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Ron Radosh

The Dangers of Politicized Conservative History

October 19th, 2010 - 10:00 am

And these are not only worthwhile, but essential remedies that must be realized for a stable and successful American future. “Our universities,” he concludes, “have produced two generations of highly educated people who seem unable to recognize the spirited defense of fundamental American principles, even when it takes place for more than a year and a half right in front of their noses.” Even a brilliant historian like Sean Wilentz has something left to learn.

Update: Tuesday, Oct.19th, 7 p .m. EST: On his website, my good and old friend David Horowitz responds to my argument. I especially love his title, “Why Take Seriously a Historian who would write a cover story like this one?” Is he addressing that to me, or to Sean Wilentz?  At any rate, David actually confirms my entire argument without realizing it. He is upset that I supposedly give “credence to Wilentz’ attack on [Glenn] Beck,” which he argues was written “in the service of a leftwing political cause.”

Pause one moment. The issue to David is not whether or not I am right or wrong, or whether Beck’s so-called history is wrong—which is what I, Mark Hemingway and Michael Moynihan have all written about. For the record, none of us are anything but on the conservative side. But David evidently thinks that if we critique Beck’s bad history, it means we are against anything that Beck is for, especially when he comments on the policies of the Obama administration about which he is often correct.  (But sometimes he is wrong about this too.)

Does David mean that if the history is wrong, and we show it is, that somehow reflects on positions on political issues about which Beck is correct? Do we have to endorse bad politicized history to rescue the political credibility of a conservative commentator who teaches as he learns? I would again suggest you look at my original article, and read the link to Michael Moynihan’s piece in particular. You will find plenty of evidence there for some really bad history presented by Beck.

David then goes on to correctly chastise Wilentz’s very poor performance during the Clinton impeachment proceedings, when he testified before Congress and wrote articles  of a specious nature; or when he wrote a very silly article- actually two different ones- that were both cover stories in Rolling Stone about how George W. Bush was the worst President in U.S. History. Wilentz obviously got paid very well for these- but made a fool of himself by judging a President while still in office- without the passage of time in which a historian should then reflect and judge Bush’s presidency.

Indeed, two years ago, Wilentz wrote a fine book defending Ronald Reagan as one of America’s greatest Presidents! I reviewed it for The New York Sun, and I praised Wilentz for his ability to transcend his own Democratic partisan stance and realize Reagan’s greatness. Anyone reading it knew that when Reagan was President, Wilentz would have been in the forefront of those shouting about how Reagan was America’s worst President and practically a fascist.

Was Wilentz’s book appreciating Reagan, one that angered the Left, also an example of “intellectual fraud?” Or is Wilentz guilty of that only when Horowitz disagrees with him? As for the vile and nutty Keith Olbermann and the puerile Rachel Maddow, they have their obvious bias and left-wing version of reality, but to date, none of them have sought to try and pose themselves as America’s history teacher, as has Glenn Beck.

Yes, Horowitz is correct about Howard Zinn. He knows that I have written many, many times about him, at PJM and elsewhere. I have nothing but disdain for him. Yes, his work is filled with scores of obvious errors. But so is the “history” taught by Glenn Beck, which at times is laughable. But I would not at this point argue about how influential Zinn is when compared to Beck. It is horrendous that so many schools use Zinn as a text, that many certified historians praise him to the skies, and that a TV series based on his People’s History may even soon emerge.

But many of those who are in the Tea Party and are learning about conservatism are not looking at Zinn, but rather at Glenn Beck. They use the texts he recommends- which are indeed also filled with “malicious errors,” – and take the interpretations of the extremist Mormon “scholars” he often has on as the only accurate take on many questions, without ever letting his audience know that many truly sound and serious scholars have looked at these issues, and see things in a very different light. Are not many of Beck’s audience, when it comes to American history, also “semi-literate?”  The answer is that they are: as people on his show often say to him, “I didn’t know any of this until I learned it from you.” Obviously, they got a bad education somewhere. But that does not excuse that they think they have now learned the truth from Glenn Beck.

Finally, I do not think I have to comb through Beck’s shows to give David evidence about what he has said. I did that before when I wrote about his program on Martin Luther King Jr., and when I cited his endorsement of Elizabeth Dilling’s old book from the 30s as doing for that era what he is doing now. I would also point to his complete endorsement of Joe McCarthy and his willingness to tell his audience that the entire truth about him is contained in the book by M. Stanton Evans. Obviously, Beck knows nothing about the McCarthy era, and his willingness to praise Evans stems from the influence on him of the Bircher Skousen.

David says Skousen’s books were written “forty years ago.” OK. But Beck is citing them as books to be studied NOW, and many Tea Party groups are using them as texts. And yes, Skousen’s books are as harmful and vile as those written by Bill Ayers. That Ayers is a liar and a fool and a communist revolutionary does not mean we have to bend over backwards and ignore the ranting of the crazy far Old Right, especially when Beck is trying to resurrect them and their analysis.

As for my supposedly writing “snobbish attacks on America patriots,” I was writing a critique of conservatives who ignore bad history because it is in the service of a cause they support. Isn’t that just what the Left does, when it uses Zinn’s work to gain support for their cause? Do we really want to emulate their approach? Those of us who want to stop the Obama administration’s dangerous programs can do so without endorsing the kind of logic and history we correctly oppose when it is used by the Left.

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