Posted by: theoptimisticconservative | February 28, 2011

Glenn Beck, History, and Why Tolstoy Was Wrong

It’s one of the most memorable lines in fiction, but it’s inaccurate. Leo Tolstoy opened his novel Anna Karenina with this proclamation:

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

The implication here, that there is an interesting variety in unhappiness, is one of the human race’s most profoundly erroneous beliefs. Unhappiness takes only a very few forms, and they recur with unvarying consistency in every generation.  Happiness, even in family life, is much more varied, eye-opening, and worthy of interest.

The same can be said of chronic unhappiness in people’s political and social views.  There are no new or interesting reasons for being angry, indignant, or resentful about the status quo or the iniquities of others. Nor are there any truly new methods in the politics of agitation and resentment. There aren’t even any new combinations of political bedfellows: the human race has been doing the same old things since we started keeping records. Kings and emperors have held their enemies close; rich dilettantes have bought influence and put their resources behind overly clever political experiments; cynical demagogues have made common cause with bomb-throwing true believers and useful mobs.

If we want to spend our time well, we will inquire into the political ideas that don’t fit this mold. But the intellectual confidence to do that must, in general, be founded on a broad and early education in history.  Such an education tells us we will always have power-seeking factions with bad motives among us, and their profiles change little over time.

And that brings me to Glenn Beck. I’ve written about him before, emphasizing the positive, because I have appreciated his determination to read original sources and talk about the ideas of American history and politics.  He has also been good at reporting things that other news sources don’t.  He’s done the useful service of telling newer generations of Americans things they never learned in school about their nation’s history.

I’m sure you hear the “but” coming, however.  Since the unrest erupted in the Middle East last month, he has devoted more and more time to focusing on the links between the political networks of the Left, some of the radical Islamist groups, and George Soros, whom Beck calls “Spooky Dude.”  And my point about this is not that the links don’t exist.  It’s that there is nothing politically new, significant, or terribly interesting about them.  Given the trends of history, we should expect two things: first, that such links probably do exist; but second, that they are not the manifestations or agents of a shadowy conspiracy with the power to shape our destiny.  Nor are they necessary to explain what’s going on in the Middle East.

What I see in Beck’s analysis of the unrest in the Middle East is a deficit of historical perspective.  He has become self-taught in American political history, but I’m not sure he has ever read Thucydides – to take just one of the more familiar examples – or, indeed, any of the other writers from the Western classical heritage whose works high school students used to sample and college students used to study in depth.  A single swing through Peloponnesian War is good for all the political “types” we have ever seen in Western history; one can’t read it and remain unenlightened about the recurrence of “George Soros,” Bolshevism, labor politics, and corrupt ward-heeling in their various incarnations across time.

Rabble-rousing professional “oppositionists” are a human type, and a Western one in particular. Along with their well-heeled enablers and amoral exploiters, they’ve been with us throughout history.  These groups often collude, but they’re mean-spirited, negative, untrustworthy, shortsighted, and self-destructive; they can’t organize humanity on a mass scale through conspiracy and deception.   The traits they cultivate are neither a lever nor a fulcrum to move the world.  Such human abilities just aren’t up to the scope of accomplishment attributed to them by conspiracy theory.

But it’s worth noting that the average public school-educated American has little reason to know that today.  For the past 50 years or more, history has been rewritten thematically for American students, to reflect its actors as caricatures of good and evil from a Marxist morality play.  Critical thinking about human patterns has been actively discouraged.  Western students once argued about which of their modern-day nations and factions best correlated to Athens, which to Sparta, and whether any of them was analogous to Rome and the “barbarians.”  These questions are wonderfully debatable and enlightening – but the arbitrary categories of Marxism exclude approaching the Greeks and Romans on their own, enduringly relevant terms.  Generations of American students were once captivated by the sense that the Melian Dialogue could have been spoken last week, by the Republicans and Democrats of the day, but the Marxist perspective has no use for it.

So, for the purposes of American public education, the whole canon of classical history, with its political debates and experiments, has been largely left out.  Americans are taught some post-Roman European history today, but only in a few predictable variations on the thematic terms in which Marx conceived it.  When a Glenn Beck comes along and discovers he has been sold a bill of goods about the themes of history, what he doesn’t realize – because he has never been taught any other history – is that mankind’s memory banks know all about the patterns and archetypes he is detecting for the first time.

American education has much to answer for.  Creating generations of Americans whose thought processes are poorly defended against conspiracy theories is one of them.  It is an old, old story that nefarious groups collude against the interests of the common man and the status quo, but those groups have yet to succeed in subverting the future of mankind.  They’re usually not even the force that makes the biggest difference to a given outcome.

