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The naked tea partiers

For reasons known only to New York Times editors, Kate Zernike is continually given free rein to write about the Tea Party. There have been a litany of complaints about her coverage, perhaps most notably when earlier this year she accused Human Events editor Jason Mattera of speaking in a "Chris Rock voice" and using "racial stereotypes" to mock Obama. Mattera was born and raised in Brooklyn, and Zernike didn't realize that was just how he talks. Not content with the amount of racial phrenology she'd employed to date, she wrote a piece about race and the Tea Party pegged to the Glenn Beck rally that contained this immortal sentence:

In the Tea Party's talk of states' rights, critics say they hear an echo of slavery, Jim Crow and George Wallace.

"Critics say" is the ultimate news reporter's cop out; it's just a shibboleth meaning "here's what I think." And then to employ it as a way of smearing a healthy portion of the American electorate as racist... oy. Well, she was back in the Times again this weekend purporting to decode how the Tea Party "has resurrected once-obscure texts by dead writers -- in some cases elevating them to best-seller status -- to form a kind of Tea Party canon." I'll just dispense with the most cringe-inducing aspect of the story now. Here's Zernike discussing economist F.A. Hayek's The Road to Serfdom:

Ron Johnson, who entered politics through a Tea Party meeting and is now the Republican nominee for Senate in Wisconsin, asserted that the $20 billion escrow fund that the Obama administration forced BP to set up to pay damages from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill circumvented "the rule of law," Hayek's term for the unwritten code that prohibits the government from interfering with the pursuit of "personal ends and desires."

I'll throw this one over to my old colleague Jonah Goldberg:

If I had said a day ago that your typical New York Times reporter doesn't have the vaguest sense of what the rule of law means, I would have heard from all sorts of earnest liberal readers -- and probably some conservative ones too -- about how I was setting up a straw man. But now we know it's true. It's not just that she doesn't know what it is, it's that even after (presumably) looking it up, she still couldn't describe it and none of her editors raised an eyebrow when she buttered it.

Ok, you get the picture. The reason why I'm even discussing this piece here is because Zernike discusses three texts in particular -- Hayek's The Road to Serfdom, Bastiat's The Law and W. Cleon Skousen's The 5,000 Year Leap. Contrary, to Zernike's assertion, the first two of these books can't even remotely be described as "once-obscure." Hayek's Road to Serfdom was a best seller when it was published in the forties and his works have never been out of print, despite being all but ignored by the academy. His talks drew huge crowds and he's perhaps the best known economist of the 20th century after Milton Friedman and John Maynard Keynes. (Fun fact: Hayek was also Ludwig Wittgenstein's second cousin.) He won the Nobel Prize, for crying out loud! As for French political economist Claude Frederic Bastiat's slender volume The Law, it's a classic economic text and conservatives and libertarians have been touting it for decades, and certainly well before Tea Parties sprang up in the last 18 months.

Which brings us to W. Cleon Skousen, the only one of the the three whose work generally might be seen as obscure. Skousen's The Naked Communist did sell millions in its day, but it does seem weird that an almost forgotten Mormon writer (who owes his current influence almost single-handedly to Glenn Beck's promotion of his work) would be elevated to the same status as Hayek and Bastiat. Here's how Zernike describes it:

The relative newcomer is "The 5000 Year Leap," self-published in 1981 by an anti-communist crusader shunned by his fellow Mormons for his more controversial positions, including a hearty defense of the John Birch Society. It asserts that the Founding Fathers had not intended separation of church and state, and would have considered taxes to provide for the welfare of others "a sin."

And:

The book was published in 1981 by W. Cleon Skousen, a former Salt Lake City police chief who had a best seller in "The Naked Communist" in the 1960s, and died in 2006 at the age of 92. "The 5000 Year Leap" hit the top of the Amazon rankings in 2009 after Mr. Beck put it on his list for the 9/12 groups, his brand of Tea Party.

Hmm. Well, it's a bit more complicated than that. For one thing, it would be nice if we got some more context here. The way Zernike writes this, she makes it sound like Skousen was some sort of Mormon outcast. That's not exactly the case. In 1959, Mormon prophet David O. McKay had encouraged the entire church body to read The Naked Communist, during one of the church's General Conferences.

Yes, it is true that W. Cleon Skousen was a Bircher and defended the church's institutional racism. Skousen also had a conspiracy-minded group in the 1970s known as the Freeman Institute, and the church felt compelled to issue an official proclamation banning the group from using church facilities so as to avoid the implication they were endorsing the group's wackier ideas.

But all of this hardly means that Skousen was shunned by Mormons in a broad sense. Quite the contrary, Skousen was a professor of theology at BYU, and his works on Mormon theology are still fairly standard texts on the subject. (Bound sets of Skousen's The First 2000 Years: From Adam to Abraham, The Third Thousand Years: From Abraham to David, The Fourth Thousand Years: From David to Christ were quite common to see in Mormon households when I was growing up.)

As for me, I wrote about him in detail a few years ago and went on record as saying that politically Skousen is a radical and a firebrand who embodies a conservatism that is best left "chained to a radiator in the attic." However, to be fair to Skousen -- he was actually quite intelligent -- his writings on political matters are sometimes extreme, but often they were within the mainstream of conservative thought, even if many conservatives are uneasy with Skousen's overall reputation.

The 5,000 Year Leap is among the more intellectually sober things Skousen wrote, which is why I suspect Zernike's heavily contextualized two-word excerpt seems like a forced attempt to make the book seem more radical than it is. In fact, it probably wouldn't be too hard to find much more politically radical sentiments in works by Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky and the dozens of other lefties currently clogging up college syllabi while worthy conservative writers such as Hayek are often ignored.

What I ultimately find interesting here is that Zernike sought to frame Skousen as a radical by saying he was shunned by the Mormon church when the truth is much more complicated. Perhaps that's a sign of the church's increasing acceptance as part of the mainstream religious community.

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