Glenn Beck never went to university, though that hasn’t prevented him from creating his own. Today Beck, the weepy, blackboard-scribbling Fox News host, launches his eponymous institute for online learning, Glenn Beck University, available to the curious and undereducated for $79 a year. Subscribers will receive access to online lectures on the subjects of “faith, hope, and charity”—the pedagogical approach is as yet unclear, though it seems to be pro-Mormon and pro-McCarthy—and are offered a forum to discuss the course material with other “students.”
Beck, who recently received an honorary degree from Liberty University, the Christian college founded by Jerry Falwell, believes that if the American people only read more history books—specifically, the books that Glenn Beck reads, many of which are infused with a paranoid brand of Mormonism—they would arrive at a collective Kronstadt moment; the zombified products of American public education realizing that the revolution of Adams, Jefferson, and Washington was long ago betrayed by a cabal of progressives-communists-Marxists-socialists (to Beck, the four groups are interchangeable).
Indeed, Beck’s reading drive has made him the Oprah of the right. His recent obsession with vindicating Sen. Joe McCarthy’s crusade against communism (which was more effective in derailing the honorable cause of anti-communism than anything Victor Navasky could have ever dreamt up) led him to praise the conservative ideologue M. Stanton Evans, author of the revisionist book Blacklisted by History, a breathless defense of McCarthy. Evans book, published to largely negative reviews in 2007 (including mine in Reason and Ron Radosh’s in National Review), then shot to the top of Amazon’s bestseller lists, occupying both the number one (paperback) and number 11 (hardcover) slots.
When parents, publishers, and J.K. Rowling suggested gleefully that the Harry Potter craze was having the positive effect of luring kids away from the Xbox and towards literature, Yale University professor Harold Bloom grumbled that there was rather significant difference between reading and reading. "Harry Potter,” Bloom wrote in The Boston Globe, “will not lead our children on to Kipling's Just So Stories or his Jungle Book. It will not lead them to Thurber's Thirteen Clocks or Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows or Lewis Carroll's Alice.
It would be easy to dismiss Bloom as engaging in literary snobbery, though he is surely right that reading the right books is more important than merely reading books. While Beck launched The Road to Serfdom, Friedrich Hayek’s classic treatise on the superiority of the free market, to the number one spot on the Amazon bestseller list, the classical liberal message is being subsumed by Beck's other recommendations, which include the conspiracies of Cleon Skousen and Carol Quigley and a reading of American history that's something like a right-wing version of Howard Zinn—popular, ideological, and wrong.
In recent months, Beck has beseeched his viewers “to know history,” and promised that his show will attempt to “restore history” of the religious components of American’s founding and establish the unmitigated “evil” of Woodrow Wilson. "Please, please," he pleads with his viewers, "Learn from history. Please."
There is no unifying feature of Beck’s “historiography”; he darts from subject to subject, riffing on whatever pops into his head. To get an idea of the curriculum at Glenn Beck U., I watched a few of his recent programs on communism, McCarthy, and 20th century totalitarianism. It wasn’t pretty. In no particular order, a few corrections to Professor Beck’s riffs on the history we “need to know”:
- The Communist Party of the United States didn’t start as the “Communist Working Party” in 1917.
- It is not true that “if you were a Marxist” in 1960s, you were a “Soviet sympathizer,” as former members of the International Socialists can attest.
- The Nazis did not “learn propaganda” from Woodrow Wilson.
- Beck says that “Most of Europe was preparing for war in 1917.” Europe had been at war since 1914; the Americans joined in in 1917.
- The Venona decrypts were not “released in the 1980s,” when the Soviet Union was still in business, but in 1995. Nor was Venona “compiled” by the KGB; Venona was the codename given by United States intelligence services to the collection of intercepts. Incidentally, Beck, demonstrating his lack of familiarity with the subject matter, stumbles when identifying Venona, first calling them the “Verona papers.”
- No one claims Castro was “democratically-elected,” except, perhaps, the brothers Castro themselves.
- Obama’s mother, who grew up in Kansas, did not attend the Elisabeth Irwin School (“The Little Red Schoolhouse”) in New York City.
- Beck’s history of late Weimar Germany manages to be both totally incoherent and completely wrong, such as this comparison of the German Communist Party (KPD) and the Nazis: “The National Socialists, the Nazis, did round up the communists. OK? But the communists, they rounded up the store owners first. Nazis, number two. The old and infirm. Number two on communist's list, farmers and landowners. Three, I think it was Jewish on both sides.”
- A list of “1963 communist goals from the Communist Party USA (CPUSA)” Beck presented on his television show (and available here on his website) are not from the CPUSA, but reprinted from The Naked Communist, a bizarre book of conspiracy authored by John Birch Society lunatic Cleon Skousen.
