I am addicted to Glenn Beck. Don’t misunderstand, I do not love Glenn Beck, nor do I sing in his chorus of the righteous. But neither am I a Beck-hater, feeling that he is – as he speaks of mega-billionaire George Soros – a “spooky dude.” Further, I am no Beckaholic (Mr. Beck, a recovering alcoholic, might appreciate this). If I miss a night, don’t look for me on a ledge. If I watch too much, don’t search for me in the gutter. However, I prefer that my day ends with a shot of Beck and bourbon. (In California, my current home base, Beck’s show airs at 11:00 p.m.).
Academics often find themselves in deep shade, hidden from bright public debate. Despite our striving for impact, few pay us mind. We dream of celebrity, but on our own terms, and we worry that the unwashed masses will not understand (lecturing to unwashed students makes this concern more plausible). When academics reach the spotlight, it has sometimes been for plagiarism (Doris Kearns Goodwin), losing control (Henry Louis Gates), or political misdemeanors that suggest that a Ph.D. is no substitute for a heart (Newt Gingrich). Perhaps we should lust for dim obscurity. The attentions of Mr. Beck suggest a certain benefit of anonymity over infamy. Beck pays the academy the uncertain honor of believing that we count for something. He believes our writings can change the world, much as Jesse Helms insisted that contemporary art really, truly mattered enough to be censored. Beck scopes the intellectual barricades to find those he presents as cultural subversives, reporting to his million-man audience about the moral felonies of Edward Bernays, Stuart Chase, Walter Lippmann, and, the most dangerous man in America, Cass Sunstein, professor at Harvard Law School and Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Pre-Beck, such a list would seem eccentric. Post-Beck, the list seems alternatively mad, malevolent, and revelatory. Despite his biting attacks, Beck is insistent on proclaiming the mantra of non-violence. Gandhi is a hero. But on Beck’s website some responses are not so gentle. To be sure, under the cloak of anonymity these angry posts may be from organized detractors who desire to discredit or penned by battlers who believe that Beck is insufficiently hard-edged.
The distinguished former president of the American Sociological Association Frances Fox Piven ranks in Beck’s list of the nine most dangerous people (the only woman) for her embrace of the disinfecting power of disruption, whether in Greece or Greensboro. (She and I have both served as presidents of the activist Society for the Study of Social Problems). Beck speaks of Professor Piven as an enemy of the Constitution, but this curious charge is rather like a Pentacostal finding that the Amish and the Methodists are enemies of the Bible. Whose Bible is it? Whose Constitution? The title of Piven’s last book, Challenging Authority, could reasonably be the title of Mr. Beck’s next. He is, after all, the author of a book “Inspired by Thomas Paine.” For their critics each is a royal Paine.
Glenn Beck is an endowed professor for the aggrieved, presenting cracked knowledge. Many of his shows are lectures delivered with more brio, comic patter, and multi-media panache than I could ever muster. He is quite the performer, often so much so that I easily fall into the rhythm of his cadence, too entranced to think hard about each claim.
Beck mines history with gusto, as if the past mattered for the present. In this, he is the student of which every historian dreams, at least until his parsing of reputations is considered. Most Americans (those that do not tune in to Beck) might be puzzled that Stuart Chase, the progressive economist, or Edward Benays, the psychologist of persuasion, still matter, but Beck emphasizes the archeology of ideas. Ideas do not die; they become the substructure of action. To his credit Beck takes seriously what many find dusty and archaic. Even when he gets his interpretations wrong or misleads (yes, he does), the genealogy of the American dream and its current corrosion is made dramatic. Beck reserves a special place in hell for the progressive Woodrow Wilson, no angel for anyone, left, right, or center, but not the one-dimensional controller that Beck despises.
Beck’s hatred for Marxists has recently waned – not that he likes them, evident in occasional nostalgic attacks on former Green Czar Van Jones or recent critiques in slightly paler pink of our current president. Rather in his recent lectures his bullet points are aimed at progressives. For Beck, a progressive is not just a slippery label for a liberal. What revolts Beck – and he is in revolt – is the idea of elites, hiding their power beneath the blanket of service. Beck rejects a world of expertise: an unelected high and mighty. At various moments, this idea would have placed him in lockstep with many on the left who also worry about puppetmasters. Perhaps the villains wear different masks, but the New World Order – and the George Soros’s and Dick Cheney’s who build it – is not only a gimcrack notion of one extreme.
Beck has recently begun to lecture about the ranchers and the cows. Viewers are the cows in his anti-Western. The elites wish to fence cows in and insure that any cow that wishes to break free is grilled for dinner at Davos. These ranchers are the smartest kids in the room. Can there be any wonder that Cass Sunstein’s Nudge is a particular bête noir? Sunstein wishes to control the cows, not by force, but without their even knowing of the control. In this Beck is almost a French intellectual, a Foucaultian of the heartland.
Beck has an agenda for how we are to live. He plumbs for Hope. Faith. Charity. But what are the problematic political subtexts of these bracing words? As a quasi-Libertarian Beck claims that we are capable of competent and conscious choice. We are each Shrugging Atlases. Edward Bernays with his adman’s slights-of-hand and the bleak and chill wisdom of Freud and progressives must be muscularly opposed. Collective projects and their benefits can vanish in a puff of individualism.
For Beck, progressives offend by believing that they can remake the world. Just like – ta-dah – the Nazis. In the American rhetoric of grievance everything goes back to Adolf with an occasional nod to Stalin. Put in Beckspeak, “Nazi tactics were progressive tactics first.” We must struggle against totalitarianism. A fair reading of Frances Fox Piven suggests that she and Beck might agree in their desires to devolve power to the local. Both speak for the dispossessed and both confront and discomfort a system that is fundamentally broken and run by those few who continue to benefit against popular desire.
Beck believes that today government is run by radical elites; others still see conservative elites. The question is where does power lie? How can power be retrieved by the governed? These are, of course the right questions. With his colorful attempts to retrieve the thinkers who made us as we are, Beck performs a service. He is worth considering. Still, listening to Glenn Beck at midnight does not always result in restful sleep. Sometimes those rough patches of slumber are because of what he gets right and sometimes they are because of what he gets wrong. But in either case, these troubles require an awakening.