Monday, November 16, 2009

Barbarians at the Gate

Glenn Beck, who is one of the emerging faces and voices in the Republican Party, made news last week when he claimed that Barack Obama has "a deep seated hatred for white people or the white culture." It is very sad, indeed, that Obama's mother and grandparents are no longer able to respond to Beck. The patent absurdity of what he says would be easily dismissible, if not for the fact that people like Beck are nothing new in American political life.

As Richard Hofstadter has noted, Beck's virulent paranoia has a long history. Its "sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness and conspiratorial fantasy" first raised its head with the early fear of Masonry -- even though several of the founding fathers were Masons. And it was revived in the anti-Catholic movements of the 19th and early 20th century, when Catholics and their secret agents, the Jesuits, were said to be "prowling about all parts of the United States in every possible disguise, expressly to ascertain the advantageous situations and modes to disseminate Popery."

Then, a little more than sixty years ago, Joseph McCarthy saw a communist around every corner. One of his acolytes, Robert H. Welsh Jr., claimed that President Eisenhower's brother Milton was "actually [the president's] superior and boss within the Communist Party," and that Eisenhower himself, was "a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy." It was in the midst of this insanity that William F. Buckley founded National Review, in staunch support of McCarthy and his vision. The enemy, Buckley claimed, was Liberalism -- which had established a "gigantic, parasitic bureaucracy." But what really bothered Buckley was the people he thought were the barbarians at the gate.

If Liberalism has stood for anything over the last two hundred years, it has been for broadening the franchise. The first American voters were white, male property owners. Then those men who did not own property were given the right to vote; then the slaves were freed and given that right; then women were allowed to walk into polling booths. All of those who were deemed unworthy at the nation's founding were eventually allowed within the walls; and, for Buckley, that spelled disaster.

Thus, when the Supreme Court declared school segregation illegal in 1954, Buckley wrote that the question was "whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas where it does not predominate numerically. The sobering answer is Yes -- the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race."

And that, in a nutshell, is what is at the heart of what Hofstadter calls "the paranoid style" in American politics. All of the bromides about democracy can be thrown out when those who see themselves as members of "the advanced race" feel threatened. The basic rule of one person one vote does not apply. "Universal suffrage," Buckley concluded, "is not the beginning of wisdom or the beginning of freedom."

After the school desegregation decision, the next logical step was the Civil Rights Act of 1964 -- which put an end to all segregation and lynching in the South -- and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Once those two laws were passed, it was inevitable that one day a black man would be elected president -- as inevitable as a Catholic being elected to that office or appointed to the Supreme Court. It is interesting to note that -- at present -- five of the nine justices are, at least nominally, Catholics.

In his inaugural editorial, Buckley wrote that the mission of his magazine was to "stand athwart history yelling Stop." Buckley is gone. But Beck and Rush Limbaugh have picked up his mantle. They are convinced that there are uncivilized hordes standing outside the gate; and that Obama -- a card carrying member of the unworthy -- is ready to let them inside. The same complaint was raised against Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. Mr. Obama is in good company.


ChrisJ said...

I always respected Buckley's intelligence and learning, although I disagreed with almost everything he stood for.

With Beck and Limbaugh, and their ilk, I find nothing to respect at all. Some of the things the say seem to be within hailing distance of treason.

Owen Gray said...

Beck and Limbaugh prove that empty barrels make the most noise. Unfortunately, a surprising number of people conflate noise with intelligence.