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The Carletonian

Mr. Beck’s Slippery Slope Mentality

<id it; I finally took the plunge. I couldn’t get past the guilt, the feeling of hypocrisy. After all, how can you criticize someone if you’ve never given him a real chance? Like many, I have long criticized Glenn Beck. He’s an extremist, encourages division, misinforms, and is inspiring people to do truly dangerous things. While holding all of these judgments, however, the truth was that I had never watched an entire episode of his; I had seen a few scenes here and there. Like many media consumers these days, my impressions and opinions were mostly based on a limited amount of snippets. Of course, I figured, those montages were all produced by people pushing a biased narrative. It was therefore essential for me to get the truth from the source itself.

This past Saturday I decided to try to get past all the BS and forced myself to sit through an entire Glenn Beck episode on Fox News. The result of my experience was two fold: it made me feel depressed about some things but also hopeful about others. Let’s start with the happy stuff. If there’s one thing I realized, it is that there is enormous room for common ground and compromise; you just need to understand the underlying assumptions and beliefs of Beck’s ideological framework. Of course, there is significant hypocrisy and inconsistencies in many things he said. However, there are also places in which him and people like him might be worked with to find common cause, if only they were open to it, but more on that later.

Let’s look, for example, at the main topic of the show I watched, environmentalism. Beck’s main argument throughout the episode was that progressives and environmentalists value humanity less than the Earth and other animals. This was wrong, he argues, because God gave the Earth to man to rule over and develop for himself, so says the Bible. Of course we want to care for the Earth, he explains, but we can do it on our terms, and not in ways that place humans lower than animals on the totem poll. His philosophy overall, is a human-centric view of the world, with God as the only thing above us.

Now personally, I disagree with pretty much everything he says, but that’s beside the point. The truth is, listening to him, I can’t help but feel like there are critical environmental issues that someone with his philosophy would be open to. Maybe certain ones he would never go for, but pointing out the human costs to mountaintop removal coal mining or hydraulic fracturing for natural gas would be advocating in a way that principally speaks to his concerns.

And that gets to what was depressing about the show, and what really exemplifies many of the problems with today’s political and media culture: the zero-sum “slippery slope” mentality. There is no ability to give or compromise with the other side. Nay, there is no ability to work with the other side on issues of common concern. Environmentalists do make arguments that speak to his human centric worldview. Yet, because bipartisanship has been branded as only being possible in cases of compromise, where one side sacrifices part of its goals on an issue in order to make a deal, those arguments now fall on deaf ears. People seem to forget that it is possible for both parties to share the same concern on an issue.  

What seems to have given this mentality rise? It is a consistently zero-sum mentality, that says doing anything the other side likes means we lose. It is either up or down, and there’s only room for one. Deeper than this though, is the idea of a “slippery slope,” which is not just zero-sum, but goes further. It says that because issues are always zero-sum, anything that the other side likes means we are on a slippery slope towards the other extreme. The mentality is perfectly summed up by Friedrich Hayek’s classic, The Road to Serfdom, which posits that any move to consider collective needs and pursue collectivist policies would put society on the inevitable road to authoritarianism through socialism, the antithesis of freedom, and thus to serfdom.

We see this logic played out every day on Beck’s show, as he frames every issue as freedom-loving conservatives against those evil progressives. Furthermore, his underlying argument that the progressive movement is part of a secret plot to take the United States towards communism doesn’t allow any political action that a progressive would support, even if conservatives would support it too (since, as he so deftly explains, the only difference between progressivism and Marxism is one gets to socialism through evolution, while the other gets to it through revolution).

A few weeks ago I wrote a column that argued Democrats should have engaged tea partiers before the movement became big and Glenn Beck grew his audience. One person wrote me that I must have been smoking something, since there is no way Beck or any of his followers could currently be talked with. I agree, but if you listen to Beck speak, there are aspects of his orientation that would have been amenable to engagement, if only progressives has engaged those aspects before he hijacked them in his war against anything progressive. Now everything is even more zero-sum, unlike right at the beginning of the Obama Administration. What might have been a real opportunity for common ground, through understanding and speaking to the belief system of these conservatives, is now non-existent. Through alienating them, progressives gave Beck a microphone with which to wage a zero-sum war, when there didn’t have to be a battle in the first place.

-David Heifetz is a Carletonian columnist.

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