"It ain't so much the things we don't know that get us into trouble. It's the things we know that just ain't so."
That famous line, attributed to many authors but apparently said by humorist Henry Wheeler Shaw (aka Josh Billings), applies to history as much as anything.
What liberates oppressed people? I was taught it's often American power. Just the threat of our military buildup defeated the Soviet Union, and our troops in the Middle East will create islands of freedom.
Unlikely, says historian Thaddeus Russell, author of A Renegade History of the United States.
"As a matter of fact," Russell told me, "in general American military intervention has increased anti-Americanism and hardened repressive regimes. On the other hand, American popular culture—what was often called the worst of our culture in many cases—has actually done more for liberation and our national security than anything that the 82nd Airborne could do."
I told him that I thought that the Soviet Union collapsed because the Soviets spent so much trying to keep pace with Ronald Reagan's military buildup
On the contrary, Russell said, "it collapsed from within. ... People simply walked away from the ideology of communism. And that began especially when American popular culture—jazz and rock and roll—began infiltrating those countries after World War II."
I demanded evidence.
"American soldiers brought jazz during World War II to the eastern front. Soviet soldiers brought it back. Eastern European soldiers brought it and spread it across those countries. ... Stalin was hysterical about this."
The authorities were particularly concerned about young people performing and enjoying sensual music.
"Any regime at all depends on social order to maintain its power. Social order and sensuality, pleasures of the body, are often at odds. Stalin and his commissars understood that."
American authorities 30 years earlier also feared the sensuality of black music, said Russell, attacking it "as primitive jungle music that was bringing down American youth. Stalin and his commissars across Eastern Europe said exactly the same things with the same words later."
Then rock and roll came.
"That was even more threatening," Russell said. "By the 1980s, disco and rock were enormously popular throughout the communist world."
The communists realized they had to relax the rules or risk losing everything, but it was too late. One of the most amazing and significant spectacles was Bruce Springsteen's concert in East Germany in 1988, when a crowd of 160,000 people who lived behind the Iron Curtain sang "Born in the USA."
I'm skeptical. I don't know how much effect Reagan's military buildup had versus rock and roll, but I bet ordinary consumer goods had an ever bigger effect. People trapped behind communist lines wanted the stuff we had. When I was in Red Square before the fall of communism, I sold my Nikes and jeans to eager buyers.
People want choices, and you can't indoctrinate that out of them.
Which leads me to the most destructive myth about history: the idea that if we are to prosper, government must make smart plans for us. I was taught that in college, and despite the failure of the Soviet Union, many government leaders still believe it.
It's no coincidence that the countries with the least economic freedom, according to the Heritage Foundation—Cuba, Zimbabwe, North Korea—are the worst places to live. They not only lack freedom, they are also poor.
Who's at the top of the economic freedom list? Hong Kong. (The United States is ninth.) Hong Kong has low taxes, and as I demonstrated in an ABC special years ago, they make it easy to become an entrepreneur. I got permission to open a business there in one day. In my hometown, New York City, it takes months.
Hong Kong doesn't even have democracy, but because its rulers protected people's personal safety and property and left them otherwise free, Hong Kong thrived. In 50 years, it went from horrible poverty to income levels that are among the highest in world. Prosperity, thanks to economic freedom.
We should try that here.
John Stossel is host of Stossel on the Fox Business Network. He's the author of Give Me a Break and of Myth, Lies, and Downright Stupidity. To find out more about John Stossel, visit his site at johnstossel.com.
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