How History Whitewashes Radical Figures

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What do Thomas Paine, Rosa Parks, Albert Einstein, Helen Keller, John Steinbeck, George Orwell, Pablo Picasso, Nelson Mandela, Bertrand Russell, and Martin Luther King, Jr. all have in common? These historical figures, among many others, are routinely taught about in American schools, they’re all praised for their various contributions, whether artistic, societal, governmental, or scientific, and they’re all generally portrayed as good, virtuous, and intelligent people. But they also have one more thing in common. Something that’s never mentioned in American schools. They were all socialists. In this episode, we’re going to take a brief look at how history, especially American history, tends to whitewash radical figures, and why it’s done. 

 

This video could easily be an hour long, but since I have analytics that show me just how long the average person watches, I’m going to try to keep this short. With that in mind, we’re just going to look at a couple of the many historical figures who have had their radical past defanged by imperialist history. We’ll start way back in the earliest days of the United States. These days, it can be hard to find much to like about modern politicians in the US, with many complaining that, in decades past, those who ran for office possessed integrity and unimpeachable morals that current candidates lack. The further back most people look, the more wistful they seem to become. As I briefly discussed in my episode on the electoral college, Americans tend to treat the founding fathers especially as these almost mythical figures who had their best interests at heart and that could do no wrong. In reality, they were people like the rest of us. And people, then and now, aren’t perfect. Some of you may be aware and appalled that, for example, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, among others, owned slaves, and believed in the superiority of the “white race.” Other Americans might not care about their flaws, though, and just brush those beliefs off as a sign of times. But not everyone who helped shape the country held such disappointing values, contemptible in the modern era. If you look around, one of the founding fathers in particular stood above the rest, dramatically ahead of his time, a champion of true equality as well as American independence: Thomas Paine.  From the days of his youth in England, Thomas Paine had been dedicated to improving the lives of the average people and the poor. He volunteered at his church to collect money to distribute to the needy, he was once fired from his job as a tax collector after advocating for better pay and striking over the matter. After he made his way to the American colonies in 1774, Paine found a position as editor of the Pennsylvania magazine, where he advocated for the abolition of slavery almost a full century before the practice was actually banned in the US. You may be thinking, wait a minute, could Thomas Paine really have been a socialist all the way back in the 1770s? That’s a fair question, as many people consider the beginning of socialism as a distinct ideology to be sometime around the French Revolution of 1789. While he may not have had the terminology we associate with socialism today, Paine checked all the boxes, so we could technically call him a proto-socialist, in that he followed a set of values that had not necessarily been fully codified. Paine was deeply concerned for the world’s poor, he was staunchly against the british rule of American colonies, and dedicated his life to fostering a revolutionary spirit among his readers, first in the colonies, and then abroad. His most well-known pamphlet, Common Sense, decries those who lust for power, saying “Men who look upon themselves born to reign, and others to obey, soon grow insolent; selected from the rest of mankind their minds are early poisoned by importance; and the world they act in differs so materially from the world at large, that they have but little opportunity of knowing its true interests, and when they succeed to the government are frequently the most ignorant and unfit of any throughout the dominions.” Once the revolutionary war was over and the founding fathers had settled into positions of power, Paine was expelled from government and labeled unpatriotic for rightly accusing a fellow diplomat of war profiteering. Not content with having freed just one nation from hereditary rule, Paine was determined to do the same in France during their own revolution. From his home in London, and against the will of both the British and French governments, Paine published The Rights of Man, which demanded the universal acknowledgement of inalienable rights to the entire population, and proposed systems to allow for these rights to flourish. Those systems included universal welfare, childcare, education, and pension. Years later, having burned all his bridges with the leadership of Britain, France, and the US, Paine died penniless and alone in New York. Only six people attended his funeral. today, a plaque commemorates the site in New York, reading, in part: “The world is my country; All mankind are my brethren; To do good is my religion.” Thomas Paine was not only more progressive than those of his time, he was more progressive than even many people today. Paine opposed the concept of private ownership of land, and admired the Iroquois nation for living sustainably and democratically. He supported suffrage for everyone, the right of workers to control the capital they used, and was the first notable American to propose the implementation of UBI. Taken together, all of this essentially makes him the original American Socialist, and people like Bernie Sanders follow in his centuries-old footsteps. Compare this information with what you learned about Paine in school. You probably knew he wrote Common Sense, which supported the colonial struggle against the British crown. Odds are, that’s all you were taught. 

 

