“They’re not stupid. There is a revolution that is beginning. … Many of their people are in and around this administration… And they have a plan. Because they have a plan, they will win… They are going full throttle recruitment… That’s what they do, they are revolutionaries… What’s scary is they are revolutionaries. They don’t know how to run things, they know how to overthrow things.”
– Glenn Beck, Dec. 2010
Glenn Beck will be leaving Fox News shortly. What should we think about this? More importantly, what should we think about Glenn Beck?
Glenn Beck as symptom of declining dinner table discussion quality
If you’ve seen Beck’s show, you’ve witnessed the turning of a new page in American political culture. His naked assertions are so patently unsubstantiated that only the “already faithful” could be persuaded by them, one would think. But the conspiracies he depicts are nebulous, so ineffable the imaginary “they” referring to a body of secretive individuals currently “taking over America” cannot be precisely defined, a bit like the divine, but only alluded to. Moreover, this “they” is so multifaceted that almost anyone can be connected to it, as Beck’s endlessly expanding list of evil-doers demonstrates. In the end, almost any association is good for helping us connect the dots.
The typical spectator must so dazzled by the rapid stream of quotes, supposed facts, and video snippets, all fully decontextualized unanalyzed and unexplained, that it becomes an all-or-nothing game. The uncritical viewer is left with the notion that either Beck is making it all up, or he is offering tremendous evidence for the imminent take-over of the country by an elite oligarchy. Since Beck offers no actual evidence, but a long stream of assertions and video snippets, the viewer basically has to either trust Beck’s interpretation of their meaning, or reject it. There is little room for thinking on one’s own.
News critics like Chomsky have long decried the lack of critical analysis tools available to the average American.
It seems to me that Americans typically lack a “barber shop” culture of critique and discussion, the sort where you rub elbows with neighbors or friends while discussing substantively topics of public interest.
The difference between a typical American conversation style and one, for example, from West European or North Africa (the two I can compare, since I have leaved in these regions) became evident for me over dinner table discussions.
I was astonished at the level of critical discussion I witnessed. There was a culture of true debate, where one’s ideas could be thoroughly discussed and critiqued, that I think an average American would feel (as I at times did) that the discussion was frankly confrontation, if not hostile. My friends seemed to enjoy taking issue with what I said, and even disagreeing outright, and then explaining all the reasons they disagreed. Why couldn’t they just not politely and change the subject? But from my friends’ perspectives, it was not hostile at all. This is how they talked to each other. Amongst themselves, they discussed and disagreed passionately, before finally coming to common ground and deciding they agree in the end.
At dinner table with the Parisian family for whom I was an au pair, when a question would come up, the atlas or encyclopedia or dictionary was regularly consulted. I was astonished; most American’s I knew would have shrugged their shoulders: was Sri Lanka next to India? Did polar bears live in both poles? Did India export oil? How many perished in the atomic blasts at Nagasaki and Hiroshima? The discussion stirring, the answer uncertain, someone would look it up, and we were all the wiser for it.
I guess what I am getting at is that important topics were regularly discussed; it was okay and common to disagree; and disagreements were enjoyed as a regular, even cherished process of testing and sharpening one’s ideas.
I am certainly overstating my case and even perhaps romanticizing when I mark out a contrast between Americans and Western Europeans or North Africans. But there is also plenty of evidence demonstrating the extent to which Americans, more than most other cultures, remain in a cultural bubble and are generally contentedly ignorant about “important” world topics.
Glenn Beck as a product of an insulated news delivery system
When the spectrum of opinion ranges from Glenn Beck to George Stefanopoulos, from Wolf Blitzer to John Stewart, then Americans generally remain insulated from the sort of information and opinions that much of the rest of the world is regularly exposed to.
AlJazeera is a striking example. It is not particularly leftist, as a news source (the way, say, DemocracyNow is), yet as the main world contender to CNN as a universal news source, the range of quality opinion and information available is far wider than anything is the US. Small wonder then that access here is blocked. (In fact, this makes us seem rather foolish when we criticize China for blocking their citizens’ access to unappreciated news sources.)
When is the last time you heard, even on supposedly leftist-friendly sources such as NPR or MSNBC, opinions of internationally recognized intellectuals such as Tariq Ali, Noam Chomsky, or Slavoj Zizek? The rest of the world hears their opinions, why not Americans? Chomsky’s books have regularly been at the top of US bestsellers lists, yet you will never see the mainstream news discussing his ideas. This is because, as he himself points out in Necessary Illusions, these critics question the basic assumptions requisite to even appear on the news.
