The Overton Window: Prolegomenon
Now, much like when I began doing Left Behind, I need to lay down some ground rules. First and foremost, this is not a review of the book. This series is, instead, simply an account of my reactions to the book provided on a chapter-by-chapter basis. As such it is neither impartial nor intended to be definitive. It is, instead, entirely opinion and should be viewed as such. Second, this book is political and as a result my responses to it will also touch on political matters. That said, if I mock the perspectives advanced in this book, my mockery should not be construed as extending beyond the specific ideas advanced therein. In other words, I don't think this book necessarily represents anyone's opinions- even Glenn Beck's when you get right down to it- so my criticism should only be read as applying to the book itself. If your views match the book's completely... well... that's your business, but my comments shouldn't be viewed as applying broadly to Republicans, Democrats, Fascists, Socialists, tea partiers, or anything else other than the book. In this vein, Beck writes (among other things) in the "Note from the Author" on page X (that's not a variable, it's numbered with the Roman numeral X) that "I've been called every hateful thing there is to call someone and I can handle it." I take this as an explicit invitation to criticsm, though my criticism will be predominantly directed at this book specifically and not at Beck. I don't know Beck personally, so while I may not agree with what he says sometimes, that doesn't mean I wish him harm or desire to disparage his character. Nevertheless, he says he can handle criticism, so I'm going to take him at his word. Third, and perhaps most weird, I am actually going to try very hard to not constantly attribute what's in this book to Beck and suggest that you do so as well. The main reason for this is that The Overton Window isn't just written by Glenn Beck. Indeed, it is also written by Kevin Balfe, Emily Bestler and Jack Henderson. Yes, that's right: this book has four authors. As a result, I think it's quite murky what was written by Beck directly, what was written to Beck's instructions, and what was just filled in by one of the other contributors. So, in the final analysis, we can't really know what in here stems from Beck and what doesn't.
As with Left Behind, each week we'll have an entry in the series that covers some amount of the book, quoting direct passages and giving my reactions. I say "some amount" because the exact amount is going to vary. With Left Behind I did a half chapter each week, which meant that with 25 chapters I needed about a year from start to finish. The Overton Window is also divided into chapters- 47 to be precise, plus various and sundry prologues and afterwords and whatnot- but these chapters are of very, very inconsistent length. Indeed, some chapters are 8-10 pages long, while others are basically a single page long. As a result, I can't predict how much of the book will end up in a given installment- it could be one chapter, or a half-dozen. Additionally, in the afterword the authors provide what amounts to a bunch of end notes, hypothetically backing up what's contained in the book itself. I'm going to try to provide direct references to as much of this material as possible as we go so that you can see the supporting documentation that the authors want you to see. I'll indicate these notes in the quoted text and/or my commentary with a number inside parentheses (e.g. (1)), with a link to the relevant documents. My own footnotes will retain my traditional stars system (e.g. *, **, etc.). Page/line numbers are in bold, quotes from the book are in block quotes, my commentary is in regular print, and you can navigate the whole series with the provided tag.
With Left Behind, each week I chose a comment of the week and then the person at the end of the series with the highest score got a prize. I'll be doing that again with this book, so if you have a witty rejoinder to something in the book- or to my own demented babble- don't keep it to yourself. I reserve the right to impose or alter the rules of the contest at any time because I'm nothing if not capricious and random.
Now, we'll get started with the book itself next week, but some of you are probably wondering how it is as a whole. Some friends of mine asked me that, actually, and my response was cribbed from the New York Times review of L. Ron Hubbard's Mission Earth. That is to say that my response was, "It makes sense only as a satire on the possibility of communication through language." Unlike the review of Mission Earth, however, I don't mean that the writing in The Overton Window is awful- it's technically adequate,* though it rarely misses an opportunity to tell rather than show- but instead I am suggesting that this book fails profoundly to communicate any message at all. By the time we finish this book it will have become apparent to you as well as to me that we do not know what it is that the authors think is wrong with current politics, what their counter-factual ideal world would be, what they think will allow us to get from here to there, or even who the good guys and bad guys are. Indeed, this book is characterized by an almost militant blandness that pits the powerful against the powerless without ever bothering to distinguish the one from the other, or articulating what it is that the powerful are doing wrong, why the powerless should be expected to behave more nobly, or what should be done to make things right. In effect, it's an incoherent bellow of rage for an unnamed audience against a faceless and unspecified enemy. It's a one-size-fits-all brand of demagoguery that succeeds by achieving a level of vagueness that guarantees its irrelevance in the larger stream of intellectual life. For a novel that is intended to be a thinly-veiled treatise on political philosophy, this is a fatal flaw.
Earlier I mentioned that this book rarely misses an opportunity to tell rather than show, and that's absolutely correct. Odds are you won't finish the book with any clearer an idea what any of the characters look like than you possess now. And I guarantee that you'll finish the book with even less interest in them than you have now as these characters are, on the whole, craven, arrogant, incompetent, and childish. The heroes are not heroic, the villains are laughably melodramatic, and the world- every bit as important a "character" in this type of fiction- is utterly and relentlessly flat. One might argue that since this book's purpose is clearly to discuss politics, interesting characters are not required. This is somewhat true, but nevertheless doesn't excuse a book that is listless and dull even when discussing its central themes. I am forced to compare The Overton Window with Robert Heinlein's classic novel Starship Troopers, a book with paper-thin characters and terse language that nevertheless manages to present a series of political ideas in an interesting and engaging way. It can be done, it has been done, but The Overton Window does not do it. Moreover, the comparison is all the more shocking for the simple reason that the authors and Heinlein are in relative agreement on a number of subjects,** but Heinlein manages to make an interesting and enjoyable case whereas the authors just put words on the page. In combination this means that this novel is painfully dull, packed to the brim with shocking revelations that neither shock nor reveal and lacks utterly the barest shred of emotional impact. Indeed, this lack is so consistent that I will precede each chapter- until I get bored or distracted by some new shiny thing- with a YouTube clip or suggestion for music that will more fully evoke the emotional tone I believe the book was trying to strike, but didn't.
So, to sum up: this is a terrible, awful book and you should not read it.
And with that I will say goodbye. Return next week when we start our in-depth coverage of The Overton Window by diving into the endless series of distractions that precede the main text, including a dedication, acknowledgments, a note from the author, a quote, and a prologue, all before we ever see the main narrative. Indeed, there are so many elements preceding the actual "story" that I had no choice but to use a ten dollar word like "prolegomenon" in the title of this post so as to avoid confusion. So, in short, get ready, because this is gonna be a ride.
* Yes, "technically adequate," but so uninspired that my wife coined the term "scribery" to define it.
** I should note, however, that while Heinlein is a sort of pro-military libertarian, and therefore would qualify as conservative in many respects, I think he would have recoiled in horror at the modern conservative movement in general and Glenn Beck in particular.
Labels: The Overton Window