Saturday, February 06, 2010

Notes On "Glenn Beck's Common Sense"

Whilst on vacation recently I got into a discussion with a friend of mine about the relative merits of Glenn Beck. Let me be clear: I was anti, he was pro. I found this to be particularly interesting because this friend of mine is generally intelligent and (up until that moment I had presumed) not Beck's target audience. Moreover, he's a pretty staunch libertarian (he's the one who turned me on to Reason) and an atheist to boot; Glenn Beck comes into conflict pretty dramatically with both camps, so it was surprising to see my friend approving of him.

Anyhow, this friend of mine says he's going to send me his copy of Glenn Beck's Common Sense; I told him sure as long as I could send him my commentary back. Lo, and behold!, what shows up on my doorstep but a copy of the very same. I now feel obligated to read it, though at 166 pages I don't expect it will take me too long. As a prelude to writing my commentary I figured that I'd put down my notes on the book here for general perusal. Since I'm aiming to demonstrate that Beck undermines certain things that my friend holds dear I'm going to critique the work from a libertarian/atheist perspective. Bear with me if the following is somewhat disjointed, since I really am jotting notes more-or-less in realtime.

The Dedication

The dedication reads:

Pro Deo, Pro Familia, Pro Patria

A phrase which Beck apparently has tattooed on his ankle. So why that phrase? Well, if you read the transcript I just linked to it becomes apparent that Beck is a pretty big believer in all three:

BECK: I have to tell you and I -- do we have a camera over here. I have to show you something. Andrew, this is -- and I`ve never -- most people don`t know I have this. But I have a tattoo on my ankle. There are my sexy legs, and up around it, it says, "Pro deo, pro familia, pro patria," which is Latin for God, for country, for family. I can certainly relate to your grandfather. It is exactly what this country used to be all about.

Eh... whatever floats your boat. But keep reading, the thing is just chock full of wrong:

America is one nation under God, and the day we forget that, we are all in big trouble. And here`s how I got there.

You don`t have to take my word for it. Whether you look at the Pledge of Allegiance or the Declaration of Independence, you`ll see our Founding Fathers chose their words carefully. God was not included by accident.

Blargh... "under God" was added to the Pledge in 1954; the Found Fathers had nothing to do with it. And yes, the Declaration of Independence says "God", but the entire phrase is "nature's God", so make of that what you will. We might quibble about the latter, but Beck's statement about the Pledge is just wrong. And it goes on:

God is on our money. An oath to him is part of our judicial process. You can guarantee that every presidential candidate debating tonight is going to mention God`s name at least once. Obama was "God this and God that" all weekend.

Ummm... hello? "So help me God" is optional and the fact that candidates go on and on and on about God has nothing to do with the argument one way or another. Beck is capable of spouting utter BS with absolute certainty, which no doubt explains much of his popularity.

But here's the clincher:

So tonight, America, here`s what you need to know.

This is what I believe. There exists a creator who made all things, and mankind should recognize him and worship him.

Two, the creator has revealed a moral code of happy behavior and happy living which distinguishes right from wrong.

Three, the creator holds mankind responsible for the way we treat each other.

Four, all mankind lives beyond this life.

And, five, in the next life, mankind is going to be judged for their conduct in this one.

And just for the record, those are not just my thoughts. In fact, they`re the fundamental points that Benjamin Franklin believed that should be taught in every single school in America to every single child in America.

So while you certainly don`t have to believe in Jesus Christ, that`s fine. I`m cool. I hope you understand our Founding Fathers believed in God. They also believed that liberty they fought for, for all of us to enjoy and squander, had been endowed on us by our creator.

I respect that faith is deeply personal. You don`t have to believe what I believe. But we, as a nation, better identify what our belief in God and all the love, the mercy, and the compassion that he embodies, as well as the responsibility and the restraint that he demands.

At least he pays lip-service to the idea of religious plurality, but it's pretty clear that his views are strongly colored by the above. Why bring up the Founding Fathers in this context unless he thinks that their beliefs (a mixed bag to say the least) have some bearing on the present day?


Beck is clearly playing to a particular section of the house1: hard working, fiscally responsible, have lost retirement savings, churchgoing. People who don't like what's on TV, don't like what their kids are learning in school, etc. Given that my friend doesn't really fit that profile I'd be surprised if he didn't find that pitch a little bit alienating.

