My first and only exposure to Fox News’ Glenn Beck was through the prism of rival network MSNBC. From that perspective, Beck is a buffoon, perhaps a dangerous one in that he seduces folks who don’t know any better to buy into his theories. The last word I would have used to describe Beck is “intellectual”. Hence, I dismissed him and anyone who used him to prop up their political arguments. I never gave it another thought.
Next thing I know, Beck is Time Magazine’s cover boy with an accompanying article that went pretty soft on him. Its concluding point though could not be denied. Beck is the fictional character Howard Beale from the movie Network, come to life:
So this establishes Beck’s bona fides as a proxy for American angst and “fed-upness”. But that doesn’t mean he’s an intellectual.
A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled across an article in the Washington Post, the title of which intrigued me. The title of the article was “Is Conservatism Brain Dead?” A pet theory of mine has been that conservatism is failing right now because it has no intelligent advocates. John Boehner looks half the time like he’s fresh from a bender. Michelle Bachmann ties the census to internment camps. No one seems to present ideas in an intelligent fashion. When I argue this with my conservative opponents, I always cite the example William F. Buckley, so intellectual at times to be almost incoherent. Yet his PBS program “Firing Line” often took the form of a formal debate, where a particular political position was “resolved” and two sides would argue the different sides of the resolution intelligently. The author of the Post article, Steven Hayward, also mentioned Buckley and his conclusions were similar to mine until he said one thing that shocked me:
The case of Glenn Beck, Time magazine’s “Mad Man,” is more interesting. His on-air weepiness is unmanly, his flirtation with conspiracy theories a debilitating dead-end, and his judgments sometimes loopy (McCain worse than Obama?) or just plain counterproductive (such as his convoluted charge that Obama is a racist). Yet Beck’s distinctiveness and his potential contribution to conservatism can be summed up with one name: R.J. Pestritto.
Pestritto is a young political scientist at Hillsdale College in Michigan whom Beck has had on his TV show several times, once for the entire hour discussing Woodrow Wilson and progressivism. He is among a handful of young conservative scholars, several of whom Beck has also featured, engaged in serious academic work critiquing the intellectual pedigree of modern liberalism. Their writing is often dense and difficult, but Beck not only reads it, he assigns it to his staff. “Beck asks me questions about Hegel, based on what he’s read in my books,” Pestritto told me. Pestritto is the kind of guest Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity would never think of booking.
Okay, so Beck may lack Buckley’s urbanity, and his show will never be confused with “Firing Line.” But he’s on to something with his interest in serious analysis of liberalism’s patrimony. The left is enraged with Beck’s scandal-mongering over Van Jones and ACORN, but they have no idea that he poses a much bigger threat than that. If more conservative talkers took up the theme of challenging liberalism’s bedrock assumptions the way Beck does from time to time, liberals would have to defend their problematic premises more often.
I was so shocked that a man who had up to that point presented an intelligent argument was now lauding Beck, that I joined an online chat session with him the following day. We had the following exchange:
Middlebury, Conn.: But for a summary statement at the beginning of the chat, you haven’t defended Glenn Beck. Does his esoteric knowledge of conservative dogma really outweigh most of his utter foolishness?
Steven F. Hayward: Jury is out on that. As I’ve said to friends the last two days, I know I’ve gone out on a limb offering a partial defense of him, hoping that he doesn’t saw it off behind me.
Hayward acknowledges that presenting Beck as an intellectual is fraught with potential challenges. But I wanted to dig deeper and look up any conversation I could find between Beck and the Woodrow Wilson scholar, Ronald Pestritto. What I found surprised me (note that the camera man points the camera at the wrong people when they are introduced and the YouTube poster even attributes the quotes incorrectly):
While one guest, Matthew Spalding impressed me as a talking points spouter, Pestritto does appear to be a scholar who has considered matters within a historical context.
So, has my opinion of Beck changed? Only in part. While I cannot swear that Beck runs all that deep, it does appear that unlike some of his peers, Hannity, O’Reilly and even Limbaugh, Beck wants to plumb the depths of academia to support his points. It appears that the man actually reads. He does not, at least on occasion, treat his audience as a league of dumb followers. He presents them with ideas to chew on.
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This may make Beck, far from a buffoon, one of the most dangerous men on television. Behind the tears and the nutjob theories, are some arguments presented cogently enough that liberals must take him seriously and work hard to pick him apart. The only thing more dangerous than people following a fool, are people following a wise one.