Monday, August 30, 2010

The Secret Behind Glenn Beck's Magic

On August 28, Glenn Beck held a rally on the national mall with the theme, “Restoring Honor,” tapping into the Tea-Party sentiment that something has gone terribly wrong in America. Beck was not clear what and whose honor we have lost, but he has definitely tapped into an atavistic American nerve - politicizing nostalgia.

Nolstalgia is the selective invocation of the past. It is probably the worst kind of historical reasoning used by romantics who glorify what we remember to be good (Mom and pie) and conveniently forget all that was bad (Jim and Crow). Because nostalgia is history without the guilt, it is the most comforting kind of political appeal. And since there is no guilt without details, Beck’s bumper-sticker speech communicated offensive content without offending.

In narrating our national declension, presumably since the March on Washington in August of 1963, Beck attacked the civil rights movement without appearing to do so. When Chris Wallace asked him on Sunday what message he was trying to send to Washington, he was deliberately ambiguous, "I don't know what they were trying to tell the leaders." Speaking for himself, he proposed: "Be your highest self. Stand in the fire because that is the only thing that is going to save us." That still didn’t answer Wallace’s question, and one wonders if it is because a direct answer would have been too offensive for national television.

"Restore America" is a slogan that implies, especially because it was articulated on the anniversary of an event most Americans are very proud of, that everything has gone to hell since the Founding. As Beck intoned on his website, "Help us restore the values that founded this great nation." Or as Sarah Palin chimed in, "We must not fundamentally transform America... we must restore America." We forget that the premise that our nation has been desecrated (and therefore in need of restoration) is no innocuous claim because it was first inoculated with sweet nostalgia. Beck wants us to be our "highest self" because he rejects collective action solutions, and yes, even the gold-standard of America's social movement history.

According to Beck, he had not intentionally timed his rally on the anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I have a Dream" speech. But it surely benefitted his message symbolically that the theme of “Restoring Honor” would be articulated on the anniversary of an event which called on white Americans to own up to the sins of Jim crow, for it is clear that Beck wants us to stop feeling guilt (even if we should have in 1963) and start feeling pride, ie. "honor." And if that meant desecrating the memory of MLK's speech, so be it. Beck admitted nearly as much on his show, "This is a moment, quite honestly, that I think we reclaim the civil rights movement."

Add God (the Alpha and the Omega of history) to nostalgia and the potion could be too potent to resist. Beck’s demagoguery on Saturday would have been more blatant had he not invoked a counter-weighing appeal, God. The flatterer conceals his flattering when toward heaven his compliments turn into pious worship. In a recent change in his public persona, Beck is now more than ever before cloaking his anti-Progressive agenda with Christian values, linking our political decay with our moral decay, and thereby grafting the mostly libertarian Tea-Party movement with the Christian Right. (And that is how Beck, a mormon convert, has become a leader of the new fusionism in the conservative movement.)

The truth is, we have progressed from some Founding beliefs, as we have conserved its greatest ideals (both puns intended). It is simply ridiculous to suggest that the best way to conserve our highest ideals is to undo our progress from some antiquated Founding beliefs. But that is exactly what “restoring honor” advocates, in implying that everything that happened after 1963, the year of King’s speech, has been a tragic national tale of decline and declension. If Beck hopes to “reclaim the civil rights movement,” does he mean that he wants to take back the rights restored to (for they were previously stolen from) African Americans in 1964?

We seldom stop to think about the implications of our nostalgic thoughts, because the flattery and self-congratulation they offer is comforting to the point of being hypnotizing. Nostalgia can conceal or justify thoughtlessness, which according to Hannah Arendt is the banality that is Evil. And that is the magic that is Glenn Beck.

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