The Death of the American Spirit

Glenn Beck is not necessarily high on my list of authorities but he isn’t low either. I like him personally; it takes courage to say some of the things he says, and it takes courage to leave a well-paid position at a top-rated TV station and start your own business. You have to respect a guy who does that. And my children like his book; it is simple, logical, and in fact, he comes out much humbler in the book than he is in his show. On the other hand, I don’t necessarily agree with all his views. And sometimes he bullies some of his critics who call him. Well, yes, some critics deserve it; some don’t. Either way, Glenn Beck is a significant factor in the conservative politics in our time; you can’t ignore him easily.

I was listening to a conversation between Glenn Beck and “Lisa,” a lady who called him to criticize him for his statement earlier that he would rather support Ron Paul than the progressive Newt Gingrich. Lisa was apparently either Evangelical or neo-conservative, for the fate of Israel and the Iranian threat against Israel were a big factor in her reasoning. Nothing new here, there are millions of voters like her. She was outraged by Glenn Beck’s statement which to her sounded like in support of Ron Paul. In fact, Glenn Beck made it even worse by saying that he agreed economically with Ron Paul’s views of free markets and limited government and Constitution. She retorted that Ron Paul’s views on foreign policy are very dangerous. Glenn Beck agreed, and pointed to her that what is more important now is not so much what foreign threats we have but that we have a huge domestic threat: we are on the road to lose our liberty, and the Constitution. And that’s what Glenn Beck sees in Ron Paul, a champion of liberty and the Constitution, and that he would rather see such a man President than the progressive Newt Gingrich. Nothing new there, Glenn Beck expresses the views of an even larger segment of conservative voters who are beginning to see that the foreign threats are largely made up by an establishment which is determined to take away our liberties.

The conversation was rather dull until at a certain moment (5:22) I heard Lisa say:

“I’d rather have the United States and Israel exist than not exist.”

This was in reply to Glenn Beck question: “Which do you choose, lose your liberty and the Constitution, or remain free?”

Lisa’s reply is very important. It points to a major paradigm shift in the thinking of our modern conservative voters; a paradigm shift that runs contrary to everything America has been and was founded upon.

This nation was founded upon the understanding that no security, no prosperity, no career, is worth it, if there is no liberty. The Founding Fathers placed their signatures under the Declaration of Independence knowing very well that in case of defeat, they would have to pay with their lives. Most of them were well-to-do; they had much to lose in a war against the mighty British Empire. And many of them did lose much, in terms of property, loved ones, or even their lives. The taxes imposed on them weren’t too high, and from an economic point of view, they wouldn’t have any disastrous effect on the colonial economy.

But they signed the Declaration anyway, and they fought. Their spirit was summarized in the sentence found in that famous speech Patrick Henry delivered in Saint John’s Church in Richmond on March 23, 1775: “Give me Liberty, or Give me Death!” Life wasn’t worth living without liberty. They would rather see themselves dead than enslaved.

This spirit didn’t die easily. In the 1800s Ralph Waldo Emerson echoed it in his words,

“For what avail the plough, or sail, or land, or life, if freedom fail?”

As late as the 1900s conservative Republican politicians like Thomas B. Reed were still committed to the idea of liberty no matter what. America didn’t deserve to exist if she wasn’t free; in fact, without liberty, there was no America, no matter what would come in her place; for America was defined not by geography nor genes nor a ruling dynasty nor any other kind of factor the other nations identified themselves but by that ideal of liberty, liberty from government force and regulation, liberty for the individual to pursue his happiness within the limits of the moral law.

This American spirit of liberty has always been the inspiration for the American conservatives. In the 1980s, in the great conservative comeback – insufficient but very real and very strong – Ronald Reagan referred many times to that American spirit that valued liberty more than anything else, more than even survival and prosperity. The popularity of John Wayne and the Westerns did not come out of nothing; they captured the imagination of several generations of children and adults with that same spirit of freedom. Conservatism deserved its name: it wanted to conserve the American spirit as it was in the first days of this glorious Republic.

Lisa’s confession, “I’d rather have the United States and Israel exist than not exist,” when faced with the choice between freedom and slavery, is indicative of a paradigm shift among the conservatives. Survival is considered now a higher virtue, even if the threat is as remote and fictional as one nuclear bomb of a nation that can’t even produce their own gasoline. Lisa is scared out of her wits by that possible threat, and she is willing to ignore the question of her liberty, only if she could exist, and if the United States and Israel could exist. It is not about British troops in Richmond, it is about stone-age Muslim tribes in the mountains of Persia; and yet, the very thought of a danger makes modern American conservatives tremble.

If this is allowed to develop, it will mean the death of American conservatism, and the death of that spirit that created America in the first place. When we watched American movies and read about America back in the 1980s in Eastern Europe, we didn’t admire America and Americans for their willingness to give up liberty for security; neither did the Founding Fathers define America in such a way. In fact, if anything, Benjamin Franklin criticized the very idea of giving up even a little liberty for security. In the end, he said, such a person will end up with neither liberty nor security.

And when liberty is taken away, there is no point for America to exist. Glenn Beck got it right.