Yelling hardly productive
I want to hate Glenn Beck. I really do. From his arrogant, pedagogical, almost condescending style of speaking to the way he presents his ideas on a chalkboard (what are we fourth graders?) to suggest that he is "teaching" us all a lesson and attendance in his 5 p.m. lecture is mandatory. And if his easy-to-hate character is not painful enough, the actual merit — or perhaps lack thereof — of the ideas he scribbles in chalk daily only seal the deal.
In short, and I would risk being censored if I continued, I have never understood Beck's appeal. Yet, by some twist of fate I found myself watching his keynote address at the Conservative Political Action Conference this past Saturday and being engrossed by it. The last thing I wanted to do was give Beck the benefit of my viewership, but hell, I could not turn away. It is not that I personally agreed with his views (I can't say I did), but the speech captured a moment in time masterfully, and I would urge anyone who has not yet seen it to check it out.
For the Tea Party, which is usually described by commentators — including our own Daily Targum columnists — as "amorphous" and "leaderless," Beck crystallized much of the dissent that has been floating around libertarian circles and localized Tea Parties for months. More simply put, Beck's speech brought the current discontent with government down to its core. On his vision of capitalism, he called for "less Marx and a lot more Madison," described progressivism as the cancer eating away at America, equated his personal battle overcoming alcoholism with the type of rugged self-individualism our country needs in order to thrive again and derided the Republican party for overspending.
Far from reading talking points off his palm, Beck's anecdotes and references to American history held weight insofar as they represented the opinions of a large portion of our country, a healthy minority of Americans who justify their divergent views with an equally valid though very different conception of American political tradition. The speech made it perfectly clear: The extreme partisanship in Washington is only a microcosm of the larger debate, represented by the Tea Party movement, over what the true role of American government is as we move into the 21st century.
I do not mean to present any theorizing, David Brooks-esque commentary, but take a look at the recent debate right here within the pages of The Daily Targum over the Tea Party movement. If you read beyond some of the more inflated rhetoric — not to mention entirely irrelevant developing world examples — you will see that the mudslinging over Tea Party philosophy lends itself to the most classic of debates, one which Beck underscored in his speech. How should Americans conceptualize the proper role of their government?
In the Feb. 8 Targum editorial, "Liberal ideals fail to explain," the author summarized the Tea Party movement as advocating a small government focused on national security and enforcing property rights. Moreover, the author argued that Tea Party advocates oppose "excessive spending, entitlement programs and an invasion of personal properties." It is a simple, elegant and rational approach to government.
The column in the Targum yesterday, "Strong not small government," disagreed. In the article, the columnist took issue with the seemingly foolish conception of small government as presented in "Liberal ideals" and gave the classic liberal retort to the Tea Party ideology. The columnist asked Tea Party enthusiasts to explain why it is "not justified to allow citizens who lack property and live in poverty the same kind of opportunities through federally funded programs that allow the poor to gain job skills, purchase food and send their children to decent educational and health facilities?"
The problem here is simple yet frustrating: As long as the columnist is posing that question to a libertarian or conservative, he will never get the answer he is looking for. At the Targum, as in Congress and as in America right now, we are presented with perfect gridlock. The reason for this impasse — and the reason there cannot be a clear "winner"— is it is not truly a debate. If you read closely, the two authors are not clashing on specific ideas or proposals; they are actually advocating two fundamentally different philosophies that cannot easily be reconciled.
For Beck, the "Liberal ideas" author and anyone else who feels inclined to support some variant of the Tea Party, the idea of government is necessarily limited. Although yesterday's columnist is unlikely to concede this much, there are some compelling reasons to take this view of government seriously — that is, without explaining it away with references to rebel secessionists.
I am inclined to believe that the overwhelming majority of Tea Party advocates are not crazed anarchists reaching for their shotgun while reciting verses from Sarah Palin's "Going Rogue." In short, this is the portion of America that believes in order to be both "American" and continue to prosper, we must stick to the principles we founded our country on more than 200 years ago. This is what made us unique, brought us prosperity and fueled us to where we are today.
For conservatives, the liberal notion that government's obligation to protect private property is comparable to its mandate to keep the worst off in society afloat is simply foolish. This naïve vision of government — as argued by yesterday's columnist — only builds dependent citizens, stymies productivity and makes everyone worse off in the long run.
The other conception of government in America, represented yesterday by the columnist's article on the Tea Party, invoked frequently by our president and based on a very different tradition, utilizes an entirely alternative point of departure for its arguments. This view of government rejects the protection of private property as the logical stopping point for governmental obligation.
More specifically, for liberals such as this author, the way in which we view government and society today cannot be explained by how we initially established our country. At least as early as the post-civil war period, the federal government had very real responsibilities in taking a more proactive role, first to make sure blacks were able to gain citizenship in a nominal sense and subsequently 100 years later, to ensure that blacks could gain citizenship in a more meaningful sense.
It is true — you cannot do well to justify many of the government's current powers and programs if you base them on the intent of the Framers as libertarians would have you try. But should this be a necessary condition? If you can win agreement on this most basic question, you have solved the impasse. Until then, Targum columnists, Keith Olbermann, Glenn Beck and anyone else who wishes to yell at the other side for their view on the government's role will not get very far.
Eric Knecht is a Rutgers College senior majoring in economics and history. His column, "Unfair and Unbalanced," runs on alternate Tuesdays.