His "I am an American" schtick is also questionable. We'll see how he develops that theme; it has a whiff of jingoism and American exceptionalism about it.

Chapter I

He's off to an interesting start, talking about the use of various emergencies as a pre-text to enlarge the power and scope of government2. But oh... there he has to go and ruin it almost immediately:

Our Founding Fathers understood that our rights and liberties are gifts from God.

Eh... that's certainly not the whole truth. Some fraction of them may have believed that, but on the balance they were more heavily influenced by social contract theorists like John Locke.

Some pages of ranting follow; Beck's heavy on the rhetoric and light on specifics. Yes, the government has gotten too big for its britches. But tell me, good sir, what do you propose we do about it? Blah... apparently we need to stop listening to experts and start listening to "cabdrivers, mothers, or plumbers"3. There's nothing particularly revolutionary about blanket anti-intellectualism; it's mostly just a rehash of the appeal to poverty. Specifically:

There is sometimes a temptation to contrast the excesses, greed, and immorality of the rich with the simplicity, virtue, and humility of the poor.

Simply replace "the rich" with "experts" and "poor" with "masses". There's a tremendous amount of that going on, contrasting the hardworking salt of the earth with greedy politicians, bankers, and other dodgy types who are responsible for the breakage that's going on. But so far nothing in the way of substantive analysis.

Dude could also use some footnotes. He makes a lot of general assertions which sound plausible, but as we've already determined from the transcript cited above he has a penchant for just making shit up. He has a list of questions on Pp. 15 - 16, some of which are uncontroversial, even reasonable, and some of which are, at best, gross oversimplications of complicated issues. For example:

Are we to honestly believe that the country that took the idea of a man walking on the moon and turned it into a reality within eight years, or the country that built a transcontinental railroad (without power tools or machines) doesn't have the ability to completely build the 670-mile fence along our southern border that was promised to us in 2005?

I don't know that anyone has ever claimed we couldn't build it (which is why footnotes supporting the assertion would be useful), but a lot of people have questioned the project from a cost-benefit standpoint. There are questions about whether such a wall, even assuming we think it's a good idea in principle, would prove efficacious. And that assumes that it was "promised" in the first place. Who, in particular, promised a border wall in 2005?

More rhetoric follows about irresponsible bankers and shifty politicians, but there's little in the way of substantive analysis.

Chapter 2

This passage at the beginning of the chapter immediately caught my eye:

With a few notable exceptions, our political leaders have become nothing more than parasites who feed off our sweat and blood.

Gah... does meat come any redder than that? Congress and the President continue to ensure that the business of legislating and executing on that legislation gets done. You can complain that there are two many laws, that some laws are poorly written and implemented, but the fact remains that some basic level of legislative function is necessary for the maintenance of the state. If there was no Congress there'd have to be something of similar nature in its place; characterizing them as some sort of idle aristocracy is hyperbole at best.

And another thing, Mr. Beck. I'd like you to elaborate more fully on your theory that certain financial acts are "borderline treasonous"4.

And then he goes and says that "socialism and fascism have been on the rise for two administrations now"5. Well, at least let's give him credit for balance; he's tarring Bush and Obama with the same brush. But really, does he even know what he means by "fascism"? Let's take one reasonably concise definition of the phenomena, "palingenetic, ultranationalist populism", and see if that applies. "Palingenesis" is the whole pheonix thing, an arising-from-ones-own-ashes. I don't recall much in the way of such rhetoric from either Bush or Obama, but then again they say an awful lot of things when I'm not looking (footnotes, please?). How about "ultranationalist"? Bush was big on American exceptionalism, but was he "ultra" about it? It's a matter of taste/intepretation I suppose. Obama has been all olive-branches and multilateralism; you can question his approach, but he's not an ultranationalist. How about populism? Bush was a populist, that's for sure. Obama tries to be a populist but doesn't really do a good job at it most of the time.

