Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Beck?


Glenn Beck doesn’t bother me very much at all.  Every circus needs a ringmaster, and as such things go, he’s not even close to being the worst.  Before Beck there was Hannity, before Hannity there was Drudge, before Drudge there was Limbaugh, on and on, forever and ever, amen.  They’re interchangeable parts, and they serve the same purpose - reiterating and reaffirming to the loyal subjects the ineffable correctness of their beliefs, instructing them in the current dogma, arguments and talking points, and creating the daily or weekly outrage necessary to keep the populist rage boiling at an appropriate level.  They are in essence created by their audience, more reflection than resource, and worshiped for their invariant, ever reliable redundancy.  It’s important to remember that they never changed a mind, or persuaded someone who wasn’t already a true believer.

Much of the conservative extremist canon is built on a rickety structure of falsehoods, half-truths, disingenuous narratives and faulty analyses.  As a result, people who adopt this belief system are always willing to invest in messaging that supports their worldview and reinforces the core beliefs.  This investment includes time, money and a kind of concentrated, wilful ignorance, and is all the more necessary because the world keeps offering evidence contrary to those core beliefs.  When someone points out that the 14th Amendment, just like the 2nd, is part of the constitution they so deeply revere, or that by very definition Muslim Americans have the same rights as Christian Americans, that there is NO WAY a billion dollar tax cut can increase revenues, or even that overturning decades of settled campaign finance law is the very definition of judicial activism,  they need to have a refuge to which they can run, safely restoring their tribal fear and hatred, wrapping themselves ever more tightly in the mantle of victimhood, blotting out the truths forced upon them by a diverse and secular world.

Beck and Limbaugh are merely the pinnacle of this poisonous tree, the major leagues of right-wing extremist rhetoric, the household names of fear and bigotry.  Beneath them on the food chain is a vast array of radio hosts, pundits, bloggers and authors, the unhinged and the opportunistic, bubbling up from the fever swamps that feed the worst of America’s uniquely angry population.  Should either one be excommunicated, denounced as apostates for insufficient purity, another would rise to the top in short order.  That there is a limit to how many of these interchangeable voices can be supported by their extremist constituency speaks powerfully to how limited their numbers ultimately are.  But with one exception, they don’t represent a danger, or put any genuinely important beliefs or values at risk.  

While their audience is quite small in absolute numbers, and the kind of easily debunked propaganda they offer is unlikely to change anyone’s mind or add to to that audience, it is important to bear in mind that they are speaking to the extremist fringe, and in any self-selecting extremist community there are some people who are genuinely dangerous.  Even worse, the American right-wing extremist fringe is deeply enamored of violent, even eliminationist rhetoric, and their fondness for, and attachment to firearms must never be underestimated.  Therefore, people like Beck and Limbaugh must be recognized for having the power to mobilize these people, to call on their anger and their fear, even of imaginary or grossly hyped “threats”, and that is the one significant risk they represent.  In the grand tradition of the American political right, just as the tea parties will insist against all evidence they are not motivated by racial animosity, the leading pundits of the right will be shocked and offended if it is suggested to them that their audience represents the threat of political violence.  But any dispassionate observer can see clearly that it does.  What other political movement thinks it’s a fine idea to carry firearms, even military rifles to political rallies?  So far, they have shown some restraint, calls to violence framed as an alternative to be saved for a more desperate future, couched in ambiguous language such that the worst of the crazies haven’t detected a clear set of ‘marching orders’.

Where they do have an impact outside of their own echo chamber, to whatever extent we’re willing to allow them to do it, is annoy and anger liberals.  And THAT does serve a valuable purpose for their movement.  As long as they can spew whatever dishonest and inaccurate talking points they wish and liberals feel they have to respond, the media has a free pass to cover it as a legitimate debate, with both sides merely claiming the same fealty to the truth, the differences reduced to subtle shades of grey.  As long as liberals watch them scrupulously, breathlessly repeating their daily spew as if it somehow constituted news, desperately pointing out their lies and hypocrisy and seeking to have them fired or boycotted, then they will continue to reach a much wider audience than they otherwise might.  The things they say are baseless propaganda, an endless serving of red meat for the true believers of the movement.  They have no power to move debate, to change minds or to influence the larger population.  They are unimportant, meaningless really, imbued only with the importance we are willing to give them.


  1. They have no power to move debate, to change minds or to influence the larger population.

    I don't buy that, and Goldline doesn't either.