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Perfecting the Paranoid Style

November 6, 2009

by Peter Struck
from Lapham’s Quarterly

beck-time-coverFrom Buckley to Beck

Back in 1996, I had a correspondence with William F. Buckley, Jr., who, like many of those on the Right at the time, had a habit of claiming ownership over the ideas and spirit of the classical past. So it wasn’t altogether surprising to see him on television aligning himself with Socrates and pressing for the triumph of absolutes over relativism. What did catch my ear was that Buckley was arguing in favor of the death penalty, and was using Socrates to make his case. I couldn’t resist writing the man about the cruel irony of holding up as a poster boy for the death penalty the Western Tradition’s most famous victim of it. Buckley responded promptly, but never really engaged the most challenging issue: that Socrates, the paragon of classical rationalism, was deeply suspicious of that other signature legacy of his countrymen, democracy. He saw it as a system of government whose weakness was precisely that it rewarded those who could most artfully whip up a bunch of hot-headed boobs with the power to kill whoever displeased them. At its worst, it was rule by mob.

Seeing the doughy face of Glenn Beck extending his tongue at me from the cover of Time magazine last month made me recall that previous generation of Right-wing dogmatists with a whiff of nostalgia. Buckley, Irving Kristol, and the rest had a comparative seriousness of purpose in their ideas. Their bluster and posturing had an intelligent wrapper to it and they surely appreciated the danger of crowds. Their most recent successor for the Fox News set revels in his theme of pitchforks and barricades. Beck’s message, rooted in disenfranchisement and a quest for simple purity, bubbles out of him each evening in artfully arranged displays of resentment of the type that would make Huey Long and Richard Nixon envious. more

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