Glenn Beck is where American politics is heading in the 21st century.
In the weeks leading up to Saturday’s “Restoring Honor” rally at the Lincoln Memorial, Beck claimed that the rally would not be political. And in a manner of speaking, it wasn’t. No policies were proposed, no party endorsed. Attendees were strongly encouraged not to bring signs. Naturally, Sarah Palin was on hand, but as an “Army mom,” not as the presumed one-day candidate for something-or-other.
But in its very insistence on its own apolitical-ness, Beck’s event was political in a way only achievable by a right-wing xenophobe who holds a rally on the same date, and at the same location, as Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. In the rally’s most cringe-inducing moment, a clip from King’s 1963 speech was played on reflecting pool jumbo-trons, to raucous applause. My first instinct was to join in, but I hesitated and thought better of it. King played by Beck is no longer King, and the transformation is nothing if not political. MLK is drained of his original revolutionary power, becoming a symbol of the viewer’s own racial tolerance — and the louder you clap, so Beck’s logic goes, the more tolerant you are. The clip was part of a politi-schtick that saturated the rally, taking the hyper-slick, mediated scheme of both political parties to its logical conclusion. Beck cut the fat and tossed the meat.
If anything is to be gained (however accidentally) from “Restoring Honor,” it is a realization of the extent to which the fat, so to speak, is always there. Maybe a carnal repository like “Restoring Honor” will act like a schtick magnet, attracting high-sounding rhetoric the world over to its great ball of fake. Maybe not. Either way, I found myself hoping not for less absurdity but more. And I was scarcely disappointed. The rally’s most ardent schtickiness was its PC posturing, which left me unsure as to whether Beck’s intention was to deliberately mock the left or up its ante. The breadth and combination was astounding: Native American pastor, indeterminably-Hispanic baseball player, King, Jr. relative, various black vocalists.
Equally schlocky was the emphasis on the framers of the Constitution. Beck’s entire worldview relies on a sort of reductio-ad-founderum that distorts both historical context and, occasionally, all evidence of the founding fathers’ intentions. Thomas Jefferson, famous for inventing the separation of church and state, opposing orthodox Christianity and writing a version of the Bible without miracles, thus becomes the face of Beck’s award for “Faith” (that that face is rendered in a take on Shephard Fairey’s infamous two-tone posters of Barack Obama is itself worthy of a much longer consideration). The award is introduced by Chief Negiel Bigpond, whose speech contains both the day’s most non-ironically stirring rhetoric (“The word ‘honor’ is like a sweet stone …”) and some of its scariest (“We [Native Americans] must leave our reservations … we must be covenant warriors in Christ.”). The award is given to African American pastor C.L. Jackson, who somehow manages to betray King and Jefferson in one fell swoop, praising “the ministry of Dr. Glenn Beck.”
Indeed, Beck is more evangelist than pundit, and the one area in which he gives prescriptive, comically specific commands, is religion. He offers a sort of prayer kama sutra, advising not only when (night) and where (one’s bedroom), but also what position (on one’s knees — minister?) and who can watch (“don’t just pray on your knees, but pray on your knees with the door open … so your kids can see their mom or dad humbled …”). On the subject of tithing, Beck is a flat-rater, in favor of church donations of ten percent across the board (presumably before everlasting deductions).
Judging by the Christ-centric evocations and misappropriations onstage at “Restoring Honor,” one would think that Beck’s audience, the fabled “Real America,” is composed of unthinking religious zealots. It isn’t. Most people I spoke with were profoundly decent, expressing reasonable concerns about bloated government spending and personal responsibility (Not that there wasn’t the occasional crazy: I was called, in addition to “a very nice young man,” a jobless fool, an Ivy Leaguer with no American history, a Jew, an Obama drone and a reader of Stalin). That Beck commodifies these real concerns and packages them with a dose of demagoguery represents the best reason to dislike this man. The rally’s attendees were neither active participants in Beck’s ravings, nor were they really his victims. But there was an important divide. The difference between the Mall and the stage was the difference between life (at least a certain, perfectly-acceptable kind of life) and the vapid, super-flashy symbol of it, and the distance was, to an outside observer, somehow painful.
Yet there is a silver lining. An unassailable ideology was expressed somewhere in the nether reaches of the “Restoring Honor” merchandising, but not the reaches you’d think. A 19-year old named Aaron was selling pins at the rally including those emblazoned with images of MLK, Palin and Obama the Socialist. When asked how his own political views lined up with Beck, Aaron, who had been on the Mall since 7:00 am and seemed to be essentially self-employed, responded, “I’m just here for business.” I thanked Aaron and walked away, amazed by this chipper but steely-eyed testament to personal ingenuity. I then heard Aaron continue his sales pitch: “Reagan pins for ten dollars, everything else for five.” That, reader, is capitalism in action.
Jake Friedman is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences and a Sun Arts and Entertainment writer. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.