Glenn Beck’s new book Common Sense is literally two books for the price of one. Sure, it’s a diatribe of Beck’s conservative rants, but almost half of the short volume is given over to a re-print of Thomas Paine’s famous Revolutionary pamphlet of the same name. This is meant to bolster Beck’s argument that his crusade against Obama Socialism is just like the American Revolution; he’s already made the argument on his Fox News show, The Glenn Beck Program, by having a guy dressed up as Paine (apparently Ben Franklin impersonators cost too much) as a recurring character. And, as an added benefits, it pads a very short book out with material that you can find for free on the Internet.
Most of the book is based on the standard theme of any Fox News show, not just Beck’s. Anything he doesn’t like is “tyranny.” Anything he likes is an example of “freedom.” Among the threats to freedom are government debt, Social Security (“a legal Ponzi scheme”), medicare, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. To restore freedom, he demands term limits for all politicians, and a recognition that “Capitalism isn’t only about money, it’s about freedom.” And the book is full of his trademark nostalgia for the day after September 11, 2001, when for one brief shining moment everybody was terrified and jingoistic: “we began to remember our heritage and the power of sacrifice.”
The idea of the book, and it’s one that is clearly shared by many people, is that government services interfere with freedom to a greater extent than anything else in the world. (You will not, for example, find Beck considering the notion that universal health care promotes freedom by increasing mobility and personal security.) And all attempts to provide services through government are anti-freedom and slightly scary: “The environment is just a vehicle toward the Progressive ideal of total government rule.”
The blogger “Digby” recently summed up the message being delivered to Fox News viewers: “the tangible, real life benefits they receive for their tax dollars in the form of social security and food safety and roads and schools and health care are called ‘entitlements’ or ‘government waste’ and they believe that their tax dollars go into a black hole of special interests in ‘the fleecing of America.’ ” Add in a dash of religiosity, in the form of Beck’s lament that we now “have plenty of room for everything—except God,” and it’s a book whose vision of an ideal society is a Megachurch.
Still, the book is less over-the-top and hysterical than you would expect if you’ve watched Beck’s show. Instead he tries to appeal to history to give weight to his argument; that’s part of the point of linking his text to Tom Paine’s. Over and over again, Beck invokes history as a way of backing up whatever he’s saying, or drawing a straight line from the bad things in the past to the—we’re led to assume—equally bad things in the present. He reminds us that “in 1913 the income tax was applied only to the wealthiest 1 percent,” and uses this as proof that tax increases on the rich will surely be applied to his non-rich readers as well. The public school system is comparable to Robespierre and Hitler, who “wanted all children to be nurtured and taught by the state.” He even draws an overwrought parallel between those who are inconvenienced by gun-control laws and “the victims of Presidential Executive Order 9066, which authorized the forcible relocation of 150,000 Japanese-Americans from their homes to internment camps.”
So after informing us that every tyrannical act in the history of the world is exactly the same as gun control, health-care programs and deficit spending, Beck doesn’t even attempt to explain why British colonialism and American democracy are exactly the same. They just are. We can read Paine’s famous pamphlet in the right/Beck frame of mind: as a warning against carbon offsets, “class warfare,” and the martyrdom of Joe the Plumber.