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.”


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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  • Matt

    “Shibboleth” really isn’t the right word to use here. A more appropriate word would be “euphemism” perhaps.

    Sorry, it’s the Word Nerd in me shining through.

  • Stephen

    Yes, I certainly think it should have been explained that the Mormon Church did not shun Skousen. Why am I not surprised that Jonah Goldberg is your old colleague.

  • Dan Crawford

    Apparently. if I am to take Mark seriously, there is nothing to criticize about the Tea Party and its intellectual patrimony. That is a point of view more consistent with an ideologue than with a media critic.

  • Mollie

    Dan Crawford,

    So “be accurate” = “there is nothing to criticize the Tea Party for”?


  • Brett

    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…

    What I find interesting here is that Ms. Zernike sought to frame Skousen as a radical, since her job is to allow a subject to speak for himself or herself through his or her own words in interviews or from published writings.

  • Dan

    Are you aware of the premise of Skousen’s 5000 Year Leap? It’s actually a really terrible mess of bad history and bad anthropology. Being an expert on Mormon theology does not qualify one to be a historian any more than Shaq’s basketball skills qualified him to have a film career.

  • dalea

    When I studied, years ago, Hayek he was always referred to as F. A. von Hayek. My economic history professor, who had been a classmate of Hayek’s, and always referred to him as either Fredrich or von Hayek. What happened to the ‘von’?

    I suspect the concept Johnson is reaching for is ‘spontaneous order’, not rule of law, which is one of Hayek’s great achievements. This idea is that left to their own devices, humans will spontaneously order themselves into a society without governmental prodding.

  • Ivan Wolfe

    I’m Mormon, and I think Skousen’s theology is deeply wrong. At the same time, his theological books are quite popular among Mormons, so It’s a stretch to say he is “shunned” in any real sense. His political writings are actually very similar to some of Ezra Taft Benson’s political books (Benson was once Secretary of Agriculture, before he became the leader of the church).

    There’s plenty to criticize about the tea party, but the use of supposedly “obscure” texts isn’t one of them. Hayek was excerpted in Reader’s Digest back when nearly everyone read that magazine, for instance.

  • Jettboy

    That Skousen was “shunned by his fellow Mormons for his more . . . ” is Hilarious. He might have become somewhat outdated as Mormon intellectualism and apologetics increased in sophistication. He might have been outshined by the likes of leading Elder McConkie or President Ezra Taft Benson. That doesn’t mean he was ever shunned. What exactly does that mean in the writer’s mind anyway? Is she talking a cultural or a theological shunning? Is she talking among the masses or among the authorities? No matter how you answer those questions, how he and his works were and are treated is simply false. His theolgical and other books have and still are sold at Deseret Book, the quasi-official publishing arm of the LDS Church.

    I won’t say that his works are very good. He is among my least favorite Mormon author. Both his theology and history are less radical or controversial (among the general Mormon population) than simplistic. Reading him made me want to read the sources to get a better picture of what they really contained. Still, that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been influential.

  • J. Lahondere

    I just want to echo the sentiments already expressed here by some other commenters.

    I am Mormon myself, and was vaguely familiar with Skousen mostly because some of those volumes of Biblical history were on my parents’ bookshelves growing up (The First 2000 Years, etc). In fact, they were on the bookshelves of lots of Mormon families, as Mark pointed out. I read a couple of them in college expecting them to be these great histories but was really disappointed at what I felt was their lack of scholarly qualities (I got into James E. Talmage and Hugh Nibley shortly thereafter).

    To try to paint Skousen as some kind of Mormon radical is misleading. I don’t agree with his politics, but in his day he was obviously quite popular.