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Glenn Beck's TV Documentary on 20th Century Totalitarianism: Does He Get it Right?

Last Friday, along with millions of others, I watched Glenn Beck’s first TV documentary, “The Revolutionary Holocaust: Live Free or Die,”  his attempt, as he puts it on his website, “to examine the roots of socialism and communism and the evil that followed.”  As one of the most controversial and one might say hated contemporary media figures on the Right, it was to be expected that his entrée into the documentary field would meet instant harsh criticism.

The first round of attacks came from some academics interviewed by Michael Calderone for Politico. Calderone saw it not as an attempt to educate viewers about the totalitarian monsters of the previous century, but as a mechanism for using “imagery pulled from the 20th century's totalitarian past to make a point about citizens needing to be wary of government overreach in the present.”   He quoted Beck as having previously promoted the program by saying that “‘progressives’ don't want the public to know about this history and that it's  ‘not being taught in classrooms in America.’”

Next Calderone queried academics, including Clemson University Professor Steven Marks and Boston College noted political scientist and author Alan Wolfe, both of whom found little of merit, if anything, in the documentary. Marks thought Beck was trying to hint at a resemblance of contemporary liberals to figures like Hitler and Stalin. Moreover, Marks argued that “no one in their right mind is going to defend Stalin or Mao or Che Guevara.” Evidently Prof. Marks has not seen or heard about Steven Soderbergh’s recent lengthy film on Che, or the scores of pro-Che and pro Castro documentaries broadcast over the years on PBS, or anyone wearing a T-shirt heralding Che as a great liberator.

I don’t know what planet Professor Marks is living on, but if he wants to get in touch with me, I’ll bore him to death with scores of examples from prominent figures in both the academy and the political Left who in fact regularly engage in precisely just such glorification. If they do not glorify them, they will come up with scores of reasons to explain why their mechanisms of political control were forced on them by the opposition of American imperialism to their valiant attempt to establish socialism. This used to be par for course to explain Stalinism; now it is more often used by many to account for and to excuse Castro’s transformation of Cuba into a totalitarian state.

So, I suspect that although I did not learn anything new from Beck’s program (I am hardly, however, the average viewer), his footage and interviews on Communism were excellent. On Cuba, the two talking heads were Cuban scholar Humberto Fontova, author of numerous books and two exposing Che Guevara in particular; and Reason magazine’s former editor in chief and now head of Reason TV, Nick Gillespie. Both did a yeoman job of putting Castroism in context, and in revealing the reality of Castro’s prison island.  Gillespie essentially said on camera much the same thing as appears now on his magazine’s website. Beck also included a tear-wrenching interview with a Cuban widow and her daughter who witnessed the execution of their husband and father by firing squad on Cuban TV after Castro took power.

On the Soviet Union, the documentary concentrated on the Ukraine, and included an interview with the outgoing current President as well as the comments of  Rutgers University Professor Taras Hunczak, who told the story of the state induced famine and the horrendous consequences for the people of the Soviet Union who lived under the regime of terror created by Lenin, Stalin and their successors. Also presenting material was a Latvian prize winning documentary filmmaker, Edvins Snore, whose own film, “The Soviet Story," reveals  how the current generation of young Russians remain ignorant of their own past history and now, as a consequence, often mindlessly defend Stalin as a great leader of his people.

On Mao and China, Beck brought to his camera the noted Chinese exile author, Jung Chang, whose magisterial biography of Mao, co-authored with her husband Jon Halliday, has been justly praised as definitive. Her own family memoir, Wild Swans, is one of the most powerful and impressive works of literary biography, in which Chang weaves her family’s stories through three different eras of Chinese history. It is clear from the caliber of the people Beck used to tell the story of Communism that the documentary has to be taken as a serious effort, and not dismissed as easily as did the academics who spoke to Calderone.

I suspect what most irked the academics was Beck’s choice of the general commentator on the roots of fascism, National Review contributing editor Jonah Goldberg, author of the best-selling book Liberal Fascism, which received the disdain of not only most academics, but that of liberal journalists and writers, who trashed it in various venues. This is not the time or place to discuss his thesis, but those interested in seeing how professional historians loathe it can immediately go to the fierce round of attacks up this week on the website of the  History News Network.