beck1[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

So Glenn Beck has proposed his grandest scheme yet: the construction of separate planned community, literally built around (in terms of architecture and overall design) the idealization (and arguably the idol-ization) of what he understands to be “quintessentially American” principles, to be called “Independence, USA.” It’ll be built somewhere in Texas, at a likely cost of over $2 billion, but Beck is not deterred; this is something, he says, the God is inspiring him to do.

Mockery ensures, of course, and at least some of that is deserved. If you watched his whole presentation (and I urge you to do so, starting here), it gets rather difficult to be sure exactly where Beck’s ideas for a theme park end (so much of his vision apparently being preoccupied with the creation of media centers which will tell entertaining but “true” stories, beginning this year with the creation of a multi-media extravaganza about, it seems, the epic American battle of Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla, told from the point of view of the moon), and where his ideas for an actual living space begin. At one point in the presentation, while talking about the need for real self-sufficiency in Independence, Beck gestures at a picture of some powerful wind turbines built on a hill over the community, but then later says they were a mistake, inserted by the sneaky employee at Blaze TV just to piss Beck off, leaving the question of how this community will obtain its energy unresolved. He apparently likely imagines it being built somewhere in north Texas, but how many people will live there, or why they will move, or what they will do there, is similarly in need of more detail.

I’m sufficiently in sync with the cultural preferences of my mostly left-leaning academic tribe that such mockery of Beck comes easily to me; I’ve done it before, and will likely do it again. But in truth, I find Beck’s utopian dreaming more fascinating than ridiculous. For starters, what kind of community does he have in mind here? Most of those who have reported on his grandiose vision have labeled it “libertarian” or “Ayn-Rand-inspired,” comparing it with such paranoid ventures as The Citidel or, more ominously and meanly, Jonestown. Obviously you can’t dismiss that kind of motivation; Beck has never pretended not to be inspired by the radical libertarianism/constitutionalism/individualism of a John Galt or a Ron Paul. And the problems with this kind of extremism, a real fetishization of personal liberty, are obvious; as Peter Levine tartly observes, if you truly take this kind of rejection of all forms of collectivism seriously, than “you secede from the corrupt, liberty-forgetting society around you and raise your kids in a setting where they will turn out to be libertarians (unless they rebel against you and define themselves as anti-libertarians, but even then you will have shaped them)…if you succeed, you will have forced them to be free.” But Beck can’t really be placed entirely within that category. If you listen to the whole presentation, and especially if you’re familiar (which, as a fellow member of the Mormon church like Beck, I actually am) with the pious, family-centered devotional tropes he frequently makes use of, then you hear so much more which isn’t exactly libertarian. He wants “wisely” planned living spaces, where all the streets are underground and everyone lives on a cul-de-sac, so people will get out of their homes and enjoy their neighborhood. He wants a marketplace where there is “no Gap stores, no Ann Taylor,” but only craft-based businesses which offer apprenticeships, and don’t require any “Ivy League” diplomas. He wants a local, sustainable food system. He wants, basically, a community which celebrates “simpler times.” Sounds more Front Porch Republic than Galt’s Gulch.

Jesse Walker calls Beck’s vision “populist-utopian,” but I think he’s wrong there too. I mean, I suppose if one imagines “populism” in explicitly (and solely) Jeffersonian terms, that description might work–but in reference to the actual Populists, or the way the term has been used since then, there is little what Beck lays out here which suggests an attack on the powers that be or a restructuring of society around increased economic democracy and sovereignty. Indeed, aside from a few arguable swipes against corporate capitalism (which I suspect Beck is either unaware of or would deny that he made), the only thing which is attacked here is our education system. And this is where Beck truly comes alive, and truly reveals his dream as being, whether he realizes it or not, as being more about Plato’s Republic than anything else. He essentially, if unintentionally, speaks of creating a civil religion, with an all-glass, sunlight-reflecting, impressively spired building at the center of the community (forgive the Mormon in me for immediately thinking “temple” and “Zion”) which would be a repository of historical documents and artifacts from throughout history, so that whenever someone is confused about what America’s real principles are, they can come to Independence, be “deprogrammed” from what is taught in America’s universities, and “be shown the truth!” (Beck repeats that about three times.) I can’t help but think of people being led out of the cave by the philosopher-kings, and seeing the sun (the Declaration of Independence! the Constitution! portraits of the Founding Fathers! and…other stuff, I guess) for the first time.