If you don’t know how common this pattern has been, it looks urgent and startling the first time you detect it.  And if you see yourself – understandably – as awakening from years of misleading indoctrination, you will be that much more inclined to perceive what you didn’t know about as a conspiracy.

But what I hope for Glenn Beck is that he will get back to his recent theme of focusing on the positives of character cultivation and distinctively American political ideas.  I think he does better when he is operating from that mindset anyway; and in the matter of parsing the factional interplay during revolutions, that instinct would stand him in better stead than his current analytical bent.

Just as no one becomes happy by studying unhappy families, so nations and communities don’t develop or preserve goodwill, liberalism, and a tolerant order by studying professional seditionists and spooky dudes.  The truly interesting things to know are how happy families get happy, and how human communities manage to thrive by tolerating religious, political, and economic freedom.  The evil that men do never changes.  The good is what varies from the historical mean, and merits attention and analysis.

J.E. Dyer blogs at Hot Air’s Green Room and Commentary’s “contentions.”  She writes a weekly column for Patheos.


  1. No, its not some vast left-wing conspiracy directed by a malignant Soviet counterintelligence agency like James Bond’s SMERSH, or a crime syndicate like Bond’s SPECTRE…but perhaps we should not be quite so quick to dismiss Glenn Beck’s intuition that something beyond mere collusion is at work in what promises to be a tumultuous decade. He senses that more than normal turmoil is at play in the world.

    The West’s leftists have essentially hamstrung any coherent, effective response to Islamic jihad by the West, jihad both overt and covert, both of which are actively being pursued by disparate Islamic interests, from the Saudi’s to Pakistan, from Turkey’s Erdogan gov’t to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.

    IMO, we are witnessing the mid-stage in the emergence of an Islamic Caliphate in the M.E. I now deem it inevitable and unstoppable. Whether Soros and the left are actively encouraging its birth or, as I believe, just stupidly facilitating its birth is somewhat irrelevant. At the least, Soros and the left are acting as unconscious mid-wives in that birth.

    Yes, they and the media have much to answer for and while some will undoubtedly pay an unforeseen price, most will not, just as Europe’s pacifists of the 30’s escaped culpability in the appeasement that led to WWII.

    Russia is actively facilitating and driving the spread of nuclear proliferation among hostile to the US, unstable third-world nations and by facilitating and promoting Iranian nuclear weapons capability, effectively engendering the eruption of a nuclear arms race within the M.E.

    China and Russia have consistently blocked effective international sanctions against the rogue nations who supply logistical support, recruits and geographic refuge to Islamic terrorist networks.

    Russia and China are the two largest weapons suppliers to terrorism around the world. None of this is accidental and, at the ‘great game’ level, this must have a purpose and goal, as there is always an ‘end-game’ in grand-master level chess…

    Russia and China’s behavior essentially amounts to using the jihadists as a quasi-military, covert arm of aggression against the West. And, so far, it’s working.

    I recently became informed about the philosophy that informs Putin’s world view, brought to my attention by Brazilian philosopher, and President of the Inter-American Institute, Olavo de Carvalho in the article, “A Philosopher’s Warning” in which he points to the “Russian geopolitical thinker, Alexander Dugin, and “the emerging Russian-Chinese scheme….”

    Using a subtle propaganda, noted Carvalho, the “open society” (promoted by Soros to the left) becomes a pretext for fostering widespread global hatred against the United States. For the “open society” produces moral degradation that is subsequently blamed on the American way of life, which supposedly demonstrates the special wickedness and decadence of the American people. This leads directly to a discussion of the evils of American cultural imperialism — the rallying cry of Russian and Chinese strategists whose goal is the elimination of the United States as a world power.

    The effectiveness of this approach should not be underestimated. Carvalho explained, “The Russian-Chinese influence has been growing more and more in Latin America. The U.S. Government has missed this because it still sees Russia and China as allies, in spite of the fact that they are the two largest weapons suppliers to terrorism around the world. One must remember that the Putin government’s foreign policy is today guided by the so-called ‘Eurasian’ strategy, invented by Russian philosopher Alexander Dugin, who proposes that Russia, China, and Islam ally with all the anti-American forces in Western Europe, Africa and Latin America, for the purpose of laying final siege to the United States. This strategy already has strong military support in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a kind of eastern version of NATO, which brings together Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.”

    I found this an astounding accusation and googled ‘Alexander Dugin’ and ‘Eurasian strategy’ there I found plenty of information to confirm Carvalho’s claims that Putin is well known in Russia for endorsing Dugin’s “Neo-Eurasianism” philosophy.

    Do I mean to imply that Putin, the Chinese leadership, the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran’s theocratic dictatorship are in a conspiracy? No, but colluding to the extent of basic cooperation? Yes.

