Mike Kueber's Blog

February 5, 2012

Sunday Book Review #62 – Being George Washington by Glenn Beck

Filed under: Book reviews — Mike Kueber @ 4:18 pm
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What a pleasant surprise!

I’ve never read anything from Glenn Beck, and I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I suspected the book would be highly partisan.  Instead, the message that Beck takes from Washington’s life is one of honor, duty, and compromise, which are things that partisans should be able to agree on.

Being George Washington has received mostly excellent reviews, but some critics contend that it has been mislabeled as non-fiction when it should be categorized as historical fiction.  I think it fits nicely in a category that has been described as “exemplary biography,” which is a term that I came across while reading about ancient philosophers.  Very little is known historically about the lives lived by these ancient philosophers, yet biographies are written about them in a way that corresponds with their philosophy.  Although Glenn Beck did not make up history to write this book, it is obvious that he tells only stories and anecdotes that support the pristine character of Washington.  The book is almost 300 pages long, yet I can’t remember a negative comment about Washington’s character or actions.

An exemplary biography is supposed to be inspirational, and Being George Washington certainly is.  The book is subtitled, “The Indispensable Man, as You’ve Never Seen Him,” and Beck is makes clear that America and the world would have vastly different histories if Washington had not lived his life of duty, honor, and compromise.  But Beck also makes clear that we can all aspire to live better lives that are suffused with Washington’s aforementioned values, plus modesty.

Regarding the book’s authorship, Beck stands alone as the listed author, and my conservative drinking friend tells me that Beck and Hannity write their own books, all while having talk shows on both TV and radio.  But in the fine print, the book says that it was written and edited by Glenn Beck and Kevin Balfe.  And in even finer print, it says its writers included David Pietrusa, Chris Stewart, David Harsanyi, and James D. Best, with contributors and researchers Sharon Ambrose, Andrew Allison, Hannah Beck, Allison Coyle, Christine Dietzel, Peter Lillback, Mary M. Parker, Jay Parry, Ashley Reaves, Matthew Scafidi, Benjamin Weingarten, Martha Weeks, and Angela Wiltz. 

Behind every great man is a great staff.

June 26, 2011

Aphorism of the Week #1 – a camel through the eye of a needle

Filed under: Aphorism — Mike Kueber @ 4:26 am
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Last week, as I was returning to San Antonio from North Dakota, I listened to several conservative talk shows, including Glenn Beck’s.  A couple of Beck’s shows were focused on Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey.

During those shows, Beck and his sycophants exhibited a strong case of man-love for Christie and relied on two clips to justify their love.  One of the clips showed Christie telling off a teacher who had the audacity to challenge Christie’s public-education cuts while sending his kids to Catholic schools.  Christie smugly told her it was none of her business where his kids went to school, but then went on to answer the question.

The second clip was an anti-Christie commercial from New Jersey educators complaining that Christie was a millionaire and that several of his aides were millionaires.  Beck and his wing-men made fun of the second clip by suggesting that perhaps the teachers would feel Christie was better qualified if he and his aides had not achieved financial success (a la Harry Truman).

Although the Beck ridicule is unquestionably valid, I wonder if the commercial is nevertheless effective because a lot of people think that most rich people don’t deserve their wealth.  Such thinking is consistent with my first aphorism of the week:

  • “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.  Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

This aphorism is recorded in the synoptic gospels – i.e., Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  Variations of it can also be found in Judaism (the Babylonian Talmud) and Islam (the Quran).

The saying was a response to a young rich man who had asked Jesus what he needed to do in order to inherit eternal life. Jesus replied that he should keep the commandments, to which the man stated he had done. Jesus responded, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” The young man became sad and was unwilling to do this.  Jesus then spoke this response, leaving his disciples astonished.

According to Wikipedia, the “eye of a needle” has been interpreted as a gate in Jerusalem, which opened after the main gate was closed at night. A camel could only pass through this smaller gate if it was stooped and had its baggage removed. This story has been put forth since at least the 15th century, and possibly as far back as the 9th century. However, there is no evidence for the existence of such a gate.

Thus, we are left with two conflicting interpretations of this aphorism – (a) the literal interpretation that the accumulation of wealth conflicts with the biblical value of loving your neighbor like yourself and (b) the modern rationalization that the accumulation of wealth merely creates additional challenges for achieving the kingdom of God.  I’m going with the latter.

June 22, 2011

Sunday Book Review #35 – American Theocracy by Kevin Phillips

Because I had such a good experience in listening to a book (The Da Vinci Code) during my drive to and from St. Louis in May, I decided to try listening to another book during my June drive to and from North Dakota.  Because The Da Vinci Code is a riveting book of fiction, I wondered if political nonfiction would be as spellbinding.