So we've got Bush 2, who's a nationalist/populist, and Obama, who really doesn't meet any part of the selected definition of "fascism". Now let's turn our attention to Mr. Beck:

  • Palingenetic: A lot of the material on pp. 10 - 12 tends in this direction, but so far he hasn't broken out into full-fledged "cleanse the volk" mode. He tiptoes right up to the line on p. 87 when he talks about "Enemies Within".
  • Ultranationalist: That's harder to support, again due to the rather fuzzy line between nationalism and ultranationalism. But his references to the superiority of America6 make him (at least) a nationalist.
  • Populism: The entire introduction is one prolonged, populist pander.

This is not to imply that Beck is a fascist, but merely to point out that that he easily exceeds whatever bar the previous two administrations set for that behavior.

Jeeze... and all of the above is from the first two pages of chapter 2. This book is chock-full of questionable assertions. I could go on and on in this manner, but I'm not really interested in conducting a point-by-point Fisking. There's likely to be so much wreckage on the road ahead that I'll save my commentary for only the most egregious examples.

In general there's a lot of funny math going on regarding money in this chapter. Talking about each family's share of the national debt is something of a nonsensical notion; families will never be called upon to pay their share. Rather, as the national debt continues to grow you'll start seeing symptoms like the weakening of the dollar which have a mixed set of effects on the overall economy. Of course, a realistic treatment of the national debt would be a whole book in its own right; it's much easier to just rant about the government overspending.

Chapter 3

Right off the bat he's using the phrase "smiley-faced fascism" to describe the tax code and IRS8, which makes it pretty clear that he's using "fascism" as generic, derogatory term rather than as any sort of specific critique. This misuse of language makes it very difficult to take him seriously, regardless of the merits of his basic thesis.

And now he's all "Timothy Geithner didn't pay his taxes right" and "Charlie Rangle didn't pay his taxes right". Sure, or maybe they were just outright cheating on their taxes. Neither interpretation has anything to do with his basic contention that the tax code is too complex. Just because Geithner is the Treasury secretary or Rangle is the Chair of Ways and Means doesn't make automatically make them experts in the tax code. This seems to be a standard ploy for Beck: identify a few cases of outrageous behavior and then use them as "proof" that the system is fundamentally broken.

He makes a couple of good points on p. 39:

A compelx and confusing tax code is a weapon that can be used to intimidate enemies (windfall profits tax on oil companies) and punish the innocent but politically unpopular person (a 90 percent tax on corporate executives) while rewarding friends with exemptions, deductions, and individualized loopholes.

Absolutely, and coming from anyone but Beck I'd treat that as a sincere statement. But it looks to me like Beck's just trying to score rhetorical points rather than engage in an actual analysis of the problems with our tax system. That 90 percent tax, for example, was levied on the bonuses of bankers (and other financial types) whose institutions received TARP funds. These are the same people whom Beck describes, in the introduction, as "self-serving... bankers" who "built our financial system on a house of cards"5. Describing people as "self-serving" in one case and "innocent but politically unpopular" in another is just incoherent.

Oh for the love of God... now he's going on about America being a republic and not a democracy10. Once again that's just wrong; America is both a republic and a democracy. And what the hell does democracy (or mob rule even) have to do with the tax code? The tax code is legislated by Congress, not voted on in direct elections. Nor does is make sense for him to blame everything on Progressives since he claims that "both the Democrats and the Republicans have used [the tax code] irresponsibly for political gain"11. The entire argument makes no sense at all.

I give up... I'm not even going to bother fact-checking him anymore. I just want to see if he makes any sort of positive pronouncement regarding what should be done about all of these problems.

Chapters 4 - 6

More of the same... occasional valid points buried in a morass of questionable reasoning. I really like his definition of "progressive"; it's so broad as to be essentially meaningless. When he says "Progresives this" or "Progressives that" he's invoking some vague, amorphous bogeyman rather than any identifiable set of people. I really like his bit about Robespierre and Hillary Clinton wanting the state to raise your children; apparently that makes both of them "Progressives"12. How about Plato? He thought the state should raise children too... was he a Progressive? Any umbrella big enough to cover Plato, Robespierre, and Hillary Clinton is just useless.

His discussion about schooling on pp. 90 - 96 is just baseless. American has one of the most decentralized school systems in the developed world. The bulk of power is in the hands of local school boards, not the Federal government or Progressives, and they're funded with local property tax levies. I don't know how much more of a citizen-centered institution you can get without dismantling public schools completely.

