In the campaign against Glenn Beck, one of the angles pursued in ad hominem smears against the popular Fox News host has been to play up his promotion of the work of conservative author W. Cleon Skousen.
I initially blogged about leftist internet magazine Salon’s Skousen hit piece here. At the time I had not read The 5000 Year Leap, the principle Skousen text which Beck had promoted. My post mainly focused on the ad hominem nature of the attack.
Now, having read Leap something even more troubling emerges: the book is fairly reasonable and in trying to label it a work of crackpot Salon is basically rejecting the American founding.
Leap is a useful introductory text for those unfamiliar with the basics of the US government and the principles of the founding. It’s not a work of crackpot conspiracy thinking. I don’t know if Skousen’s other works are — they very well could be. But just because someone is off in crazy land on one subject does not mean every idea they put forth can be dismissed. And just because Beck embraces some of Skousen’s ideas it does not mean he should be smeared with some Skousen’s more far-out-there alleged arguments.
This is not to say Leap does not have its problems. I found reading it somewhat similar to watching Beck. I agreed with perhaps 75-80% of the ideas while occasionally wincing at the often hokey style.
Basically I’m in complete sync with “Crunchy Con” Rod Dreher, a blogger who I really should be reading more consistently:
Skousen must have developed his unsavory reputation from his other books, because none of his is in “Leap.” If all you knew about Skousen was “Leap,” you would be completely oblivious to the bad stuff about him. “Leap” is a work of interpretive history, one that treats the American founding as a “miracle,” and renders the Founders as having an air of semi-divinity about them. In its worshipful tone and substance, it blurs the line between religion and nationalism — not in a frightening way, but rather in a hokey, 1950s civic-religion way. This is the kind of book you’d expect Opie’s civics teacher in Mayberry to assign to him. It’s an eccentric book to be sure, and a poorly written, poorly argued and sentimental one. It is, I mean to say, a bad book, but it’s not an evil book or a crazy book. The idea that America is charged by God with a manifest destiny, and is an exception among the nations of the world, is a deeply problematic idea, to say the least, but it is (alas) one well within the historical mainstream f this country. Skousen himself may have been an extremist in his convictions, but you have to look to his other material for evidence of that; it’s not in “The 5,000 Year Leap,” and I want to make that clear after yesterday’s post, which I mean to correct.
That said, as I was going through “Leap” last night, I kept thinking, “How in the world did this thing set Glenn Beck’s mind on fire?” It’s not that Skousen or anybody else is wrong in the least to be filled with admiration for the Founders and their achievements, but that this is such a mediocre work of starchy pseudo-history you can’t believe somebody in his position would take it so seriously.
[Where I'd depart from Dreher is in judging the level of quality of Leap. Writing-wise I think it's fairly mediocre, not Dreher's bad. Dreher doesn't comment too much on the substance of the ideas. For me idea-wise it's pretty good, though, not great or amazing.]
The core of Leap is Skousen’s introduction of what he identifies as the 28 principles which the founders gleaned from human history’s political thinkers and then used to found the United States. Skousen’s list is probably a little longer than it needs to be and some of his conclusions are inadequately supported by the evidence he presents. (Were he submitting NewsReal posts I’d probably send them back to him to rewrite.)
Regardless, he does present plenty of important concepts for understanding the American Idea. And it’s clear why Beck would see value in the book. So at NewsReal we’re going to explore these ideas in a series I’m calling Leaping Back to the Founding. In Part 2 I’ll explain how Salon chose to misrepresent Leap. Then beginning with Part 3 I’ll begin presenting each of the 28 ideas with some brief commentary as well as links to NewsReal items of relevance which involve the ideas. Readers are strongly encouraged to contribute their own arguments and interpretations of the founders’ ideas discussed. The best of these will then be incorporated into the series as “Founding Comment of the Day.”
Part of the added value of exploring these ideas is to keep them fresh in mind as they relate to NewsReal’s mission of Keeping the Cable Guys Honest. If we are to confront the Left’s body of ideas and challenge others to reject them, then we need to be able to articulate those which should be embraced instead.
Skousen doesn’t articulate the American Idea perfectly — but then who could? (The American Idea by its very nature is complex and even contradictory. Every two people who support it have a slightly different conception of what it is.) However Skousen gets close enough that he’s certainly worth utilizing as a catalyst to begin the discussion at NewsReal. I hope you’ll join me.