Sheriffs, and Racists, and Koch: Oh My!

Sheriff's Badge

Sheriff’s Badge

A little over a month ago there was a minor kerfuffle about our Attorney General, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions saying that;

Since our founding, the independently elected sheriff has been the people’s protector, who keeps law enforcement close to and accountable to people through the elected process…The office of sheriff is a critical part of the Anglo-American heritage of law enforcement.

A great hullabaloo ensued. What did Sessions mean about this “Anglo-American heritage” stuff? Did he think only white folks built our laws? And “heritage” isn’t that a dog whistle to neo-Confederates who are always talking about their heritage of the South (meaning white supremacy)? There was reason for people to be suspicious, after all “Sessions is a well-documented white supremacist who” is “hot for incendiary racist behavior.”  Coretta Scott King had this guy nailed thirty years ago, not that it has stood in his way in his rise to power.

Calmer voices soon urged everyone to calm down. Sessions was merely invoking English common law which is, indeed, an important part of our legal heritage. While Sessions certainly is capable of racist dog whistles, they said, this probably wasn’t one. I had another thought at the time, however. It wasn’t the “Anglo-American heritage” part of his remarks. It was the “sheriffs” part that might have been the dog whistle. And that brings us back to the Koch Foundation’s funding of a right wing ideologue to educate prisoners in civics and to a guy named W. Cleon Skousen.

Interior shot of a prison cells

My last post explored how the Koch Foundation is funding a neo-Confederate extremist named Marshal DeRosa to teach “civics” to prisoners. I spent a little bit of time speculating on what the curriculum of such a class could contain. The original report from Unkoch My Campus (based on this article now scrubbed from the Koch website) tells us that the curriculum includes a book, The Five Thousand Year Leap:

Originally titled Five Thousand Year Leap: the Miracle that Changed the World, this book asserts that prosperity in the United States is a result of the Constitution being inspired by God, and that “God’s revealed law” is embodied by twenty-eight “fundamental principles” that constitute “a moral code clearly distinguishing right from wrong” (5000 Year Leap: abridged, 2009). This provides the reader with religious and moral arguments to be made for the limitation of government.

Leap was written by W. Cleon Skousen (1913-2006). Skousen was an FBI agent for sixteen years and after he retired he invoked those experiences to hold himself up as an expert on Communism. His first splash was made in 1958 with The Naked CommunistReagan was fan, as is Ben Carson. For decades, the right wing touted Skousen’s high position in the FBI as proof of his special insight into the nature of the Communist conspiracy, but, it turns out that Skousen was yet another example of the fake expert (here’s another example). Researcher Ernie Lazar obtained Skousen’s FBI files (also available here) and found most of Skousen’s claims about his FBI career were simply not true. Lazar’s close examination of the FBI documents revealed that despite claims to the contrary, Skousen had nothing to do with investigating Communism in his days at the FBI and was never a high-ranking official who had special access to J. Edgar Hoover or any “special authorization” to speak for Hoover on Communism:

Cleon Skousen’s Los Angeles field performance reports…

(a)    Do not reflect that he ever worked on communist cases or “national defense” cases

(b)    Do not reflect that he ever developed confidential sources or informants within the CPUSA

(c)     Do not reflect that he ever obtained “first hand information” concerning anything pertaining to the Communist Party in the Los Angeles field division.

(d)   Do not reflect that he ever worked as a relief supervisor on the communist squad or as a supervisor for any communist-related or internal-security-related position

(e)    Do not reflect that he ever was recommended by his SAC for consideration of promotion to any position in Division 5 at FBI HQ in Washington DC – as was the case with Agent Scatterday in July 1946 and again in June 1947. 

Indeed the FBI was a bit annoyed that Skousen was trading on the FBI’s good name with rather hysterical claims about Communism. One 1962 memo read:

 It is noted that during the past year or so, Skousen has affiliated himself with the extreme right-wing ‘professional anti-communists’ such as Fred Schwarz, who are promoting their own anticommunism for obvious financial purposes.

Skousen’s track record is a bit suspect therefore. His official website touts him as the author of forty-six books, however. Maybe the others are better? Well, his 1982 effort, The Making of America described black children as “pickaninnies” and claimed that slaveholders were the real victims of slavery. Maybe that is what attracted DeRosa to Skousen since DeRosa argues that black supremacy is the origin of slavery. Stanford professor, Jack Rakove pronounced Skousen’s work “a joke that no self-respecting scholar would think is worth a warm pitcher of spit.”

But our Koch-funded neo-Confederate, Marshall DeRosa obviously thinks that Skousen’s work is worth that warm pitcher of spit because out of all the materials out there that he could have chosen to teach civics to help prisoners re-enter society, DeRosa spent Koch’s money on Skousen’s The Five Thousand Year Leap. There are hundreds of books on American government and basic civics education out there. Koch chose to fund this one; remember this as we proceed.

In Leap, Skousen firmly endorses the idea that equality and democracy are dangerous—common themes in the right wing of politics:

I BELIEVE that it is easier to establish an absolute and despotic government amongst a people in which the conditions of society are equal, than amongst any other; and I think that if such a government were once established amongst such a people, it would not only oppress men, but would eventually strip each of them of several of the highest qualities of humanity. Despotism therefore appears to me peculiarly to be dreaded in democratic ages.

