Glenn Beck Riffs on My Recent Article

All in all, I think Glenn Beck’s riff on my recent aticle (Glenn Beck: “Historian” for a Troubled America) was far more measured than I would have expected. Compared to the ad hominem attacks I’ve endured from many of Beck’s followers in the comments sections of various blogs, Beck himself was comparably very civil and fair. A former student had emailed me saying he saw Beck mention me on his show so I checked it out. Beck said that the issues I raised beckons the kind of conversation we should be having in this country and I couldn’t agree more — it might have been the first time I’ve agreed with Beck on anything.

But he willfully missed the point of my article. First, I’m not a specialist on the founding of the American republic, but Gordon S. Wood is, whom I quoted. So Beck’s beef isn’t with me about the origins of the republic and Christianity, it’s with Wood.

Second, I wasn’t saying that the U.S. Constitution is no longer relevant in the 21st Century, far from it. I was referring only to the church/state debate not the checks and balances and divisions of powers and the Bill of Rights, etc. I was simply agreeing with Gordon Wood and other historians who believe that divining what the founders intended vis-à-vis the “wall of separation” between Church and State is layered with complexity and nuance and the passage of a couple hundred years of case law has made it impossible to nail down definitively, as the Wood quotation in my article implies.

Third, I was really commenting on how fascinating I found it that Beck, who now holds an honorary doctorate in the humanities from Liberty University, (and I think he likes the fact that I referred to him as “Dr. Beck”), engages in what I called “professorial playacting.” In a state-of-the-art television studio with the most advanced whizz-bang computer graphics at his fingertips, Beck uses a chalkboard. That’s interesting on many levels.

If I were ever to meet Dr. Beck I’d like to give him some historical examples from the periods with which I am more acquainted. For example, I’d point out to him that during World War Two the United States was fighting against Germany, which was led by a fascist monster, Adolf Hitler, who Beck loves to bring up. But then I would also point out that the United States was in an alliance at the time with the Soviet Union, which was led by a communist monster, Josef Stalin. (And the Russians certainly did their fair share in defeating Nazi Germany.) The U.S. was fighting for “freedom” in an alliance with a nation that was totalitarian. Now, I would only bring that example up to illustrate to Dr. Glenn that the real historical record is far more complex and nuanced than he projects to his viewers, i.e. his “students.”

I’d also point out to Beck and his Republican friends that there are such things as empirical historical facts that are not “spun” or manipulated by historians although they sound quite “liberal” when acknowledged.

For example, contrary to the mythology that sometimes fogs President Ronald Reagan’s overall fiscal record, the tax burden of working Americans increased during the 1980s, as did the national debt, and the overall size of the government. By 1986, the cumulative federal debt had reached $2 trillion, which was more than the United States had accumulated in its entire previous history. Throughout Reagan’s two terms his defense buildup totaled nearly $2 trillion, and all eight of the Administration’s budgets ran deficits. The smallest (in 2006 dollars) was in fiscal year 1982, which was $127.9 billion; and the largest was in fiscal year 1986, which was $221.2 billion.

In 1983, the deficit reached a peacetime record to that time of 6.3 percent of GDP. The national debt went from roughly $900 billion in 1980 to $2.9 trillion in 1989, and the nonmilitary federal workforce increased from about 2.8 million employees in 1980 to 3 million when Reagan left office. Had the Administration’s 1981 tax cuts stood without subsequent remedies the deficits would have grown even larger. Reagan and the Congress had set the nation on a fiscal course that was drenched in red ink, but through early 1983 the President continued to blame the deficit on his predecessor.

This Reagan example I bring up just to show Beck that historians deal with facts and sometimes the facts don’t fit the Utopian conservative ideology that he pitches on his show.

I have hundreds of other historical examples where the facts don’t support the conservative arguments or the choice was Niebuhrian: between the “immoral” and the “less immoral.” What Dr. Beck does is cast history in a monumental frame with “good guys” and “bad guys” and we all know to whom he’s referring: anyone on the Left (no matter how he construes it) is always the “bad guy.” History doesn’t work that way. So he is “monumentally wrong” about history in my view.

