Glenn Beck's CPAC speech was a rare gem of political discourse. I encourage everyone to read it so that they really understand where modern conservatism is going. Some of my friends are quite accurately comparing his "progressivism is cancer" screed to fascist rhetoric by people like Mussolini and Franco, because the parallels are striking, but I want to focus more on how the speech's philosophy is a template for the conservative cause right now.
Beck's essential message was: I crawled my way from the dung pile without any help, and that's what makes America great, so we shouldn't help anyone in trouble. From his twisted personal story to his twisted vision of American history, Beck took rapturous CPACers on a classic tour of American conservative ideology. From his paranoid, delusional ranting about how liberals hate anyone successful to his Social Darwinist view of society and nature, he laid out the conservative line and took it to its logical conclusion. And the audience loved it. The quintessential moment in the speech? When Beck explained why we shouldn't be helping anyone in need: "There's some sort of element of competition to life. Oh, that's not natural. Really? Go watch the lions eat the weakest." And the audience burst into laughter and applause -- as I wrote the other day, these conservatives really are into cruelty, so the idea of lions eating the weak got them going.
Beyond the celebration of eating the weakest, they money paragraph on the speech was this classic rendition of conservative thought:
We believe in the right of the individual. We believe in the right of the individual. We believe in the right, you can speak out, you can disagree with me, you can make your own path. But I'm not going to pay for your mistakes, and I don't expect you to pay for my mistakes. We're all going to make them, but we all have the right to move down that road. What we don't have a right to is: health care, housing, or handouts. We don't have those rights. Every time the government grows we lose more of who we are. When you give up your right to struggle... you're giving more of your freedom away.
In the conservative world view, each individual is on their own. The best society will be created if each of us goes our own way, with absolutely no help from anyone, and does exactly what we want to do, no matter who it hurts. Because that invisible hand of the marketplace makes individual greed a source of strength, and because if the weak are not "eaten," society itself becomes weaker. Like the Social Darwinists of the post-Civil War era, conservatives such as Beck clearly believe, as William Graham Sumner put it back in 1893, that every society faces only two alternatives: "liberty, survival of the fittest" or "liberty, equality, survival of the unfittest." Beck said, "As I read the Constitution...the only job of the United States government is to save us from bad guys." The way Sumner put it was that government had only one purpose, which was to protect "the property of men and the honor of women."
Conservatives' answer to the question "Am I my brother's keeper?" is a resounding Hell NO. And that is the essential divide between them and the progressivism which Beck describes as a cancer: progressives believe that all of us are in this together. When our child is weakened by a chronic illness, or our parent by old age, we don't abandon them in the wilderness so that the lion can eat them up (and then laugh about it). When our brother stumbles and hits bottom, we don't stand back and see if he can pull himself up by his own bootstraps, we lend him a helping hand. When our sister is abused and treated unfairly by an employer, we don't tell her she's on her own, we work with her to make things fairer. We believe in a community that helps each other survive and prosper, because we don't want to live in a world where only the strongest and wealthiest and -- yes -- luckiest survive. We don't have fantasies that all our success is of our own making because we know that without good families, good neighbors, good school and libraries and roads and bridges paid for by public dollars, that without all that, we'd be much less likely to make it on our own. In spite of Beck's paranoia, we have no problem with people being successful. I have never once heard any progressive attack Steve Jobs or Eric Schmidt for their success, or attack the local small businessperson making a good living because he or she is supplying products a community wants. But what we do believe is that those lucky enough to be successful have a responsibility to give something back to their fellow citizens.
I will choose the "weakness" of a compassionate society over the brutal kind of "let the lions eat the weak" vision of Glenn Beck's perfect society any day of the week. Am I my brother's keeper? My answer is yes.
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