Peter Struck is an associate professor of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Birth of the Symbol: Ancient Readers at the Limits of their Texts. Professor Stuck is a member of the Lapham's Quarterly editorial board.
From Buckley to Beck
Back in 1996, I had a correspondence with William F. Buckley, Jr., who, like many of those on the Right at the time, had a habit of claiming ownership over the ideas and spirit of the classical past. So it wasn't altogether surprising to see him on television aligning himself with Socrates and pressing for the triumph of absolutes over relativism. What did catch my ear was that Buckley was arguing in favor of the death penalty, and was using Socrates to make his case. I couldn't resist writing the man about the cruel irony of holding up as a poster boy for the death penalty the Western Tradition's most famous victim of it. Buckley responded promptly, but never really engaged the most challenging issue: that Socrates, the paragon of classical rationalism, was deeply suspicious of that other signature legacy of his countrymen, democracy. He saw it as a system of government whose weakness was precisely that it rewarded those who could most artfully whip up a bunch of hot-headed boobs with the power to kill whoever displeased them. At its worst, it was rule by mob.
Seeing the doughy face of Glenn Beck extending his tongue at me from the cover of Time magazine last month made me recall that previous generation of Right-wing dogmatists with a whiff of nostalgia. Buckley, Irving Kristol, and the rest had a comparative seriousness of purpose in their ideas. Their bluster and posturing had an intelligent wrapper to it and they surely appreciated the danger of crowds. Their most recent successor for the Fox News set revels in his theme of pitchforks and barricades. Beck's message, rooted in disenfranchisement and a quest for simple purity, bubbles out of him each evening in artfully arranged displays of resentment of the type that would make Huey Long and Richard Nixon envious.
In Slate, David Greenberg recently tried to set the angry Right into historical context by re-evaluating Richard Hofstadter's essay "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," the famous 1960s attempt to get a grip on Goldwater followers and John Birch Society members. Greenberg was casting about for better answers as to why some Americans find such an angry politics appealing, but it seemed to me that after swimming through the froth around Beck in recent months, he had allowed Beck's appeal to become more mysterious than it really is. Nativism and resentment of privilege have an enduring attractiveness. Add a flair for the theatrical, and the truism that angry crowds have momentum, and you hardly need exotic explanations to reckon the appeal. This formula has been successful in many countries and times, and Buckley's spirit reminded me of the very remote past.
It Was Cleon Who Shouted the Loudest
The archetype for Glenn Beck is a fifth century B.C. Athenian figure named Cleon, our first well-documented populist. Cleon represented a new class, made possible for the first time in democratic Athens. The notion that the whole people of Athens should participate in decisions collectively allowed for the rise of figures who presumed to speak for them. Cleon became wildly famous and successful not by coming from a powerful family, or by serving in regular office, but by delivering fiery speeches to thousands of Athenians in public. The Greek sources leave behind an unsparing portrait of an impulsive, histrionic bully. Aristotle tells us that "he was the first to use unseemly shouting and abusive language in the public assembly; and while it was customary to speak politely, he addressed the assembly with his cloak lifted up." In Thucydides' version, Cleon's own lack of a pedigree provided him a plentiful source of resentment against those that had one, and he cast every self-aggrandizing gesture as a motivated by a love of the people over the aristocrats. He flattered his audience as being more capable of governing than the supposed experts in power. He personalized politics and under his influence those who disagreed with the state were referred to, for the first time in ancient Greece, as "haters of the people." The comic playwright Aristophanes vividly portrayed him on stage as a man in a constant state of anger, his voice resembling the squeal of a scalded pig.
Beck's One-Room Schoolhouse
Beck's signature piece is an essayistic rant, "The One Thing," a free-form monologue that can run to lengths that are the television equivalent of War and Peace. The title bespeaks his exasperation, as if after having delivered a long string of wisdom to a noncompliant elite, he wants to make sure they will at least understand this. It is theater for a world on the edge of collapse. His favorite device is a chalk board that he uses to simplify issues. The atmospherics welcome you to Beck's one-room schoolhouse-- simpler times, wholesome educations, homogeneous agrarian center of gravity.
In a recent week, Beck made the following points: his enemies hate him, but they also hated Benjamin Franklin. His enemies think he is stupid, and he isn't. His enemies think his audience is stupid, and they aren't. The only values that motivate him are simple curiosity and his love of country and the truth. Issues are not complicated. Bilingualism is the equivalent of slavery. Obama is committed to redistribution of wealth, so is Michael Moore, and so was mass-murdering dictator Joseph Stalin. The government is forcing people to get injections (health care workers getting swine flu vaccine), giving the rats in your basement lawyers (Cass Sunstein), and indoctrinating your children to love Obama. Democrats at the inauguration of President Obama littered; the crowds at the tea parties in Washington did not (this point occupied him for nearly six minutes).
But the most powerful rhetorical force was given to multiple reiterations of quotations from Rahm Emanuel that you never want a crisis to go to waste and Obama's statement on the eve of election that promises fundamental transformation. These last two may speak to you of the idea that the financial crisis offers a chance to fix Wall Street (which actually turns out not to have been taken); and the idea that after eight years of George Bush Americans were hungry for change. For Beck, these statements speak to a government systematically committed to removing individual liberty.
From Beck to Buckley
In the line from Cleon to Beck there is hardly a wiggle. Less obvious but telling is the connection between both these figures and Buckley. Driven by an unyielding sense of their own correctness, all three are experts in the trade of absolutes, always pressing toward a higher-contrast world of black and white. While it has become utterly common to see people in the public sphere assume such a posture, it does not stand to reason that they must. Among Republicans, for example, one used to see a strain based on intellectual modesty, of resistance to grand theories and attempts to explain everything. Eisenhower built a coalition around such principles that held up for decades. Obama may well be up to doing the same. In order to get on with fixing what it was possible to fix, they recognized the usefulness of an ability to live with a degree of uncertainty, a quality that Goldwater, and later George Bush and Karl Rove, vanquished from the Republican Party.
This Republicanism of certainty has had a good run, but it has likely reached the end of its appeal. David Brooks, whose sympathies attune with refinement to Eisenhower Republicanism, sounded its death knell in a recent column in the New York Times. If Beck's days as the center of attention are numbered, as Brooks claims they are, it will not be because of his coarseness or his rejectionism, but because of his imperviousness to doubt. Intellectual hubris is tiresome in any case, but it is an especially odd standard to use to rally people who understand themselves as conservatives. Certainties are what one needs to upend things, and at a some point conservatives grow uncomfortable with that sort of thing. Cleon, that ancient voice of certainty, was not among the conservative lot at all, but a radical through-and-through.
While Buckley was of course right to point to Socrates as someone who endorsed the idea that there are absolutes, he missed the most important part of the story. The Greek philosopher was equally convinced that only a fool and a demagogue would claim to know them. If only Buckley were around to teach this lesson too.