The Dangers of Politicized Conservative History

Having spent a good deal of time writing about the crude left-wing history of our country by charlatans like Howard Zinn and Oliver Stone, I have become wary of politicized history in general, whether it comes from the precincts of the far left or the far right.

This time the culprits are on the right, one of the biggest examples being Glenn Beck. On this website, some time ago, I wrote about Beck’s failure to understand Martin Luther King, Jr. A senior editor of Reason, my friend Michael Moynihan, wrote about Beck’s history and insightfully pointed out that a “tiny bit of knowledge … combined with an enormous Fox News constituency and an unflappable trust in one’s own wisdom, is a dangerous thing. Beck doesn’t demonstrate the perils of auto didacticism, but the perils of learning the subject while at the same time attempting to teach it.”

Now, from the precincts of the left, come two important critiques of both Beck’s and the Tea Party’s historical narrative. The first is a new book from Jill Lepore, a Harvard historian of America’s colonial and revolutionary period. Her book, The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History, should be required reading.

Lepore realizes that trying to find a usable past is not only a sin of the right. Indeed, she shows that in the 1970s, the left-wing activist Jeremy Rifkin created what he called “The People’s Bicentennial,” and used the Tea Party as a symbol for his attempt to invoke the Founding Fathers for the left in much the same way Beck and others do for the right today. His group, she writes, was meant to start “a tax-agitating Tea Party, too,” and said Tea stood for “Tax Equity for Americans.” His goal was to obtain “genuine equality of property and power and against taxation without representation,” and the group's slogan was “Don’t Tread on Me.” Rifkin, she writes, “wrote the Tea Party’s playbook.” (Not surprisingly, Howard Zinn was part of this movement, and his series of books came soon after.)

What Lepore successfully does, however, is reveal the dangers of oversimplification by those who use history for their own political purposes. What she opposes is “historical fundamentalism,” and the false assumptions “about the relationship between the past and the present.” She calls this “the belief that a particular and quite narrowly defined past -- ‘the founding' -- is ageless and sacred and to be worshipped; that certain historical texts -- ‘the founding documents’ -- are to be read in the same spirit with which religious fundamentalists read … the Ten Commandments; that the Founding Fathers were divinely inspired … that political arguments grounded in appeals to the founding documents, as sacred texts, and to the Founding Fathers, … are therefore incontrovertible.”

Unless you only want to read books that reinforce your current beliefs, I believe you owe it to yourself to be challenged by Lepore’s arguments. You will find, as I did, much to disagree with -- particularly her own political assessments. But she tries to be fair-minded; she went to scores of Tea Party meetings and events, and lets those she interviewed speak for themselves. As she concludes, “The Revolution was a beginning; the battle over its meaning can have no ending.”

The second article is by the eminent historian Sean Wilentz, and appears in the current issue of The New Yorker. Titled “Confounding Fathers: The Tea Party’s Cold War Roots,” Wilentz has written what is really two different articles — one on history; the other on the Tea Party’s politics. Wilentz is particularly concerned with Glenn Beck’s take on both progressivism and the influence on him of a figure most people are not familiar with, W. Cleon Skousen. In making this argument, Wilentz is not particularly original. He is evidently not aware that three years ago, in the pages of National Review, Skousen’s somewhat nutty arguments were dissected by a former Mormon, writer Mark Hemingway.

Like Wilentz, Hemingway refers to what he calls “Skousen’s dubious achievements,” and he too points to Skousen’s best-selling book from the 1950s, The Naked Communist , a volume “which even for 1958 is so irrational in its paranoia that it would have made Whittaker Chambers blush.” (Wilentz refers to this Skousen book as “a lengthy primer” about “the worldwide leftist threat [filled] with outlandish claims, writing that F.D.R.’s adviser Harry Hopkins had treasonously delivered to the Soviets a large supply of uranium, and that the Russians built the first Sputnik with plans stolen from the United States.” )

Wilentz is also highly indebted to the recent book by left-wing journalist Alexander Zaitchik, Common Nonsense: Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance, which contains two heavily documented chapters about Skousen and the way in which he has influenced Glenn Beck. Many of the examples in Wilentz’s articles are discussed by Zaitchik, although Wilentz has gone back to some of the original sources and expanded on them. Although much of Zaitchik’s book is polemical and tendentious, his two chapters on Beck’s variant of the Mormon faith and Beck’s reliance on Skousen are on target, and I highly recommend them.