Much to my surprise, I found that listening to American Theocracy, a 2006 book by Kevin Phillips, was almost as mesmerizing.  Phillips is famous for writing one of the most famous political books of the 20th century – The Emerging Republican Majority – in 1969.  At that time, he coined the term “sunbelt” and presciently predicted that it would provide a core of support that would make the Republicans the majority party for a generation.

As the title to American Theocracy suggests, Phillips is now disenchanted with the Republican Party, but the focus of the book is not the salvation of the Republican Party, but rather the salvation of America.  According to Phillips, there are three great dangers to American pre-eminence:

  1. The Religious Right.  This group has taken over the Republican Party and is attempting to force America to act in accordance to with biblical teachings instead of in accordance with reason – e.g., climate change, stem-cell research, and evolution.  Phillips thinks it is ironic that Protestants in the early 60s were concerned that President Kennedy would take direction from the Pope, but in the 2000s they urge Democrats to take direction from the Pope, especially on the issue of abortion.  Phillips especially takes issue with American Exceptionalism, which he believes prompts hubris-laced policies.
  2. Mideastern oil.  According to Phillips, American dependence on Mideastern oil has caused America to have extensive, yet vulnerable national security interests throughout the world.  He believes that the war in Iraq was more a part of our oil strategy and less our concern for WMDs.  More importantly, Phillips shows that many great world powers have faded because they failed to move away from a fading energy resource (e.g., Great Britain and coal).  Instead of trying to defend our lifeline to the Mideast, Phillips suggests we should be working like India and China to develop alternative lifelines.
  3. Debt and an economy based on finance.  Throughout the book, Phillips compares America’s current challenges with the decline of four great world powers – Rome, Spain, the Netherlands, and Great Britain.  One of their shared traits was that, as their power matured, they shifted from producing things to becoming what Phillips called “rentiers” – i.e., people who survived on unearned income.  Declining powers also took on
    huge levels of debt.  Obviously, there is a danger of America going down that same path.  Phillips points out that the FIRE sector in America (finance, insurance, and real estate) has passed and is pulling away from the manufacturing sector even though the government is aggressively inflating the manufacturing numbers by
    including things like flipping burgers.

The spellbinding experience of listening to American Theocracy during my trip to and from North Dakota was enhanced by occasionally listening to talk radio – e.g., Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck.  This is the first time that I have listened to them at any length, and it was interesting.  Rush is bombastic, Sean is earnest, and Glenn is not as kooky as he seems on TV.  They often cover the same issues of the day, with the same sound bites and even same types of sponsors (gold sales, tax problems, and hard-drive backup systems).  Although they criticize the
echo chamber of the Washington/NYC elite, I suspect that their messages are equally echo chambers.

I found it ironic that Rush, Sean, Glenn, and others continually warn about the advances of evil secular forces in America while Kevin Phillips thinks America is dangerously close to becoming a theocracy.  As I switched back and forth from Phillips to the talk shows, I had to wonder if they were describing the same America.

April 10, 2011

Spinning the news

Reliable Sources is my favorite Sunday morning talk show.  Hosted by Howie Kurtz since 1998, the show examines the media’s coverage of important stories.  Coincidentally, Kurtz authored a book in 1998 titled Spin Cycle, in which he described technique used by the Clinton White House to spin his various controversies and scandals.

While watching Reliable Sources this morning, I learned that Glenn Beck, like Katie Couric earlier in the week, had been fired, although both of these sackings had been spun as voluntary decisions by these media stars.      

Bill O’Reilly likes to claim that “the spin stops here because I’m looking out for you.”  But on this occasion, O’Reilly was one of the guys who last week was spinning Beck’s departure like LeBron leaving Cleveland and taking his talents to South Beach.  Since watching Reliable Sources and doing some additional on-line research, it appears that Beck’s ratings have been falling precipitously, his advertisers have been deserting him, and his reputation as a messianic conspiracy-monger is damaging the FOX brand.  Thus, he was cut loose.

The Katie Couric spin wasn’t quite as deceptive.  Although some argue that she is moving on to better and more important things, most of her advocates eventually concede that her dismal ratings made her sacking inevitable. 

All of this suggests the importance of getting your news from a variety of sources.  Otherwise, your perceptions of the world, based on FOX News, might be diametrically different from those of the guy who lives across the street and listens to MSNBC or NPR.

January 22, 2011

A Patriotism quiz

After a couple of days indoors because of inclement weather, I finally got back on the road with my bike today.  It’s amazing how many “great” blogging ideas float into my head while I’m pounding on the pedals for a bit over an hour.  Today’s great idea is to develop a Patriotism quiz, something like the famous World’s Smallest Political Quiz, which reveals whether you are a liberal, statist, conservative, libertarian, or centrist.

