in it. As he wrote himself about his past, “political conversion was the greatest aphrodisiac.” He saw his role as one of “creating a bridge between leftist and more moderate students.” A protégé of the late Warren Susman, a radical professor whom I knew well, Kuznick writes that when he went to the famous Chicago 1968 protests during the Democratic convention, his goal was not simply to protest the war, but as he writes, “to try to radicalize some of the more moderate and liberal students” who were supporting either George McGovern or Eugene McCarthy. Students who supported “liberal capitalism,” he writes, were “blind to the lessons of history.”
Now as a professor, he can carry on the same goals from the lofty heights of his position as associate professor, and can now reach an even wider audience through the good graces of his friend and new mentor, Oliver Stone.
How sad that at our universities today, and at American University in particular, one can find a professor who can reach more students at the expense of his tuition paying parents, who probably are not aware of how they are being taught what Prof. Kuznick thinks are “the lessons of history.”