July 09, 2009

Under discussion: Mark Levin, Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto, Threshold Editions (2009), 256 pages

The first paragraph of the first chapter of Mark Levin’s Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto, the talk radio host’s latest New York Times bestseller, reads: 

There is simply no scientific or mathematical formula that defines conservatism. Moreover, there are competing voices today claiming the mantle of “€œtrue conservatism”€”€” including neo-conservatism (emphasis on a robust national security), paleo-conservatism (emphasis on preserving the culture), social conservatism (emphasis on faith and values), and libertarianism (emphasis on individualism), among others. Scores of scholars have written at length about what can be imperfectly characterized as conservative thought. But my purpose is not to give them exposition, as it cannot be fairly or adequately accomplished here, nor referee among them.

Those familiar with Levin’s angry screeds, name-calling and general rudeness on his radio program might be surprised at first by the comparative thoughtfulness of his book.

It’s not The Conservative Mind exactly, but Levin does mention Russell Kirk and Edmund Burke and that the talk host would even note that conservatism has neo, paleo, social and libertarian wings (popular Atlanta-based talk host Neal Boortz insists that anyone who even uses the term “€œneo-conservative”€ is anti-Semitic) gives the initial impression that Levin might be better than the average right-wing radio ranter.

He’s not.

The problem with right-wingers like Levin and similar hosts is that they often say much that conservatives of all stripes would agree with. Stock radio talkers tout free markets over socialism, limited government over big government, border security over illegal immigration, and, using Levin’s language, “€œliberty”€ over “€œtyranny,”€ reflect conventional, long standing concerns on the Right. For better or worse, talk radio is where conservative America lives (at least in the political sense), and for every Right-leaning citizen who knows of Kirk or Fredrick Hayek, you will find 1,000 more who have never heard of them, yet listen to Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Levin every day.

It’s no secret that the great divide between the paleo and libertarian versions of the American Right and the rest of what we still call the “€œconservative movement”€ is foreign policy. Despite the heroic efforts of Pat Buchanan and Ron Paul, and to a lesser extent the late Paul Weyrich, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, and a handful of other mainstream pundits, for most Americans being a conservative means being pro-war. “€œYou can’t deny that George Bush was conservative on national security issues,”€ says Sean Hannity.

Understandably few Americans would disagree, as most figures they see calling themselves “€œconservatives”€ on TV, radio, or in print are the quickest and most eager to call for American intervention in foreign affairs. What the Old Right criticized as liberal, Wilsonian globalism is now considered mainstream conservatism, as defined by the most popular pundits who speak for the Right. Non-interventionists, and foreign-policy realists, who oppose utopian efforts to impose democracy militarily are often denounced as “€œliberals.”€ For example, about a year ago, I read a portion of a Buchanan column criticizing the Iraq war at the talk station where I”€™m employed here in Charleston, South Carolina. A caller asked “€œis this Air America radio?”€ “€¨

In a chapter titled “€œOn Self-Preservation,”€ Levin explains how the Founders”€™ conservative vision for America was decidedly neo:

The Founders recognized that America had to be strong politically, economically, culturally and militarily to survive in a complex, ever-changing global environment not only in their time but for all time. History bears this out. After the Revolutionary War, the Founders realized that the Confederation was inadequate to conduct foreign affairs, since each state was free to act on its own. There could be no coherent national security policy, because there was no standing army… The Framers understood the complementary purposes of domestic and foreign policy. George Washington’s Farewell Address of 1796 is often misunderstood as a proclamation of isolationism. This ignores its historical context… Washington believed that the nation’s survival required a strong national defense…”€

“€¨ “€¨
When the average Levin listener hears the phrases “€œnational defense”€ or “€œnational security,”€ he naturally thinks of current U.S. foreign policy, automatically assuming that our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops stationed all over the world are not unnecessary occupations or imperialism as some claim, but very necessary defensive measures of the American homeland.  That this might be a bizarre way of looking at the world, and that many conservatives have said so”€”including giants like Kirk whom Levin cites”€”is something the reader will never know. One even wonders if Levin knows. And Levin gives the impression that global American empire, not merely a republic in which “€œeach state was free to act on its own,”€ had been the Founders intention from the beginning. “€¨

In his attempt to create a conservative defense for policing the world, Levin promotes neoconservative utopianism and imperialism by denouncing any attempts to pursue utopianism or imperialism. Confused? On the Iraq War Levin writes:

The key is that these decisions must never be motivated by utopianism or imperialism but by actual circumstances requiring the defense of America against real threats. If the war in Iraq is understood as an effort to defeat a hostile regime that threatened both America’s allies and interests in the region, the war and the subsequent attempts at democratic governance in that country can be justified as consistent with founding and conservative principles.

As for the utopian motives for invading Iraq, apparently Levin had forgot about Bush’s many “€œspreading democracy”€ speeches or the president’s seeming comfort that “€œhundreds of thousands of American servicemen and women are deployed across the world in the war on terror… bringing hope to the oppressed.”€ I certainly don”€™t remember Levin criticizing or warning of Bush’s utopianism, even for a war Levin now claims to have supported on non-utopian grounds. I have also heard Levin use similar, utopian language himself, usually in the midst of a heated pro-war rant.