You might recall in the movie “Working Girl” that our heroine was a secretary (Melanie Griffin) who came up with a great million-dollar idea that her boss (Sigourney Weaver) stole from her.  During the ensuing debate over who came up with the idea, Melanie eventually won because she was able to describe the circuitous process that led to the idea.  To prevent any accusation that I stole this great idea, let me describe the process that led me to it.

Earlier today, my friend Robert Icenhauer-Ramirez, who happens to be the best civil or criminal litigator in Austin, posted a criticism of Glenn Beck on my Facebook wall.  According to Robert, (1) Beck had accused CUNY professor Frances Piven of being an enemy of the U.S. Constitution because she is working toward the collapse of America’s economic system, and (2) Beck’s accusation had caused several Beck listeners to threaten Piven with severe harm or death. 

I suggested to Robert that:

a)      America has a lot of wingnuts, and because Obama is running things now, the right wingnuts are currently the most vocal; and

b)      Piven is a passionate proponent of the welfare state and Beck passionately believes in capitalism, and sometimes it is hard to attack an opponent’s position without seeming to attack the person.  We shouldn’t ask Piven or Beck to lose their passion solely because some wingnut says (or does) stupid things after listening to them.  The problem is the wingnuts, and that’s where the focus should be.

While on my bike ride, I did some more thinking about Piven and Beck.  I wanted to think that they were both patriots who wanted what was best for America, and that brought me back to a posting to my blog several months ago about patriotism. 

In the posting, I defined patriotism as love and devotion to your country and a willingness to sacrifice for it.  I also distinguished patriotism from nationalism – patriotism is the ideal of social cohesion, humanitarianism, equality, and harmony within one’s own society, while nationalism is the struggle to put one’s own nation ahead of other nations perceived as external rivals or threats. 

Based on these definitions, I conceded in my posting that someone who is highly critical of America’s past or present could still be a patriot.  But in applying those definitions to Beck and Piven, I wondered whether someone like Piven, who wants to fundamentally transform America (because there is nothing special about this country?), could be a patriot.  By definition, why would a person be willing to sacrifice for America if that person doesn’t think America is special? 

That question obviously leads to the concept of American exceptionalism, which President Obama has pooh-poohed.  Perhaps my Patriotism Quiz will include a question on American exceptionalism.  One survey that was comparing patriotism among countries asked a sample population, “Are you proud to be [insert nationality]?  America scored at the top; Germany scored at the bottom.  By itself, that question probably measures nationalism as much as patriotism. 

I have high hopes for a Patriotism Quiz.  If you can think of any questions that might reveal patriotism or lack thereof, please let me know.

October 28, 2010

Don Imus

Imus in the Morning has been my favorite talk show for many years.  I love Don Imus’ interviews with reporters, columnists, politicians, and authors.  I love his repartee with news guy Charles McCord, resident redneck Bernard McGuirk, sports guy Warner Wolf, and comedians Rob Bartlett and Tony Powell.  And I love his politics – left and right of center, at the same time.  Although he can be mean, sarcastic, and narcissistic, his heart is in the right place.   

I watched Imus on MSNBC for years while reading the morning paper and getting ready for work.  Then on April 4, 2007, he and McGuirk decided to insult the appearance of the girls on the Rutgers’ basketball team, with Imus calling them “nappy-headed hos.”  Jesse Jackson and Rev. Al Sharpton called for Imus’ head; even Barack Obama piled on.  One week later, Imus was fired. 

Although I was devastated by the firing, I had to move on.  But nothing really took his place.  Eventually, Imus in the Morning returned to an obscure TV network (RFD) that my cable provider didn’t provide.  Then last year, when the show moved to Fox Business News, I thought I was in luck, but instead I was disappointed to learn that my Time Warner cable package, which included hundreds of stations, didn’t include Fox Business News.  Although I could purchase another tier of stations that included Fox Business News for only $7, I kept putting off the purchase until I finally got around to doing it a couple of months ago. 

Purchasing the cable tier that included Imus in the Morning was one of the best purchases I have made in a long time.  Happy days are here again.  Although I still enjoy listening to Mike & Mike in the Morning, a sports talk show on ESPN2 at the same time, I usually prefer political talk over sports talk, especially following a weekend when both the Vikings and Longhorns lost. 

Last week, one of Imus’ guests asked him where he went to college, and Imus responded that he never went to college.  Neither did Charles McCord, he said.  That shocked the guest and me because Imus comes across as well read and cosmopolitan, and most of us associate those things with a college education.  But it didn’t shock my conservative friend, Kevin Brown, who says that popular talk-show hosts typically don’t have college educations.  He mentioned Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, and Rush Limbaugh.  By way of contrast, he suggested than unpopular talk-show hosts have elite educations – e.g., Anderson Cooper went to Yale, Rachel Maddow went to Stanford, and Keith Olbermann went to Cornell.  Coincidence?  I think not.  Popular and elite don’t mix.  Just ask John Kerry.

