YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

February 20, 2010

The Glenn Beck Problem

Pierrot collage by Clare Spark

[Added 9-1-10: This blog has obviously been evolving as I have tried to place Glenn Beck's views in some recognizable historical narrative. For a liberal account of Beck as demagogue that I find disturbingly distorted see http://hnn.us/articles/130820.html. My search for Beck follows; I should say that Beck does urge his viewers to do their homework and to read primary sources, then challenge him if he is mistaken in his characterization of the Founders, or any other claim he makes. That is not the usual practice of a demagogue (who does not permit, let alone welcome, criticism from the crowd):]

Click onto the illustration and read what German agent George Sylvester Viereck wrote about Hitler in 1923: you will find the line “he storms their reserve with his passion.” Yesterday I posted my objection to Glenn Beck’s obsession with blaming everything wrong with our society on “the progressive movement.”  I also objected to his tendency to equate right-wing social democrats with communists, an error only a person with little knowledge of 20th century European history would make. Given the millions who tune into every program and who think he is a powerful weapon in the campaign against “Big Government,” it is not surprising that one of my Facebook friends immediately objected to my criticism of a man he thinks is a hero, but who, though I often agree with him, sometime suspect to be a power-hungry demagogue, taking advantage of ever-growing dissatisfaction with U.S. domestic and foreign policies to feed his ego and to line his pocket, while playing the earnest clown. Whatever his motives, there is no excuse for indicting “progressivism” as a “cancer….” as he did in his keynote address at CPAC, or his comments today (May 26, 2010) trashing Bernays and Lippmann. Usually  this is an antisemitic jibe from the Left and Chomsky, but Beck was vehement and nasty.  I am disgusted. See my widely circulated essay http://clarespark.com/2009/08/19/noam-chomskys-misrepresentation-of-walter-lippmanns-chief-ideas-on-manufacturing-consent/

[Added, March 19. I have been reading about Edmund Burke and his revival from the 1950s on. Paleoconservative Russell Kirk (a founder of National Review) and his ultraconservative Burkean allies in academe are probably the intellectual sources for Beck. Although on many points, he seems to be a libertarian, he is also opposed to any view that does not regard the Christian God as the source of order and liberty–along with Bill O’Reilly and Newt Gingrich, his opponents are “secularists.” Hence his attempt to remake the Founding Fathers into believers in God as the chief lawgiver of “moral natural law”–the source of order, with the state as a usurper insofar as it threatens (upper- or middle-class) property, the ballast for “tradition.” This places Beck as a follower of Edmund Burke, as I believe Jonah Goldberg to be, who is as rattled by “the Jacobins” as the source of totalitarian/statist control.)* [Added 6-6-10: I was much mollified and gratified by Beck's support for Israel during the last week. How this fits in with his general ideology, I cannot say. Added 7-18-10: Beck clarified what he means by rights being God-given: he was contrasting this position with the competing notion that rights are gifts from the State, a key Nazi idea.] [Added 10-30-10. I am taken aback by the Harvard UP published book by Philip Hamburger, Separation of Church and State (2002). This book is more helpful in explaining the religious Right and their alarm at secularism than any other history book I have ever read. If intent matters, Hamburger bolsters the case that the writers of the Constitution did not banish religion from the public square, far from it. See http://clarespark.com/2010/11/05/hamburgers-separation-of-church-and-state/.]

This blog is about the danger of allowing any media personalities to do our thinking for us, and I am not speaking about Glenn Beck alone, nor do I wish to insult his viewers or listeners, but they should be on guard. As my long-time friend political scientist Stephen Eric Bronner wrote in one of his first books (this on German Expressionism), making a passionate work of art or viewing it, though valuable in itself, cannot substitute for the thoughtful study, investigating, organizing and other activity that resists illegitimate authority. Professor Bronner wrote enthusiastically about Rosa Luxemburg too, as well as other radical social democrats who were associated with the Second International. These activists were called left-wing social democrats, because they meant to educate the masses in the most advanced industrialized societies and through majority acquiescence (as opposed to bureaucratic centralism) make the transition from capitalism to socialism. Luxemburg herself was an anti-Bolshevik and argued with Lenin about issues that are still red-hot today, such as supporting anti-colonial social movements that were antidemocratic and backward. (I am updating the debate between Luxemburg and Lenin, originally about the nature of imperialism, and about self-determination in the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires, not about Third World dictatorships of today. (Thanks to Steve Bronner for the correction. But as Robert Brenner and Perry Anderson taught the debate in a session I audited, the issue concerned  left-wing alliances with antidemocratic entities, so I extrapolated to the present, when the hard Left does ally itself with dubious entities. For an entirely negative view of Luxemburg and other “Non-Jewish Jews” see Paul Johnson’s A History of the Jews. Johnson has the clearest exposition of twentieth-century politics and diplomacy affecting the future of Jewry that I have ever read. It is especially welcome at a time when a new “peace process” is under way.)

