Defending Glenn Beck

He’s been called a “fearmonger”; a “buffoon”; a “fake revolutionary”; a “loudmouth idiot pundit”; “easily the stupidest,” compared to Michael Savage and Ann Coulter, “in this pool of incredible stupidity”; “clearly psychotic and paranoid”; “ a “spokesdouche”; a “ranting hobo”; a “right-wing blowhard who talks endlessly about stuff he doesn’t have a clue about”; a “crybaby purging every last tear from his body”; an “insane, delusional, and paranoid whack job”; “a perverse and high-impact media spectacle”; a “wife beater”; a “moron in a hurry”; “a dick”; a “demagogue”; a possible murderer; a “lying scumbag”; a “complete and utter tool”; and, to make a very long story short, conflating from many other sources, a purveyor of hysteria, lies, ridiculous rants, and pathological utterances. The yada yada appears to be endless.

There is no question that Glenn Beck’s native exuberance can propel him into the ozone of the intemperate. Is Barack Obama really a “racist,” as Beck claimed, “a guy who has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture”? The basis for this verdict was Obama’s premature and blundering intervention in the Gates-Crowley controversy, claiming the white police officer reacted “stupidly” in arresting the black professor, which made the president look as intemperate as Beck is purported to be. One might criticize the president for unseemly haste, lack of judgment, failure of imagination, or personal bias -- all worrisome traits in a head of state -- but the charge of racism is clearly beyond the pale.

Ron Radosh points to a polemical earnestness in Beck that can render him prone to misreadings of events and embarrassing assumptions. Some of Beck’s statements obviously do tend to soar over the top, but such fulminations are also a function of talk radio or TV advocacy and are common to media hosts on both sides of the political spectrum. Keith Olbermann, when he is “on,” can reduce Beck to the status of a Trappist monk. Consider the hatchet job that Olbermann did on new Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown who, according to the MSNBC pundit, is an “irresponsible, homophobic, racist, reactionary, ex-nude model, teabagging supporter of violence against woman and against politicians with whom he disagrees.” I can’t think of anything Glenn Beck has said to rival this upchuck of vulgar bombast, yet Olbermann has largely gotten away with his logorrheic obscenity. Nor does Beck traffic in the trademark snideness of, say, Jon Stewart. And we must remember, too, that political commentary in this day and age has left the requisites of decorum far behind. David Frum’s serial pummeling of Sarah Palin, for example, looks more like the airing of a private vendetta or some lurid obsession than the development of a reasoned analysis.

As for George Bush’s treatment at the hands of a liberal-left press, let’s not even go there, for fear of infection.

Where Beck differs from his detractors, whose vehemence and malice know no bounds, and from his media competitors, whose use of the tar brush is often far more problematic, is in his undoubted patriotism, his historical erudition, and the acuity of his argumentation. This is especially true of his published writings. For example, his Common Sense brings Thomas Paine, a major architect of the American Revolution, back into the contemporary American political scene at a time when he seems to be needed most -- at precisely the moment when the founding principles of the Republic seem to be at risk. Beck’s little volume turns to the past in order to consolidate the future, a conservative treatise in the true sense of the word “conservative.” Or alternatively, a liberal manifesto in the true anti-authoritarian sense of the word “liberal,” as understood in John Locke’s seminal Two Treatises of Government with its emphasis on the sanctity of life, liberty, and property.

No less striking is Beck’s most recent offering, Arguing with Idiots: How to Stop Small Minds and Big Government, whose provocative title belies the sober good sense within its pages. The book prickles with facts, transcripts, and statistics calculated to chafe and irritate those in the adversarial camp, whose favored strategy is to respond ad hominem, blasting the messenger while at the same time refusing to assimilate the message. This is the device employed by the book’s resident “idiot” who pugnaciously raises the predictable counter-arguments marshaled by those who believe in big government, fiscal redistribution, and state control, only to be answered with the drive and panache that is the Beckian signet. But the “idiot” is no straw man set up merely to be knocked down; his rejoinders are exactly what we read and hear daily in the MSM. And as Beck writes in the introductory disclaimer, “being an idiot has nothing to do with your party affiliation, it has to do with whether you are able to look beyond that affiliation and follow the facts, wherever they may lead.”

The chapter titles give a strong indication of the social, political, and economic positions Beck will take up as he pursues his campaign against creeping socialism and the dismantling of the American experiment: “In Defense of Capitalism: Giving the Free Market a Fair Shake,” “Unions: When Is America Finished Paying Her Dues,” “The Nanny State: Saving You from Yourself, One Right at a Time,” “The U.S. Constitution: Lost in Translation,” and so on. Beck characteristically pulls no punches, but his arguments in favor of small government and individual responsibility and against “mission creep” are for the most part nuanced, precise, and factually grounded. And this is perhaps what his enemies cannot forgive him, dismissing as bluster or pontification what is nothing short of analytic fidelity to the actual state of affairs.

