Are Glenn Beck's Most Recent Critics Correct? Beck, Skousen and the Constitution
Glenn Beck has done a lot of good; he is a defender of Israel and an opponent of Islamic radicalism, and he has exposed many of the worst far left appointments made by the Obama administration -- most notably, that of Van Jones. He has also unfairly been accused of anti-Semitism, of being a modern day version of Father Coughlin, and much worse. These charges are so out of whack that even one honest liberal has come to his defense on some of these charges. On the website of the New Republic, writer Peter Duffy explained that despite the charge made by the likes of Al Hunt, Keith Olbermann, NYRB writer Mark Lilla, and Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, “Beck is no Coughlin.” Being a left-liberal, Duffy doesn’t thinks much of what Beck says is defensible, but he writes that “the comparison to Coughlin is not only flawed — it is historically illiterate, denying Coughlin, pastor of the Shrine of the Little Flower in Royal Oak, Michigan, his rightful place as one of the most odious characters in American history.” Odious Coughlin was, and as Duffy acknowledges, Beck himself has spent much time letting his viewers know the truth about Coughlin, and why he despises him.
So one has good reason to be suspicious when leftists take after Glenn Beck, and one has to learn how to separate the wheat from the chaff. Nevertheless, sometimes even a person on the political left can be correct in some of the charges he makes. Such is the case to be made for Beck’s dependence on the views of the late W. Cleon Skousen, a name still rather unfamiliar to many Americans -- although thanks to Beck, many Tea Party groups have adopted Skousen’s old books and taken them to heart.
The first writer to most recently take on Skousen in a major way and to criticize Beck’s endorsement of him is a leftist writer from the webzine Salon.com, Alexander Zaitchik. In his columns and his book, Common Nonsense, Zaitchik convincingly reveals the conspiratorial mind of Skousen, and shows in meticulous detail how Beck relies upon his analysis for many of his own theories. Yes, I fully realize that the author is a man of the left, and his book is marred by the invective and nasty tone that he constantly uses against Beck. But his reporting on Skousen is first rate. If you are the type of person who insists on dismissing every argument and analysis offered by someone on the left, and believe that there is absolutely nothing you can learn from a political opponent, you are ignoring his data at your own peril.
Next was conservative writer Mark Hemingway, previously at National Revie, and now a columnist for the Washington Examiner. Writing three years ago in NR, Hemingway pointed out the following:
Skousen had written a book entitled The Naked Communist, which even for 1958 is so irrational in its paranoia that it would have made Whittaker Chambers blush. According to Skousen, The Manchurian Candidate was a documentary — he earnestly believed Communists sought to create “a regimented breed of Pavlovian men whose minds could be triggered into immediate action by signals from their masters.”
Hemingway also points out that 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 as promoting Communism.” Since critics of the Birch Society included none other than William F. Buckley, Jr., you can finish the thought for yourself. Then in the 70s, in an analysis that is eerily similar to Beck’s thoughts on matters today, “Skousen accused the Council on Foreign Relations and the Rockefellers of puppeteering the election of Jimmy Carter to pave the way for One World Government, his new favorite topic. Things got so bad that the Mormon Church eventually issued an official communiqué distancing itself from Skousen’s organization, the Freemen Institute.”
Now, in this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, law professor and author Jeffrey Rosen writes about Skousen’s view of the origins of the U.S. Constitution and how Skousen’s views have been adopted in a full-fledged endorsement by Glenn Beck, and from him to various members of the Tea Party. Rosen writes about the newly elected Republican (and Tea Party) senator from Utah, Mike Lee, who will replace the defeated Democrat, Sen. Bob Bennett. Lee, he argues, “has a truly radical vision of the U.S. Constitution,” one that “sees the document as divinely inspired and views much of what the federal government currently does as unconstitutional.”
Thus Lee proposes getting rid of HUD and the Department of Education, and favors the phasing out of Social Security. As I argued recently at the panel on the future of conservatism at the Restoration Weekend (see the addendum at the blog’s end), conservatives should support a fiscally responsible and necessary safety net that includes Social Security -- paid, after all, out of taxpayers' contributions taken out of their paychecks. We should be for a less powerful and bureaucratic federal government, but not, as Lee evidently believes, taking away almost all of its powers.
Rosen says that Lee mixes together social conservatism and extreme libertarianism, and supports “tearing down the wall of separation between church and state.” What is important is that Rosen attributes Lee’s views to Skousen. Skousen, he points out, “sees the Constitution as divinely inspired and on the verge of destruction and the Mormon Church as its salvation. Skousen saw limited government as not only an ethnic idea, rooted in the Anglo-Saxons, but also as a Christian one, embodied in the idea of unalienable rights and duties that derive from God, and he insisted that the founders’ ‘religious precepts turned out to be the heart and soul of the entire American political philosophy.’” Lee also believes, he points out, that no president has the right to “lock up large blocks of land within a state as a ‘wilderness reserve,’ or to set up national forests or national parks within the confines of a state — an eccentric view the Supreme Court has rejected.” I think that most Americans cherish and value our national parks, something borne out by the thousands of citizens who flock to them each year. Conservatives may dismiss much of the Progressive Era legislation as statist, but few include the national park among the era’s great mistakes.
