Thursday, September 17, 2009

Enchanted By Conspiracies

David von Drehle has written a lengthy profile of Glenn Beck, for the benefit of those thoughtful people who take an essentially entomological interest in American political disputes.

It's a little gem of centrist thinking. Glenn Beck makes a fortune claiming that Obama has "a deep-seated hatred of white people," sure...but Al Franken made a fortune selling books that "taunt conservatives" in some unspecified way. Conservatives invoke images of "brainwashed children goose-stepping to school," granted...but lefties are prone to equally outré fantasies about "brownshirts" at town hall meetings, just because a bunch of armed louts have made an organized effort to silence speakers by bellowing hard-right slogans at them.

To the really judicious observer, spouting outrageous lies, and attempting to counter those lies, are equal acts of fanaticism. Media Matters, for instance, routinely "cherry-picks" Glenn Beck's inflammatory statements, in order to portray him as someone who makes a career of saying inflammatory things.

I don't mean to imply that Von Drehle is an apologist for Beck. On the contrary, he makes it clear that Beck is simply the latest in a long line of charlatans and demagogues who have set Americans at one another's throats: witness "William Jennings Bryan whipping up populist Democrats over moneyed interests or the John Birch Society brooding over fluoride."

Here, once again, progressive fact is roughly equivalent to conservative fantasy: Bryan railed against the power of moneyed interests in the Gilded Age, while the Birchers insisted that fluoridation was intended to soften us up for a communist takeover. What can this mean, but that the "Cross of Gold" speech and the 1961 Blue Book of the John Birch Society are mirror-image examples of the American penchant for Manichean delusion?

Von Drehle uses the downfall of Van Jones to emphasize that there are grievous sins on both sides of our political divide.

Jones, whose task was to oversee a green-jobs initiative, turned out to be as enchanted by conspiracies as Beck - he once theorized that "white polluters and the white environmentalists" are "steering poison into the people-of-color's communities...."
Even if you want to assume that there's absolutely no truth to this theory -- despite all evidence to the contrary -- it's still interesting that Jones' fascination with conspiracy theories cost him his job, while Beck's has made him very, very rich. (Also, James Inhofe and Michelle Bachmann have pet theories that are at least as lurid as Jones'. But for some reason, progressive attempts to call attention to them haven't gotten much traction. It's almost as though there's some kind of weird double standard in place.)

Von Drehle notes that there's lots of money to be made by stirring up outrage. Michael Moore, for instance, has feathered his nest handsomely with all his "capitalism-bashing," instead of taking a formal vow of poverty like Karl Marx.

Fair enough. On the other hand, Michael Moore is not on TV and radio for several hours every goddamn day. Glenn Beck is, along with hordes of his ideological doppelgängers...despite the fact that their audience is "relatively small," and their views on, say, social programs are a good deal more radical than those of the average American.

William Jennings Bryan is a long-dead object of ridicule, thank God, so there's no point in discussing the role of moneyed interests in this outcome. Still, maybe there's a bit more to Beck's popularity than the lucky confluence of his "genuine talent" with a certain undercurrent of political discontent.

Or maybe there isn't. Lord knows these are angry, bleak times. Ordinary Americans are rightly concerned about our record deficit, which materialized like some continent-sized sinkhole on January 21, 2008. And they're fretting over the fact that government power is expanding again, after contracting for eight blessed years under George W. Bush. Perhaps Beck's popularity simply reflects the...the...anomie and deracinement of a troubled era, just as the movie Network did back in the mid-seventies.
It's hard to find a film that better captures the rotten vibe of the early 1970s, when America found itself suffering through one downer after another: failing companies, tense foreign relations, high unemployment, rampant incivility, spiraling deficits, corruption in high places, a seemingly endless war. Sound familiar?
Yeah, it does. It sounds almost exactly like the America of two or three years ago, during which time our current Prophets of Doom seemed inordinately pleased with the economy and the corruption and the wars and the international tensions, and referred to people who disagreed with their cheery outlook as whiners and pessimists.

But that was then. Things have changed -- in some subtle, almost indefinable way -- and the former tokens of our prosperity are suddenly being recognized as buboes on the body politic.

What's really worrisome is what will happen to audiences who have grown so accustomed to the irresponsible, white-knuckled rage of Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann that they no longer listen to cooler heads, and thus fail to understand that Olbermann's lockjawed, dyspeptic objections to torture, and Beck's shrieking and blubbering about a "civilian national security force" that will KILL US ALL, are symptoms of the same deadly extremism.
Do they stay mad forever? Does their screaming ever lead to something better? Does the rage merely migrate, sending new audiences with new enemies to scream from more windows? And if the time comes when every audience is screaming, who, in the end, is left to listen?
Good question! Maybe it's time we all step back from the abyss, and try to find some common ground. Maybe we can all agree to reject the conspiratorial view of history, whether it manifests itself as cold-warrior paranoia about fluoridation, or sensible skepticism about the basic goodwill of "moneyed interests." Maybe Glenn Beck can stop worrying people about the "communist and fascist symbols in the public artwork of Rockefeller Center," and the left can stop worrying them about the autocratic role of insurance companies in the healthcare debate.

At which point, we'll finally be able to move our country forward, and affirm those timeless values on which the far right and the center can agree.

(Illustration: "A flier issued in the 1950s–60s to promote hygiene as a communist goal," published in 1953 by the Keep America Committee.)


Jay Schiavone said...

Thanks Phila, for suffering through a Time cover story in order to advance human understanding. Madness has been mainstreamed in the past decade, and raging fear/hatred legitimized. As destructive as Time (and virtually all mass market publications) is for the public discourse, these false equivalency screeds are not so much influential as they serve to satisfy a vulgar craving. The drift of journalism from providing information to notional reinforcement is analogous to a schizophrenic patient going off their meds. That this should occur at acceleration of impending global calamity is inevitable.

Anonymous said...

This is exactly what has driven me crazy about insistence on reporting being "balanced," as if it makes sense to give equal time to sobering facts and maniacal distortion just because the positions are opposite. When you're standing in front of an oncoming train, it is wise to listen to the person yelling "Run!" and not the one saying, "Stay still" simply because they're opposite.

MNBlue said...

I know I've posted on every one of your stories mentioning Michele Bachmann... but seriously, it's Michele Bachmann! You should write a profile of Maureen Reed to help with the good fight against Bachmann...

Dr. Maureen Reed is running against her and she is going to wipe the floor with Bachmann! You can learn more about Maureen, and donate, at:

Phila said...

When you're standing in front of an oncoming train, it is wise to listen to the person yelling "Run!" and not the one saying, "Stay still" simply because they're opposite.

Brilliantly said.