In January 2011, Vanity Fair published Tea’d Off, an article by Christopher Hitchens which is an attack on the Tea Party movement and its chief icon, broadcaster Glenn Beck. I have long admired Mr. Hitchens, for his prose, his erudition, his independence, and, not least, his courage now in the face of a dreadful disease. Mr. Hitchens is also one of our most brilliant debaters and polemicists. In short, I’m a fan; but I’m very disappointed by his caricature account of Glenn Beck.
I have watched Beck’s TV program many times, but, apart from the ‘tear-stained’ jibe (Beck does tear-up from time to time), I do not recognize Beck in Mr. Hitchens picture of him. Hitchens’ most egregious charge is that Beck peddles ideas that are “viciously anti-democratic and ahistorical.” Beck is sarcastic and funny and, yes, a bit paranoid, but in my experience not in any way vicious. He spends a lot of time on his show urging people to check his facts and respond peaceably no matter how upset they may be. He said the same thing in his huge, peaceful, tidy (!) and largely apolitical, 8/28 event in Washington. Maybe this is all crafty dou-ble-talk; if so, it fooled me.
I have never heard Beck criticize democracy; one of his themes is “We the people.” ‘Anti-elite’ would be a more accurate charge. Mr. Hitchens should at least give us a quote and a context or two to back up his ‘anti-democratic’ charge.
As for ‘ahistorical,’ Beck’s TV shows and books have far more historical material—from Edward Gibbon and the Founding Fathers through C. E. M. Joad and F. A. Hayek to Niall Ferguson—than any other comparable show. Mr. Hitchens may disagree with Beck’s interpretations—I’d like to hear how and in what ways—but ‘ahistorical’ Beck is not. Instead of providing something substantive, Hitchens goes off on a rant about some unnamed ‘paranoid right’ radio host who was obsessed with the supposed murder of Vince Foster. Hitchens is smart enough to know that insults are not argument.
The core of Hitchens’ disdain seems to be that Beck has said good things about The Five Thousand Year Leap, a millenial book by one Cleon Skousen, a Mormon one-time FBI op-erative and polemical conservative active in the McCarthy era and after. Well, Skousen was in many ways an unappetizing character, but my reading does not confirm Hitchens charge that he “justified slavery.” His best known quote on the topic seems to be “... the emancipation of human beings from slavery is an ongoing struggle. Slavery is not a racial problem. It is a human problem.” Hitchens is right that Skousen did use the word ‘pickaninny’ to refer to black children. Like Hitchens, I am British born. I first heard the word as a child many years ago in England. My memory is that it was affectionate, maybe a bit patronizing, but not derogatory—rather like the golliwog on jars of Robertson marmalade. It was not a diminutive of the N-word. The golliwogs are gone now, and perhaps things were different in the US. Certainly, things are different in 2010. But to treat then like now is, well, ahistorical.
Skousen was religious of course, which Hitchens is not. Few would go along with the rather strange Mormon mythology that Skousen offers as the basis for his beliefs about America. But we can look at the beliefs themselves: just how offensive are they? Skousen lists 28 of them. A few affirm the necessity of religion and ‘natural law’ to good government. No consensus there. But others advocate respect for property rights and the rights of the individual, equality of rights, the right of the people to replace a tyrannical government, the need for virtue in a free republic, the importance of checks and balances. Some are more controversial: America’s ‘manifest destiny’ to be an example to the world (a little dippy to some, but hardly fascistic), the evils of national debt, allegiance to the ‘free market’ with a minimum of regulations. Simplistic, a little extreme for some tastes—but I’m not sure that the list deserves the level of excoriation that Hitchens directs at it.
Hitchens also accuses Beck, ‘a tear-stained semi-literate shock-jock’ of claiming that “The president is a Kenyan. The president is a secret Muslim...” I’ve heard Beck criticize ‘birthers,’ not support them; but I must have missed the ‘Obama is a (secret) Muslim’ show. And Beck is semi-literate compared to who, exactly? Hitchens also seems to be living in a bit of a cultural bubble when he writes “…does an-ybody believe that unemployment would have gone down if the hated bailout had not occurred and GM had been permitted to go bankrupt?” Well, actually, yes, quite a few non-stupid people do believe that we would be out of the recession by now if fiscal policy had been more responsible. Check out anything by the Austrian school of economists, for example (Tom Woods’ Meltdown is a good start.) Hitchens goes on to sneer at ‘caricature English peer’ climate-change critic Lord Monckton. Monckton is not a scientist, and certainly not a member of the climate-change establishment, but he is smart enough to have won an Oxford Union debate on the topic.
Finally and most gratuitously, Hitchens sees the current malaise as a reflection of white people’s fear that they “will no longer be the majority in this country…” Well, some—probably not a majority—of Americans, white and black, do have a fear that traditional American culture may be supplanted by something alien. But I don’t see any real evidence that whites are worried about the numbers of non-whites as non-whites. Oprah would not dominate TV, nor could Barack Obama have been elected, if race-consciousness were a serious problem in America.
I wish Christopher Hitchens well; I look forward to reading his future writings; I just hope that his visceral dislike for religion and the religious and for certain kinds of conservative populist—a dislike shared by most of his intellectual set—does not continue to distort and enfeeble his writing as it did in this article.