In recent months, I've become increasingly perturbed by a subset of the right that casts political adversaries on the left as enemies of liberty, ostensibly bent on irrevocably destroying the American way of life.
One offender is talk radio host Mark Levin, author of the bestselling Liberty and Tyranny. It is his opinion that American politics is described by that struggle, that liberals are on the wrong side of it, and that their true commitment is to Statism, or the supremacy of the state. The National Review's Andrew McCarthy, author of The Grand Jihad, goes a step farther: for him, the "hard left," a category in which he includes President Obama, participates in a willful alliance with America's radical Islamist enemies. A third participant in this axis of incitement is Glenn Beck -- talk radio host, Fox News personality, bestselling author, and endorser of marked up gold -- a man whose subtle critique of progressives includes so many Nazi references that Lewis Black got a six minute clip out of it.
In a recent piece in The Weekly Standard, largely focused on the Tea Party movement and its nature, Matthew Continetti critiques Mr. Beck and the way that he characterizes American progressives.
"Socialism and fascism," the author writes in Glenn Beck's Common Sense, "have been on the rise for two administrations now." Beck's book Arguing with Idiots contains a list of the "Top Ten Bastards of All Time," on which Pol Pot (No. 10), Adolf Hitler (No. 6), and Pontius Pilate (No. 4) all rank lower than FDR (No. 3) and Woodrow Wilson (No. 1). In Glenn Beck's Common Sense Beck writes, "With a few notable exceptions, our political leaders have become nothing more than parasites who feed off our sweat and blood."
This is nonsense. Whatever you think of Theodore Roosevelt, he was not Lenin. Woodrow Wilson was not Stalin. The philosophical foundations of progressivism may be wrong. The policies that progressivism generates may be counterproductive. Its view of the Constitution may betray the Founders'. Nevertheless, progressivism is a distinctly American tradition that partly came into being as a way to prevent ideologies like communism and fascism from taking root in the United States. And not even the stupidest American liberal shares the morality of the totalitarian monsters whom Beck analogizes to American politics so flippantly.Read and watch enough Glenn Beck, and you realize that he is not only introducing new authors and ideas into public life, he is reintroducing old ideas. Some very old ideas. The notion that America's leaders are indistinguishable from America's enemies has a long and sorry history.
Mr. Continetti is doing important work here. American political discourse is poisoned by the notion that "the loyal opposition" is actually "on the other side." He is doing a particular favor to conservatives. Effective political opposition is predicated on grasping what motivates your ideological adversaries, assessing the appeal of their ideas, and understanding how some of them might be persuaded away to your coalition.
But Jonah Goldberg sees things differently. He has taken to National Review Online to say so. His critique is especially notable because he is the author of the bestselling Liberal Fascism, a Glenn Beck favorite used as grist by folks on the right who believe that the Nazis were on the left and that it's prudent to worry that President Obama is following in their footsteps. (I am not suggesting that is the correct interpretation of Mr. Goldberg's book.)
In his political arguments, Mr. Goldberg makes frequent recourse to the charge that his interlocutor has "stolen bases" in making an argument. Were I to adopt the argumentative approach that Mr. Goldberg used in the first two-thirds of his critique, I would spend the next several paragraphs dissecting the metaphor of base-stealing, demonstrating its imperfections at such length that by the end, you might no longer realize how tangential it is to the piece of writing at issue.
Instead note that Mr. Continetti's conceit, that Rick Santelli and Glenn Beck are usefully thought of as two faces of the Tea Party Movement -- a metaphor that Mr. Goldberg maligns -- isn't particularly important if our aim is to assess Mr. Beck's rhetoric, how palatable it would be to an average voter, whether it is true, and whether it disparages various loyal citizens past and present as enemies of America. Diverting though it may be to discuss the aptness of Mr. Continetti's figurative language, those are the relevant issues.
In the third part of his post, Mr. Goldberg finally addresses them in a surprising way. Its necessary to quote a bit more of The Weekly Standard piece here:
Beck is not simply an entertainer. He and his audience love American history. They are hungry for new ways to interpret current events. And Beck is creating, in Amity Shlaes's words, "a competing canon" of texts and authorities. This competing canon is not content to assault contemporary liberalism, but rather deconstructs the very foundations of the New Deal and the Progressive Era. Among the books Beck regularly cites on his programs are Shlaes's Forgotten Man, Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism, Larry Schweickart and Michael Allen's Patriot's History of the United States, and Burt Folsom Jr.'s New Deal or Raw Deal? And books like Matthew Spalding's We Still Hold These Truths, Seth Lipsky's Citizen's Constitution, and William J. Bennett and John Cribb's American Patriot's Almanac all belong on the list as well.
