The Profound Danger of Glenn Beck

April 20, 2010
By | 9 Comments

There is a tendency amongst moderates and liberals to simply laugh-off or scoff at Glenn Beck because he makes no factual or rational sense. What he says is historically inaccurate, thus he comes across as farce—someone difficult to take seriously. Yet obviously millions of Americans do just that (witness the Tea Party Movement, in many ways Beck’s personal creation), and it is a mistake on the part of liberals, not to mention intellectuals and the news media, not to take him seriously. Beck’s project is fundamentally corrosive, and must be publicly addressed as dangerous.

Jeff Smith argues in his excellent book, The Presidents We Imagine, that in the Great Depression, we conjured presidents (in various fictional treatments, if not also in the real life FDR) “who could reach deeply enough into citizens’ lives to solve their everyday problems.” In contrast, Glenn Beck conjures a villain—an “other,” a foreign exotic (including name, ethnicity, color, but also education and intellect) who is reaching deeply enough into citizens’ lives—marriage, health care, gun ownership, taxes, liberties—to destroy their “way of life.” If presidents are, like the nation, something we imagine, then the rhetorical project to connect Socialism and Fascism to Obama is not simply a political power play. Socialism and Fascism were real historical dangers (though sometimes they too were imagined). But the residue of those real and imaginary battles with the enemy linger. Obama, thus, is not an opponent in a democratic political arena. He is an enemy that must be eradicated, just as those previous threats were “eradicated.”

The right seeks an escape clause by arguing that what Beck does is no different than the vilification of W. Bush by liberals. Perhaps they base this claim at the level of affect, for in terms of factual specificity, they are simply wrong. Liberals pointed to specific Bush policies—such as the invasion of a sovereign nation, the suspension of the Constitution, an imperial approach to government powers, etc.—as reasons for why he should be voted out of office, if not impeached. For the current rhetorical project of the right, however, it is the vagueness of the attacks—the symbols without concrete or factual referents and their lack of correspondence to reality—that is their power. Sure, they point to specific things like health care reform or the federal stimulus legislation, but those are opposite of what the right says they are—both are efforts that bolster and sustain capitalism. Beck, in particular, has been successful at conjuring other specifics, again as shadow objects (Van Jones, Acorn, “Social Justice” Christians)—entities whose vagueness and obscurity are also their value.

Furthermore, Beck’s usage and deployment of the same techniques as that which he charges Obama of being gives this rhetoric power as well. He employs Fascist techniques in his accusations of Obama as Fascist “other.” As political scientist Murray Edelman argued, we mirror our enemies. Thus, Beck animates the Obama-Fascist he has created—he gives it life. Perhaps the audience should be forgiven for mistaking the exact location of the Fascism in the spaces between the reality and its (mirror) image. But we shouldn’t let Beck’s audience off the hook so easily. For such open signifiers allow audiences to fill them with an array of fears and hatreds, including that of racist thinking (blacks, immigrants, Arabs), economic anxieties (fat cat bankers, the deficit, taxation), and culture war fissures (abortion in the Health Care Reform legislation, supposed federal gun legislation, gay marriage).

Which leaves us with the question of the news media: Does the Miltonian self-righting principle apply here (“Let truth and falsehood grapple; whoever knew truth put to the worst in a free an open encounter”)? Who will supply the truth to counter this (beyond Jon Stewart)? Is this simply partisan speech or clever hate speech? If the former, should it be addressed as aggressively as if it were the latter, with the full moral and ethical weight of the community in near universal rebuke? Does the fact that he appears on Fox News make it seem simply partisan, therefore giving it cover as “acceptable” political speech? All of these questions need answering, and soon, for as history has demonstrated, demagoguery rarely exists without the collatoral damage of real-life victims.


Tags: , , , ,

9 Responses to “ The Profound Danger of Glenn Beck ”

  1. Geoffrey Baym on April 20, 2010 at 11:39 AM

    I like your point that Beck “animates” his imaginary fascist communist dictator. Throughout the Bush years, the right accused the left of adopting its own tactics (Bush, for example, accused John Kerry of trying to use fear to win votes). But Beck seems to take it even further. Thus the picture of him in the Nazi-esque uniform on his book cover. Is that satire or self-reflexivity?

  2. Jeffrey Jones on April 20, 2010 at 5:23 PM

    East German, but yeah, your last sentence/question is an important one. Beck the performer takes this to a level that Rush was never willing to go. Like Rush, he proclaims himself just an “entertainer” who doesn’t care about politics (or at least that is what Rush said when he broke on the scene two decades ago). But Beck tries to protect himself by donning the clown images his critics make him out to be. Of course, that is smart on his part, and gives his audience an “out” as well.

