Recently, out of curiosity (though a friend of mine called it “masochism”), I read one of Glenn Beck’s books — Glenn Beck’s Common Sense. In some respects, I live in a bubble, and I will say that my knowledge of Beck is nil, or very nearly so. I know he’s a Fox News personality of some stripe. I know Sarah Palin wants to have his babies. I know companies are pulling their ads from his television show due to consumer boycotts. I know he’s at the forefront of the Teabagger movement, he’s presumably a Birther as well. These things I know from reading DailyKos on a daily basis. Beyond that, if Beck walked up to me and tossed noodles in my face, I’d have no sodding clue who he was. ❓
Not so long ago I was in Target — I bought The Tigger Movie on DVD, which I’m pretty sure I didn’t already own — and there I saw Glenn Beck’s Common Sense, a book inspired, as it says on the front cover (and as the cover design well indicates) by Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, the pamphlet that helped to incite the American colonies to revolution in 1776. Here was my opportunity to understand the anti-Obama protests — the Birthers, the Teabaggers, the health care protesters — and even get an idea of who Glenn Beck was. After all, they had a big rally in DC yesterday; the organizers said it drew a million people, but ABC says the crowd was about 65,000, splitting the difference of the estimates.
Glenn Beck’s Common Sense is a short brook; I read it in about an hour. Like Thomas Paine, Beck rails against a breakdown in the social compact. In Paine’s time, the flaw was in the relationship between the colonies and Britain. In Beck’s time, the flaw lies in what he believes to be intrusive government.
The first half of the book isn’t terrible. I understand where Beck is coming from. Social Security and Medicare, progressive taxation, the trade deficit, the national debt, the government failing the people — in Beck’s view, these are all problems for American society. Social Security and Medicare fuel the national debt, progressive taxation promotes class stratification, the trade deficit (and American consumer society in general) means that the United States will eventually be held hostage to foreign interests, the government has failed the people because it can’t get a ginormous wall built along the entire US/Mexico frontier but it can land twelve men on the moon. I don’t agree with his viewpoint, I don’t see the situation in the dire terms that Beck does, but I understood it.
The last half of the book, however, is awful. After spending pages identifying problems, Beck never offers solutions. Beck argues that we need more democracy, not less, that we need more people to be more engaged, but then he rails against the government and the dangers of democracy in the next paragraph. (At one point, he flatly states that democracy doesn’t work. I understand his viewpoint, actually; it’s democracy when the government does what you want, it’s tyranny when it doesn’t, and as far as Beck is concerned we’re in a tyrannical state right now.) The one thing that Beck is absolutely, positively certain of is that if a Progressive is in favor of something, it’s automatically a bad idea. He gives this away on the Table of Contents page, where Chapter Five is entitled “The Cancer of Progressivism.” What makes progressive ideas so heinous? In Beck’s view, a progressive policy will lead inexorably toward socialism, the abridgement of freedoms and rights, and, eventually, the imposition of a totalitarian regime the likes the world has never seen since the days of Stalin or Pol Pot.
The one point in Beck’s favor? He disavows violence. Paine could argue for a bloody revolution, but we’re better than that, says Beck. (Page 103) We have the weapons of democracy on our side. (Chapter 1, I’m pretty sure; I can’t be arsed to find that passage.) Whatever weapons of democracy are, that is, since Beck doesn’t really define what that means. Except for lots of shouting.
I read the book, quickly, with a mounting sense of unease. I read the book, turning pages, waiting for Beck to tell me something, anything about what the Teabaggers want, what the Birthers want, what the protesters want. Instead, what I got was a loopy anarcho-libertarian philosophy.
Yes, I’m going to call Beck an anarcho-libertarian. Government is automatically bad, government is too big, government tramples on the individual, the individual knows best. Here’s where I’m sure I’m misunderstanding Beck, because I can’t, for the life of me, figure out what Beck wants the government to do. What is its role in Beck’s mind? I don’t have a sodding clue. Beck never tells me, except to suggest that, as far as reading the Constitution goes, he’s an Originalist. What I’m left with is the feeling that Beck wants something between anarchy and hard-core libertarianism. But Beck doesn’t make the argument for that. Beck doesn’t make an argument for anything. Except that what a progressive wants is bad. So if a progressive says it, don’t do it!
But you know what? That’s not what bothers me about Glenn Beck’s Common Sense. It doesn’t bother me terribly much that Beck doesn’t offer a solution to the problems he identifies; to tell the truth, I doubt seriously that Beck has a solution in mind for those problems. Rather, what bothers me is that Beck holds himself up as the heir to Thomas Paine. And the reason that bothers me is that Beck, clearly, doesn’t have a fucking clue what Thomas Paine thought.
Take progressive taxation, for instance. Beck is against it. He wants a flat tax, because a flat tax works in Russia. What Beck probably doesn’t realize is that Paine was in favor of progressive taxation. Paine devotes an entire chapter of Rights of Man to the need for progressive taxation in England.
Paine would probably agree with Beck that the voice of the comman man is drowned out in Congress today, though after Joe Wilson’s outburst during President Obama’s speech on Wednesday I’m no longer so sure. However, Beck’s solution — shout really loud — wouldn’t accomplish anything, while Paine, judging by his body of work, would likely recommend increasing the size of the House of Representatives to, say, 750 members. (Ideally, I think that the House needs to be increased in size to something like 1,500 members, but that’s probably not feasible.) In Rights of Man, Paine argues for more representation, not less. It was on that very point that he exhorted the colonies to rebel in Common Sense.
But the big disagreement Paine and Beck would have? God. Beck thinks we need more God in American society (pages 96-101), and secularism is very bad. Also, the religious need to unite so they can smite their enemies — “[Progressives] recognize that religion is a unifying force and a counterbalance to state power, so they believe that it must either be harnassed by the state or destroyed. There cannot be a rival for American’s allegiance.” (Page 99). Yes, that quotation is accurate (and poorly worded). Further down the page, “[Progressives] are subtly saying that your rights, freedoms, and liberties come from government instead of, as the Founding Fathers taught, directly from God, and that you lend some of those rights to government.” I could quote the Treaty of Tripoli at this very important juncture. I could quote Thomas Jefferson, too. Both would disagree with Beck’s view of the Founding Fathers. Rather, I’ll point out to Glenn Beck that in addition to Common Sense and Rights of Man, Thomas Paine’s third famous book is The Age of Reason, his full-throated attack on religion in general and Christianity in particular. Yes, Beck, your hero, Thomas Paine, in whose footsteps you claim to walk, would be appalled that you’re not a godless heathen.
I didn’t pick up Glenn Beck’s Common Sense to rag on Beck. As I said, I really have no idea who Beck is or what he thinks. I just wanted to get an idea of what’s going on with the American right these days and what they’re thinking. The book does have one feature of interest — it prints Thomas Paine’s Common Sense in its entirety. I’m not sorry that I read Glenn Beck’s Common Sense. It was interesting. It kept me entertained; it was certainly good for a laugh. But it didn’t succeed in educating me about what the political right in the United States wants. It certainly didn’t help me to understand why the right thinks as they do. And I cannot help but think that Thomas Paine would not be amused by Glenn Beck appropriating his name.