Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Glenn Beck's Common Sense- A Multi-Part Review

A friend of mine recently emailed me and asked what I thought about Glenn Beck's books, "Glenn Beck's Common Sense" and "Arguing With Idiots". I told her that since I hadn't read them, I really couldn't pass judgement. Then I thought to myself that since a) I was looking for something new to read and b) Beck is everywhere these days, it wouldn't hurt to pick up the books and give them a going over. So, periodically I'll be sharing some thoughts about the books, starting with Glenn Beck's Common Sense (hereafter known as GBCS).

I have to confess something right up front. I am not a fan of modern day pundits draping themselves in the flags of our founders. I didn't like it when Peggy Noonan did it with Patriotic Grace, and I don't like it when Glenn Beck does it with GBCS. Remember, I was the guy who didn't even want the Tea Parties called Tea Parties. I believe our history is a precious resource, and I'm greatly concerned when people play fast and loose with our history to try and draw comparisons to today.

This brings me to the first problem I have with GBCS. Glenn Beck is a product, in a way that Thomas Paine never was. Right there on the third page of GBCS it even says, "Glenn Beck is a trademark of Mercury Radio Arts, Inc." Thomas Paine, on the other hand, wrote and published the original Common Sense anonymously. Beck charges $11.99 for his book. Paine charged two shillings for the first run, and then one shilling thereafter. He also encouraged the reprinting of the pamphlet by other printers, and did not accept royalties for the sale of Common Sense. Considering the pamphlet is estimated to have sold hundreds of thousands of copies in less than a year, Paine turned his back on quite a bit of cash.

I'll admit, I would probably have a more open mind if Beck's book didn't bow to the altar of Paine quite so often, at least in the early going (I'm reviewing as I'm reading). For instance, in his author's note, Beck calls Paine a "heroic patriot". No, actually Paine wasn't a patriot. He was indeed, as Beck describes him, an extraordinary writer and (at times) a renowned motivator, but he was never a patriot in the modern sense of the word. Paine's cause wasn't freedom from British tyranny, it was freedom from monarchical tyranny throughout the world (Scott Liell's 46 Pages provides a rich and detailed, yet very readable account of Paine's life, as well as the meaning and impact that Common Sense had upon its publication). After the American Revolution, Paine returned to London, and eventually went to Revolutionary France, where he was initially hailed as a hero, but nearly lost his life as the governmental Terror campaign was roaring to life. Paine was also a critic of religious authority, and I'm curious to see if Beck's reverence for Paine extends to Age of Reason. Paine was also the author of Agrarian Justice, which stated in part:

In advocating the case of the persons thus dispossessed, it is a right, and not a charity . . . [Government must] create a national fund, out of which there shall be paid to every person, when arrived at the age of twenty-one years, the sum of fifteen pounds sterling, as a compensation in part, for the loss of his or her natural inheritance, by the introduction of the system of landed property. And also, the sum of ten pounds per annum, during life, to every person now living, of the age of fifty years, and to all others as they shall arrive at that age.

Not exactly the words of a firebreathing individualist, but that's because Paine wasn't a conservative. Paine was a pure radical, more interested in change than what came after it. In fact, his ideas of governance bear an awful resemblance to the modern day liberal twaddle that Beck attacks throughout the rest of the book.

I point this out not to play "gotcha!" with Beck, but because at the outset of reading this book I am already concerned about faulty assumptions and bad history. The half-knowledge most of us possess is enough to make us think we know our history, but not enough to actually serve any useful purpose beyond looking like we're smart. To think that most of us know enough about our history to recognize our mistakes, much less learn to repeat them is ridiculous, and we don't help our cause when we add to the misconceptions many of us have about the Founding generation.

One other point I need to make before I get into the meat of the book. When you're writing that "Today we find ourselves back in 1776", you immediately run into a problem: it's not 1776, for many reasons. Chiefly among them: we're not at war with our government. And to suggest that it is 1776 might make folks think you're advocating such a war. How does Beck deal with this dilemna? Just two paragraphs after saying it's 1776 all over again, Beck stands down.

I lay out several options, but I want to be clear that none of them includes violence. Thomas Paine and his fellow revolutionaries shed their blood so that future generations would have access to weapons immeasurably stronger than muskets or bayonets: the weapons of democracy. Those are the tools that we will use to usher in a second American revolution, a revolution that won't be fought on battlefields, but in the hearts and minds of the three hundred million people lucky enough to call America home.

Here, as throughout the book, Beck is correct in the bottom line (violent revolution is not the answer), but he's completely off in his line of reasoning. Not to put too fine a point on it, but our Founders weren't Jesus, and they didn't die so that we would never have to fight our government again. We can't buy our freedom on the credit of our ancestors' heroism and courage. We haven't even begun to exhaust non-violent remedies that are available to an active and involved citizenry, but the thought that our children or grandchildren may not live in circumstances identical to ours isn't a radical one. In fact, it's just common sense. It's also a much more difficult argument to make, one that, fully fleshed out (as opposed to my own brief thoughts) would take a lot more space than the three sentences Beck spends opposing violence. Again, he reaches the right conclusion, but he gets there via an easy and cheap argument, and one that doesn't stand up to intellectual rigor.

Secondly, I dislike Beck's rhetoric calling for a second American revolution, because Beck doesn't really want a political revolution. I believe what he's calling for is a social Awakening instead, but almost nobody knows who Jonathan Edwards is these days (though Voters in the Hands of an Angry God would make a great title). Still, don't cheapen history. There's a lot of useful knowledge to be gleaned from a survey of pre-Revolutionary American history. Our story doesn't begin with the Founding generation, and Beck may have found a better match in the periodic religious resurgances throughout our nation's history had he looked there.

Having said all that, when seperating Beck's own thoughts from the historical context in which he wants to place them, Beck's message of action ("Do not remain neutral. Do not sit idly by.) resonates with millions of us. He's right when he says many of us feel that something is wrong, even if we can't define it. Now I'm going to read the rest of the book and see how good a job Beck does at defining our problems and articulating an answer.

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