Rosen, of course, seeks to undermine the Skousen-Lee-Beck view in order to challenge his growing fear that the Supreme Court might indeed agree that ObamaCare is unconstitutional. The new health care legislation is not akin to the national parks or to the Social Security Act. I believe that it is one thing to argue against admitting the John Birch Society back to respectability as a part of the modern conservative movement -- decades after Bill Buckley pushed them out -- and adopting Skousen’s extremist Mormon view of history, and yet another to oppose the statist and leftist social agenda of the Obama administration. We can do the latter without adopting the late W. Cleon Skousen’s view of our past, and Glenn Beck’s endorsement of it.
Finally, in the New York Review of Books, Mark Lilla writes in his essay, “The Beck of Revelation,” that Beck “is trying to sketch out some kind of prophetic vision for his Tea Party followers, linking the libertarian politics they say they want to the individual spiritual transformation he now says they need.” Lilla does not see Beck in the highly oppositional view of writers like Zaitchik and Milbank. He agrees, however, that Beck:
[takes] many of the ideas found in Willard Cleon Skousen’s Mormon political catechism, The Five Thousand Year Leap, and in the dubious historical research of David Barton, an influential, self-taught evangelical minister who was on stage with Beck during the [Aug.29th rally in D.C.] event. But when Barton, who runs a Christian nationalist organization called WallBuilders, repeated his group’s dogma that "most of our presidents and founding fathers thought of this as a Christian nation," Beck objected, took the mike, and stated flatly that "one thing that cannot happen: religion and politics must not mix. ... That’s what happened in the Weimar Republic." Barton backed off.
Beck believes America should be a religious nation, but not a purely Christian one.
What is interesting about Lilla’s essay, however, is his dissent from the no-holds barred attack on Beck taken by others, and indeed, his seeming support of Beck on certain issues. What, one may ask, leads a leftist intellectual writing in the NYRB to look kindly in any way on Glenn Beck? The answer is that Lilla points out that at his rally, Beck attacked slavery and its aftermath as one of our country’s great evils that needed correction, and secondly, that Beck attacked the great evils, which include “imperialism” and “Manifest Destiny.”
Beck, in other words, is in this regard something of a 1960s historical left-wing revisionist, and a man who puts on his list of recommended reading the non-interventionist opponent of U.S. foreign policy, Andrew Bacevich, who writes for both The Nation and The American Conservative, the Buchananite isolationist publication. As Lilla writes favorably, Beck “is hostile to expansionist foreign policies, the influence of Wall Street, and what he sees as a growing national security state.” Will we soon see The Nation running a favorable cover story on Beck, as it once did on Lou Dobbs when he was in his populist phase?
Lilla reprints the following paragraph from Beck’s Common Sense:
Under President Bush, politics and global corporations dictated much of our economic and border policy. Nation building and internationalism also played a huge role in our move away from the founding principles. ... Through legitimate “emergencies” involving war, terror, and economic crises, politicians on both sides have gathered illegitimate new powers — playing on our fears and desire for security and economic stability — at the expense of our freedoms.
That paragraph reads like none other than David Horowitz; not the Horowitz of 2010 -- but the Horowitz of 1969-1971, in books like Corporations and the Cold War, Empire and Revolution, and Free World Colossus. Will Beck soon add these relics to his reading list, and remove books like Horowitz’s Radical Son?
At any rate, Lilla is happy that Beck is “test-driving some fairly isolationist ideas,” and, as he notes, is moving from being a “hawk” to being closer to Ron Paul. Only a periodical like the NYRB and its brethren and writers for it would see this as something positive. I urge my readers to read Lilla’s summary of Beck’s novel The Overton Window, and see whether or not you agree that Lilla is correct when he writes that Beck opposes:
[p]residential national security directives, spying on domestic dissenters, the privatization of the police and military, the preventative detention and torture of potential terrorists, undeclared wars, the internment of Japanese-Americans, the overthrow of Latin American governments, the disproportionate incarceration of young black men, corporate campaign contributions, and the bailout of Wall Street millionaires.
As Lilla facetiously writes, “Oliver Stone, you’ve got mail. Dick Cheney, you don’t.” And yes, Beck -- much to the dismay of social conservatives -- “has even gone on record as saying he sees no threat to the family in gay marriage.” Get that, Andrew Sullivan?
Of course, Beck seems to change course and move in a new direction each week. One does not know where he will end up and what he will say next. But that in itself is reason for conservatives to hold him at a distance and to not be so squeamish about criticizing him when he deserves tough criticism. That the left hates him is not enough reason to do the reverse and support him uncritically. Americans, Beck says, need God in their lives. Many will say “Amen.” But that does not mean we, and conservatives, need Glenn Beck.
Last week, I participated in a discussion at the Restoration Weekend. You can read about the presentations there, and see the videos of all the speakers, in this report by David Swindle, editor of NewsRealBlog.com. Those interested can see my comments and watch the video of my talk here. I am at no.7 and my comments come on at 10:50 on the video count.