Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Understanding What You Read - by Gary North

In the past three weeks, I have been sent two emails regarding a review I wrote in 2012 of a silly anti-Communist documentary, Agenda (2010).

The thesis of this documentary is that Communism is not only alive and well, it is about to conquer America. In fact, we are almost out of time. Communism is about to take over.

This thesis was big in 1958. It has fallen on hard times since then.

The documentary was produced by a man who admitted onscreen that he had never studied Communism before 2008. He arrived late to the party. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union had ceased to exist almost two decades earlier.

The collapse of the Soviet empire in December 1991 has to be the most extraordinary event of modern times. A gigantic empire just folded up shop and disappeared without bloodshed or revolution -- a most unMarxist event. What Marx called the cash nexus of capitalism overwhelmed the vanguard of the proletariat. They divvied up the loot and became rich.

Let's hear it for the cash nexus!


Both of the letters raised an issue that I had raised in my review. The producer of the documentary referred to a 1958 book by W. Cleon Skousen, The Naked Communist. He said it listed 45 steps that Communists used to destroy a society.

I knew Skousen quite well. I had first met him at a lecture he gave in 1959. I had bought a copy in 1959. I remember this date because I had just graduated from high school. I lost it along the way, but I had replaced it with a 1960 reprint.

I did not recall any such list. So, I pulled my copy off the shelf and looked through it. There was no list.
I mentioned this in my original review. The producer of the documentary wrote to me telling me I was wrong. 
There was such a list.

There wasn't -- not in the 1960's reprint.

I then posted an update of my review.

[Update, October 30, 4:40 a.m. After several exchanges of emails with Mr. Bowers on October 29, in which he could not explain this discrepancy, he sent me an email in the evening in which he cited a 1962 edition in which he said this list appears. I will take his word for this. In the text of the video, he stated the following. A reader had contacted him in 2008 to tell him that "a book from 1958 had outlined a similar agenda." No, it had not. That was how he introduced The Naked Communist. At the 11-minute mark, he said: "Inside the book, it documented 45 specific goals from 1958." No, it did not. But I took him at his word when I wrote this review. I went on the assumption that he had verified his claim. He hadn't. I looked up the 1960 edition, a reprint of the 1958 edition. The list was not there. Therefore, I hope that he will update his documentary to reflect this . . . and take it down from the Web until he does. Again, it is crucial that film-makers avoid making false claims onscreen. Some reviewers may take them literally. They may follow Ronald Reagan's warning: "Trust, but verify." I trusted. I verified. His statement was wrong. He trusted his letter-writer regarding what was in the 1958 edition. He failed to verify. Then he got caught. A reviewer must go by what a document says, not the author's belated email revision two years later.]

I was making a simple point: the producer of the documentary made a claim that was not verified by the primary source document he cited as authoritative. I am a trained historian. We historians want evidence that a cited document did in fact exist at the time that the author says it existed.

Four years later, in three weeks' time, I received two emails.

The first:

I stumbled upon your article and couldn't believe that you actually said that there is NOT a list of Communist goals in the book The Naked Communist. There is a list and it was read into the congressional record as well.
I am forwarding a link to an archived version of the book. Look on page 400. It's all there just as Bowers claims.
How is it that you can write such a damning article and get this facts so wrong? BTW, have you been to the Communist Party USA's web site recently? Check their agenda and compare to that of the Democrats. Check who they are swinging their support behind. Ouch!

This man did not comprehend what he had read. He is not alone in this inability.

The second:

Hello. I recently had the "documentary" Agenda put on my desk to watch. I am an assistant pastor and work with youth…I think the film was given to me with the idea I would share it with the youth of our church. I don't do this without first watching it for myself. I have not watched it thru as I stopped about 15-20 minutes into it. Doing a quick google search brought up your review of the film. You mentioned that the 45 goals for communism are not found in the book. I thought that was interesting so I just got the ebook version and decided to check for myself. Now depending on font size the pages can change but I found the list starting on page 409. Am I missing something here?

The point he was missing was simple: the 1958 edition of the book did not offer any such list.
I thought I had made my point in 2012. Yet two people were convinced by post-1960 editions of Skousen's book that he had provided the list in 1958.

Why can't people comprehend what they read?


It really is important that you pay close attention to what an author writes before contacting him to let him know that he made a mistake. The odds are that the author did not make this mistake. He had an incentive not to make it.
Authors can be unclear, but it is far more common for readers to misunderstand, and then to jump to conclusions.
Warning: jumping to conclusions is not an aerobic exercise.