Glenn Beck - a quick witted and well-informed man - is too inflexible and black-and-white in his thinking to be intelligent.


The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, March 5, 2010. This blog post also appeared on Stanton's Addiction in Society blog at

What Intelligence Means

Conservative fundamentalist Glenn Beck is a cable TV hit, a national phenomenon.

He also has a very quick mind. And he is quite well-informed. Recently, one of the New York Times' Freakonomics bloggers, Stephen Dubner, spoke of meeting and being impressed by Beck. When Beck expressed an interest in a book Dubner was carrying, Physics for Future Presidents, Dubner gave Beck his copy - which Beck accepted with alacrity.

Beck speaks often of reading compulsively. His favorite authors are Constitutional historians who bemoan our deviations from that great historic document. Beck often insists his viewers read these books. (Enough do to radically boost their sales, but when Beck asked a live audience questions, they knew the answers to none of them - one offered a fictional movie character, Shane, as the answer to an historical query from Beck.)

But the fact that Beck's audience is not as well-informed as he and the authors he frequently invites to speak on his show is not the point of this post. It is that information Beck absorbs is (a) consistent with his prior views, (b) doesn't make him a more complex thinker.

Beck has a Manichean view of the world - there is good, there is bad. The Constitution and the founders are good; the progressive movement (even including Teddy Roosevelt, usually a conservative hero) is bad. Of course, Communists, whom Beck sees everywhere, are worse. The bad forces - marshaled by the Obama administration - are attempting to poison our minds and take over the country.

We need to return to the truths of the Constitution - which for Beck are consistent with God's truths. We need to strip away all the doohickeys that have been added to the original Constitution - the Department of Education - the idea that education is a right - the suggestion that health care is a right, presumably Medicare and Social Security (although I've never heard him say he'd discard these "entitlements" that most Americans, even conservatives, now consider to be essential rights).

The Constitution was adopted in 1787. But it was controversial - the last of the 13 original states to ratify the Constitution (Rhode Island) didn't do so until 1790. It has 27 amendments - the first ten are called the Bill of Rights and were added because otherwise not enough Americans would endorse the document sans the individual protections the Bill offered. So the founders weren't infallible after all.

You know how we can tell the Constitution really wasn't infallible? It enshrined slavery. The thirteenth amendment, passed in 1865 (without the support of the Southern states), abolished slavery; and the fourteenth (1868) was passed in an attempt to prevent states from denying individual rights to its citizens (read Negroes). They still needed the fifteenth amendment (1870) to prevent states from using race as a determinant of voting rights. But, do you know, poll taxes - a mechanism for preventing African Americans from voting - were only abolished by the twenty-fourth amendment, passed in 1964?

Do you know the nineteenth amendment was only ratified in 1920? That was the amendment that gave women the right to vote.

So, the Constitution and our founders didn't consider African-Americans and women real people. Does that make them bad? It does for some people.

Human beings don't digest complex ideas readily - that people, cultures, countries, have both good and bad elements. It takes real intellectual depth and penetration to come to grips with that complexity.

The founders were great, but their ideas - our leaders - needed to evolve. And that was only possible because the country and our culture evolved. Think we're fully evolved? There are still presidential candidates (like Mitt Romney) who campaign on passing a Constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. That won't happen and, in our lifetimes - quite soon in fact - most people will consider people benighted who think that homosexuals don't have the same rights as heterosexuals.

It is impossible for us to fathom how different the country - the world - were in the Colonial era, when the Constitution was written, from how we are now. The main form of medical care was to bleed patients - a procedure George Washington underwent many times - it almost killed him. Naturally, people didn't feel as much of a need to seek medical care as they do today when they encounter infection or disease.

In 1887, there was still not modern medical treatment. Today, we cannot begin to fathom what life was like then, a hundred years after the Constitution was written, when corporations ran rampant over the country - leading ultimately to Teddy Roosevelt's role as a "trust buster." And, kiddies, there were no automobiles, no air planes, no electric lights, no radios, no telephones (not no cell phones - no phones of any sort) - and ordinary people wouldn't have these things for another half century and more.

Human beings are not good at comprehending how their worlds - how society, lifestyles, feelings, human needs - are reshaped and take new forms over time.

So here is the definition of intelligence: being able to accept complex ideas that the same things - people even - have good and bad elements, and that the way we live and experience the world are not written in heaven - or in our genes. Fundamental feelings and ideas are subject to evolution and negotiation.

Hard to get your mind around, isn't it? But, just remember, our greatest heroes - George Washington and Thomas Jefferson - kept slaves, an institution defended by the most upright ministers for many more decades. And not only Martha Washington (let alone Jefferson's slave lover, Sally Hemings) couldn't vote, nor Mary Todd Lincoln, but even the wife of Teddy Roosevelt - a twentieth century president.