Years ago, I noticed a similarity between Glenn Beck and James Gordon “Bo” Gritz, another Mormon (though only for a short time) conservative who became convinced of conspiracies and truths which, somehow, his ideological fellows nonetheless weren’t captivated by. (Look at all you fans of Glenn Beck: sure, you voted against Obama, but are you teaching your children the Mayflower Compact? Have you stopped shopping at the Gap? Why not?!?) And this led Gritz, as it is apparently leading Beck, to want to proselytize, to redeem, to create safe environments of learning that troubled people can flee from. Again, this is easy to mock, but I don’t want to. I don’t want to, because there is, at the heart of this impulse, a longing for a yeoman independence and interconnectedness, for communities of solidarity, for the truth which can be known when people are fully enjoined in their civic spaces. Populism was a way to communicate that idea, whereas libertarianism is, I think, too often a corruption of it. Either way, though, there is a transformative, utopian impulse here, and the impulse is which animates all the best kind of home-making and community-building. Too bad Beck’s is so warped–and, frankly, kind of stupid–that he’s apparently incapable to making the kind of critique of liberalism which would open up to him the real, plausible, communitarian alternatives out there, whether distributist or anarchist or social democratic or all of the above, in one fashion or another. Like Gritz, Beck knows what he wants (well, sort of, anyway), but he’s unwilling to think carefully about what’s really stopping him from having it (his own fellow citizens and the genuine appeal and logic of the liberal order, being a primary one). Thus does he make utopia a source of snide mockery. Like I said, a fascinating process, though a frustrating one as well.

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Anymouse January 15, 2013 at 2:55 pm

That is a some truth here. What I brought up elsewhere, (and seems to apply here) is the difficulty of creating an intentional community in this day and age, the way Beck seems to want to be doing it. I remember distinctly Kristor warning that the creation of intentional communities can devolve into gnosticism. I am not sure that would happen, and there are clearly good ideas here, but that warning is in my mind. And Glenn Beck is not necessarily the clearest thinker, although I think he has potentially inspired useful conversation and helped start people talking about these things.

avatar D.W. Sabin January 15, 2013 at 4:19 pm

Glen Beck as Master Builder now ehhh? It might be hilarious but it aint libertarian. I think he ought to site it out near Marfa so they can have some New Yawk and Los Angeles literati with their fancy schmancy shopping and art galleries as enemy neighbors in order to keep the Blonde Perfection of Independence in proper xenophobic trim. There are even the Marfa Lights to offer Mr. Beck a forum for feverish ruminations on aliens or supernatural forces in their midst.

What a marvelously American Huckster. Although, sadly, Hucksters aint quite what they used to be even though current production values are better than ever. Just think what old PT Barnum could have done with our technology. Which makes me wonder, might they be posting a few “This Way To The Egress” signs around Independence?

Hooo boy Mr. Fox, thanks for this, the links made my day.

avatar Gary January 16, 2013 at 2:06 am

I have only been reading FPR for a couple of months now but I have definately found something here that has influenced me intellectually in that short time.

That said, I consider my to be of the libertarian persuasion and I have noticed a consistent thread of hostility towards that philosophy woven into the discussions here and I am struggling to understand why. If it is because of the radical narcissism espoused by certain supposed libertarians such as Ayn Rand then I can understand why. I think most philosphers cite Ayn Rand’s writing as an example of what happens when certain economic policies are allowed to reach their logical conclusion, not as an exemplar of personnal moral philosophy. In that vain I would point readers to Rand’s “We The Living” instead of the usually recommended “Atlas Shrugged” if you want avoid the fundamentalism extent in the later text.

But that is a tangent to my real question, which is, if Porchers feel there is a role for the state in helping in a postive fashion to form the sort of society we envision then what is it? To me, a powerful central state has a corrosive effect on civil society as it tends towards national level solutions to problems that are often best addressed by neighbhors and communities. If the media is any indicator, then we are already at that point. I never hear anything on the TV any more that would even hint at anything but Congressional or Presidential action to even our most basic problems. The recent Newtown shooting a great case in point.

Libertarianism in America has always incorporated federalism in its political platform. That is, devlolving power back to the states and the people where the forces of democracy might more effectively tame it to meet the needs of civil society. I can only find good in such a policy.

So to circle back to the central question, how do you envision that government might act to return us to a nation of front porches?

Gary

avatar David Smith January 16, 2013 at 10:05 am

Once again, I give a great deal of credit to Mr. Beck for much of his analysis and willingness to “go there”, that is, get beyond a lot of the “conservative” and Republican orthodoxy and call a spade a spade. Further, I even believe him to be sincere and honest. All that said, too many of his ultimate conclusions, including his devotion to American Exceptionalism, civic religion (Lincoln!), Israel, Divine inspiration of our founding documents, etc. leave me cold.

