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.
Wilentz takes on Beck’s self-proclaimed role as America’s history teacher. Beck, he notes, says that his new Beck University contains “lessons from the best and brightest historians and scholars that we can find.” Wilentz scoffs at this outlandish claim, since Beck’s lineup of three faculty members contains only one real scholar, James R. Stoner Jr., a political scientist from Louisiana State University. Of the two others, one is a management consultant and the other a Mormon activist, the head of a “pro-family” group called WallBuilders.
Wilentz, like Zaitchik and Hemingway, notes the similarities of the ideas now popularized by Beck and the “ideas that circulated on the extremist right a half century ago, especially in the John Birch Society.” Those familiar with conservative history know that the Birchers were kicked out of the mainstream movement of its day in the 50s by none other than William F. Buckley, Jr. As Hemingway writes, “Skousen was active with the John Birch Society throughout the 1960s, even going so far as to write another book titled The Communist Attack on the John Birch Society, accusing those that criticized Birchers of promoting Communism.”
Wilentz takes readers on a tour of Birch Society history, from the crackpot theories of its leader Robert Welch, most known for condemning Dwight D. Eisenhower as a Communist, and on to Skousen, whom Wilentz calls “the most outlandish of the era’s right-wing anti-Communists,” a judgment with which I heartily concur. For Wilentz, “The political universe is, of course, very different today from what it was during the Cold War. Yet the Birchers’ politics and their view of American history — which focused more on totalitarian threats at home than on those posed by the Soviet Union and Communist China — has proved remarkably persistent.”
Another book which Beck regularly promotes is the The 5000 Year Old Leap, which was republished recently with an introduction by Beck. Wilentz points out accurately (I recently read the book) that it is made up of “selective quotations and groundless assertions that claim the U.S. Constitution is rooted not in the Enlightenment but in the Bible, and that the framers believed in minimal central government. Either proposition would have astounded James Madison, often described as the guiding spirit behind the Constitution, who rejected state-established religions, and like Alexander Hamilton, proposed a central government so strong that it could veto state laws.” (To this, Peter Berkowitz argues that actually “the tea party movement's focus on keeping government within bounds and answerable to the people reflects the devotion to limited government embodied in the Constitution.” )
Wilentz then asks an important question: how is it that “extremist ideas held at bay for decades inside the Republican Party have exploded anew—and why, this time, Party leaders have done virtually nothing to challenge those ideas, and a great deal to abet them”? Here, Wilentz seems to lose sight of the fact that while Beck might restate and seem to agree with the Bircher analysis -- and at times has openly credited them -- he is not a leader of the Republican Party, but a radio and TV talk show host, granted an influential one.
The Tea Party movement is another matter, since many of their groups are taking Beck’s advice and making Skousen’s books mandatory reading material. Just as the left goes to Zinn for inspiration and spurious historical backing for their politics, some in the Tea Party seem to be going to Skousen to find a usable past, one that seemingly provides them with a direct line to the Founding Fathers. And that is a particularly dangerous route to take.
In the second part of his article, Wilentz uses his portrayal of Beck-style history to argue that the concerns of Tea Party activists and regular citizens who are now supporting Republicans and Tea Party candidates in the coming election are wrong. This is where his argument falls apart. He essentially says if their history is bad, that means so are their current political concerns and positions. This is simply not true. But it is true that today’s conservative activist base deserves better than ideologically created phony history that is both incorrect and misleading.
What Wilentz also does not get is addressed by Peter Berkowitz in his op-ed in the weekend Wall Street Journal, “Why Liberals Don’t Get the Tea Party Movement.” Berkowitz writes:
Vast numbers of other highly educated people read and hear these dubious pronouncements, smile knowingly, and nod their heads in agreement. University educations and advanced degrees notwithstanding, they lack a basic understanding of the contours of American constitutional government.
The Tea Party is, he notes, “one of the most spectacular grass-roots movements in American history,” notwithstanding some of the obvious faults of a few of their candidates and their tendency to adopt bad history when looking at the past. But their current movement derives from justified anger about the present. Berkowitz understands that “the tea party sports its share of clowns, kooks and creeps. And some of its favored candidates and loudest voices have made embarrassing statements and embraced reckless policies. This, however, does not distinguish the tea party movement from the competition.” At the end of the day, the Tea Partiers are calling for conservative solutions that have been successfully applied in the past. As Berkowitz writes, “activists and the sizeable swath of voters who sympathize with them want to reduce the massively ballooning national debt, cut runaway federal spending, keep taxes in check, reinvigorate the economy, and block the expansion of the state into citizens' lives.”
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.