Let’s talk about Glenn Beck.
His meteoric rise from alcoholic DJ to a political commentator capable of drawing 1% of the entire nation to his TV show at 5pm is stunning in and of itself, but Beck is more than a radio/tv personality and best selling author. As the founder of the 9/12 movement he is one of the central forces behind the 2009 protests against big government. He led a successful attack that culminated in the resignation of a White House official, and now his “56 Refounders” initiative claims to have garnered at least two anonymous volunteers – Senators or Representatives – who are willing to inform on their own party in an effort to stop government corruption.
There’s a line between talk and action, and Glenn Beck has crossed that line. In doing so he has become the American Left’s Most Wanted.
The response is best typified by Olberman’s call to Daily Kos readers to “Find everything you can about Glenn Beck, Stu Burguiere, and Roger Ailes.” I don’t know how many Daily Kos readers responded personally to Olberman’s request (rescinded, interestingly, within 48 hours), but the response from the left-leaning journalistic establishment has certainly followed the spirit of Olbermann’s call: let’s get Beck.
And there are two major problems with this vendetta. The first is a problem for liberals. The second is a problem for all of us.
You can find plenty of articles on Beck these days, but to make my points I’m going to focus on just one: Meet the man who changed Glenn Beck’s life. It’s from Salon, and it’s written by Alexander Zaitchik. I Googled him to get a feel for who he is. A list of his most recent articles paints a picture of Zaitchik as the paragon pseudo-intellectual liberal. He is the mold from which all pedantic college political dilettantes are cut. The sort of guy who protects a sense of smug security by carefully avoiding contact with intelligent opinions that might threaten his own. A person who clearly views politics as an exercise in fashion, and being right as a question of self-worth as opposed to truth. Do I exaggerate? I think not.
We start off with his careful attention (2-3 articles) to that most vital issue common to all individualistic free-thinker: legalizing drugs.
If Obama Is Pro-Science and Honest, He’ll Put the Kibosh on the Drug War
Obama was frank about his own drug use, so why isn’t he more honest about what a disaster war on drugs has been?
All Indicators Point to a Softening of America’s Harsh Marijuana Laws
With key medical marijuana ballot initiatives likely to pass, and a more pot-friendly majority in Congress, there is room for optimism.
And of course the only thing cooler than just getting high is getting high and multicultural. At the same time, no less!
Have You Ever Taken Ayahuasca in the Peruvian Amazon?
My account of a night high on the “Ayahuasca madre” with the Ashaninka tribe deep in the Amazon rainforest.
No, sadly, I have not. And thus, in a very real and very vital sense, I have never lived.
Just for reference, he only wrote one article about the climate change bill and two about healthcare, so I guess that may say something about his priorities right there.
In addition to the requisite “cool” agenda bulletpoints (healthcare, global warming, Bush is the Devil, etc.) you’ll find a healthy dose of arrogance directed towards conservatives like “tea-baggers” and especially Christians. You’ll also – and I’m going to come back to this one later – find a sky-is-falling article at AlterNet about how “Father of the Gaia Theory, James Lovelock says we can’t stop climate change, but that humanity will continue in some smaller form.”
Judging from the Google results, however, his biggest story has been the Glenn Beck story. You could read it, but I’ll spare you.
Point 1: Glenn Beck has a shady character in his past: Cleon Skousen. He was a Mormon and a very big deal among Mormons. You can tell because I – a Mormon – have never heard of him in my life. (And really, there just aren’t that many of us. The famous guys get talked about.) More importantly, he was apparently crazy. Glenn Beck never met the man, but he likes his books: including The 5,000 Year Leap.
Conclusion? Glenn Beck is obviously insane.
Point 2: Cleon Skousen was really not insane. He just faked the insanity out of greed. He was so greedy that he continued to propound his insane beliefs even when it got him kicked out of every reputable organization and left him destitute. (That’s the impression I get from the article. I have no idea how his finances actually looked). He did this for the money. Glenn Beck is the same as Cleon – the mentor he never met – ergo Glenn Beck is obviously not insane, he’s greedy.
This is textbook strategy for attacking people in the press. You want to trivialize your opponent through ridicule – hence “stupid”, “crazy”, etc. – but you have to avoid arousing sympathy on their behalf (because laughing at real-life mentally handicapped people is a no-no) and so you toss in “evil”, “dangerous” etc. for good measure.