    The social engineers of the left in the West are, as Dr. Sanity puts it, “motivated as they are by their creative utopian aspirations–expressed by the desire to impose (forcibly, if necessary) universal peace, social justice and brotherhood upon humanity–are completely oblivious to the malignant side of their own natures.”

    All of this presents a mortal threat to the West not seen since WWII and few in the west are fully aware of the extent of, and the various factors of which, that threat consists. We don’t have a lot of time left in which to get our heads in the game and figure out what’s going on.

    No, it’s not Beck’s “conspiracy of the left” but it is a basic collusion by Russia, China, Islamic radicalism and leftists of the West to cooperate in bringing down their greatest enemy; the nation promulgated upon the principles of “life, liberty and the (individual) pursuit of happiness”…concepts which are anathema to ALL of these groups.

  2. Beck was and is a clown.

    • If merely and only a clown, then why does the left get its panties in such a twist when thinking of him? Only Palin arouses more animus on the left.

      He is an entertainer, jester and clown because a bit of sugar helps with the medicine. Given his subject matter, entertaining requires ‘going over the top’, which he freely admits to doing.

      But if only a clown, why isn’t the left’s laughter amused dismissal, instead of the so commonly revealed underlying tone of fear and rage?

      Beck is a ‘jester’ but one with a deadly serious purpose and the left knows it, their anger reveals that at least subconsciously, they take the threat seriously.

      Now that you know that we know, perhaps you can drop the charade? Or are you actually in denial of the obvious?

      • Geoffrey, am unfamiliar with panties getting twisted. Can you elaborate?

        • I can’t answer for the left, but for myself, I kind of get annoyed at Beck for the ignorance, lies, hatred, and bigotry that he dishes out.

          ……..and that bit about pretending to boil frogs irked me as well.

  3. I don’t really see a rebuttal, of the claims that Beck has connected, Ratke and Ayers
    were active in Egypt, as far back as a year ago, as well as the various Islamist elements, which are native and not so native to the region, Thinking classically Obama
    does remind one of Alcibiades and Catiline, to take two distinct eras.

  4. Funny, miguel cervantes, VDH used to call Bill Clinton the modern Alcibiades. As to Catiline, it’s hard to say. Whoever is trying our patience with insane folly at the moment seems like a good bet. I leaned toward Al Gore for a while, but there’s a real sense in which, with him, there’s not enough “there” there.

    GB — I agree with you that there is collusion out there, most of it of the most historically predictable kind. One of the important things to keep in mind is that Russia and China will always perceive it as necessary to jockey against each other at least as much as they collude against us. They both want to seek advantage for themselves within the context of an order in which WE are the main target for the forces of discord and destruction. They’ll collude against us, but not to the point of losing position vis-a-vis each other.

    It has been particularly interesting to see them essentially sidelined over the last 6 weeks, as the Arab world roils up. There are multiple reasons for that, but one of them is simply that neither Asian power is now the standard-bearer of a momentum-enabled revolutionary ideology. Their foreign policies since the end of the Cold War have been about gaining control of natural resources and maintaining (or improving) their power positions relative to each other, their regions, and the US. They have been very materialist and pragmatic about this, writing a chapter in the “realism school” textbook on international relations.

    They don’t have a lot to say to an Arab world in revolt, at least not right now. Instead of the Cold War pattern of rushing in to cultivate revolutionary clients, they are decrying the unrest and eying their own restive ethnic populations uneasily.

    Things will settle out soon enough — Russia and CHina will find elements to throw in with in the new Arab arrangements — but I remain convinced that the uprisings in the Middle East have been spontaneous, caused in the end by the desires of the people. That’s where I part company fully with Glenn Beck, I think. I have no doubt that Islamists and international socialists are both jumping on the bandwagon, and that some of them were there from the first, like the Western-trained labor agitators in Egypt. But their opportunistic presence doesn’t explain the uprisings.

    I think their presence does mean we should be working more intelligently to influence the outcomes in the Middle East. Now is the time to do that; I understand the ruthlessness of some of these bad actors. (Some of them are just useful idiots.)

    But I don’t think their presence means that the uprisings in the Middle East are part of a grand plot to close in on America by having Egyptians get rid of their dictator. That’s how Glenn Beck’s presentation, with its emphasis on “conspiracy,” comes off.

    Over at the Green Room post, I wrote a lengthy response to one of the readers (PastorJon), which readers here might be interested in. Here’s the link:

  5. Catiline was the party animal, that’s why assigned that role to him, maybe the late
    Sen. Kennedy, fits the latter role, in light of recent revelations

  6. Historical accounts are often inperfect, Sallust had a certain bias against Catiline, apparently Thucydides had one against Cleon, as Donald Kagan reveals, Tolstoy
    acording to Lieven, made Kutozov, almost superhuman,

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