When I received a review copy of the new book by over-emoting radio-TV talker Glenn Beck, I sighed and put it to the side. What put me off were the book's title, Arguing with Idiots, and the cover photo showing Beck dressed as a commissar, making a funny face.
Since it's axiomatic that arguing with idiots is a waste of time, I thought one might as well have published a book called Exercise in Futility for Dummies or The Idiot's Guide to Banging Your Head Against the Wall– neither prospect appeals to me all that much. Besides, in the decade and a half since Rush Limbaugh sold millions of copies of his commentaries on issues of the day, enough talk show hosts have published books that reading them all would consume about 90% of my book reviewing time, and very few have proven to be worth the effort.
But with all the heat generated by Beck in the last couple of months — and the fact that I've defended him a few times from the likes of Keith Olbermann over at Newsrealblog.com — my curiosity got the better of me. What I found was very surprising — and worth my time.
So here's my rundown of the good, the bad and the ugly of Glenn Beck's new book:
The book itself. It's not just good — much of it is really, really good. Shockingly good. It reminded me of the kind of bestsellers that came out in the early 1980s, when free-market thinking made its big comeback, aided by libertarian Robert Ringer's Restoring the American Dream on the pop-thinking level, and George Gilder's Wealth and Poverty for the more philosophical reader.
But what much of the content of Arguing really reminds me of — and don't throw things at me — is the late, great Milton and Rose Friedman's classic of capitalism, Free to Choose. Now, before anyone has a stroke or writes my editor in shock and disdain, I'm not saying Arguing with Idiots is in the league with the book that is one of the five most influential of my life.
However, I do think this book would have made Milton Friedman smile with approval. About two-thirds of Arguing with Idiots updates the topics covered in Free to Choose. In fact, one could almost see chapter headings (if the arguing with idiots motif had not been adopted) similar to the titles "Who Protects the Consumer?" or "Who Protects the Worker?" from Friedman's classic. Arguing could have had a chapter called "Who Protects the Patient?" Instead, Beck chose to give the chapter a rather prosaic name, "Universal Health Care."
That said, "Universal Health Care" is one of the book's most valuable chapters. Unlike some other segments, such as the one about the Second Amendment, Beck (and his team of writers and illustrators) does more than (very effectively) restate familiar arguments, Beck offers witty asides and on-point illustrations (both literally and figuratively) while presenting a wealth of material that will be new to even well-informed readers and veterans of the political commentary wars. Particularly terrific is a section on how innovative companies are meeting the demand for low-cost insurance and changing the paradigm on how health care is delivered. This is something the current debate is sorely lacking from free-market advocates, who too often are merely opponents of socialized medicine.
Back when the Friedmans wrote Free to Choose, private sector unions were still the major force in Democrat politics, with growing backup from the teachers unions. Industrial unions are greatly diminished now, and Beck takes on the even more insidious nature of public employees unions — particularly the Service Employees International Union and its ties to ACORN and President Obama.
Teachers unions also take a big hit, as they did with Friedman, with Beck arguing for freedom in the education system. His flow chart on how to fire a tenured teacher in New York City is priceless.
Like most libertarian-leaning writers, Beck is best at economic issues, really good at arguing for the Second Amendment and other constitutional issues and weaker on social issues and history.
However, as entertaining and informative as Beck's teacher tenure flow chart is "Presidential Smackdown," an NCAA bracket-type seeding chart for ranking the nation's presidents. It's a lot more fun than the usual kind of list put out by historians and apt to promote a much more detailed discussion than a mere one through 44 list.
Most people will argue that No. 7 seed William H. Taft's defeat of John F. Kennedy and Franklin D. Roosevelt, seeds No. 2 and 1, respectively, is far too upset-minded (Beck states correctly that the 16th Amendment passed under Wilson who he correctly eviscerates, but it was Taft who championed the Amendment and it passed shortly after he left office.) George Washington and Abraham Lincoln certainly should have appeared in different brackets so they could finish first and second – but, hey, this only shows why the bracket method is both more fun and focused, and having Jefferson make the finals is in keeping with Beck's personal philosophy.
Since I can't reprint any of the pages with its illustrations and fun asides, here's an example of the wit and wisdom that permeates Arguing. As he wraps up a terrific chapter on energy and the free market, Beck examines the law of unintended consequences as it related to government regulation in general and energy policy in specific:
"Remember those incredibly ugly station wagons with wood paneling on their sides? Most people believed they went away because they were incredibly ugly and had wood paneling on their sides. But actually CAFE (fuel economy) standards killed them off. (Okay CAFE and the fact that they were unbelievably ugly with wood paneling on the sides.) The station wagons weren't fuel-efficient enough to hit the new standards and car companies had little choice but to make them extinct (which probably would've happened anyway because they had, well, incredibly ugly wood paneling on the sides).
"But people still had families. They still had to go to the store and pick up furniture or groceries. They still needed a way to carry around half of the Little League team and all of its equipment. So automakers shifted their focus and work toward creating a vehicle to meet this demand in the 'light truck' category with a less restrictive efficiency standard. What was their most successful solution?
"The 'sport utility vehicle.'
"Anyone who says that environmentalists have never brought us anything good isn't being fair, because we can all thank the green movement for the creation of the SUV."
Not all of the humor works, but that's to be expected. The strange Mt. Rushmore illustration at the beginning of one of the strongest chapters — health care — is unfortunate if it diverts anyone from this terrific section.
My only significant problem with the book is the marketing premise. The title, Arguing with Idiots, is needlessly confrontational because this book is aimed at real people, not fanatical leftist opinion leaders. In his introduction, Beck says his book provides a method for, among other things, readers to shut up their liberal relatives so they can get on with a quiet holiday.
Yeah, I know: Ann Coulter had a book, How to Talk to a Liberal, if You Really Must, but does anyone think it ranks with her best, such as Traitor and Godless? And a friend informs me that Arguing with Idiots was a popular and funny segment on Beck's radio show during the election season. But that's inside baseball, and never mentioned in the book.
But the substance of Arguing consists of very convincing arguments, not merely one-liners to shut people up, so the title and the premise don't really reflect the high value of the content itself. A title that conveyed the good-natured and very smart appeal of this book would have been preferable. (Just don't ask me to come up with such a title.)
Which naturally brings us to…
Look, I get it. It's a joke, Glenn the Book Czar. Ha, Ha. And it's not even the goofiest costume Beck has donned since his live Fox News TV gig took off early this year.
But with the word "fascist" floating around all over the place again, and Jonah Goldberg finally getting the term aimed in the correct direction, who the heck thought this was a good idea?
First, it's not a cover that will attract the unconvinced. For every one person who buys the book, a hundred browsers are apt to walk by, wrinkle their nose and associate Beck and his fans with the confrontational-looking martinet on the cover.
But, you may well argue, how can you criticize the promotion strategy for the No.1 bestseller in the nation? Easy. Beck's audience is large and loyal, which is enough to get this book to the top of the list.
But the material is good enough to convince doubters and presented entertainingly enough for the fan club to give and recommend to the uninitiated. That outreach is not made easier by the notion that giving the book to someone who doesn't yet agree with you is in effect calling them an idiot.
This is a book filled with persuasive arguments that lots of people who argue about such things for a living have never heard. And they need to.