Did you ever think you’d see those two names juxtaposed? I watched Beck’s CPAC speech online just now all the way through — an hour plus. Beck by virtue of his headlining CPAC appearance has been more or less designated as the conservative movement’s preeminent spokesman. The man is a phenomenal talker but I was squirming throughout. Something about the theme of comparing America to a drunk on his way to hitting bottom — through an addiction to taxing and spending — rubbed me the wrong way. The theme was that like Beck himself, who very frequently and emotively refers to his personal experience of having gained wisdom by looking into the “abyss” of alcoholism, the country will soon face a disastrous “morning after” following a long debauch. There were numerous references to vomiting — tasteless, I thought — and to confession and repentance. You have to admit you have a problem before you can seek help.
His theme, as ever with Beck, was apocalyptic. He asks us to contemplate a coming “economic Holocaust.” And so on. What’s wrong with this? At NRO, Bill Bennett admonishes Beck for extrapolating from his private struggles as if they could be directly mapped onto to the national scene. Trying to put a finger on what irritated me, I opened Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, in the Laws of Repentance, and immediately found two items of interest.
If there are two things in public life that I despise, they are a) being clubbed over the head with someone else’s personal story when it seems designed to elicit my admiration; and b) being manipulated through fear. Maimonides, distilling the Talmud, writes of both these things. Public confession of sins committed against another person can have a tonic effect. One thinks of Tiger Woods, whose case of confessed adultery Beck discussed in the speech. But sins that are not committed against another person but rather primarily against God – or you might say, against yourself – are not fit for public confession: “In regard to sins between man and God, it is not necessary to publicize one’s [transgressions]. Indeed, revealing them is arrogant” (2:5). Presumably, abusing your body through various addictions would fall into this latter category. Don’t you find there’s something arrogant and preachy about people who flaunt their “recovery,” even if for seemingly fine reasons?
Later in the same text, Maimonides writes about categories of people who by their actions give up the hope of reward in the World to Come. Most sins do not carry this degree of severity. One of the categories is people who rule or influence others through fear: “‘Those who cast fear upon the people for reasons other than the service of God’ – This refers to one who rules the community with a strong hand and [causes] them to revere and fear him. His intent is only for his own honor and none of his desires are for God’s honor” (3:13). I of course have no way of knowing what’s in Beck’s heart, but his apocalyptic style, the habit of constantly trying to scare us, is not in the best conservative tradition as I know and believe in it, that’s for sure. Can you imagine William F. Buckley ever descending to these levels?