From the department of twisting words way beyond their meaning, we have Glenn Beck‘s response to these lines from President Obama’s Wednesday deficit speech, which refer to the guarantees of social security, medicare and unemployment insurance:
We are a better country because of these commitments. I’ll go further – we would not be a great country without these commitments.
To the attentive ears of Beck and his lieutenant Stu Burguiere, this is the same as saying the USA wasn’t a great country until 1965. They hear the president portraying the modern social safety net as a qualification for national greatness. It follows logically, therefore, that America wasn’t great until the last major piece (Medicare) was in place. Following this line further, the United States could not hold its head high prior to the system of social insurance. Framers of the Constitution? Not so special.
Nice try, guys.
In order to make their argument, Beck and Burguiere have to ignore the obvious point that these questions are judged in light of their historical times. It makes perfect sense for President Obama to say that in our present time, no great nation would cut loose the people fighting the toughest odds — with no implication that the same standard of social guarantees applies to our entire history.
That’s the trap for this brand of conservatism. Does their idea of progress leave no room for the evolution of government to keep up with the times? Is it really all right there in the Constitution and the amendments? This is just gauzy nostalgia dressed up as principle.
The far-right likes to claim this is a debate about American exceptionalism. No, it’s a debate about American infallibility. The idea that the United States is based on certain ideals and plays a special role in the world is shared across a pretty wide political spectrum. The notion that we have no room or need for improvement is hotly contested. And Glenn Beck isn’t the only Fox News demagogue who wants us to focus on the former question, rather than the latter.
Let me cite another bit of 18th Century wisdom, Samuel Johnson’s famous remark that self-righteous patriotism is “the last refuge of scoundrels.” If the right wing believes America was better off a century ago, before income taxes, labor unions and the New Deal, fine let’s debate that. But let’s not confuse the belief in progress with the rejection of history and tradition.
Photo credit: Gage Skidmore