Joseph Palermo

Crossposted with Joseph A Palermo

About Joseph Palermo

Joseph Palermo is Professor of History, California State University, Sacramento. Professor Palermo's most recent book is The Eighties (Pearson 2012). He has also written two other books: In His Own Right: The Political Odyssey of Senator Robert F. Kennedy (Columbia, 2001); and Robert F. Kennedy and the Death of American Idealism (Pearson, 2008). Before earning a Master's degree and Doctorate in History from Cornell University, Professor Palermo completed Bachelor's degrees in Sociology and Anthropology from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a Master's degree in History from San Jose State University. His expertise includes the 1980s; political history; presidential politics and war powers; social movements of the 20th century; the 1960s; and the history of American foreign policy. Professor Palermo has also written articles for anthologies on the life of Father Daniel Berrigan, S.J. in The Human Tradition in America Since 1945 (Scholarly Resources Press, 2003); and on the Watergate scandal in Watergate and the Resignation of Richard Nixon (CQ Press, 2004).

Comments

  1. Glenn Beck belongs in a mental institution. He is even crazier than Dick Cheney!The only thing that keeps him funded and supported is by Freedom Works and the even larger nut cake Armey the leader. He is also doing damage to our Country and has NO HONOR.

  2. Marshall says:

    Funny, I just read you putting folks in the good/bad guys groups. I must say, I found no factual mistakes in your post nor in Beck’s. So how is it that two views can be different of the same history. I am sure you liked FDR’s 1945 speech to the joint congress but I did not. We heard different things from the same man. FDR tried to give me additional rights and I do not see my government as giving me rights, the founding documents claim they do not come from the government.

    Why are you so afraid of Beck? I read more unfavorable articles than those supporting his views. It does not matter if I believe in his ideas or not. All groups tell anyone who will listen that they are right. I know the difference between facts and claims and there are a few facts in your articles and a lot of unfounded claims. I will pass on some sage advice I received so long ago I can not remember when, “read and study the words of your enemies to understand them better.”

    First, the only way you could know what the founders thought, as they wrote our constitution, would be to read all the letters and documents written at that time that discuss our founding documents. You would need to search for their state of mind at that time. Also a visit to Washington D.C. would be needed. Give the facts that prove to me and others, that the founders really thought they were writing a “living document”, and anything else is a lie. I would ask this question, if they thought it was truly a living document that would change over time as the nation matured, then why did they make the provision to change it so difficult? Why have such a provision, just wait for time to change it? I suggest it may be a living document now but that is not how it started.

    Second, the words “church” or “separation” do not appear in our Constitution or any amendments there after. Our founders came mostly from countries in Europe that had oppressive state religions and they did not want that here. Please tell us what happened in the MS Bay colony to create another state. One religion is still recognized as an independent country. The words “separation of church and state” is from a letter written by one of our presidents to a pastor, of another faith, confirming that America did not want a “state church”. You need to read all the letters written on the subject to get the true meaning. This was the same president that organized and held church services in the white house.

    Several presidents held religious services in the white house. Services for various faiths were held in offices of congress on many Sundays. Our supreme court has the ten commandants carved into the building and held church services in that building. As the city grew and more buildings were built in Washington, church services moved out of government buildings and into private church buildings. I use to live in our capitol when FDR was president. I would recommend everyone take a vacation there and tour your government buildings. If you are not able to do that, look for a DVD that gives you a tour of the seat of your government. I even wrote a college paper on FDR and interviewed each member of my extended family for information. He did not fare well as a leader of the economy any did only fair as a war leader. Funny how historians give him more credit than economists. One of his department secretaries companied in his diary about the amount of money being spent without any results. do some research, plot the GDP, unemployment rate, and monthly income for his years in office. The war saved us because everyone had to work to provide war materials. I have also lived in Asia and Europe and seen building rebuilt but with large pices missing due to the war. I can say that now I am old enough to have seen history.

    The Nietzsche you quote, is that Friedrich (Frederick) Nietzsche of Weimar who wrote of the end of God? I lived there, I read Goethe but little of Nietzsche. Did Friedrich write anything about real change, change for the sake of change, or false change? Viel gluck.

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