- In the aftermath of the Israeli attack on the Gaza flotilla, Beck argued that anti-Semitism is the inevitable byproduct of socialism. “Socialism and anti-Semitism have complemented each other throughout history.” “How many [Jews] have to die,” Beck asks, “to remember who keeps killing them?” The idea that anti-Semitism flourishes under left-wing regimes because Jews are associated with capitalism is certainly true, though it ignores the long history of far-right anti-Semitism and the Tsarist-era pogroms and blood libels. In far-right circles, Jews, like Bela Kun and Leon Trotsky, were associated with communism and the revolutionary left.
It is apparent that Beck the history preacher isn’t terribly familiar with the very material that so fascinates him, as demonstrated by his difficulty keeping names straight. The former FSB agent poisoned in 2006 was Alexander Litvinenko, not Alexander Lavinko. The Soviet agent accused of “losing China” was Lauchlin Currie, not “Laurie” Currie. His fellow agent in the Silvermaster group was Harry Dexter White, not “Harry Dexter.” During a brief digression into the activities of the Baader-Meinhof groups, Beck received a little help from off-camera: “In the 1970s, the left wing German terrorist, Ulrike Meinhof, he sounds friendly. He said—oh, it's a she?”
Or how about this laughable summation of the Holocaust: “It was the emergency propaganda in Germany that led the Jews, eventually, to the ovens, because Jews were causing the problem, Jews that were just too many in Europe.”
It is unclear what Beck means by “emergency propaganda,” but this reductionist view of history—Wilson was a clever propagandist, which informed Josef Goebbels, and hence the Final Solution—hurts more than it helps, leaving viewers with the impression that Germany was under the spell of Wilsonian propaganda, thus ignoring centuries of anti-Semitic conditioning. Perhaps Beck will modify this view as he reads more (I recommend Christopher Browning on how "ordinary men" become genocidaires, not, as the previous sentence suggests, Daniel Goldhagen's award-winning disaster, Hitler's Willing Executioners), as he recently told viewers that he was "researching the Holocaust of Germany (sic)."
This sort of thing isn't uncommon. Take this bizarre exchange between Beck and M. Stanton Evans, on FDR’s performance at the Yalta Conference:
EVANS: It's about Roosevelt saying to Stalin and Churchill that he is going to meet with the king of Saudi Arabia, after this conference, King Saud. And Stalin asked him, does he intend to make any concessions to the King Saud of Saudi Arabia. I'll let you read what the answer is for the Arabs.
BECK: "The president replied that there was only one concession he thought he might offer, and that was to give him the six million Jews in the United States.
BECK: This is a collection—where is this from?
EVANS: That is from the papers of Edward Stettinius, who was the secretary of state at the time of Yalta. Those papers are at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. That paragraph—
BECK: What does he mean by he'd give—
EVANS: Well, one might think that he was closet anti-Semite. But I think it also suggests that maybe he was a little bit gaga.
Evans continues, saying that this outburst of mad anti-Semitism was expunged from the historical record, thanks to the Roosevelt hagiographers who control the past. So the Beck viewer, having never heard this hidden history of FDR, shuts off the television set thinking that the president was either mad or harbored a deep animus towards Jews (possibly both), and that a circle of progressive historians have kept this fact from the rest of us, lest we find out the truth about a liberal icon.
Roosevelt and his defenders have, Evans and Beck are quite right to notice, won the battle for history; to the victor go the spoils, after all. Indeed, rarely are students aware of the New Deal’s major failures or defects, nor are they typically told the successful constitutional challenges of, for instance, the National Recovery Administration and FDR’s deeply undemocratic attempt to pack the Supreme Court. But the suggestion, made by Evans and lapped up by Beck, that the president seriously entertained trading Jews to Saudi Arabia is not only well known to historians, but it is also understood that Roosevelt was attempting, lamely for sure, to make a joke.
A tiny bit of knowledge (no, McCarthy wasn’t completely wrong), combined with an enormous Fox News constituency and an unflappable trust in one’s own wisdom, is a dangerous thing. Beck doesn’t demonstrate the perils of autodidacticism, but the perils of learning the subject while at the same time attempting to teach it.
Woodrow Wilson was an imperial president who cared little for civil liberties; the New Deal prolonged the Great Depression; the anti-communists were on the right side of history. Yes, yes, and yes. But these stories can be told without exaggeration, without relying on conspiracy, without the rehabilitation of a heavy-drinking senator who believed that Gen. George Marshall was a Soviet agent.
All things to consider when dispatching your application (and $79) to Glenn Beck University.
Michael C. Moynihan is a senior editor of Reason magazine. This column first appeared at Reason.com.