Last night, J.E. Dyer replied to “The Point of Being Annoyed with Glenn Beck” (at HotAir here), and to related comments at her blog The Optimistic Conservative. (For anyone new to the discussion, “The Point…” was itself framed as a response to J.E.’s “Beck and the Legacy,” which had referenced my short “Bennett vs. Beck” entry of last Monday). At Zombie Contentions, we’ve had a wide-ranging discussion in the comment thread, but I’d like to consolidate the dialogue with J.E. rather than try to advance it in two or more separate venues amidst multi-sided group discussions. This approach is further justified because J.E. is such an able and articulate spokesperson: If I were Glenn Beck, I would be delighted and grateful to have J.E. speaking up for me and forcefully extending my arguments. She also concisely expresses the responses of many who disagree either with the big name/high level critics or, rather a different thing, with me.
I also think that the discussion, whose implications go well beyond what anyone thinks of Glenn Beck, or thinks of someone else for what he or she said about Glenn Beck, can be usefully divided into style and substance – even if, in the end, the two have to be considered together.
In this post, I will focus on style – that is, political rhetoric and presentation.
In the ZC comment, J.E. concedes some of her own hesitations regarding aspects of Beck’s approach (as she did, implicitly, in her “Legacy” post), then expresses incomprehension about one of my central complaints:
How is it dehumanizing invective to refer to progressivist political ideology as a cancer on the American polity? It would be one thing to say the metaphor is inapt. I don’t think it is, but one could argue the case dispassionately. Another criticism that wouldn’t necessarily be a reach would be that it’s hyperbolic. Again, I don’t think it is. I am convinced that progressivism is antithetical to limited, constitutional government. I think Beck is correct that progressivism and limited, constitutional government can’t coexist. One of them has to recede, be defeated, dissolve over time. They can’t occupy the same space. […]
But dehumanizing? Demagogic? Just don’t see it. Beck’s proposition is that the American idea is limited, constitutional government, which is the essential condition for enduring political liberty. Progressivism won’t accept being bounded by limitations on government’s scope or charter. The more of it we admit in our midst, the more compromised is the constitutional bulwark guarding our liberties.
I really don’t see what’s out-of-bounds about putting this in metaphorical terms as the operation of a “cancer.” Is it the metaphor, or the basic proposition, that you find so offensive, shipmate?
Short answer: Not to be cute, but I don’t expect anyone to care very much whether someone called “CK MacLeod” is put out by something GB said. CKM doesn’t have any battalions – it’s not even clear that he has any support, even at his home blog!
CKM’s – my – argument is that Beck’s deployment of such metaphors, in a larger sense the use of such rhetoric, is politically counterproductive and potentially dangerous, because it will be taken as offensive and extreme, or just plain nuts, by others. On the basic proposition, I disagree with aspects of it, both as a matter of political theory and as a matter of practical politics.
As for a longer answer, only because J.E., a conservative whom I greatly respect, has asked, I’ll try, beginning with a question of my own: Can you name a major Democratic or liberal politician or pundit who has referred to conservatism in such terms?
I’m not sure that even the likes of Ed Schultz or Keith Olbermann, on a bad day, go quite as far about us as Beck has been going about them, and, if and when they did, I think we’d rightly dub them crackpots and fools. Imagine a popular liberal – roughly seven times bigger than Olbermann or Schultz, maybe some ideological Hollywood type like George Clooney or James Cameron, speaking at a major political conference of the left, during a period similar to, say, 2006-7, when leftist politics were on the rise and the right was generally in retreat, and reaching the following climax (with or without exclamations):
It is against progress and justice. And we need to address it as if it is a cancer. It must be cut out of the system because democracy and conservatism 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.
