Sunday, August 29, 2010

Who Decides What America's Common Core Values Are?

At this writing I have yet to locate the full text of Glenn Beck's speech about restoring America's traditional values, the one with a special guest appearance from co-conservative darling Sara Palin. So for now, I'll work with summary coverage of it. I don't think it'll harm my point. Be sure to read it all for the whole story>Here are excerpts indicating the apparent gist of the Beck-Palin message, which is what I want to focus on:

Conservative commentator Glenn Beck and tea party champion Sarah Palin appealed Saturday to a vast, predominantly white crowd on the National Mall to help restore traditional American values ...Beck billed his event as nonpolitical.... conservative activists said their show of strength was a clear sign that they can swing elections because much of the country is angry...

Palin told the tens of thousands ...that calls to transform the country weren't enough. "We must restore America and restore her honor," ...Palin and Beck repeatedly cited King and made references to the Founding Fathers. Beck put a heavy religious cast on nearly all his remarks, sounding at times like an evangelical preacher....: "America today begins to turn back to God."..." "For too long, this country has wandered in darkness. ... Today we are going to concentrate on the good things in America, the things that we have accomplished — and the things that we can do tomorrow." 

Clarence B. Jones, who served as King's personal attorney and his speechwriter, said he believes King would not be offended by Beck's rally but "pleased and honored" that a diverse group of people would come together, almost five decades later, to discuss the future of America. Jones said the Beck rally seemed to be tasteful and did not appear to distort King's message, which included a recommitment to religious values.

So. Who decides what America's common core values are? It's really not that hard for open-minded folks to acknowledge that big chunks of this message include ideas with real merit. A large part of Glenn Beck's success is due to his constant recitations of simple ideas that no one really disagrees. That's the truthiness, right?

But is it really the case that we need a "restoration," that most Americans have departed from a common sense path, and that conservatives are the only remaining protectors of American virtue?

Or is it the case that:

  •  Americans in the middle share a whole bunch of common values
  • these common values are often obscured by how partisans spin them
  • we think the areas of disagreement are bigger than they are because political opportunists relentless highlight them

I mean, who is anti-hard-work? Who thinks that children are not the future? Who doesn't believe that you should treat people the way you want to be treated? Who is against life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Who hates the idea of guaranteeing some sort of equality of opportunity? Who really thinks we should turn away from God once it's understood that God can be conceived as no more than the personification of the idea of good?

Even though I think Glenn Beck is a schticky, phony opportunist,  I am fine with Glenn  Beck exhorting Americans as he has done, insofar as it helps us all focus on our better nature. What I am not fine with is Glenn Beck appointing himself as the arbiter of America's core cultural values. Because at the same time as he wraps himself in God and the flag, he sells anger and divisiveness.  He profits from a narrow antagonistic spin on values that extols conservatism as the source of  good, and liberalism as the source of bad. We ALL get to say something about what these values are, and Glenn Beck doesn't get to play leader or moderator. His act is such that his credibility outside one subset of Americans is nil. Nil. How could such a person be a leader for us?

Consider that he encourages people not to even consider the concept of social justice. What, Americans can't have a discussion and decide for each of ourselves what that might or might not mean? Justice is a long-term core American value. We're all of us stuck re-determining every day how to balance liberty with equality, whether we like it or not. If Beck doesn't get that, he needs to get off the stage. Period.

Consider how the messages at this rally include a desire to "bring God back into the public square." What is that supposed to mean? How come this idea so often leads to a quick leap to things like bringing prayer back into schools and government meetings, and so on. 
Sure, we can argue about what precisely was original meant by the antiestablishment clause of the constitution. But it's safe to presume that the founders sensed the wisdom of reluctance when it came to mixing government and religion. And it's hard to miss how well-served American has been by sticking with this reluctance, especially when we compare American political life to the political life in places where they like to mix the politics, government, and religion into a toxic brew.

Know any religious conservatives who also love liberty? If you seek out such folks, it's not hard to find ones who are extremely supportive of of the antiestablishment deal: the religions stay out of the government's business, and the government stays out of thew religion's business. God gets his, and Caesar gets his.

I'm a firm believer that there's a really solid way forward for values in our country if we search for common ground among the values of our many different faiths, and extol them in an inclusive way. And that's where I think this message of Beck (and to some extent Palin) fails.


  1. Even though I think Glenn Beck is a schticky, phony opportunist

    Aw, c'mon. You're entirely too quick to discount the possibility that he's a schticky sincere opportunist! Which takes far less talent and effort.

    Despite my long established dislike of Glenn Beck's ranting, I forced myself to watch the speech*. For the most part it was feel-good cotton candy. Rouse 'em up rhetoric with little to no real substance.

    [*--OK, more like listened to it as background noise while I played poker online. Hey, I have my limits. It didn't deserve over an hour of my undivided attention. Heard it all before.]

  2. Actually, not that quick. I've given it serious thought.

    I don't think that either he or say Ann Coulter are sincere. I believe it's an act. At their core, each of them are first and foremost self-interested opportunists. They think of their audience as fish, or sitters, to use the con artist vernacular.

    For folks like these, be they liberal or conservative, that question is the one mos interesting to me. Ether they are smart and know they are con artists, or they are sincere and, well, dumb.