A voice of reason is stilled

I never spent much time listening to talk radio. My various occupations over the years — professor, writer of software and, more recently, unpaid blogger — always demanded my mind’s full attention, leaving no room for the distraction posed by a conversation in the background, especially a conversation dealing with matters of importance. Thus, I did not become a regular listener of the Ron Smith Show until last spring, when I began a project to repair and repaint my entire house.

I was almost too late. Ron Smith died last night following a battle with pancreatic cancer. It was a mercifully short battle that lasted only a little over two months — he was diagnosed with cancer in mid-October — but it was scant consolation for his many devoted listeners.

It was my son, Steve, who brought Ron Smith to my attention about eight years ago. At that time the Ron Smith Show had the three-to-six afternoon time slot on WBAL, and Steve used to listen to him during his long commute. The war in Iraq was still new, and virtually all conservatives supported former President Bush’s decision to go to war — all except Ron Smith, that is. The fact that Smith, who was so conservative on so many other issues, opposed the war got Steve’s attention and, eventually, his agreement.

Ron Smith’s political views could probably best be described as “paleolibertarian”, but to my knowledge he never called himself that. He had an instinctual mistrust of the use of force to accomplish anything and thus was the perfect person to confront the frequent caller or guest whose solution to every problem can be summed up in the phrase, “there ought to be law”.

Laws, Smith said, seldom accomplish their stated goals, especially when they mandate outcomes. In reality, such laws — and Bush’s No Child Left Behind law is a prime example of this — end up mandating fraud.

By the time I became a regular listener last spring, the Ron Smith Show had moved to the morning nine-to-twelve time slot. I listened to practically the entire show every day — and often found it very depressing. He was very pessimistic about the future of western civilization and believed the United States has had its season in the sun. What made this assessment especially depressing to me is that he based it on facts and logic.

Logic was a weapon Ron Smith used to slay many beasts. I was always amazed at his ability to drill down to the heart of any argument, to marshal facts and reasoning to expose the argument’s unanalyzed assumptions. One of his listeners dubbed him “the voice of reason”, and the label stuck because it was so accurate.

I was also impressed by Smith’s wide-ranging erudition. He was knowledgeable and read widely in many subjects. It was therefore with genuine surprise that I read that his formal schooling ended when he dropped out high school to enlist in the Marine Corps. I should not have been so surprised: no amount of formal education could have given him what he brought to every broadcast.

I will miss Ron Smith. One of the highlights of my short blogging career was a link he posted on his website two and a half years ago to an article I wrote on the suppression of dissent in the global warming debate. But links to my blog posts aren’t what I will miss about him. In the combined cacophony that emerges from the airwaves and the web, his was a voice of reason, and now that voice has been stilled.