(more, louder applause)
You’d have been OK with that, Commander? How about a few years from now, in the wake of as yet unmapped conservative political missteps, against a background of worsening economic, military, and social crisis? It wouldn’t make you wonder just what these people, whom according to all the polls would soon be in power, were really up to and really capable of? Would your thoughts turn, at least fleetingly, to your guns and ammo? If not, wouldn’t you at least wonder how Clooney and his gang had ever gotten such a twisted idea about you, your beliefs and visions, your friends, and the people you admire the most?
Maybe you can find some equivalent or worse statement from a figure of the mainstream or near-mainstream left. Kos doesn’t count, though, and, anyway, I’d like to think we’re better than Kos. If Barack Obama or Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid said something like that or anywhere near it, we’d condemn them, and not just because they had signaled their underlying political and theoretical disagreements with us.
Back to Beck: I think his words would come across less threateningly if he didn’t relentlessly personalize his critique – “VAN JONES IS A COMMUNIST!” or “JOHN McCAIN IS A PROGRESSIVE!” Most of all, and I’m surprised I need to point this out, the rhetoric would be easier for me to ignore if the last 100 years and more weren’t marked by a series of political movements designating various out-groups (nations, races, classes, parties, movements, communities) as diseases that merely resembled human beings; then acting consequentially on those designations, while reminding their followers that, though the “work” was “hard,” it was necessary for survival.
Beck downplays the rage tonally, but generally amps up the melodrama and scaremongering. If you believe that there’s any chance that things will get as bad as Beck continually predicts, then might it not be dangerous to have someone, day after, drumming it into the ears of a huge listener- and viewership that THESE PEOPLE, these evil progressives, chiefly or perhaps solely, are responsible for the ongoing and accelerating destruction of the nation?
I can listen to Beck, and I can read J.E.’s and other people’s similar statements about the impossibility of co-existence with progressivism, and interpose a layer of interpretation, but I couldn’t blame a self-identified progressive (any among millions of our fellow citizens) for reading them as a declaration of war, take-no-prisoners; for reacting in the same way as an Israeli who hears Ahmadinejad talk about wiping Israel off the map, and who may not be interested in some merely politically or cultural-theoretically nuanced mitigation. And I couldn’t blame an apolitical person or a moderate for thinking that the speaker and everyone applauding him were out of their freaking minds and shouldn’t be allowed within 10 miles of the nation’s capital, or at a minimum should be thoroughly searched first.
I also believe that, even if J.E. and Beck are committed to persuasion and a completely non-coercive politics, there are lots of people who aren’t, and always more, potentially, on the way.
A last point on the interpretation of such rhetoric: Our society is pervaded by progressivism and its legacy from top to bottom and side to side. I’m therefore struck by what a peculiarly selective, and to progressives quite unfamiliar, definition of their ideology Beck and like-minded people are using. History associates a number of things with the Progressive Era, its direct precursors, and its descendants, that may or may not fit into the post-progressive America envisioned by Glenn Beck, but play little or no role in the eradicate-the-cancer discussion, and are instead shunted aside as though they don’t or never mattered, or can somehow be presumed.
Hearing Beck going on about an intolerable cancer might be a little frightening to anyone. After that, it may be confusing, even and especially for those who are familiar with the other progressive history. What, they might ask, does this fool have against women’s suffrage, anti-trust and child labor laws, clean water, safe food, national parks, public libraries, ballot initiatives, and so on? OK, if you want to get rid of Yellowstone, bring it to a vote, but if I vote for the park, does that make me a cancer, with whom or which you cannot co-exist?
Beck and J.E. are of course referring to something much different when they use the word “progressive.” They are referring to something that they describe as a kind of multi-generational, semi-secret conspiracy, a vast historical swindle that used national parks and the rest, and also wartime emergencies, essentially as a cover for an inherently totalitarian and genocidal project that, in the nearer term, and along the critical battle lines is, not incidentally, an anti-American, anti-Constitutional, anti-freedom project.
I believe I understand what they’re getting at, but I disagree with their approach conceptually and pragmatically. I’ll leave that to future discussion.