Every once in a great while, a simple author finds a message and a voice with the power to shock the American people back into compliance with long-forgotten concepts of republican virtue. Glenn Beck is not that man, and “Glenn Beck’s Common Sense” is not that book, no matter how much he wants it to be. Trust me: I put three hours of my life into reading it.
There’s a lot wrong with even the concept of this book. First, there’s an unmistakable egotism to a man who openly considers himself a modern Thomas Paine. The author of a simply average talk-radio screed, which Beck’s book emphatically is, cannot be compared, in any earnestness, with the timely, compelling, and truly “revolutionary” Paine, whose work lifted the nation’s flagging spirits in the desperate winter of 1776-77. And there’s an equally unmistakable hypocrisy to Beck’s seeming identification with Paine, an anti-religious deist, especially when the lion’s share of his book is spent railing against the very Enlightenment ideology that animated Paine’s life. If that’s not enough to make you question Beck’s seriousness at the threshold, I don’t know what is.
Ultimately, though, the book stands or falls on its merits, not its ad campaign. Let’s jump right in. Numbers in parentheses are page numbers of the first edition and, for the record, the color of the little flags in my copy, photographed above, does mean something. Yellow represents anti-intellectualism masquerading as “anti-elitism”; blue, conspiracy theories; red, outright falsehoods; purple, serious bigotry; and green, grave otherwise unclassifiable flaws.
Full review follows below the line:
The book is immediately abnormal in that it clearly envisions, and speaks to, a single target audience only: middle class married men with children, struggling to make ends meet.
I take no objection to the demographic. Who could? Rather, I object to the reason for the focus, its narrowness, and the exclusionary feel that develops as a consequence. From page one, those who don’t fit that mold feel as if they don’t belong: how is a middle class married woman supposed to relate when Beck intimates, at various points, that wives are to be protected from, rather than enlisted in the fight against, a world run amok (if we accept Beck’s thesis) (33)?
[Ed: many readers have read the preceding paragraph and assumed, falsely, that I fault Beck for focusing on middle-class white men because I think they’re somehow a “bad” demographic. I don’t. Far from it, in fact. Rather, I (attempt to) use Beck’s targeting to introduce and critique the particular version of class warfare he’s seeming to advocate. I have no class-based prejudices, period, which is more than I can say for Beck. If you don’t believe me, please read on: context matters.]
Anti-Intellectualism: Class Warfare Is Bad, Except When It’s Not
The reason for this careful targeting, largely found in the first chapter (3-7), snaps into focus by the second. If a single theme can be said to dominate Beck’s book, it is that bizarre recurrent cancer on American thought, anti-intellectualism, a tirade against “experts,” defined as “Ivy Leaguers” who think they know better than “cabdrivers, mothers, or plumbers” (11; see also 65, 71, 85) and, of course, middle-class married men with children. Elites are known by their knowledge and beliefs, not their money, setting up a bizarrely schizophrenic valorization of the financially common, married to a defense of the wealthy. Elites are dangerous, some of the wealthy (like congressmen, apparently – 47) are evil too, but progressive taxation, which differentially hurts the wealthy, is the moral equivalent of Jim Crow laws (43). A strange argument to make, given Beck’s candid admission that “incendiary class warfare is not a solution, it’s a diversion” (15). Hmm.
As is common with the far-right, Beck’s anti-intellectual narrative serves as a starting point for an assault on all the usual conservative bogeymen, from global warming and environmentalists (77) to AmeriCorps/public service (99), taxes (43), public schools (91), and democracy (41). Yes, democracy. A popular “rumor on the internets” these days is that “democracy,” a term used by political scientists to refer to any system of government that provides at least partially for direct popular election, is a code-word for liberal mob rule. A strange argument, surely stemming from the erroneous identification of Athens as the paradigmatic democracy.
The Evils of an Undefined, Amorphous “Progressivism”
In any event, according to Beck, all these ideas are wrong, or somehow evil, because they are boosted only by “elites,” and flatly rebutted by “Common Sense,” a phrase that, if you’ll break out your Rhyming Becktionary, you’ll find translates approximately to “denialism.” This is Beck’s first ground for attack on these ideas: flat denial, supported only by a deep mistrust of earned knowledge and higher education.
The second ground is stranger still: in Beck’s largest chapter, “The Cancer of Progressivism” (62-103), he tilts against these same windmills all over again by tying them to “Progressivism,” loosely defined by Beck as the radical idea that, sometimes, as Spock would say, “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.” To arrive at this definition, Beck conflates the various historical usages of the “progressive” label, sweeping Teddy Roosevelt (70), Franklin Roosevelt (80), and Karl Marx (82) into the same label, before informing the reader that this ideology led directly to the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II (80), and likely will lead to the outright confiscation of firearms (85-86).
By defining “Progressivism” so broadly, though, Beck’s argument becomes not an assault on “out-of-control government,” as the title proclaims, but an assault on the very concept of government. Government and law are both built on the proposition that the needs of the many must be balanced against the needs of the few, if we are to have a civilization or even a criminal code. This principle is not up for debate. What is up for debate is where and how this balance is struck. To be sure, Communism, socialism, and police-state tactics like the Japanese interment example fail to achieve the proper balance, by tilting far too heavily against the individual, but are we really to question the value of national parks (70), vigilance in the war on terror (83), and even the federal regulation of interstate commerce (65)? What Beck seems to want is not a return to the values of the Constitution, but a return to the Articles of Confederation. Because he fails to sensibly define the evils of “Progressivism,” Beck fails to define a problem – and to the extent that he does, the cure sounds worse than the disease.
Ultimately, “Glenn Beck’s Common Sense” is just what you expect it is: an uninformed rant against enemies, perceived or otherwise, loosely tied together by that favorite trope of the far-right, anti-intellectualism. This type of screed is hardly revolutionary: indeed, it’s remarkable only for its commonality.
By no means is this an exhaustive list of the book’s faults. I could go on to highlight some of Beck’s scarier points – like his tendency to refer to ideological opponents as inhuman “cockroaches” (e.g. 84), and his insistence that Americans are right to stockpile guns and ammunition (87), though apparently we stockpile guns so that we may never use them (102). Enough said.
I’m also aware that “what Glenn Beck thinks about various straw-man theories of liberalism” is hardly the most important subject I could be covering in this space. Beck is not a luminary. He is, however, very popular (currently the #1 bestselling author at Amazon.com), and too easy to dismiss out of hand. If for nothing other than the stunning gap between his popularity and his merit, he deserves a fair read just this once. But no more. Spread the word, judge him harshly on his Amazon.com review page, and let us be done with this clown, once and for all.