From an emotional standpoint it makes sense. Rationally? It’s a train wreck. Bush can’t be a moron and a criminal mastermind at the same time. The more astute critics got around this by casting Cheney or Rove as the mastermind and leaving Bush as the idiot. So far no one (that I’ve read) has postulated a criminal mastermind – the power behind the throne – for Glenn Beck, but it’s only a matter of time. It’s all about casting everyone in the right role to fit the narrative.
But there are larger problems with the article and – by extension -the anti-Beck movement.
1. Attacking Beck Legitimizes Attacks on Obama
Before the election most right-wing attacks on Obama were based on his past associations (e.g. Bill Ayers). Glenn Beck has actually taken a different approach: he is concerned with Obama’s current advisers. Despite being on much safer grounds (especially given Obama’s invitation to this sort of scrutiny), liberals don’t watch Beck enough to actually catch the fine distinctions in what he is saying.
All they see is this: get to Obama by going through those around him.
After spending the last couple of years saying that this is unfair and unreasonable liberals have decided it’s actually perfectly fair and quite reasonable. In addition to sabotaging their own credibility, they actually legitimize what Beck is doing. If the fact that Skousen is a paranoid conspiracy theorist is relveant to Beck than what does that say about all the crazies in Obama’s life?
To any liberal listening – trust me on this: that is not a game you can win. Obama knows way more crazy people than Beck does.
2. Becoming the Monster You Fear
The MSM sees racism everywhere. Look at what Media Matters considers to be iron-clad evidence that the 9/12 protesters are all racists:
Where’s the racism here? The concern is not that he’s black. The concern is not even really that he’s not a natural born citizen. That, in and of itself, is no big deal. The problem is that if he’s not an American citizen, then he is ineligible to be President according to the US Constitution. The issue is constitutionality, not race.
Then take this hilarious sign:
Obviously it’s a riff on the “Somewhere in Texas, a village is missing its idiot” bumper stickers about Bush. These guys believe Obama was born in Kenya. So that’s what they put on the poster. Again: what does racism have to do with anything?
The point I’m making here is that the liberals see what they want to see. They don’t see the tea-party protesters, they see tea-baggers. They don’t see peaceful protests, they see mobs simmering with violence. They don’t see concern about the rule of law, they see racism. And – when it comes to Beck – they don’t see someone genuinely concerned for his country. They see only “Satan’s retarded stepbrother”.
Nietzsche was never my favorite philosopher, but I was always struck by the power of some of his aphorisms. One of the more famous of these is well known:
He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.
That’s bad enough when you’re fighting real monsters, but what happens when you’re fighting monsters of your own imagination? You end up becoming the worst thing you can imagine. When the Left demonizes the Right, and then fights the demon that is only in their head, they end up becoming that demon. When the Right demonizes the Left the same thing happens.
And that – in the end – is why I like Glenn Beck. I do not believe that he’s exceptionally gifted when it comes to political, economic, or social analysis. He is not very educated, and from time to time it shows. His assertions can be sloppy. But even the exceptionally gifted, highly educated, very careful analysts are going to get things wrong. What matters more than getting the answer right or wrong at any given moment is a commitment to the process of getting to the truth.
That is a process that can’t be constrained by preconceptions about what is reasonable and what is crazy. It is a process that can’t be deterred or swayed by what people are going to think about your answers. And it is a process that requires a willingness to constantly re-evaluate and seek to understand people who oppose your beliefs.
To some extent Beck does increase political extremism, but so does anyone who has an impact on mobilizing the base. If we’re not going to pin ELF antics on Obama we certainly can’t pin anti-government violence on Beck. The fact is that Beck does his best to present what he believes the truth to be. He brings more scholars than celebrities onto the show, and he spends entire shows dedicated exclusively to explaining technical financial dangers or semi-obscure political history. It’s gotten to the point where even some contributors of the respected legal blog Volokh Conspiracy stand up for Beck because he’s doing more than anyone else out there to carry the banner of intellectual libertarianism to the people.
If liberals were willing to open their eyes to Beck and the Americans who find something of value in his message they would be able to interact with his legitimate concerns. They would realize why so many Americans are angry at the state of our country, and that it has nothing to do with racism, idiocy or insanity. Most importantly of all, they would realize that Glenn Beck is not the monster they make him out to be.
But if there’s one thing Team Obama seems worst at, it’s listening. And so they don’t. And so they are off in the shadows, fighting imaginary monsters. And – just as Nietzsche warned – becoming the very monsters they loathe.
Robert Wallace is classical liberal studying economics in graduate school. He and his wife work as business analysis consultants, and they live as undercover conservatives with their two small children in a socialist bastion of a college town. He has been writing for America’s Right since December 2008.