Still, I’m glad he’s on the air even if I have to stifle my gag reflex sometimes when he goes on and on about some of these things.

avatar John Crowley January 16, 2013 at 11:08 am

Beck’s vision is not utopian but edenic: see W.H. Auden, “Dingley Dell and the Fleet,” in The Dyer’s Hand, his book of essays. And the introductory essay “Reading,” wherein Auden post his own personal edenic questionnaire. It might be made a requirement (or suggested posting) for all commenters to this highly variegated site. See where they stand, etc.

avatar D.W. Sabin January 16, 2013 at 11:59 am

Now wait just a doggone minute here Mr. Crowley, I taint variegated at all. Except fer a few moles and bust capillaries lending a rosy hew as a consequence of past intimate relations with the produce of the Isle of Islay, I’m generally mono-tonal. But I is a mutt.
You should post this Edenic Questionnaire or send it to the Editors. We might need to dispense motion sickness pills though, after seeing where a few of us stand, along with rabies shots of course. Shots in general are always recommended and for the Good Mr. Fox, instead of Shots, perhaps Jello, the Wasatch Front Pate’.

avatar Anymouse January 16, 2013 at 1:01 pm

Maybe jello shots?

avatar Russell Arben Fox January 16, 2013 at 2:51 pm

Anymouse,

What I brought up elsewhere, (and seems to apply here) is the difficulty of creating an intentional community in this day and age, the way Beck seems to want to be doing it. I remember distinctly Kristor warning that the creation of intentional communities can devolve into gnosticism. I am not sure that would happen, and there are clearly good ideas here, but that warning is in my mind.

The part of this comment which stands out to me is the phrase “in this day and age.” I think that prompts an important question to reflect upon: exactly what it is we have and what it is we’ve lost that makes the effort to invest more than just a minimal, bottom-line “intentionality” into the communities we build so perilous? Or does it just seem so? Is there truly a gnostic tendency lurking in, say, thoughtful urban planning, or the the move towards a more localized and less consumer-driven food system, or is that a fear that gets us to shy away from any kind of collective vision? I don’t know the answer, but I’m struck by the work of scholars like Russell Jacoby who suggest that perhaps the most insidious consequence of the near-total triumph of liberal capitalism and globalization is that it’s destroyed our ability to think in productively utopian ways, leaving us with just flailing entertainers like Beck.

avatar Russell Arben Fox January 16, 2013 at 5:34 pm

Gary,

If Porchers feel there is a role for the state in helping in a postive fashion to form the sort of society we envision then what is it? To me, a powerful central state has a corrosive effect on civil society as it tends towards national level solutions to problems that are often best addressed by neighbhors and communities.

I can’t speak for anyone else here, but for myself, I agree that “a powerful central state has a corrosive effect on civil society”–but from what I’ve seen, powerful corporate entities, and a powerful marketplace, and a powerful consumer ideology, and the rapacious individualism and self-interest which they all validate, are equally or even more responsible for the corrosion of our civil society than the government is. And as nearly all of us, as individuals and communities, are deeply implicated in and even dependent upon the benefits which the global capitalism that all the above forces help create has provided, we have a couple of options: walk away from it all (difficult, but not impossible), or strive to work through government to tame, redirect, and level out all those forces so as to allow community strength to rebuild itself (also difficult, but slightly less impossible, I think). From my perspective, this will sometimes involve seeking to strengthen the power of the federal and state governments (particularly in terms of regulating certain bad behaviors), and sometimes seeking to weaken them. Other localists, obviously, disagree.

Libertarianism in America has always incorporated federalism in its political platform.

That’s really not quite true–much libertarianism is basically simply an individualism–though obviously there are many libertarians who do identify with federalist principles.

avatar Anymouse January 20, 2013 at 1:35 am

I probably pay (slightly) more attention to Fox, but largely because he writes for this site.

Hurry up, Beck! Get a a gig at FPR!

avatar Fr. J. January 20, 2013 at 9:30 pm

To be honest, there is no broad vision of society that is not in some way utopian. We all have some societal ideal we work with mentally in forming our political views. So, let’s get passed the word “uptopian”as an epithet.

Glenn Beck is hardly the first person to consider such a solution. It is the sectarian impulse within Christianity, identified by Ernst Troelsch. Alisdair McIntyre proposed a “Benedictine”solution to the modern problem, that is, small Christian enclaves. From Monasticism to the Amish to Mormonism, the sectarian impulse in Christianity has always been with us. As a member of a religious order myself, I am not surprised by such a proposal. It’s feasibility and durability are quite in doubt, to my mind, however. There is good reason that that Catholic Church considers the successful foundation of a community as a miracle toward the sainthood of the founder. It is nearly impossible to make a community work for more than one generation. Whatever Glenn Becks good qualities may be, the required stability for such a task does not appear to be one of them.

avatar Michael Umphrey January 20, 2013 at 11:00 pm

Doesn’t “utopian” include the ideal of perfection–that society is somehow perfectible? Wouldn’t a planned community, such as Plymouth or early Salt Lake City, founded more in the tragic tradition–seeing evil as present in every heart–be nonutopian?