An argument is made up of three components: evidence, inference (or deduction), and judgment. And in any argument there can be many a slip ‘twixt the evidence and the inference, or the inference and the judgment. No one is saying that Beck is immune to forensic slippage. But if the facts are right and the inference is sound, then the conclusions are correct. This is why his many detractors, in trying to negate his arguments, will invariably attack his conclusions -- and of course the man who arrived at them -- while refusing to deal with the facts on which they are based or the inferences which issue in a judgment.

These critics, almost exclusively on the left, employ what we might call an anti-extrapolation strategy, that is, they proceed as if Beck had nothing to extrapolate from except his own “sick fantasies,” as if he were inventing arguments ex nihilo, weaving a tapestry whose threads are made out of glitter dust and synaptic orts and figments. Thus we are regaled with Whoopi Goldberg’s probing observation that Beck “is a lying sack of dog mess,” Roseanne Barr’s definitive assessment that “Glenn Beck is ... a ‘death lover’,” Keith Olbermann’s frenetic denunciation that “only in his wildest dreams could an actual suicide bomber hope to do as much damage to this country as Glenn Beck does every day,” Discover Magazine’s lame tu quoque, “Glenn Beck is an idiot,” or Joe Klein’s ludicrous accusation that Beck is “close to being seditious,” among others. Notice how no one deigns to contest the facts or query the inferential arc.

At the end of the book, Beck appends a citation section of twenty-four close-printed pages, which any honest antagonist would consult and take the time to follow up, instead of lazily discarding the book and Beck along with it as wrong-headed, loony, irrelevant, or deceptive. Further, an educated critic might be expected to be familiar with much of the cited material, to be, in other words, in pre-possession of the facts. This is so palpably not the case as to beggar belief. But it is not only ignorance that is the trouble here; it is, also, sheer disingenuousness and colossal bad faith. For Beck’s contentions are fully backed up by the weights and measures of extensive research. Gun control doesn’t work. Nationalized health care is a miserable flop wherever it has been implemented. Unions were once necessary; they have now become self-perpetuating, monopolistic organizations in which the welfare of their members is sacrificed to the quest for corporative power. Invasive state control culminates in both the moral and economic devitalization of the individual citizen. In all these instances, the proof is in the pudding and Beck serves it up by the bowlful. There is no lack of documentation.

Given that the facts are well-attested, the only valid critique of Arguing with Idiots would have to focus on the middle stage of the discursive structure, namely inference or deduction, and show that it fails to connect the fact to the judgment. They would have to show that Beck has committed a variant of the error that philosophers call the “fallacy of the undistributed middle.” But I am not aware of any reviewer who has succeeded in the effort nor do I believe that Beck has faltered, except occasionally, in this respect.

One such lapse, to cite an example, seems to occur on page 278, where Beck praises Article 1, Section 9 of the Constitution, which imposes a tax of $10 per head on the “importation of such persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit.” Beck infers that the Founders apparently felt “like there was a value to being able to live here.” The problem is that this clause might be construed to have laundered the taint of slavery, with slave owners gaining a moral bye for an affordable price. It cannot be denied that Beck has made a shaky inference in this particular case, but taken over the length of the book the logical bridges that lead from origin to terminal appear to be consistent and on the whole convincing. The cumulative effect is impressive, to put it mildly. And this is incalculably more than can be said for the majority of his critics.

It must be admitted, however, that Beck can be politically inconsistent, as evidenced by his baffling condemnation of his conservative ally and brave warrior against Islamic supremacism, Geert Wilders, whom he implicitly tarred on Fox News as an exponent of fascism. This is quite incomprehensible and reveals Beck at his most incongruous and mercurial -- though it may just mollify some of his leftist assailants. I cannot account for so egregious a lapse in judgment, though others have sought for possible explanations, e.g., his unfamiliarity with European politics, or far less flatteringly, the stock recently purchased by a Saudi prince in NewsCorp. Or is it simply that sometimes the wind listeth where it will, unpredictably in so tempestuous a sensibility?

Yes, there is plainly something excessive and volatile about Glenn Beck, but on the whole I am glad of it. His virtues and his vices are really one and the same and flow from the same turbulent source: he brimmeth over. As poet William Blake wrote in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” Fortunately, Beck’s propensity toward excess is, more often than not, indeed leavened with wisdom, though he may find himself one day in a different America, living in a pillbox rather than a palace.