But let’s fast forward to a more recent radical figure. Martin Luther King, Jr. King was, and remains to this day, the most well-known figure of the civil rights era. From 1955 until his assassination in 1968, MLK fought for desegregation, labor rights, the right for black Americans to vote, and countless other societal reforms that today we take for granted. Just about every American is familiar with at least some of King’s story. We’re taught that he was a good christian man who advocated for equal rights and that he led a march on washington and gave the “I have a dream” speech. This of course ended racism and everyone lived happily ever after, the end. Obviously that’s not the case, but that’s about the extent of the American education on the civil rights era. Here’s the thing. Dr. King was a far more radical organizer than most people today are aware. American history books tend not to include King’s later activism. He was staunchly anti-imperialist, harshly criticizing America’s meddling in foreign affairs, especially in Vietnam. He was opposed to militarism and war. He rightly pointed out that poverty could be eliminated with the tools at our disposal, it was simply a matter of putting human life over corporate profits. When he led the Montgomery Bus boycott at just 26 years old, King was already devoted to the struggle for equal rights, but, like anyone, his views evolved over time. As he led marches and spoke with people from all walks of life, he began to realize that the problems black people faced in America were a symptom of a larger disease. Between 1957 and 1968, King travelled over 6 million miles, delivered more than 2500 speeches, and was arrested and thrown in jail at least 20 times. Over that time, Dr. King developed an understanding of the way poverty, racism, militarism, and imperialism were all tangled up together in the mess we know as capitalism. He said, “Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all God’s children.” Martin Luther King wasn’t shy about making his political beliefs known, it’s just that modern histories like to leave that part out to make King more palatable, to make him seem like a harmless do-gooder who just wanted black people to be able to vote and drink from the same water fountains as white people. That’s not who Dr. King was. He preached a message of love and equality, but he was outspoken about the problems plaguing America. He called the US “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” a claim which has only become more and more obviously true over the decades. He condemned the nation’s military action against vietnam, saying “The bombs in Vietnam explode at home; they destroy the hopes and possibilities for a decent America.” This was absolutely true. The money we spent on that pointless, destructive war, could have been far better spent at home, improving the lives of everyday Americans of all races, because, as King noted “Negroes are not the only poor in the nation. There are nearly twice as many white poor as Negro, and therefore the struggle against poverty is not involved solely with color or racial discrimination but with elementary economic justice.” Dr. King would continue to speak on behalf of the poor, downtrodden, and forgotten, not just in America, but around the world, until the end of his life. In 1968, the year of his death, King said in an interview “For years I labored with the idea of reforming the existing institutions of society, a little change here, a little change there. Now I feel quite differently. I think you’ve got to have a reconstruction of the entire society, a revolution of values.” He knew that milquetoast reforms and compromise would never be sufficient to save the country, and that radical change was needed. Because of this, while traveling to support striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, Dr. King was assassinated. At the time of his death, he had just a 30 percent approval rating among Americans. This is in stark contrast with the rosy picture of an American hero we’re shown in school. We’re taught that most Americans respected MLK, and that he changed their minds. Clearly our education system is a little lacking in the accuracy department. Today, about 94 percent of Americans say they have a positive opinion of Dr. King. Has something in the hearts and minds of the American people changed over the years? I don’t think so. I believe that the way our history is presented is intentionally misleading. It defangs our most radical figures and presents them as whitewashed icons of a generally accepted movement. Women’s suffrage, civil rights, labor laws, any time there has been a major popular uprising in this country, our history books have picked a face to be a convenient representative, a sort of moral arbiter we can project our good feelings onto, while allowing the general population to ignore the actual mass movements that supported and carried these noble figures. It’s an intentional attempt to make people believe that a single person with a nice idea is all it takes to bring about real and lasting change. The ironic thing is, each of the people portrayed in this way recognized and publicly acknowledged that a single person has no real power, and that a mass movement is necessary in order to force positive change. Those in power will never give up that power without a fight. We need to realize that when we’re presented with an accounting of history that does not engage with all the facts, we’re being subtly conditioned to constrain the scope of our worldview and our politics. Rosa Parks was a brave woman who sat where she wanted to sit. Martin Luther King was a preacher who wanted equal rights. Albert Einstein was just a really smart scientist. Picasso was just an artist. Orwell and Steinbeck were just authors. All of these people and many more have been stripped of their radical beliefs to make them acceptable for an American capitalist audience. Why engage with the actual convictions these people held when we can just rewrite their lives to make them harmless figureheads that stand for something entirely different today than what they stood for in life. The people who use Martin Luther King as an example of a “good black protestor” are choosing to engage with a version of history that does not exist. A version that has been molded to make white people feel okay about the civil rights era. Those people need to reckon with the fact that they would have been in the 60 percent that held an unfavorable opinion of Dr. King in 1968. Why? Because if he were alive today, his convictions would put him on the front lines of every divisive issue that so many of these Americans take as an attack on their traditional values and the greatness of our nation. Anti-war, anti-imperialism, anti-capitalism, and a radical love for the people our predatory system has cast aside. That’s why our histories whitewash radical figures. So the mass movements they represented won’t inspire the next generation, so we’ll feel like we could never measure up to these seemingly lone actors who effected all that change all by themselves. They weren’t by themselves. They had a whole lot of normal people standing with them in solidarity. And those people don’t get a page in the history books. 

 

If you’d like to learn more about any of the figures I mentioned in this video, I’ve left some links in the description. For Dr. King in particular, I highly recommend you check out Martin Luther King Jr. on CuriosityStream. It’s a nice short watch about Dr. King’s contributions to the civil rights movement. CuriosityStream is an established streaming platform with a solid track record of caring about great, educational content and the financial security of those who produce it. They’ve got thousands of nonfiction titles from some of the best filmmakers in the game. As you probably know, YouTube doesn’t treat its creators very well. That’s why some of my creator friends and I teamed up to build nebula, so we don’t have to worry about demonetization. As educational creators ourselves, we love curiositystream, so we’ve worked out a deal where if you sign up for curiositystream at the link below, you’ll also get access to Nebula, 100% free. For a limited time, CuriosityStream is offering their holiday pricing, 41% off their annual plan. That’s less than twelve bucks a year for both CuriosityStream and Nebula, which, in my humble opinion, is a pretty great deal. Since we’re all stuck inside anyway, why not spend some time learning about fascinating topics on CuriosityStream, or check out Nebula’s exclusive content, including my upcoming series on the resurgence of fascism? You can also watch all my videos as they were intended – ad free. There really is something for everyone, and by signing up at the link below, you’re helping us produce more content without the fear of demonetization. Give CuriosityStream a shot, and get free access to Nebula when you sign up using the link below. It really does help support my channel, and educational creators all across YouTube. 

 

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