Without a certain invisible consensus, the news will not even air your opinions. In order to appear on the news today, one must already agree (but without openly discussing the merits of this conclusion) with a number of specific ideas. Some examples are,
a) that America is a force of good in the world;
b) that the American government is a good thing generally;
c) that American democracy is (perhaps superficially flawed but) fundamentally perfect, ideal, or the best one could hope for;
d) that the founders are unquestionably quasi-holy figures whose integrity, intentions, principles, and ideas are practically on par with divine wisdom (i.e., unassailable);
e) that states in general are good things;
f) that America’s “Others” (from Hugo Chavez to Ahmadinejad to Fidel Castro) are truly evil beings whose world-view is so distorted and vile that it is not worth discussing substantively – only worthy of being dismissed without comment.
The result, of this latter point for example, is that few Americans could articulate the arguments these three renowned leaders would make in their criticisms of American foreign policy. Huge portions of the world regard them as heroes, yet Americans are sure of their evil core (or simply ignorant of them altogether) that they would hard pressed to give any meaningful account of their ideas. (And if one doesn’t understand an idea, it is meaningless to deplore it.)
In the mainstream media, Americans are exposed to only the narrowest range of opinion. This is ironic since we tirelessly celebrate our “freedom of the press.” In reality, the press is controlled not by overt censorship, but by internalized censorship. The police won’t come and shut you down for saying the wrong thing; but the media won’t let you on unless you say the right things, which amounts in practical terms to the same outcome.
From the media’s perspective, in order to count as possible news, as something even worth uttering, you must already agree to the general consensus, which thus constantly reinforces itself (the more the same thing is endlessly repeated, the more anything different seems unthinkable). Any opinions outside of this range simply don’t count as reality – they are dismissed as “insane,” “sick”, “disgusting”, or “sad” without further discussion, and without justifying these judgments.
Glenn Beck as the king of demagogues
The above points set the stage to see how Glenn Beck’s preposterous conspiracies can have such a strong influence on Americans. They provide easy answers for complex problems that concern Americans.
The world is not well today, we hardly need convincing about that. The allure of conspiracy theories is that they provide attractively simple solutions to murky problems. Our world today is incredibly complex. Whole bookshelves are filled with attempts to understand why the US wages war on Iraq; or why the economy is down; or why there are so many poor people in the world; or what went wrong when the banks fell. Why read all those when a simple conspiracy explains it all? Conspiracies make complex problems seem simple, and they give us a way to vent our frustrations – we know who to blame.
While Beck’s explanations are bafflingly erratic and approach nearly random chains of association, they obey a very simple logic.
Any association one can possibly make becomes grist for the mill or the conspiracy. No need for logical evidence; chains of symbolism are sufficient, as when one recounts a dream. Obama’s middle name is Hussein, therefore he is part of the Islamist conspiracy. No need to provide evidence; the association is enough. Never mind logic. Barak Hussein = Saddam Hussein, of course and it’s so obvious. He “claims” he is a Christian? Well then, why does he have a name that proves otherwise?
It is a sad commentary on the state of America’s analytical skills that anything Beck says is even airable on television.
In case you haven’t seen any of Beck’s antics, below is a prime example.
Notice how aleatory the presentation appears to be. Beck asserts that there are three main reasons America is failing, then, after free-associating for a while, never decides on the third. It seems like he is just making things up as he goes.
Secondly, note the nebulous “they”/”them” that bears no concise description or definition, and is so inclusive that there is hardly any way to know who is in it until Beck lets us know.
Thirdly, Beck’s evidence seems so ad hoc that he gets his mixes up his own arguments; at one point he names someone but then admits he doesn’t recognize the pictures and has to read the name from his notes on the back of the picture. Very convincing evidence indeed.
Finally, Beck claims in the video that he “attended Yale,” but neglects to mention that he never got in to Yale nor earned a degree there, but was merely allowed, thanks to a letter from alumnus Senator Lieberman (according to his wikipedia entry here), to attend a one-time seminar there on religion, which he did not finish.Vodpod videos no longer available.
Why is he being kicked out of Fox? The Young Turks point to the efficaciousness of the advertisers’ boycott of his show. In England, he apparently had lost every one of his advertisers; in the US virtually no major companies would still consent to airing their commercials on his show. Over time, he was successfully outed as a hate-monger and a dangerous clown.
(first 2 min. only)Vodpod videos no longer available.
Finally, here is Jon Stewart (x2) with some priceless satire of Beck’s zany style and vapid theories:Vodpod videos no longer available. Vodpod videos no longer available.