All this is to explain that “right-wing social democrats” like FDR were conservative reformers, similar in their views to those of Edmund Burke, ardent critic of the French Revolution and its threat of popular sovereignty. Bronner, though a prolific author, is not typical of today’s radical (Leninist) Left. And I have shifted my own position, as my Pacifica memoir makes clear. As an historian with a background in science education, my most positive contribution must be to encourage individuals to be skeptical of all pronouncements from politicians and other celebrities, and to withhold their support until they know among other things, who is financing their endeavors: Arab sheiks? Closet Islamic jihadists? Americans remain innocent, characters in a novel by Henry James. We remain child-like in our quickness to trust. We are not experienced in the ways of amoral and jaded Europeans or elites from other societies who would destroy democratic movements in their own countries and who seek to bring down the West tout court, for the West is full of bad examples, such as the American and French Revolutions. Do we know the extent to which their financing of university programs and media corporations such as Rupert Murdoch’s outfit is affecting their programming (Fox) or curriculum (Columbia U.)?

While reading Schiller’s and Goethe’s plays over the last few years, I was struck by the complexities of their plots, for they were writing in a time when court life was full of intrigue. Perhaps that is why I collect masks and images of Pierrot. Artists knew that it was bad, really bad out there.

* On the subject of Edmund Burke as a liberal constitutionalist and not an organicist, see Rod Preece, “Edmund Burke and his European Reception,” The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation Vol.21, Number 3 (Autumn 1980): 255-273. Preece argues that Burke’s European admirers mistook him for an organicist thinker, and that for Burke, there was a contract between the state and the individual; moreover that he was opposed to Platonic guardians, but preferred practical men of affairs (the moderates) to be running things. But that Burke was horrified by Jacobins and the French Revolution, there is no dispute. If Preece is correct, then Russell Kirk’s name should be added to those who have misunderstood Burke.

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12 Comments »

  1. [...] my blog, http://clarespark.com/2010/02/20/the-glenn-beck-problem/, I noted that Beck was wrong about Walter Lippmann, and  that he had replicated Chomsky’s [...]

    Pingback by Is Glenn Beck and antisemite? « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — July 8, 2011 @ 7:25 pm | Reply

  2. I am just surprised that a scholar such as yourself would waste their time on Beck! The only difference between Beck and the other purveyors of disdain, resentment and rage (on the radio, e.g., Limbaugh, Hannity, Levin, Savage, et. al.) is his high-profile cable show. I suppose your analysis is more directed at the American appetite than the naked opportunists who pander to it. I watch Beck religiously because I do consider him a genuine threat, but I am loathe to fathom his conspiratorial meanderings. His show should be studied as a psychological phenomenon, not a political one. His philosophy is saying whatever his audience wants to hear in order to increase his ratings. Today, Beck announced that he will broadcast an expose on George Soros on 11/9 in which he will address the question whether Soros is “the puppet master?” Just last week, Beck’s Fox colleague, O’Reilly, made reference to Soros’ “tentacles.” I wonder if these historically anti-semitic images of Jewish “control” are lost upon them or deliberately employed.

    Comment by Jeffrey Silberman — November 3, 2010 @ 12:09 am | Reply

    • Jeffrey, you might want to read Guterman and Lowenthal’s 1949 book on the right-wing agitator. I try to figure out Beck’s political appeal because that is what I was trained to do. Where in my blog did I diminish his potential danger? Where do I advocate blindly following any opinion leader? I did put in bold face the statement about not allowing leaders to do our thinking for us. If you think Beck is misguided and even dangerous, then you should read my blogs (the result of decades of careful research) on the aims of military psychiatry and related establishment types of that discipline. They are all over the website. I will try to do an index soon.