October 25, 2010

NPR and Juan Williams

There are two reasons why I’ve never listened to NPR (formerly National Public Radio).  The most important is that I prefer listening to popular music; the other is that NPR has a reputation for being high-brow, while I’m generally known as a philistine.  Although I am not an NPR listener, I still take umbrage at its decision this past week to fire Juan Williams for his comments about airplane passengers in Muslim garb.  

Some liberals have defended Juan’s firing by arguing that freedom of speech doesn’t guarantee a person’s job, but this is clearly a straw-man argument.  No one is arguing that a media company shouldn’t be able to fire someone for saying something controversial.  See my main man, Don Imus.  Most reasonable people (and the law) accept that an employment-at-will relationship can be severed by either party for whatever reason (except for illegal discrimination, etc.)  But just as an employee must be willing to accept the possibility of termination for exercising his free-speech rights, a media company must be willing to accept public disapproval for exercising its employment-at-will rights. 

Public disapproval is pounding on NPR for two reasons:

  • Juan William’s comments weren’t controversial.  He merely expressed a common human failing, that of his emotions over-riding his reasoning.  Jesse Jackson made a more problematic statement a few years ago when he said he got worried at night if he noticed several black males walking behind him.
  • NPR’s claimed reason for the firing (the controversial statement) was a pre-text.  As Fox News has reported, there is a long record at NPR for its analysts to say controversial things, but only if they are attacking conservative positions:
    • Cokie Roberts called Glenn Beck worse than a clown and more like a terrorist.
    • Nina Totenberg wished for Jesse Helms’ grandkids to get AIDS and has suggested that the Citizen decision from the U.S. Supreme Court could lead to another Watergate.
    • Daniel Schorr wrote that the Bush v. Gore decision was a coup and junta by a “gang of five.”

NPR receives about $3 million a year from the federal government, which is only 2% of its budget, but its network of subscriber stations receives a significantly larger portion of their budgets from the federal government.  All of this funding is jeopardized if NPR reveals itself to be left-leaning, and the firing of Juan Williams certainly puts gas on that fire.

September 4, 2010

An open letter to Glenn Beck re: the stock market

Dear Glenn Beck:

 I was recently listening to you being interviewed by Chris Wallace on a Sunday talk show following your big Saturday event in D.C.  During the interview, you smugly reminded Chris of your prescient prediction on the collapse of the stock market in late 2008 and early 2009.  I might say that even a blind squirrel occasionally finds an acorn, but that would unkind and unfair.  It is fair, however, to say that your prediction was a disservice to your country and your patriotic listeners.

You seem to think of the stock market as a betting place like Las Vegas – instead of betting on games, you bet on whether business is going to get better or worse.  But that is a fundamental misconception.  The stock market represents the ownership of American business, and that ownership entitles us to participate in future profits from the business.  This concept of ownership applies to both public and private companies, but ownership in public companies is much more liquid – i.e., easy to buy in or sell out. 

Liquidity is a major attraction of public stocks, but it can be a drawback, too, when prices fluctuate dramatically based on speculation about short-term earnings.  Unfortunately, speculators base their investment decisions, not on the long-term prospects for profits, but rather on the profits for the next few quarters. 

In 2008-2009, you told your listeners that the world economy was, essentially, going to hell, and therefore they should sell their ownership interest in business and place their cash in the safest place they could find.  In making this warning, you were suggesting that your listeners should act like a speculator instead of following Warren Buffett’s advice of “buy and hold.”    

Although your advice was focused on the stock market, I assume the same advice would apply to someone who had private ownership of a business.  It may not be as easy to sell private assets, but if you are jettisoning Buffett’s buy-and-hold philosophy, there is no reason for small proprietors to ride out the storm. 

Another issue with your advice – where can you safely place your money if the world economy is going to hell?  Your advice reminds me of John Denver, who was criticized for working toward energy independence while hedging his bet by installing several fully-stocked, industrial-sized fuel tanks in his back yard.  Don’t you realize that by living in fear of the future, you are exacerbating the problems that currently confront us? 

You probably aren’t old enough to remember this, but in my youth there were people who were building bomb shelters because of their fear that Russia was going to bomb us into oblivion.  These people wanted to be among the few who remained breathing the morning after.  Well, if Armageddon hits the world economy, let it be said that the Becksters followed the advice that Beck learned from his granddad:

“The people who survived the Great Depression were the ones who had money to buy when everybody else was selling.”

Some questions to ponder:

  • Do you want to plan your finances so that you will survive a financial meltdown?
  • If you put your money on the sidelines, will you be rooting (like Rush Limbaugh) for America to fail so that you can buy low later? 
  • What will happen to the American economy if everyone acts like you and decides to cash-out and go to the sidelines? 
  • Won’t the collapse of big businesses spread to small businesses and to families? 

I think your suggestion to abandon the American stock market was one of the least patriotic things you could do.