Fortunately, great wealth can save us by giving us a non-heredity aristocracy (no wonder this book is Koch approved!):

I firmly believe that an aristocracy cannot again be founded in the world; but I think that private citizens, by combining together, may constitute bodies of great wealth, influence, and strength, corresponding to the persons of an aristocracy. By this means many of the greatest political advantages of aristocracy would be obtained without its injustice or its dangers.

Skousen’s view of racial equality would make his work attractive to any neo-Confederate: The granting of “negro” suffrage was “a political party movement, intended to be radical and revolutionary, but it will, ultimately, react because it has not the sanction of public opinion.” The attempt to bring racial equality was bound to fail because of ” the unwritten law of the natural aversion of the races.”  (here’s my thoughts on: the “natural law” of racial animosity). Skousen then concludes his views of race relations by disenfranchising entire groups of people:  “The equality in the suffrage, thus guaranteed to the negro race, alone—for it was not intended to include other colored races.”

All of this is endorsed by God too.  Skousen’s book is basically a tract for a theocracy, not a democratic republic. Skousen writes that “Sound Principles of Law [are] All Based on God’s Law.”  We get this right off the bat:

This divine pattern of law for human happiness requires a recognition of God’s supremacy over all things; that man is specifically forbidden to attribute God’s power to false gods; that the name of God is to be held in reverence, and every oath taken in the name of God is to be carried out with the utmost fidelity, otherwise the name of God would be taken in vain; that there is also a requirement that one day each week be set aside for the study of God’s law; that it is also to be a day of worship and the personal renewing of one’s commitment to obey God’s law for happy living; that there are also requirements to strengthen family ties by children honoring parents and parents maintaining the sanctity of their marriage and not committing adultery after marriage; that human life is also to be kept sacred; that he who willfully and wantonly takes the life of another must forfeit his own; that a person shall not lie; that a person shall not steal; that every person must be willing to work for the things he desires from life and not covet and scheme to get the things which belong to his neighbor.
These principles will be immediately recognized as the famous Ten Commandments. There are many additional laws set forth in the Bible which clarify and define these principles.

This is not constitutional law or even good civics. This is religious education (and a bad one). Since God is the source of all law that means God = the Constitution. And, surprising no one, that means God is against everything Koch is against. Skousen asserts:

the unconstitutionality of the New Deal, administrative agencies, Social Security and other federal welfare programs, all federal environmental, labor, and consumer laws, the creation of national forests, wilderness areas, and national parks, and the abandonment of the gold standard. (p. 1807)

I would go into more detail about how awful the book is, but I think you get the point: it is a ill-informed religious screed written by a right-wing hack with a very poor record of reliability chosen by a neo-Confederate ideologue with funding from the Koch Foundation. I don’t want to go into more detail about it because I want to get back to the sheriffs.

Sepia photo of a man on horseback with the caption,

Sessions talked about the importance of sheriffs in Anglo-American law. It might mean nothing, he was addressing a sheriff’s convention, after all. Or, he could be giving a sly wink to the “Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association” a Skousen-inspired group of law enforcement officers with one foot in the paramilitary Patriot movement.

Skousen writes a lot about sheriffs and counties. Despite the Preamble to Constitution saying that one goal of the Union was  to “promote the general Welfare,” according to Skousen, the Constitution was to:

Strictly enforce the scale of “fixed responsibility.” The first and foremost level of responsibility is with the individual himself; the second level is the family; then the church; next the community; finally the county, and, in a disaster or emergency, the state. Under no circumstances is the federal government to become involved in public welfare.

Skousen believed that “Americans…still designate by the name of ‘county’ the largest of their administrative districts” and sheriffs are the chief law-enforcement officer at the county level. And, since the county as large as government should get that means the sheriff is the highest law enforcement officer in the nation.

While we can search in vain for Skousen to document most of his claims, some knowledge of the radical right makes them clear: he borrowed them from right-wing paramilitary organizations of the 1970s like the Posse Comitatus.  David Neiwert explains in his book Alt America that in the 5000 Year Leap Skousen:

filtered the Posse interpretation of history and the Constitution into a more benign-seeming ideology that claimed that the American system was based not on the Enlightenment but on common Law and the Bible, and that the Framers believed in an extremely limited form of government. So limited, in fact, that the county was the highest level of law enforcement. (p. 158)

Skousen’s weird ideology emerged from violent paramilitary right wing terrorist groups and still serves and justification for white folks like Cliven Bundy who call for armed insurrection against the Federal government. This is what the Koch Foundation decided should be taught to people trying to re-enter society: that they have every right to take up arms against the federal government. I hope the prisoners of color hearing this stuff realize that it is only white terrorists who can get away with this kind of thing. Black men get shot for holding a cell phone in the backyard of their own property. I can’t help but think that is just the way W. Cleon Skousen would have wanted it. We are justified in speculating that Koch wants it that way too or he never would have funded this project.

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