This intellectual journey has led Beck to some disturbing conclusions. Whereas Rick Santelli says the housing plan and the stimulus aren't sensible, Beck says the Obama administration is the culmination of 100 years of unconstitutional governance. On the "We Surround Them" episode, Beck said, "The system has been perverted and it has to be restored." In between bouts of weeping, he asked, "What happened to the country that loved the underdog and stood up for the little guy?" That country, he implied, is vanishing before our eyes. In Beck's world, politics is less about issues than it is about "us" versus "them." We may have them surrounded. But "we can't trust anyone."
Mr. Goldberg writes:
Matt is free to dispute Beck's "disturbing conclusions" all he likes. But at times he seems to be trying -- and trying very hard -- to use Beck to discredit the entire conservative argument against the progressive revolution in politics. That's an odd thing for a conservative writer, particularly one at the Standard, to do, given that so many of its contributors and editors have shown sympathy or support for that project in the past. I don't have time to look up each one, but I suspect that nearly all of these books were well reviewed by the Weekly Standard (if they were reviewed at all) -- including my book, which is arguably the most "radical" of the bunch and yet doesn't endorse anything like the conspiratorial politics Continetti describes.
On the merits, this paragraph is easily rebutted. Again, here is Mr. Continetti (emphasis added):
Whatever you think of Theodore Roosevelt, he was not Lenin. Woodrow Wilson was not Stalin. The philosophical foundations of progressivism may be wrong. The policies that progressivism generates may be counterproductive. Its view of the Constitution may betray the Founders'. Nevertheless, progressivism is a distinctly American tradition that partly came into being as a way to prevent ideologies like communism and fascism from taking root in the United States. And not even the stupidest American liberal shares the morality of the totalitarian monsters whom Beck analogizes to American politics so flippantly.
In other words, Mr. Continetti isn't trying to discredit the entire conservative argument against the progressive revolution -- he is explicitly acknowledging that progressivism may be wrong, counterproductive, even a betrayal of the Founders! Rather, Mr. Continetti is trying to discredit a small part of the argument some conservatives use against the progressives: the argument that they are the equivalent of totalitarian monsters.
On the merits, Mr. Goldberg is easily rebutted, and it is scarcely more difficult to explain why his argumentative approach is so objectionable. What Mr. Continetti seems to be doing, Mr. Goldberg writes (italics indicate weasel words), isn't "incorrect" or "poorly argued" or "confused" -- it would be perfectly fair, if wrongheaded, if Mr. Goldberg used those words -- what he seems to be doing is "an odd thing for a conservative writer, particularly one at the Standard, to do." It is never a good sign when an argument moves from "you're wrong for these reasons" to "I will now use an intellectual shortcut, demonstrating that your argument is wrong by insinuating that it is not conservative."
Mr. Goldberg continues:
Let's assume for the sake of argument that Continetti is right when he says that Beck's intellectual journey has led him into troubled waters. Why can't Matt give Beck's fans in the tea party the benefit of the doubt? Surely if they read Hayek, Shlaes, Bennett, Spalding, yours truly and others, they won't go to the dark side too? I sincerely doubt that Continetti believes that they would. But he's sort of forced to go there because the real point of his essay is to denounce Beck which means he must denounce all of Beck's project as well
Perhaps Mr. Continetti is assuming that less than 100 percent of Mr. Beck's millions of television viewers and radio listeners will complete the whole reading list -- that some of them will simply trust that their favorite conservative entertainer has offered a correct interpretation of the texts on air. Maybe he thinks that scrutinizing demagogic, conspiracy-minded leaders of populist movements is a worthy project even if the chance of the audience "going to the dark side" is very small. Or it could be that he was following the example of William F. Buckley, who marginalized The John Birch Society even though it faced long odds of dragging the whole conservative movement off to loony land.
Mr. Goldberg concludes:
A more fair-minded treatment of Beck would at least acknowledge that Beck is right about a lot of things, that he gets people to read worthwhile and mainstream conservative and libertarian books, and that a good number of his fans and followers are perfectly capable of making up their own minds. And a more fair-minded treatment of the tea parties wouldn't use them as a Trojan Horse for an attack on Beck.
Mr. Continetti does acknowledge that Beck is getting his audience to read conservative and libertarian books -- I don't know whether or not he thinks they are worthwhile -- and criticizing Beck for the problematic influence he has on the Tea Party movement is hardly akin to... let me try to figure this out... putting a metaphorical wooden horse made of the tea party inside The Weekly Standard and tricking its unsuspecting audience into turning the pages before burning their city to the ground ... or something? But here I am grappling with metaphors tangential to the argument, so I'll conclude by recommending that Mr. Goldberg and Mr. Continetti debate on Bloggingheads.
UPDATE: Mr. Continetti offers his own rebuttal to Mr. Goldberg here.