In a post at the Optimistic Conservative, also featured on the HotAir main page, our friend and colleague J.E. Dyer asks, “What’s the point of being annoyed with Glenn Beck?” Obviously, J.E. is asking the question rhetorically, in order to respond to conservative criticisms of Beck that have been launched since his CPAC keynote speech: Her post actually tells us why we should be pleased with Beck, and I agree with most of what she says in it.
But I think her question deserves an answer.
It was, of course, William Bennett, writing over the weekend at NRO, who first spoke up loudly and incisively in reaction to Beck’s performance at CPAC. He focused on one of Beck’s customary themes:
To say the GOP and the Democrats are no different, to say the GOP needs to hit a recovery-program-type bottom and hang its head in remorse, is to delay our own country’s recovery from the problems the Democratic left is inflicting. The stakes are too important to go through that kind of exercise, which will ultimately go nowhere anyway…
Jonah Goldberg replied at NRO along somewhat the same lines as J.E., stressing that, if Beck may have overdone things, it was to motivate the troops and scare the wayward straight. Soon, however, Peter Wehner was joining his colleague Jennifer Rubin to second Bennett, and in addition was raising the ante: “If Glenn Beck were the future of conservatism,” he wrote, “it would become a discredited movement.”
Wehner went on to disclaim much concern about either part of that proposition, but, by the beginning of the week, both Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin were each worried enough to devote significant attention both on- and off-air to Beck and his arguments. Levin’s Facebook entry was particularly cutting, concluding with this stark assessment of Beck’s “third way” politics: “These are perilous times and this kind of approach will keep the statists in power for decades.” Some have suggested that Levin’s dislike for Beck is personal, or based on professional jealousy, and similar attacks have been made on his other critics, but these are serious and substantive arguments, and they go well beyond mere annoyance.
So the answer to the amplified question might be this: The point of expressing dismay with Glenn Beck is to get him to re-think his approach, or, failing that, to separate conservatism, at a crucial political moment, from his excesses.
You can be a fan of Glenn Beck’s – you might even be Glenn Beck himself – and acknowledge that his rhetoric is sometimes irresponsible. You can be thankful to Glenn Beck for his contributions to American conservatism – for helping to keep the political flame alive, even build it, during a bleakly dark time – and yet still wonder whether, going forward, his pet themes, favorite arguments, and customary stances aren’t counterproductive and divisive, where not embarrassing. In short, you can agree with everything J.E. wrote, yet still be concerned about the way that Glenn Beck habitually brings vindictive hatred and a self-destructive and dangerous extremism into conservative discourse.
As someone who has been at least halfway listening to Beck’s TV show almost every weekday, I well recognize that he and his fans are more used to getting this kind of thing from the likes of Arianna Huffington or Media Matters robots than from conservative bloggers. But please check the transcript of his CPAC speech (or cue the video to 5:20): Nearly the first words out of his mouth were “I have to tell you, I hate Woodrow Wilson with everything in me…” (emphasis added). Defenders of Beck’s will be quick to point out that the words were obviously offered in self-consciously exaggerated good humor, as you will see if you view the video, and note the smile on Beck’s face. Furthermore, he was jokingly responding to a specific statement from David Keene’s introduction, in which, while congratulating Beck for conducting a national political seminar, Keene referred to having written an article in college naming Wilson, along with Hitler and Lenin, as one of “the three most dangerous people of the 20th Century.”
Now, jesting about one’s hatred for a relatively remote historical figure, even a duly elected president, wouldn’t amount to much on its own – who cares how anyone feels about Millard Fillmore? – but any Beck viewer or listener knows that, hard as it may be for the uninitiated to believe, Beck is joking on the square here. Indeed, he has seemed obsessed with exposing a purported clear and very present danger of progressivism, which he identifies both with historical figures like Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Margaret Sanger, and with modern day progressives like the Republican 2008 presidential candidate or our current Secretary of State. (If you happened to watch Beck’s hour-long New York harborscape interview with Sarah Palin, then you might recall her reluctance to respond to his anti-progressive spiel, especially when applied to her former running mate. Beck later described her demeanor as remarkably “guarded” – as against criticism from her legion of detractors. My personal opinion is that, though she likes Beck and wishes to appeal to his fans, her political antennae, and perhaps her common sense and personal decency, were functioning efficiently.)
When Beck inveighs hatefully against Woodrow Wilson, he’s also inveighing against John McCain, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and many millions of other people, in both parties, and I would question the honesty of any regular Beck viewer who denied the evident fierceness of Beck’s feelings on this subject. If you think I’m exaggerating, then how do you explain away statements like the following, also from the CPAC keynote?
Progressivism is the cancer in America and it is eating our Constitution. And it was designed to eat the Constitution. To progress past the Constitution.
…and, again on cancer, while reacting to a statement of Theodore Roosevelt’s on income inequality:
[T]his is not our founders’ idea of America. And this is the cancer that’s eating at America.
It is big government – it’s a socialist utopia. And we need to address it as if it is a cancer. It must be cut out of the system because they cannot co-exist. And you don’t cure cancer by – well, I’m just going to give you a little bit of cancer. You must eradicate it. It cannot co-exist. And we need big thinkers, and brave people with spines who can make the case – that can actually say to Americans: look it’s going to be hard – it’s going to be hard but it’s going to be okay. We’re going to make it.
This kind of language is not just exaggerated (and cliché): It’s pure demagogy, and it’s dehumanizing. Beck’s delivery and self-deprecation take the edge off… and I’ll now refrain from making the kind of historical reference that I tend to doubt Beck himself, in my place, would resist – much. I’ll just ask you to imagine the above with a few exclamation points, hand gestures, and a throbbing throng of the newly educated – live and in person, not across a warm TV screen.
Even before we look at progressivism and decide which features we can and should do without, and which not, at least anytime soon, short of Apocalypse or Harmonic Convergence; before we consider realistic prospects and priorities; before we look up Burke or Kirk or Goldwater or Reagan or whichever gospels in search of first principles; before we even know whether we’re attacking 100 years of policy or 100 years of thinking, or perhaps, in fact, an outlook exactly as old as human civilization and integral to it; before we ask ourselves whether the Founders, or Lincoln, or the Greatest Generation, or Reagan, weren’t in critical regards the progressive revolutionaries or evolutionaries of their day; before we ask whether Glenn Beck himself isn’t advocating a totalized utopian crusade against a social ill he calls progressivism; before we ask whether the absolute eradication and uncompromising, social-political surgical extirpation of a creed or ideology can ever be an American, a democratic and republican, project – we can say one thing with certainty about a perspective that defines the enemies among our fellow citizens and the terms of the struggle as Beck’s (often) does:
It’s not conservative.