A Tip of the Hat to Glenn Beck on His Way off the Air
On his way out the door from Fox News Network, Glenn Beck deserves a round of applause from conservatives. Yes, I know that he is more inclined to waterworks than a utilities/railroads fiend in Monopoly, but I have a policy: I tip my hat to any man who singlehandedly puts F. A. Hayek's The Road to Serfdom on the New York Times' bestseller list, as Beck did last summer.
Like many younger conservatives who have spent a healthy portion of their years exiled in the academy, I feel a profounder admiration for, say, William F. Buckley -- a different stripe of conservative, to say the least. Glenn Beck, on the other hand, has not been the object of my admiration...or in his own now-famous phraseology: "not so much." Should I hear another conservative echo a similarly binary taste regarding these two figures, it would not surprise me, given the sentiment's near-ubiquity among so-called "academic cons."
Yet in Stephen F. Hayward's "Reading Up on the Right" in the Claremont Review of Books, when he laments that "we [modern conservatives] have traded Bill Buckley for Glenn Beck," I find myself cringing -- not at the author's all too usual, and not particularly baffling, reflexive distaste for Beck, but rather at his employment of the MSNBC-styled ipse dixit, which presumes that the criticism of Beck is perfected at the very enunciation of his name. Few names outside revealed religion bear with them such automatic opprobrium (save, perhaps, both the "four-letter words" Bush and Palin).
To be honest, I've been wondering why we conservatives continue to buy the liberal premise that a radio or TV conservative must be strictly jocular. After further consideration of this point, I began to wonder about two even more midnightly premises we've unwittingly borrowed from the liberal establishment. The "Beck" issue in this way becomes a touchstone -- and perhaps even a Rosetta Stone -- for some of the deeper, duskier issues perplexing Hayward and other thinking conservatives in the midst of our "wilderness years."
It is odd that an article which opens with an unjustified potshot at Beck's conservative bona fides -- as Hayward's does -- concludes by averring that "a return to the American Founders ... ought to provide us with a means of seriously and explicitly contesting liberalism over the meaning of progress." Why is this odd? Because this line could have come directly from Beck's TV or radio show! For the past three years, Beck has turned consistently to the brain trust of founding and ratifying papers and personalities, adding a "founders" segment to his TV show and regularly asking guests which their favorite is. If it now be called a bandwagon among cons to speak about foundational principles as such, then Beck should be said to have constructed the bandwagon, rather than jumped on it.
A meritocratic bunch, we conservatives usually love to (and love to love to) give credit where it is due, and yet Beck still cannot get his "propers" in this regard. This coaxes forth the first skeleton in the conservative family closet: in spite of the juridical spirit of our invectives against progressive elitism, even we cons still shan't allow a non-made man into our noetic heaven. We claim to eschew university pedigree as a devalued liberal device for indoctrination, yet Beck has received an undue walloping for his lack thereof, at times even being called "the Professor" sardonically by other cons. True enough, there may be a good bit in, say, Palin's unapologetic anti-intellectualism, which we are loath -- and liberals are wont -- to characterize as endemic to conservatism. But if cons weren't so touchy (read: insecure!) about the topic -- if we hadn't bought the liberal premise that Palin speaks for us all -- then maybe we wouldn't be so harsh on folksy yet genuinely freethinking conservatives like Beck.
Beck showed a nascent Tea Party movement that the truest political education lies in the perusal of the right books, whether situated in a classroom or not. If an academic con feels it incumbent to respond smugly that he's studied the Founders or their Enlightenment precursors for years longer than Beck, as most probably have, then he's missing the point: he did his study of Common Sense in a dank, labyrinthine university office by his lonesome (admittedly, probably mining and plumbing far deeper textual depths than Beck), while Beck does so in front of a swarming audience of motley millions each day. Soccer moms, scientists, and street-sweepers all may on Beck's account consider ideas not required by the exigencies of their occupations. And even the newest pedagogue understands the infinite disparity in political value between studying deep/teaching few and studying enough/teaching many.
In other words, the abiding treatment of Beck as an outsider exposes a rotten sort of conservative elitism which ought to be reconsidered since it is so damned counterproductive.
No less importantly, many academic conservatives show a near-cultish devotion to past figures in our rich history, to such an extent as to stymie the emergence of new heroes. This is the second skeleton in our closet. A new name always sounds trivial compared to an established Churchill or a mighty Buckley. Blessings like magnae personae can become curses when they come as disincentives to potentially great new leaders. Leave Romanticism to the liberals, after all. And yet, the singular element of Romanticism that tends to peep through our fusty, stodgy conservatism seems to be our love of the past, which is reflected even in the name "conservative."
Approaching an election year, we must begin to consider the two grim realities that 1) not many great conservative candidates loom around the political landscape and 2) we do not even expect to see them, since their scarcity is so well-established. We must look to our temporal prejudices in this regard. We must begin to expect true conservative leaders before we begin to see them. The first step here might very well entail letting go of the awesome and highly decorated names peppering our proud conservative past -- this, of course, only after gleaning from them their most winsome ideas.
Obviously, I'm not above the ancient, dignity-sparing prospect of the disclaimer: I haven't here suggested that Glenn Beck is or will go on to be a Buckley or a Churchill. I don't possess the courage (or the mania) to make that prognostication publicly. But my two-pronged point remains: we do not know from which haystack the next conservative hero shall hail -- it may be either a self-made or an aristocratic one -- but surely that hayseed will expect to be recognized for its own present merit, and not some low-toned whisper of a "greater" past, when it does emerge. Acknowledging a greater past always admits a present defeat. This is the single most important lesson brought to us by Beck, and even more by his actions than by his blackboard.