Intentional communities–retirement villages and gated communities–aren’t rare. They don’t attempt creating a full moral order, but they do exclude aspects of society that they don’t want.

Far from being impossible, they would seem to be the future. Branded communities, with a conscious aesthetic and with identified cultural preferences, seem a natural continuation of current trends. We have been sorting ourselves into different communities and zip codes for some time, in spite of an espoused egalitarian ideology. I see nothing on the horizon likely to turn that trend around. Even catastrophe, which is likely, won’t do the trick. The catastrophic consequences of our current fiscal policies will not be equitably spread around. O will still have his lavish parties and his Hawaiian vacations.

I don’t have a clue what will come of Beck’s plans, but I do think he’s moving in a direction that will seem increasingly possible and desirable. We have available enough knowledge of governance to make it workable. It seems we don’t because politicians need to get elected by a dauntingly ignorant populace, deeply committed to denying reality. Smaller groups could do better.

avatar David Naas January 21, 2013 at 5:39 pm

Utopian communities, whether the communal New Harmony, or the individualistic Modern Times, tgend to flounder, leaving behind animosity, OR they morph into something else. Think Amana.
Mister Beck’s problem (at least with me) is that I see him as a 100% huckster who found success in a radio “Morning Zoo” format, and simply transported it to political musings.
God bless him for having straightened out his personal life with his conversion to the faith of the LDS. (Too bad he also discovered Cleon Skousen at the same time.)
Even if it is a con, even if it fails, it deserves to be tried. Which of us has not, at some time or another, yearned for an Ark somewhere on this continent, where the best of America might be saved for ages yet to come? There are enough disappointed billionares to fund such a thing, and at least they would have something to show for their money, unlike what Karl Rove gave them recently…

avatar D.W. Sabin January 22, 2013 at 1:43 pm

Umphrey, get a grip on yourself…..understand that if you were consigned to a Village comprised of only inhabitants you agreed with, you’d likely go shit dizzy with boredom.

Now apologize to Mr. Fox, a genuine fellow, a good man and rejoice in his differing opinion, be glad your species possesses the durable recreation of disagreement. Then, treat that disagreement with the respect it deserves.

avatar Russell Arben Fox January 22, 2013 at 4:29 pm

Michael,

Fr. J.,

there is no broad vision of society that is not in some way utopian.

I fully agree, which is why suggested from the beginning of my post that well-intentioned but intellectually lazy fetishizers of the Founding Fathers like Beck are giving utopia (which is a good thing, however wrong it usually and regularly goes!) a “bad name.” We need broad visions for society, I think; without such, on however minimal a level, community loses any sense of sociality, and becomes mere transactional, gesellschaftlich and nothing more. The emptying of the public square in line with liberalism has allowed for a great deal of individual human flourishing, and I wouldn’t deny that, but it’s has come with a deep cost as well.

Michael (again),

Intentional communities–retirement villages and gated communities–aren’t rare. They don’t attempt creating a full moral order, but they do exclude aspects of society that they don’t want.

I’m generally very leery of calling the kind of “communities” you mention as good examples of intentionality, because what I know about them suggests that the only kind of exclusion they truly exercise is one based on wealth–who can afford to move in, and who can’t. Not only would that fail, as you note, in “creating a full moral order,” but I would actually suggest that is diametrically opposed to such; any kind of exclusion which is based primarily on wealth is basically parasitic upon the liberal capitalist order, legitimizing distinctions based of the turns of the market and delegitimizing all other intentional distinctions.

David,

Mister Beck’s problem (at least with me) is that I see him as a 100% huckster who found success in a radio “Morning Zoo” format, and simply transported it to political musings.

I have a friend who listened to Beck back in his pre-Fox radio days, and says he was quite entertaining and smart back then. I don’t have any basis for judgment, as I’d never heard of him before 2008 or so, but it’s possible that it was Murdoch & Co. that turned him into a huckster, and he was more sane previous to that.

avatar Michael Umphrey January 23, 2013 at 12:55 am

Mr. Sabin,

I disagree with probably a majority of writers that I read, and some of them I find valuable enough to re-read.

