Society and Culture

The Unbearable Paradox of Glenn Beck

About six weeks ago, I engaged in an exchange about Glenn Beck, arguing that he makes it harder to convert the unsaved to the cause of limited government, and got an earful in return, mostly in the form of thoughtful but forceful emails saying I hadn’t given him a chance. So I set up my Tivo to record his show and have spent many cocktail hours since then watching. Last night’s opening shot encapsulates everything that has driven me nuts about the experience.

Beck was, as usual, standing in front of his blackboard. Chalked on it was:

“The democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those who are willing to work and give to those who would not.” Thomas Jefferson

It is a sentiment with which I completely agree. I’ve written whole books with that sentiment as the subtext. The problem: The quote is a fake. Thomas Jefferson never said it. Jefferson would have been sympathetic to the idea, as other writings clearly imply. But he didn’t actually say it. In front of a national television audience, Glenn Beck put up a quote that his researchers would have discovered is a fake if they had done the slightest bit of Googling.

It’s been like that for six weeks of watching. Beck is spectacularly right (translation: I agree with him) on about 95 percent of the substantive issues he talks about. He is a full-throated libertarian in a world of wishy-washy Republicans. The man is a gifted communicator. His style doesn’t happen to be one I like, but many times I’ve sat there on my sofa wishing I could make the same point as effectively.

But Beck uses tactics that include tiny snippets of film as proof of a person’s worldview, guilt by association, insinuation, and occasionally outright goofs like the fake quote. To put it another way, I as a viewer have no way to judge whether Beck is right. I have to trust that the snippets are not taken out of context, that the dubious association between A and B actually has evidence to support it, and that his numbers are accurate. It is impossible to have that trust.

So here’s the unbearable paradox. Beck really has had important effects on the way the Obama administration and its legislation is perceived. It is conceivable that if healthcare goes down to a razor-thin defeat, Beck will have made the difference. If that turns out to be the case, he will have made a far greater contribution to the survival of the American project than ink-stained wretches like me can dream of having. And I want to shut him up?

I don’t really want to shut him up. I want him to change. Take those enormous talents and make all the arguments that he can legitimately make. Keep the cutesy gimmicks (I understand that we’re talking entertainment here), but have an iceberg of evidence beneath the surface. Fox is making so much money from the show that it can afford the staff to do the homework.

Absent that change, and I’m not holding my breath, let me suggest to my colleagues who want a better public policy debate that we’ve got to avoid the if-I-were-God fallacy. It’s not in our power to decide whether Glenn Beck’s show continues. He will save the Republic or fail to save it whatever we do. All we can do is be honest about what we think. I’ll go first. I say it’s spinach and I say the hell with it. What Beck does is propaganda. Maybe propaganda has its place, but let’s not kid ourselves. Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann are brothers.

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