Mark Levin: The Thomas Paine of our Time

In September of 2001, I found myself employed at a theater in Los Angeles playing the part of Ben Franklin in the musical “1776.” The show is about the signing of the Declaration of Independence: an entertaining history lesson that concludes with all the bells in Philadelphia ringing and the actors freezing in a tableau recreating the famous painting of the original signers. It stirs up feelings of patriotism in the hearts of all but the most America-hating of theater goers.

As luck would have it, the first week of the show’s run concluded on Sunday September 10th. The next morning, I slept in, then awoke to find an answering machine message from my wife, who’d driven off to a breakfast date. “Turn on the TV,” her breathless voice said. “New York City has been bombed.” I spent the rest of the day, like most of the country, glued to my set, unable to believe what I was seeing or hearing.

1776 was, as scheduled, dark that night, and the management cancelled the following night’s performance. America was in a state of shock. On Wednesday the 13th, we re-opened. The theater was packed but the reaction from the crowd was strangely muted. The laughs which usually accompanied the comic by-play between Franklin and John Adams were missing. But as the show concluded, the bells rang and the actors froze in the famous patriotic tableau, cheers and audible sobs erupted. People actually cried out, “God bless America.” The performers remained on stage after the curtain calls and asked for donations for the Firemen’s Relief Fund. In the five days following 9-11, in our smallish theater in Los Angeles, we raised just under twenty five thousand dollars. People were dying to do something… anything… to help. The president went on the tube and urged us to go about our lives as if nothing had happened; the people felt otherwise.

The patriotic fervor lasted for the best part of a year. Every ball game opened with “God Bless America.” It was a terrifying but in many ways exhilarating time. I’d lived through World War II and hadn’t been able to wait to join the army as soon as I turned 18. I’d loved my country then and I loved it still. But, as we all know, the euphoria didn’t last. Patriotic feelings waned and blame-America became fashionable again. “War Is Not the Answer” stickers bloomed on the bumpers of Saabs and Volvos, replacing the small American flags which had briefly flown from cars across the country.

In ’08, Barrack Obama was famously elected president. Even though I’d supported McCain and dreaded what I feared Barrack might do, I felt a surge of elation when the networks announced he’d won. I really hadn’t thought the U.S. would go for an African-American for a decade or so. The elation didn’t last, as Obama kept one after another of his campaign promises. The millions of centrists and disgruntled conservatives who’d swallowed hard, joined the left and voted Democrat began to wonder about what they’d wrought. Rush Limbaugh’s ratings soared; so did those of Fox News.

And so did the ratings of Mark Levin. When my friend Larry Elder had been taken off the air suddenly some months ago, the innocent victim of the collapse of a bankrupt radio syndicate, he’d been replaced, here in L. A. by Mr. Levin. I’d heard of him, of course, hadn’t read his best-seller “Men In Black.” I tuned in, resentful at first on behalf of poor Larry but was soon hooked by Levin’s wit and erudition.

Nothing prepared me, though, for the brilliance of his new book, “Liberty and Tyranny.” The title is taken from a quote of Abraham Lincoln’s, which he features on the book’s back cover. What knocked me out though, was the sub-title: “A Conservative Manifesto.” I’d never heard the word used apart from Marx’s Communist Manifesto. (Well, there was the Uni-bomber.)

Levin’s book is the equivalent of a popular college course in conservatism. Strict adherence to the Founding Fathers’ words are necessary, in his view, to be able to call oneself an genuine conservative. He has withering scorn for neo-conservatives, whom he regards as wolves in sheep’s clothing. His word for the liberal is Statist, a term he uses over and over until it begins to sound like an ugly epithet. “The state will take care of me,” is the mantra of the leftist, as Levin describes him, but as a bronco once broken discovers, there’s a heavy price to be paid.

The book is divided into sections: In On Prudence and Progress, he begs conservatives to be wary of the sort of imprudent change the Statist insists upon. “For the Statist,” Levin writes, “liberty is not a blessing but the enemy. (The Statist) believes it is not possible to achieve Utopia if individuals are free to go their own way.” In On Faith And The Founding, he asserts that the founding fathers clearly believed in Natural Law as divined by God. In On The Constitution, he declares that the Constitution is not “a living, breathing document” that may be altered at will, but a set of immutable laws to be strictly adhered to.

On Federalism deals with states’ rights vs federal intervention. I learned something I hadn’t known here: in the nineteenth century, northern states had laws on their books which created legal obstacles to the deportation of escaped slaves back to the south. The federal Supreme Court sought to rule these laws unconstitutional. It also held, in Dred Scott in 1857, that no slave or descendant of a slave could be a U.S. citizen.

In On The Free Market, Levin quotes Abraham Lincoln: “Let not him who is houseless pull down the house of another; but let him labor diligently and build one for himself, thus by example assuring that his own shall be safe from violence when built.”

From On The Welfare State: “Barbara Wagner… was diagnosed with a recurrence of cancer. Her doctors recommended a specific drug… However, Barbara is a resident of Oregon… the state refused Barbara’s request for the drug, since it does not cover drugs that are meant to prolong the life of individuals with advanced cancer… But Oregon also has legalized assisted suicide and in an unsigned letter from the state, Barbara was informed that the health plan would pay to cover the costs of a doctor to help her kill herself.”

Enviro-Statism (global warming). Here, Levin quotes a list of calamities predicted in news reports which hilariously include: Antarctic ice growing, Antarctic ice melting, Atlantic Ocean less salty, Atlantic Ocean saltier, crocodile sex (?) and itchier poison ivy. This reminded me of a Harvard Lampoon send-up of how various publications would handle the end of the world. Washington Post headline: WORLD ENDS TOMORROW: Women, Minorities Hardest Hit.

Levin concludes his book with an epilogue: A Conservative manifesto. “So distant is America today from its founding principles,” he writes, “that it is difficult to precisely describe the nature of American government… If the bulk of the people reject the civil society for the Statist’s Utopia, preferring subjugation to citizenship, then the end is near…”

Like Tom Paine before him, Levin is a brilliant pamphleteer. Anyone who wants a thorough understanding of the difference between right and left in this country needs to read this book. A college credit should come with it.

Orson Bean’s new book, M@il For Mikey, is published by Barricade Books

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