And the bit about religion and morality is just balderdash. A lot of the people whom he labels as Progressives are religious; Bush II was ostentatious in his piety and he still managed to do the wrong thing in Beck's estimation. Beck is canny in his treatment of religion... he doesn't come out in favor of any particular flavor, but rather asserts that its merely necessary to believe in some flavor13. That's hard to square with his later assertion that rights comes from God14 since, if that's the case, the specific rights that one has are dependent on which god you are talking about. I suspect, given his frequent invocation of the beliefs of the Founding Fathers, that the old dude with the long, white beard is lurking behind Beck's "God". How would he treat someone who says "I believe in Eris" or "I worship the Goddess and Her Consort" or, and this would probably really chap Beck's hide, "I'm a devotee of Wahabism"? The moralities espoused by these various faiths cannot be easily reconciled with each other or "Judeo-Christian values".

Beck's statement about rights being granted by God really blows a hole in his case from the standpoints of both libertarianism and atheism. Libertarians, as a general rule, believe that people have rights by virtue of the principle of self-ownership; this will certainly put them at odds with Beck. Atheists... well, they probably believe a number of things, but the common theme that binds them is that there is no god therefore rights cannot come from god. On a contractarian theory of government (which Beck seems to espouse by virtue of his comment about lending rights on p. 99) the boundaries of government power are determined by the rights which are ceeded by the people. The rights which are available to be ceeded, in turn, are limited to those which belong to the people in the state of nature. It follows then that, unless we agree about the rights which people have in the state of nature, we cannot have a meaningful dialogue about the boundaries of government power and the abuse thereof.

The one positive (in the sense of "do this") recommendation he makes is to leave the Democratic and Republican parties and vote independent. Which is a fine start, but isn't sufficient to prevent the abuses which he points out. I'd expect that he'd at least talk about third parties as an alternative to both the Republicans and Democrats, and maybe toss in something about electoral reform and proportional representation. But there's none of that to be had.

The 9 Principles

Finally, the clearest statement of what Beck actually believes is to be found in the 9 Principles on p. 109. Let's take a look at those from a libertarian/atheist perspective:

  1. "America is good": Seems uncontroversial, but some nuance is needed... what does that mean? American values (as enshrined in the Constitution) are good? American values (as yet undefined) are good? America as a country does good?
  2. "I believe in God and He is the Center of my Life": Well... what if I don't and/or he's not?
  3. "I must always try to be a more honest person today than I was yesterday": Sure; fidelity to the truth is generally uncontroversial.
  4. "The family is sacred. My spouse and I are the ultimate authority, not the government": So obviously, if you're an atheist, "the family is sacred" is a nonsensical statement. If you're a libertarian you question the blanket assertion regarding familial authority. For example, parents don't have the right to abuse or neglect their children or sell them into slavery.
  5. "If you break the law you pay the penalty. Justice is blind and no one is above it": This statement equates "the law" with "justice", a view which is contradicted by Beck's earlier commentary on the tax code. Presumably Beck recognizes that abuses of power perpetrated through the tax code, though they are "the law" from a formal standpoint, aren't necessary just. Is his stance that we must abide by unjust laws or, when pressed, would he temper the categorical nature of statement 5?
  6. "I have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but there is no guarantee of equal results": Sure, that seems to be in line with the basic contract as laid out within the Constitution.
  7. "I work hard for what I have and I will share it with who I want to. Government cannot force me to be charitable": Sure.
  8. "It is not un-American for me to disagree with authority or to share my personal opinion": Libertarians might challenge this statement for its use of the term "un-American". Use of such term implies that there is a set of behaviors which can be labeled "American", but as Beck nowhere defines this set of behaviors it's quite possible that his understanding of the term would be rejected by libertarians.
  9. "The government works for me. I do not answer to them; they answer to me": This is an overly-simplistic interpretation of the nature of the social contract. Yes, the government ultimately derives its authority from the polity, so in that sense Beck is correct in saying that "the government works for me". However, part of the social contract involves ceeding some portion of the polity's coercive power to the government; as such, in some cases the government may legitimately ask Beck to "answer to them".


