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.