As for imperialism, the subtext to Levin’s argument that “€œif the war in Iraq is understood as an effort”€ of actual defense against “€œreal threats,”€ then virtually any possible future preemptive military action could qualify as “€œdefense.”€ The talk radio host’s refusal to even reexamine whether Saddam Hussein was ever an actual threat is a curse that continues to plague the mainstream Right”€”due in large part to the glaring blindness of men like Levin. Writes The National Interest‘s Jacob Heilbrunn: “€œthe Bush administration and the neoconservatives and liberal hawks who supported the invasion didn’t just get it wrong. They got it exactly backwards. In every way possible and then some, they invented a threat that simply did not exist.”€

If the obvious disaster of Iraq isn”€™t enough to reexamine one’s hawkish, foreign policy views, then what is? The American Conservative‘s Daniel Larison’s indictment of conservatives who refuse to learn from the foreign policy mistakes of the past is custom made Levin: “€œAmong the mainstream right, the foreign policy of the Bush administration is barely a subject of debate. Rather than reorienting Republican foreign policy towards a political center defined by realism, humility and restraint, the GOP’s leadership and activists have redoubled their commitment to Bush and Cheney’s hawkish stances and to a lock-step defense of the Bush administration’s policies.”€  “€¨ “€¨

Lesson not learned, Levin writes approvingly of what, by all rights, should be the most discredited part of the Bush doctrine:

[A] defensive foreign policy does not exclude the necessity of preemptive action… there are occasions when America has suffered grievously, including on 9/11, for failing to act preemptively.

Throughout Liberty and Tyranny Levin uses the word “€œStatist”€ to describe what he considers the liberal agenda. But then, criticism of militarism and torture is, according to Levin, also the work of those nefarious “€œstatists.”€ On waterboarding Levin writes:

The Statist has succeeded in characterizing something as torture that is not torture, for the purpose of banning its judicious use.

On the PATRIOT Act:

The Statist has also opposed the interception of enemy communications, such as email and cell-phone contacts, without approval from a court. But his position is contrary to all legal precedent, historical practice and highly impractical, given the speed by which such communications occur. Yet again he claims the practice threatens Americans”€™ civil liberties. Where is the actual evidence of widespread civil liberties abuses against American citizens? It is nonexistent.

That it is “€œstatists”€ who question the constitutionality of the PATRIOT Act or the morality of torture makes zero sense. If he were honest, Levin would concede that increasing government power, whether by allowing it to spy on citizens or the executive branch redefining interrogation methods to circumvent the law, are inherently “€œstatist”€ measures that he just happens to believe are necessary.

Levin is not stupid, and it’s almost impossible to imagine him believing his own words… But regardless, his fans do. Attending the 4th of July Tea Party here in Charleston, the crowd of roughly 1,000 were asked to register for the event, and after writing your name, address and email, a smiling woman handed you a one page copy of Levin’s 10 point “€œconservative manifesto.”€ On each point, taxation, the environment, judges, government, education, immigration, entitlements, faith and the Constitution, the vague language is something virtually all conservative could agree on. On point 8, or “€œforeign policy and security,”€ Levin is no more explicit:

Ensure that all foreign policy decisions are made for the purpose of preserving and improving American society. Reject all treaties, entanglements, institutions, and enterprises that have as their purpose the supplantation of America’s best interest, including its physical, cultural, economic and military sovereignty, to an amorphous “€˜global”€™ interest… Ensure that America remains the world’s superpower. Ensure that at all times America’s military forces are prepared for war to dissuade attacks, encourage peace, and, if necessary, win any war.

Parts of Levin’s foreign policy program could be interpreted as “€œisolationist”€ (rejecting “€œentanglements”€ and “€œglobal interests”€), and yet Levin’s career-long philosophy has been that there’s no use in being a superpower unless you let the rest of the world know what makes America so militarily super. It’s this jumble of appealing, traditional conservative language combined with full blown neoconservatism”€”an ideology even its adherents admit isn”€™t conducive to small government”€”that allows pundits like Levin to inflict so much damage on the Right.

Levin’s audience is composed of decent, patriotic folks who just want what’s best for their country. The problem is they keep looking to men like Levin to determine what that might be. “€¨ “€¨

Like the first Tea Party events, the 4th of July protesters primary criticism was government spending, and yet they were circulating flyers written by a man who thought spending three trillion dollars on Iraq was not only a good idea, but would be enthusiastic about doing it again in Iran or elsewhere. I wondered what the protesters holding “€œDon”€™t Tread on Me”€ flags and screaming “€œliberty”€ at the tea party think the Founding Fathers would have thought of Levin’s support for preemptive war, torture, and government surveillance. According to “€œthe great one,”€ the Founders would have been enthusiastically for each. Levin’s warnings about the dangers of “€œutopianism”€ in foreign policy are almost laughable, when you consider his closest radio comrade Sean Hannity, still praises Bush for “€œliberating”€ Iraqis.

<iframe src=“http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?lt1=_blank&bc1=000000&IS2=1&bg1=FFFFFF&fc1=000000&lc1=0000FF&t=taksmag-20&o=1&p=8&l=as1&m=amazon&f=ifr&md=10FE9736YVPPT7A0FBG2&asins=1416562850” style=“FLOAT: right; MARGIN: 0px 0px 10px 10px; WIDTH: 120px; CURSOR: hand; HEIGHT: 240px” alt=”“></iframe>”€œHey Jack!”€ said one man at the tea party, “€œyou read Liberty and Tyranny? It’s great, man!”€ I just nodded. “€œI like a lot of what you say Jack”€ he added, “€œbut you”€™re so wrong about the war. America is doing so much good for so many people over there.”€ A few minutes later, another man, older, smiling and with a Southern accent even thicker than mine said, “€œYou read Mark Levin’s book, Jack?”€ When I told him I had, the gentleman said “€œHe had a lot of good things to say, but something about him, I don”€™t know… he doesn”€™t seem to get everything as much as he should.”€ I smiled and replied “€œSir, that’s the best review of Levin’s book I”€™ve heard all day.”€


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