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.