      Comment by clarespark — November 3, 2010 @ 11:30 pm | Reply

  3. Beck’s invitation to his followers not to take his remarks on faith is a stunt. He never recommends to his listeners books that would challenge his views. When he is challenged by his critics, he does not refute their claims with arguments; rather, he ridicules them with ad hominems. I do believe there is latent anti-semitism when he singles out George Soros as the bogeyman. I cannot take seriously anyone who warns us that the end is near and that we, as Americans, must make huge sacrifices while profiting on this message. The Glenn Beck program, by his own admission, is infotainement. I pity the poor saps who buy from his gold sponsors. If that makes me an elitist, so be it.

    Comment by Jeffrey Silberman — November 1, 2010 @ 11:36 pm | Reply

    • I agree with you Jeffrey. Still, it is my job to try to understand where he is coming from with respect to American belief systems, and also his appeal to millions. I thought I made it clear that his blanket condemnation of progressivism, of Lippmann and others, is unacceptable. There is a gulf in our country between persons who live within a religious framework, and those who can think historically (the dread secularists). If it is elitist to live in history, then count me in to the ranks of the elitists. They used to call me that at Pacifica too from time to time. Populism is dangerous and does not serve those who follow it.

      Comment by clarespark — November 2, 2010 @ 2:17 am | Reply

  4. Glenn Beck needs to be criticized, but not for the reasons that the left come up with. You are correct to point out that the left does not understand him because they lie to themselves about what he believes. My very liberal brother reviles GB and criticises him for holding beliefs he doesn’t have. He also states that he does not understand what GB is talking about, partcularly on moral or religious issues. If you don’t accept his ecumenical, anti-statist, first principles premises, then you won’t understand his discussions of the threat of these ideas to freedom.

    Glenn Beck is a conservative libertarian, as I am. I find his analysis is intriguing and often on the money, but I am concerned about his overly religious and apocalyptic talk. I am impressed that Beck encourages independent thinking. Happily, he does encourage reading original sources, including leftist material. (I was exposed to these writings in the 1970s when I became a socialist. Their anti-human premises were so blatant that I eventually renounced my former beliefs.)

    Nonetheless, his use of ridicule and tone of imminent crisis, popular with his viewers and readers, bypasses rationality and elicits an emotional response. This appeal to emotionalism is a leftist tactic, and I know that he deliberately provoking the left by ridiculing. But at the same time, he is contradicting his advocacy of rationalism. He could very well shift from formidable critic of the left into demogogary and undermine the movement.

    Comment by Scott Lloyd — September 3, 2010 @ 4:06 am | Reply

  5. Jonathan Nolan’s comment was directed against my blog. I don’t feel that I have been passed by when, as an historian, I criticize a media star as distorting the history of social movements. Beck is in a unique position to teach good history. In some respects he does, but fails to make crucial distinctions. All statisms are not the same, and populism can turn into self-destructive resentments and misplaced anger.

    Comment by clarespark — May 2, 2010 @ 4:20 pm | Reply

    • I find this (failure to make “crucial distinctions”) an amusing trait of most talk radio people. In the 70s, I described myself as an anti-communist social democrat. So, it is a little disconcerting to see GB and Sean Hannity lump the two movements together as being equally sinister. When I was a socialist, there was a big difference between us and the communists. They were cult-of-personality totalitarians and we were advocates for freedom from poverty and racism. From my current conservative, anti-statist perspective, social democrats, socialists, communists, etc. are merely differentiated by their degrees of willingness to accept government intrusions into private affairs.

      Is there any reason for GB to go into the subtle distinctions between Progressives, Socialists, and other statists when he is advocating for smaller, Constitutional government?

      Comment by Scott Lloyd — September 3, 2010 @ 4:45 am | Reply

  6. The only people concerned with sterile and vapid arguments over semantics are people afraid that the real dialectic and semiotics discussions have passed them by.

    Comment by Jonathan Nolan — May 1, 2010 @ 2:26 pm | Reply

  7. But FDR was also following the teachings of John Maynard Keynes and perhaps getting some pointers from the Italian Facists government when it came to some of FDR New Deal policies.

    Comment by Henry Ramdass jr — February 28, 2010 @ 5:32 am | Reply

  8. Avatar, “the Glenn Beck Problem”, and Ted Kaczynski: Part I…

    Over the weekend I finally saw Avatar (on IMAX 3D) and it struck me, on the most superficial level, that we are one step closer to fully immersive virtual reality. The movie was, as so many have commented, visually stunning……

    Trackback by ShrinkWrapped — February 22, 2010 @ 4:15 pm | Reply


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