I don’t really think Mr. Fox is stupid. I think he’s quite bright, in an ideological sort of way. I was simply communicating my response to his calling Mr. Beck stupid.

Corially, etc.

avatar D.W. Sabin January 23, 2013 at 4:55 pm

Mr. Fox,
Regardless of Beck’s “pre-Fox Days”, know that he has wholly participated in the charade that Fox, and its antipodes are prosecuting upon the people. He has been amply paid for this participation. This is 24 hr. a day hucksterism, a steady trafficking in half truths and partisan boosterism. It is, in no small measure, a result of the steady habituation to the telly of the last several decades, the principle reason nobody has half a clue about what is really going on. I tend to resent Foucault, particularly when he seems right but when I watch Fox and MSNBC, I think the media has found this notion of Ressentiment to be the surest route to riches and by all appearances, they seem right.

We have our red shirts and our blue shirts and the chariots are still careening around the Forum amidst a general debauch of entertaining mayhem.

avatar Brian January 30, 2013 at 2:59 pm

This is quasi-Fourierist in its vision, akin to the religious planned communes that participated in defining American presence in North America over the first 300 years. It’s a kind of Steven Gaskin’s Farm for Texans with short hair who don’t get high. The economics are similar, as is the focus on education, refuge community and proselytization.

avatar Unvarnished Beck Aplologist July 31, 2013 at 11:48 am

huck·ster (hkstr)
n.
1. One who sells wares or provisions in the street; a peddler or hawker.
2. One who uses aggressive, showy, and sometimes devious methods to promote or sell a product.
3. Informal One who writes advertising copy, especially for radio or television.
v. huck·stered, huck·ster·ing, huck·sters
v.tr.
1. To sell; peddle.
2. To promote or attempt to sell (a commercial product, for example) in an overaggressive or showy manner.
3. To haggle over; deal in.
v.intr.
To engage in haggling.

——————————————————————————–

Huckster? What’s he selling in this endeavor? What’s so “showy or overaggressive” in building a website and posting a video of your idea? “Huckster” implies some undercurrent of self-enrichment or personal gain; I didn’t see either of those, he’s already rich. For that matter, what’s more hucksterish about any of Beck’s bidness (write & sell books, assemble rallies and shows, fund your radio & internet TV with commercial endorsers) than Huff-Po, MSNBC/CBS/ABC, Oprah-network or any other media outlet from which you can buy books or attend shows for a fee?

Further, the term “consigned to a village” injects the false assertion that freedom to either live in or not live in Independence USA is stripped. Frankly, I don’t see much structural difference between this idea and the Mennonites. Doesn’t seem to be hurting those folks any to build a sub-society rejects aspects of the American society at large. Don’t wanna be one? Don’t live there.

Focussing on history, independence, entreprenurialship and apprenticeship is stupid why again?

Imagining homes that encourage social interaction and use modern engineering to “sequester” the auto traffic safely away from the cul-de-sac is bad why again?

Farming to feed ourselves (as opposed to Gov’t paying farmers not to grow?!?!?!?) is stupid why again?

The only question I have is, where does the educational content get vetted? I want to see teachers passionately argue all sides, and students learn how to think, not learn what to think…..and students come out of class not knowing where the teacher sits on any given subject. Some more detail there would be helpful……but before you “AH HA!!”-ers climb all over this as the thread that once pulled, reveals an underlying communist plot, consider that the current Dept of Ed requires curriculum. I deplore the inability to localize and amend curricula. Further, the inability to let the “market place” reward schools and teachers is resulting in pathetic literacy stats in many urban settings. So if this does those things, then why is that bad again?

Fox’s literary eye-rolling through the use of quotes around the words truth and quintessentially American are part of what Beck (and me in my popcorn-munching observation from the recliner) rallies against. Learning history through the actual words of the framers to quantify “quintessetially American” and the binary concept that some things are either true or untrue (and some things are unable to be categorized as such) is, in my opinion, essential to improve the prospects of America. “Quintessential America” can be a perfectly reasonable cast that isn’t completely invalidated by the mistakes made during the history of America. And truth, rather than having “versions”, is binary.

Finally, the only “intentionallity of community” here is to ensure, promote, reward, and continually attempt to acheive…..freedom. Freedom will self-navigate and result not in a necessarily moral, immoral, conservative, liberal, gay, religous, or any other kind of “oppressive” society (which is what I read that the critics of Independence USA fear; and who’ll, I’m sure, correct me if I’m wrong). I view Independence USA as a continuation of the American self-governing experiment intended to undo the forces of big government and return to the local level the governance of ourselves.

Its pretty easy to point & laugh, harder to present alternatives to the status quo.
Don’t like it? Don’t move there.

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