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Trying to make ‘Sense’ of Glenn Beck

Glenn Beck

Syndicated radio host Glenn Beck has a Philadelphia-based show that is heard in more than 100 markets.

(AP Photo/Mike Mergen)

Glenn Beck is a particularly egregious example of the larger-than-life conservative punditry class that gained almost regal status during the administration of President George W. Bush. The host of popular shows on Fox News and radio, Beck’s daily musings are so heated and fiery that he often reaches the verge of tears, his voice squeaks in anger and his inaudible words cease to sound like they come from a human. (For those with the stomach for it, YouTube offers many treasures highlighting this tendency, including this clip where Beck actually threatens to "vaporize" a caller who disagrees with him.) It is precisely this attempt at populist rage that led to his latest book, Glenn Beck’s Common Sense: the Case Against an out-of-control government, inspired by Thomas Paine. It just may be the perfect symbol of his hyper-ambition and the outlandish anger that is reflected by many of today’s conservatives.

In Common Sense, Beck’s nonsense goes way beyond misguided right-wing talking points and resorts to a grotesque distortion of American history. His goal, by his own admission was to “re-write” Thomas Paine’s Common Sense—one of the most influential pieces of political writing in American history—and start a new conservative revolution. "Make no mistake," he writes, "a (non-violent) revolution is needed to restore America." It is ambitious endeavor no doubt and has proved to be a major hit; it tops on the New York Timesbest seller list. But intellectually the book is an abysmal failure. This is because Beck’s efforts to channel Thomas Paine—one of the great progressive thinkers in U.S. history—are patently absurd.

Beck’s 174-page book (the last quarter of which is a reprint of Paine’s pamphlet) is mostly a tirade against government spending. His main targets are social welfare spending, progressive taxation and the occasional rant against the destruction of America’s pious roots. These very themes contrast mightily with the views of Paine, turning the book into something of a bad joke before one page is actually turned. While Paine did view government as a necessary evil, and warned against excessive debt, he was by no means a modern-day libertarian—in fact, quite the opposite.

Paine in his own time was radically progressive—in some ways socialist—and on most issues would be way to the left of the typical parameters of debate in Washington D.C. In the 1775 writing Agrarian Justice, Paine became among the first in the colonies to advocate for a "guaranteed minimum income." Sounding a lot more like Eugene Debs than Beck, Paine’s proposal was to "create a national fund, out of which there shall be paid to every person when arrived at the age of twenty-one years … for the loss of his or her natural inheritance, by the introduction of the system of landed property."

Paine wrote:

Taking it then for granted that no person ought to be in a worse condition when born under what is called a state of civilization, than he would have been had he been born in a state of nature, and that civilization ought to have made, and ought still to make, provision for that purpose, it can only be done by subtracting from property a portion equal in value to the natural inheritance it has absorbed.

Paine made it clear that he thought freedom was infringed by unmerited inequity—what philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin refers to as "positive liberty," or having the power and resources to act to fulfill one’s own potential. Beck, like most conservatives, unambiguously defines freedom in the mold of "negative liberty," or freedom from government restraint.

"Wake up America!" he writes. "Capitalism isn’t about money, it’s about freedom—the freedom to try and fail that made the United States the richest industrial nation in the world." It is also interesting that, given that Beck’s book pays homage to Paine—who published the first essay in America advocating for abolition— Beck makes no mention of the role of slavery had in the early development of the U.S. economy.

Indeed, Beck fumes over most any kind of progressive taxation or shared services: Chapter 5 is actually titled "The Cancer of Progressivism." He constantly rails against the evils of universal health care, minimum wage hikes, welfare, and small tax increases on the rich. In Common Sense, he writes that it’s unfair that those who "worked hard, lived prudently, spent wisely,” must be bailed out at the expense of the poor.

"The rich are being vilified and targeted because they are rich," Beck writes of Obama-era "class warfare." He has a particular concern about the nation’s youth, who have become increasingly skeptical of modern-day capitalism in recent polls, decrying them as the types that "prefer to be led and fed by the state for free." They are, he insists, "sheep willing to be shorn and molded by their master—yet their ranks are likely to swell as the economic crisis worsens."

With such sharp language one might assume the United States under Obama has implemented a Soviet-style planned economy, but, alas, Beck’s major gripe is that the Democrats implemented a large, but desperately-needed stimulus package, which was gladly received by conservative governors across the country, save a few ideologues.

During the 2008 presidential election Beck threw regular tantrums about how Obama was a socialist for wanting to allow Bush tax cuts to expire on those making more than $250,000 a year. These are marginal tax increases, comparable to what the rich paid under Ronald Reagan’s tax plan. So surely, if Paine was a guest on Beck’s show in 2009 and advocated for a guaranteed minimum income—a direct transfer of wealth from the rich to the poor—an infuriated Beck’s eyes would pop out of his head as he smeared Paine as a French-loving, socialist “little pinhead."

Beck’s strong affinity for the need for an increased role of religion in society also further emphasizes his fundamental differences with Paine. Progressives, Beck writes, "recognize that religion is a unifying force and a counterbalance to state power, so they believe that it must either be harnesses by the state or destroyed." Putting aside his ridiculous assumption that all progressives wish to destroy unity through the use of state power, what is telling about his chapter on religion and morals is that Paine’s words are nowhere to be found. Clearly, this is because, including Paine’s actual thoughts on the matter would further reveal the book’s fatal flaw.

Paine was a staunch critic of religion and Christian doctrines, arguing that they thwarted free-thinking and logic to the detriment society. "All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian, or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit," Paine wrote in The Age of Reason. It is no wonder that Paine’s utterances on the subject are entirely absent from Beck’s version of Common Sense.

Beck’s book is more evidence of a resurgence of conservative populism aimed at channeling public anger. Progressives would be wise to take notice. As crazed as Beck seems, it must also be acknowledged that his voice is heard—and often. For strategic reasons, his existence simply cannot be ignored: progressives must take great pains to counter his blather. For it is true that Glenn Beck has a large and enthusiastic audience; it is also true that America can learn a lot from Thomas Paine. But Common Sense dictates that the possibility of these two realities becoming in any way morphed together is beyond frightening.

Michael Corcoran is a correspondent for The Boston Globe’s metro desk and graduated from Emerson College in 2007.

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