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The Dangers of Politicized Conservative History

Ronald Radosh

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 Becks failure to understand Martin Luther King, Jr. A Senior Editor of Reason, my friend Michael Moynihan, wrote about Becks history and insightfully pointed out that a tiny bit of knowledgecombined with an enormous Fox News constituency and an unflappable trust in ones own wisdom, is a dangerous thing. Beck doesnt 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 Becks and the Tea Partys historical narrative. The first is a new book from Jill Lepore, a Harvard historian of Americas colonial and revolutionary period. Her book, The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Partys 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 Peoples 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 its slogan was Dont Tread on Me. Rifkin, she writes, wrote the Tea Partys 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 foundingis 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 readthe Ten Commandments; that the Founding Fathers were divinely inspiredthat 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 Lepores 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 Partys Cold War Roots, Wilentz has written what is really two different articlesone on history; the other on the Tea Partys politics. Wilentz is particularly concerned with Glenn Becks 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, Skousens somewhat nutty arguments were dissected by a former Mormon, writer Mark Hemingway.

Like Wilentz, Hemingway refers to what he calls Skousens dubious achievments, and he too points to Skousens 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 Wilentzs articles are discussed by Zaitchik, although Wilentz has gone back to some of the original sources and expanded on them. Although much of Zaitchiks book is polemical and tendentious, his two chapters on Becks variant of the Mormon faith and Becks reliance on Skousen are on target, and I highly recommend them.

Wilentz takes on Becks self-proclaimed role as Americas 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 Becks 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 eras 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 historywhich focused more on totalitarian threats at home than on those posed by the Soviet Union and Communist Chinahas 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 movements 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 anewand 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 Becks advice and making Skousens 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 todays conservative activist base deserve 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 Dont 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.

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