To be angry with Glenn Beck would be easy. So too, to conjure an ungenerous spirit of contempt for his acolytes who came from around the country to attend Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally this Saturday, would hardly take Herculean effort. His demented narcissism and their cult-like devotion to the man who once said he was just “a rodeo clown,” to whom one should hardly pay attention — but who now suggests he is on a mission from God to save America — are both worthy of the highest derision.
Yet, rather than anger or contempt — however deserved — it is sadness that animates my thoughts today. Sadness that so many would feel the country so besmirched by the first 19 months of the Obama Administration that they would take it upon themselves to march on Washington. Not for jobs or peace. But to restore some vaguely defined sense of national integrity, and, to hear Beck tell it, to “reclaim the civil rights movement.” As unsightly as it can be to witness any man’s ego explode with self-absorbed mendacity all over the pages of history — as we observed this weekend, what with the rally coinciding with the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech” — it is especially so when that ego belongs to one as craven as Beck. That Beck thinks the civil rights movement needs “reclaiming,” and that so many others apparently agree, speaks to the miseducation of the American people (especially large numbers of white Americans), and it is this, which saddens.
For how could anyone take seriously the connection between Beck’s rally and the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom? The latter was a direct challenge to the economic injustice of racism, and to a nation that had “bounced a check” to its black citizens. The former was led by a man who decries all talk of social justice, and having never apparently read a single word of Dr. King’s writings, suggests that the left has hijacked the movement’s legacy by speaking of such matters as were, in fact, central to its mission.
For Beck to insist, as he has, that the movement must be reclaimed, and that it is the job of conservatives to do it, because they “were the ones who did it in the first place,” is a historical perversion of such galaxial proportions as to call into question his very sanity. In truth, it is unlikely that any of the almost all-white throng gathered in Washington this weekend played any part in the civil rights struggle. Those at Beck’s event were people whose ideological forbears include the editors at the nation’s leading conservative magazine, The National Review, who supported segregation and excoriated King, or worse, the zombified denizens of the John Birch Society, and those like Beck’s personal hero, W. Cleon Skousen, who viewed the civil rights movement as a communist conspiracy to control the world.
Were King alive today, Glenn Beck would surely have found a prominent place for him on his chalkboard of demonic progressivism, what with King’s commitment to economic equality, and condemnation of the United States government as the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” And whereas King demanded a guaranteed minimum income for all as a hedge against poverty — and insisted that to ignore the needs of the poor was to invite “spiritual death” — Beck counsels us to worry not about the poverty of millions. After all, as he explained: “The poorest among us are still some of the richest in the world…The poorest among us have blessings beyond the wildest imagination of anyone that Mother Theresa visited.” So because there are others in the world with less than you, you who suffer here should stop complaining, speaketh the Good Reverend Beck. By which logic one could also have said — and many racists in those days did — that blacks in apartheid America should have stopped complaining and thanked their lucky stars they weren’t in the Belgian Congo under Leopold.
No Mr. Beck. You and yours have reclaimed nothing, for there was nothing awaiting your messianic rescue. Those who did the work of obtaining even the partially decent society in which we live today, did so with no help from those like the people who hung on your every word this weekend. And those of us who know the truth of the movement and this nation’s history — and of the descent into madness upon which some of our fellow citizens have lately embarked at your behest — will continue, as we long have, to struggle against the forces of reaction so well-represented and led by the likes of you. For your part, you will continue to race bait and to push buttons of white resentment, what with your claims that the president is only pushing health care reform as a way to obtain reparations for blacks at the expense of whites, and that his first name — or at least his insistence on using it, as opposed to some more “American-sounding” alternative — proves his lack of devotion to the country.
But it is you who lacks commitment to the valuable part of the national ideal. It is you whose slavish devotion to nostalgia — to the “good old days” of so-called “innocence,” long since lost — betrays your contempt for both history and millions of your co-countrymen and women. They remember how those good old days were days of terror and hellish oppression for the black and brown, of unchecked male domination of women, of the closet enforced on LGBT folks, of Christian hegemony at the expense of pluralism. Even today those structural injustices remain too strong, but in the days you revere and remember so fondly, they were not only present but were accepted as the very model of virtue. That is the tradition in whose shadow you stand. That is your dream, Mr. Beck: a nightmare for all who fail to live up to your white, middle class, straight and Christian ideal of what a “real American” looks like.
But we have other dreams to dream. Other dragons to slay than those at which you tilt: first and foremost, the historical amnesia you would today elevate to the level of a national sacrament. For while you were right to note that black folks don’t “own” Martin Luther King — actually no one owns anyone anymore, no thanks to the conservatives of the 19th century of course — make no mistake, it was the civil rights movement that produced him, the left that fought beside him, and it is we who will continue his work, work in which you have never played, and will never play, any part whatsoever.