  3. Jonathan Gray on April 21, 2010 at 12:05 AM

    You may not like this, Jeff, but I partly blame Bill Maher. He made the original deal with the devil when he kept bringing Ann Coulter onto his show, and in doing so implied that her statements were simply another point of view. Sure, at least he shouted them down, but he then laughed his shouts off. As warnings from the University of Ottawa administration prior to her recent proposed visit to speak there made clear, though, she regularly engages in out and out hate speech, something that’s criminal in many countries. So Coulter begets Beck and now he does the same thing

    • Jeffrey Jones on April 21, 2010 at 9:34 AM

      Point taken (Maher), but/and by that logic, CNN is then to blame for giving Beck a TV show, knowing what he was doing all along on his radio show. The begats may be important (not sure), but the larger point here (in your response and in my post) does regard hate speech. I’ve never been a proponent of outlawing it, but again, that isn’t the issue either. For me, it revolves around the social responsibility of media (Fox) and the moral response that we as a community have to such speech. We’ve seen how quickly offensive speech can be shut down in America when the full weight and force of the community comes down on that which is deemed offensive or dangerous (Imus is but one of hundreds of examples). My question is why is that not happening now? Under what conditions will that occur? You make a good point about Coulter in that regard as well. I fully believe that if Obama were to be shot and/or killed, that Fox News would NOT remove Beck and Hannity from the air, perhaps not even when we arrived at the studios with pitch forks in hand.

      • Derek Kompare on April 21, 2010 at 10:24 AM

        It really is striking, isn’t it? One tiny misstatement was enough for ABC to immediately fire Maher back in 2001. One mild statement of disagreement was enough for the crazies to make bonfires out of Dixie Chicks CDs in 2003. Yet day after day after day of not only hate but utter bulls*it is mildly tutted. When it is called into question (as President Clinton did the other day), it’s the critics that take the most heat.

        While I agree that we can’t and shouldn’t ban such speech outright, we absolutely should point out its dangers. The failure of the rest of the news media to take on Fox News is, perhaps, the most shameful part of this story. While it’s vital to have people like Colbert, Stewart, and lefty media critics keep the case going against the hate-mongers, without a more centrist critique, it can only carry limited weight. I honestly believe the major news organizations simply lack the moral courage to do it, which is tragic.

        However, even if they were, Fox News could just double down on the whole “liberal media” meme, and render all the non Kool-Aid drinkers as the enemy. The whole right wing is going further and further down that path all the time. The good news is it only further isolates them from mainstream American society. The bad news is that they’re not going to willingly abandon that path, and the rhetoric and events will likely continue to get worse.

        We need to study how the likes of Coughlin, McCarthy, and Morton Downey (remember him?) were ultimately taken down, and learn from history. Unfortunately, I fear that the roots and spread of the current hate organs will prove too much to eradicate peacefully this time.

        • Jeffrey Jones on April 21, 2010 at 10:48 AM

          I just couldn’t agree more with your paragraph here:
          “The failure of the rest of the news media to take on Fox News is, perhaps, the most shameful part of this story. While it’s vital to have people like Colbert, Stewart, and lefty media critics keep the case going against the hate-mongers, without a more centrist critique, it can only carry limited weight. I honestly believe the major news organizations simply lack the moral courage to do it, which is tragic.”

          It funny–political scientists and political communication scholars argue that our current TV news situation is a return to the partisan press of the late-nineteenth century. Where that analogy goes wrong is the failure to recognize that Hearst and Pulitizer pummeled each other. Well into the twentieth century, cross-town papers used to take each other on for lies and distortions. Where is that today? I guess we could point to the opinion folks on these networks shouting at each other (Olbermann versus O’Reilly). But that oh so easily just falls into the bifurcated, two party, both sides argument, and we all just wash our hands of it. No!

        • Jonathan Gray on April 21, 2010 at 2:21 PM

          well, let me be the evil monarchist subject here and put in a word for banning hate speech. The American myth of free speech is insultingly hypocritical — the US bans all sorts of speech regularly that is way less objectionable than Beck. How many people were damaged by seeing Janet Jackson’s breast, or how many would be truly damaged if they heard Sawyer tell Jack to “fuck off” in Lost? Yet the FCC throws a fit over those issues, while an environment of pervasive hate speech goes on at Fox News. Indeed, if the Jackson incident was dangerous, it was because of the violence against women, another issue that’s wholly acceptable to the FCC while they instead focus their efforts on making sure that the correct synonym for “asshole” is used.

          In other words, we’ve already accepted as a society that limiting speech that is dangerous is entirely acceptable. We just waste our efforts on policing Benny Hill behavior when what truly is dangerous is Beck behavior.

          • Derek Kompare on April 21, 2010 at 2:57 PM

            Great points, and it certainly is hypocrisy. I’m hopeful (long-term) that, in the name of free speech, such ridiculous limits will be revoked. Yesterday’s 8-1 USSC decision (on statutes banning animal cruelty images) is an interesting wrinkle to these developments that may lead to more challenges of content restrictions.

          • Jeffrey Jones on April 21, 2010 at 3:17 PM

            Well said, brother!