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Tears of a Clown

Arguing with Idiots: How to Stop Small Minds and Big Government, By Glenn Beck, Threshold Editions, Simon & Schuster 2009 (October 2009)

Glenn Beck doesn’t bother me all that much. My secret: I don’t really watch his TV show, and I’ve only heard his radio show a few times. Aside from other people’s rants about him, my only real sense of Beck comes from the occasional mocking YouTube clip where his guests pass out, he screams at his callers, or gets tripped up during interviews on other shows. So, as far as I’m concerned, he’s just another talking head. Which is okay because as far as he’s concerned, I’m the idiot that his new book, Arguing with Idiots: How to Stop Small Minds and Big Government is aimed at.

Aimed at, is actually a pretty apt metaphor, as the book declares on the back cover flap that it is intended to help Beck’s readers when conversing with liberals and “silence them once and for all with the ultimate weapon: the truth.”

Fair enough.

Leaving aside the problems of the “argument as war” metaphor (what does “killing all your enemies” look like?), if the book’s goal is to convince liberals of the validity of the “truth” according to Beck, it is a dismal failure. The title starts with an insult and the barbs continue inside, aimed at Obama (Bill Ayers!), Ted Kennedy, Rosie O’Donnell, Martin Sheen, and every other liberal celebrity with an opinion Beck can mock. Beck himself says several times that he’s sure no progressives will be able to stomach reading the book. The constant barrage of insults definitely work against his efforts to convince liberals of anything. You just don’t want to trust a guy who keeps calling you an idiot.

But that’s not Beck’s concern, of course. Arguing with Idiots isn’t meant to convince liberals, it’s meant to shore up, for his fans, the opinions he shares on his television and radio programs, in a fun, readable style, with easily-findable facts and opinions so that his readers a) will not be swayed by the “liberal media” or other sources; b) will feel justified that their opinions are based on facts; and c) can more aggressively berate their liberal coworkers and neighbors, driving a social wedge between them, (which exacerbates his right-wing persecution complex, and also keeps his fans from being swayed by other sources). Again: fair enough.

In this regard, the book is much more successful. It is readable, and fun (sort of). And, although there’s nothing close to an out-loud laugh, it’s possible to see (also sort of) how it’s supposed to be funny, and why the humor might work on people more likely to agree with it. The book itself is styled, oddly enough, on The Daily Show’s mock high-school social studies book America: A Guide to Democracy Inaction. It is full-color, glossy-paged, and there are plenty of graphics and side-bars with names like “The Less You Know” and “ADD moment.”

Casually flipping through it, you get the impression that it’s very wry and ironic (it is, sometimes, but much more often it is earnest). The text is separated into twelve easy-to-follow chapters, with titles such as “Unions” and “The Nanny State.” Each chapter is divided into several sections, headed with a purported opinion by Beck’s straw-man “idiot” and then the text is Beck’s cogent rebuttal. The idiot responds with a related concern/opinion, and Beck rebuts that, until he’s fully “defeated” the idiot with his ultimate truth weapon, and the idiot capitulates. The back of the book is filled with references for each page, so that sources, if necessary, can be tracked down.

I found that I shared roughly 1/3 of the idiot’s opinions. Generally, the opening statements would make sense, but then when Beck moved into the argument, both Beck and his straw man started to sound absurd. For instance, the chapter titled “Education” starts off with the idiot asking “what’s wrong with having a little government oversight of something as important as education?” This is not an idiotic question. Government should support schools, and invest in them, and there should be regulation that ensures all students are getting access to a basic high-quality education. However, later, his idiot supports “throwing money” at schools to solve the problem, teachers’ unions (which I think are a problem), and even the No Child Left Behind act (a measure, needless to say, initiated by former President and non-liberal George W. Bush)—which no liberal I know has ever spoken a word in favor of and which has been widely regarded as a wild failure.

Beck isn’t always unconvincing. He acknowledges many of capitalism’s recent failures (how could he not?) but still makes a strong case that capitalism is not the root of all evil, though very few people over twenty tend to think it is. In his section on “the nanny state” he argues strongly and passionately that many laws and regulations (against public smoking, trans fatty acids, etc) are overbearing and do, in fact, impinge on personal freedom, to our national detriment. Unsurprisingly, he leaves out nonsensical drug laws and laws that impinge on a woman’s right to choose, but the crux of his argument still makes sense.

The chapter titled “America’s Energy Future” neatly complicates the idea that all we need is enough wind farms and solar panels and we’ll be able to stop consuming oil altogether. Beck also properly castigates a number of hypocritical moments where progressive energy plans (solar panels in the California desert, windmills along the coast) have been stymied by liberals because they might make the landscape ugly, or have potential ill effects on local wildlife. There isn’t a way to make energy, yet, that doesn’t have any negative side-effects, and Beck makes the case that we need to start building these alternative energy sources on a large scale, if they’re ever going to become cheap and effective enough.

But Beck believes that what’s best for the individual is always more important than what’s best for the group. And so his arguments begin with the premise that anything the Federal government ever does impinges on personal freedom and is woefully inefficient, since too many voices have input. His “idiots” therefore take the equally simplistic but opposite side, arguing that government always looks out for the little guy and that it is somehow never inefficient (the “idiot” seems most idiotic here). Thus, Beck’s idiot is his opposite: a liberal who believes what’s best for the group is always more important than what’s best for the individual.

In a way, then, Beck’s point of view is useful. We need people to worry about our personal freedoms and to point out inefficiency in federal programs, even if efficiency shouldn’t always be the goal (McDonald’s is efficient, but it’s almost always better to eat where the burgers cost more and take longer to make).

As a reader, even though I found that some of Beck’s points made sense, he failed to shake my fundamental belief in the efficacy of the federal government. Our government is still “by and for the people.” And though it doesn’t always work this way, we are each entitled to have a voice in our government, and we have both the right and responsibility to make that voice heard by the people who are representing us. That is to say: we can, and should expect to be represented by our representatives. But private businesses—which are often but not always more efficient, and are “by and for” no one other than their owners and shareholders—are not a form of government at all. They should not have the final say in services that we cannot choose to be without: education, health care, public and personal safety, etc. And Beck has provided no cogent argument that an education or health care system run by private businesses wouldn’t be even more corrupt, or have even less transparency without government intervention.

But Beck’s intention to arm his fans with a weapon that will silence liberals once and for all is the biggest problem and the most disturbing aspect of this book. His attempt to shut down contact between liberals and conservatives by encouraging his fans to demean anyone who disagrees with him is saddening and dangerous. Neither conservatives, liberals, libertarians, nor socialists hold all the keys to building a society in which we can all live and prosper together. We may not need to listen to each other’s pundits, but we certainly need to listen to each other and to work together if our society is going to succeed. Doing otherwise is sheer idiocy.


Christopher Michel

CHRISTOPHER MICHEL is a writer and stay-at-home dad. He lives in Brooklyn's secret Chinatown.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2009

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