2009: Rants of the Right

By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  December 22, 2009

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Glenn Beck,Arguing with Idiots: How to Stop Small Minds and Big Government
325 pages, Threshold Editions, September 22, 2009
Highest Position Reached on NYT Best Seller List: No. 1 (1 week)
Readability: 4
Digestibility: 3
Crazy Factor: -2
Overall Score: 5

Glenn Beck is a performer, and for what he does, a pretty damn good one. Arguing with Idiots is a performance, combining humor and serious policy. On the humor, I'd say it's not as funny as Al Franken's first couple of political books, but funnier than the last couple. That's a little disappointing, given that a total of 19 credited writers and contributors pitched in, but not too shabby.

As for the policy... well, let's just say that this is the book for which the term "straw-man argument" was coined.

The conceit running through Idiots is a conversation between a liberal and Beck, who explains why he's right and the liberal is a moron, on the economy, education, energy, unions, immigration, and health care.

Beck is not exactly aiming for Socratic dialogue here: his fictional liberal consistently lives up to the title descriptor. If you are a liberal yourself, you will wonder why Beck's interrogator never raises any of your actual reasons and arguments. You will probably also get frustrated that your stand-in never objects to some of Beck's most pin-headed leaps of logic, and misuses of data.

None of that bothered me, nor did Beck's monumental (and, considering the title here, ironic) idiocy on a wide range of issues. I will harp on just one example: Beck's argument against stimulus spending, which has become commonplace wisdom in the right-wing blogosphere. Beck writes: "If excessive debt caused the economic crisis, then how is more debt supposed to get us out of it?"

Now, I've heard a lot of debate over the wisdom and effectiveness of stimulus spending, but I've never heard anyone argue that federal-government deficit-spending caused the economic crisis. And yet, I frequently see Beck's question pop up, as a serious (albeit rhetorical) refutation to arguments for stimulus spending. That's frustrating for public polity, but hey, bully for Beck.

The book also contains weird, unexplained Beckian proclamations: when interpreting the Constitution, meanings of words may have changed over time but grammar usage never has; the Soviet Union collapsed because of cheating on forced-labor production reports; oil prices are and have always been established directly by the rational work of supply and demand in the marketplace; and FDR was, despite being elected four times, extremely unpopular among the American citizenry.

Even so, the substance didn't bother me, and Arguing with Idiots does stay pretty lighthearted — at times it's amusing. But it's also just tedious. I'm not sure if that's in spite of, or because of, the hyperactive distractions scattered on every page: sidebars, lists, quotations, graphics, charts, jokes, and cartoons. Either way, it's an awful lot of reading for the same, predictable anti-government arguments.

The book picks up toward the end, when Beck puts aside the contemporary issues and attends to his views on US presidents (the ones with powdered wigs are good; both Roosevelts are bad), and the Constitution. But by then I was pretty desperate to just be done with it.

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