Christopher Hitchens has devoted his column in this month’s Vanity Fair to Glenn Beck and the result has been making the gleeful rounds on Twitter all week.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Hitchens had some fearsome things to say about the Fox News host and the masses he has managed to rally.
Glenn Beck has not even been encouraging his audiences to reread Robert Welch. No, he has been inciting them to read the work of W. Cleon Skousen, a man more insane and nasty than Welch and a figure so extreme that ultimately even the Birch-supporting leadership of the Mormon Church had to distance itself from him…
So, Beck’s “9/12 Project” is canalizing old racist and clerical toxic-waste material that a healthy society had mostly flushed out of its system more than a generation ago, and injecting it right back in again. Things that had hidden under stones are being dug up and re-released. And why? So as to teach us anew about the dangers of “spending and deficits”? It’s enough to make a cat laugh. No, a whole new audience has been created, including many impressionable young people, for ideas that are viciously anti-democratic and ahistorical. The full effect of this will be felt farther down the road, where we will need it even less.
Unfortunately, Hitchens doesn’t explore why this so-called healthy society was so willing to have this “waste” injected back into it again, something I’d be eager to see him do. He does however castigate elements of the GOP for giving it a pass.
Meanwhile, Beck’s devotion to Skousen is not actually news. Salon did an extensive piece on Skousen last year which revealed the author’s dubious history of writings. Whether or not Beck’s fans, or Beck himself for that matter, have expanded their Skousen oeuvre past the 5000 Year Leap remains to be seen. I watch Beck’s show fairly consistently and would be hard-pressed to ever describe him as a racist (despite the fact there really were very few African American’s at his 8/28 rally). Regardless, even a quick glance a the Skousen’s list of writings obviously raises serious questions about Beck’s choice of reading material.
That said, I think Hitchens (who has been on a self-admitted roll these last weeks) misses two fundamental points here.
One is that Beck is a spectacular entertainer. People who only watch him in clips tend to miss this and it goes a long way to explaining his reach: his is easily the most entertaining (and unusual) hour on television. More important however is something Hitchens touches on here:
At the first Tea Party rally I attended, at the Washington Monument earlier this year, the crowd—bristling with placards about the Second Amendment’s being the correction—was treated to an arm-waving speech by a caricature English peer named Lord Monckton, who led them in the edifying call-and-response: “All together. Global warming is?” “Bullshit.” “Obama cannot hear you. Global warming is?” “bullshit.” “That’s bettah.” I don’t remember ever seeing grown-ups behave less seriously, at least in an election season.
Emphasis mine. Because who exactly out there in the mainstream is behaving seriously these days?
One suspects the ever-shrinking platform for serious thought in the media sphere has almost as much to do with Glenn Beck’s success as anything else. It’s a core problem that tends to get glossed over in all the (SEO-friendly) hysteria over the inflammatory things Beck says.
In a media and political world that has been reduced to Twitter and scripted reality shows (and there is a whole world of trouble to be found in that oxymoron) featuring potential presidential candidates it perhaps should not be surprising that there is a viewership craving something…more. And like it or not what Beck provides is a (admittedly bizarre, frequently incorrect) history lesson of sorts with a lot of bells and whistles and long-forgotten sources, which attempt to explain, with (albeit Beckian) context, why the country is where it is. The fact the country is where it is is what is terrifying people.
Judging by Beck’s ratings, and his ability to push any book to the top of Amazon — an ability shared only by Oprah — chunks of the population are hungry for an education and aren’t finding it elsewhere. That is arguably this biggest problem.
Combine all this with a media industry that is thrashing to stay afloat, and whose only metric of success at the moment is traffic — a metric that generally feeds on the controversial and flashy (be it of the nipple or rhetorical variety) and is Beck’s resulting success really all that surprising? Certainly not more so than it was when the John Birch society wielded, as Hitchens points out, a “potent influence over whole sections of the Republican Party.” Is it dangerous? Probably not more so than the media turning politics into a national sport so that no success or failure lasts longer than a few days, and the need for dueling headlines leaves very little room for compromise (suddenly a bad word).
Hitchens says that “an honest and open discussion about all this is not just a high priority. It’s more like a matter of social and political survival.” Unfortunately he doesn’t note where that discussion might successfully take place.
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