One thing which is especially noticeable is Beck's persistent invocation of the Founding Fathers. One big problem with this is that he treats them as a monolithic entity, asserting that they would hold some specific view en masse when, in reality, they had a fairly wide range of views on issues relating to the governance of the country. He also engages in a semi-deification of the Founders, treating their beliefs (or, more accurately, what he asserts were their beliefs) as some sort of holy writ. The Founder were mortal, fallible, and disagreed amongst themselves. Recognizing this they authored The Constitution as a set of binding, mutally-agreed-upon ground rules. What really matters is not what any particular Founder held, but rather what they jointly set down in that document as guiding principles.

In general it seems that Beck starts with reasonable premises (control government expenditures, simplify the tax code) but then takes them in the wrong direction. The pattern seems to be something along the lines of

  1. Identify a genuine issue.
  2. Find some examples of the genuine issue, the more outrageous the better.
  3. Rant for awhile about the genuine issue while glossing over complexities, making a bunch of unsupported and self-contradictory assertions, and blaming things on (his own, idiosyncratic definition of) progressives.

All of the chapters in the book follow this pattern; the work is an extended airing of a list of grievances, no more. Beck doesn't engage in anything but the most superficial analysis of root causes, nor does he suggest reforms (general or specific) for which citizens might agitate. His only advice to his readers is to become non-aligned voters. Fine, then, Mr. Beck, I'm independent. Now what? How do I identify the appropriate person, Republican, Democrat, or other, on whom I should bestow my vote?

Beck says to devote your time and effort (and presumably your vote) to the person who supports your values102. This seems like good advice on first glance, but on reflection it seems to me that it rests on a number of unspoken assumptions:

  1. You must have a coherent system of values: Beck, for the most part, has not so much a coherent system of values as a list of things which make him mad. There's no attempt to tie these grievances together or demonstrate how they all spring from the violation of a core set of principles. We might be charitable and say that the 9 Principles are an attempt at this, but even if we accept them at face value they represent an incomplete moral system.
  2. Your values must have a reality check: It is beholden on you, to the extent that your values are empirically verifiable, to test them agaist reality. For example, if we interpret Beck's statement "America is good" to mean "America acts in a benevolent/beneficient matter at all times with all people", we can then look at America's behavior (to the extent that such a thing can be said to exist) to see whether it matches the description.
  3. You must understand how your values can be effectively translated into public policy: Here, I think, is where Beck really fails as an expositor of ideas. He asserts that things are broken, but he never helps his audience understand the underlying, systematic factors which lead to the breakage. It follows from there that, if you can't identify root causes, you can't suggest appropriate solutions either.

Item 3 is the real deal killer. Values, to the extent that they have an independent existence, are just words on peoples' lips and thoughts in peoples' heads. Once you've defined your values the next step is to understand how they can be put into practice. Beck calls on people to do this through the application of "common sense" but, even if we accept the existence of such a beast, it's domain of application is limited in scope. Common sense tells you nothing about the regulation of the money supply, or effective pedagogy, or the state of the environment, or most of the other burrs that have lodged themselves up Beck's tailpipe. Understanding how particular values might be translated into action in those areas requires study and thought, in that order, activities which Beck eschews due to his rejection of the value of expertise16. Instead what you get is a bunch of know-nothings, proud in their ignorance, voting their gut.

To the extent that he encourages people to learn more he does them a disservice in his choice of suggested readings17. Most of the books on that list mean nothing to me, though I note that many of them are from the National Center for Constitutional Studies. I know nothing about that organization, but the fact that so much of the reading list comes from that single source leads me to question the breadth of opinion to which readers might be exposed. There's more than one side to most issues; becoming literate involves analyzing the arguments put forth by all sides. That's hard to do if you're only being exposed to one side of the story.

The couple of title that I do recognize are, shall we say, problematic. Go, read this article on Skousen, the author of The 5000 Year Leap, which explains why Beck is pushing this particular book. And then go read David Neiwert's critique of Liberal Fascism. And then ask yourselves whether the ingestion of such materials promotes any of items 1, 2, or 3 above.

1 Pp. 3 - 5
2 P. 9
3 P. 11
4 P. 22
5 P. 22
6 Pp. 21 - 22
7 P. 27
8 P. 36
9 P. 5
10 P. 40
11 P. 39
12 P. 92
13 P. 98
14 P. 99
15 P. 102
16 P. 11
17 Pp. 110 - 111


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