Author Alexander Zaitchik on Glenn Beck and “White Culture”
BY TYLER BASS
“[Glenn] Beck has repeatedly, respectfully, and recently played audio of men like Ezra Taft Benson, a Mormon apostle who thought the civil rights movement was a dastardly communist plot. Benson also wrote the forward to a book of race hate whose cover illustration featured the severed, bloody head of an African American.”
- Alexander Zaitchik, Common Nonsense – Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance
Zaitchik says he’s worried about becoming “The Glenn Beck Guy,” wincing slightly at the foul prospect. In researching his new book, Common Nonsense – Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance, the thirty-something journalist dove headlong into the massive pile of bullshit that is Beck’s long broadcast career. Sitting silently in his immaculate basement apartment in Brooklyn, I wonder: Will he ever be clean again?
By replaying the Fox News host’s controversies in the context of his decades of Shock-Jocking, Common Nonsense shows how Beck simultaneously demands the gravity of a Martin Luther King and the lightness of an Orson Welles. In this way, Beck can mock his offended viewers, for taking his show too seriously, but also deride those who don’t heed his calls to defend earth from the Martians.
Beck’s MO of siege-mentality racism, followed by chuckling indignation, extends through decades of radio doublespeak. More recently, the Fox News host’s accusation that Barack Obama was against “white culture” brought this MO to national consciousness. When subsequently asked to define “white culture,” by Katie Couric, he was at a loss. Beck has found something worth defending whose articulation he knows to be anathema: irrational prejudice.
Walking through a patriotically sweltering July 4th in Brooklyn, I asked Zaitchik, “What is white culture? And why did Beck refuse to answer the question?”
Zaitchik, to my surprise, seemed to come to Beck’s defense, saying that Obama, indeed, probably did see his own mother as an enemy of white culture, stigmatized in her era, for seeing an African. Additionally, he expressed that the taboo that restraining Beck from the definition was unfair, since after all, there was no corresponding taboo on defining what is “black.”
He said something similar and shorter at our meeting, but by e-mail I invited Zaitchik to elaborate on what he believes Beck’s definition of white culture to be.
Zaitchik wrote, “For Beck, ‘white culture’ is about more than just skin-color, as implied by the phrase, though race is a major component. It’s part of an entire politics of symbolism that usually dares not speak the racial aspect aloud. In this, as is often the case, Beck is just being more honest and brazen than most. It’s a political strategy and vocabulary that goes back to Nixon’s Silent Majority, which was basically middle – and working – class whites who were culturally conservative and lived outside the big coastal cities. In reality as in the marketing idea, they are people more likely to attend Church, to lack self-consciousness about overt displays of patriotism, and to enjoy things that they may feel are derided as ‘corny’ by, say, Bill Maher. That kind of thing. It is not true that most of the people who fit this description are white, but the ones who do and listen to Beck most certainly are. He knows this, so he plays on their sense of dispossession and (sometimes even persecution), and their anxieties, to become their champion. It’s a replay of the whole red state-blue state shorthand that came into vogue in 2004. Beck’s core audience is made up of white red-staters. The ‘culture’ of this audience – diverse though it is – is what he means by the White Culture: country not hip hop, trucks not bullet trains, church not cultural studies, etc, etc.”
Later this month, Beck will conduct what he considers a spiritual emulation of King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. I’d like to tell you that if he took the podium to begin reciting fantastical lies on the order of “War Of The Worlds” that he wouldn’t call us whiners, for taking his brand of entertainment too seriously during the momentous anniversary.
And I do not use the term “brand” loosely. Beck is more than a histrionic demagogue with a chalkboard. He’s the histrionic king of a multimedia empire. He’s become a brand name. Zaitchik explains, “Fox could drop Beck tomorrow, and he’d never even feel it.” For example, the Beck-branded literature is a largely ghostwritten industry, he says. Upon recalling Beck’s battered chalkboard prose, this claim seems more than credible.
What does Zaitchik think is the worst individual Beckism? Conflating former White House Green Czar Van Jones and the quasi-delusional Rev. Jeremiah Wright. In condemning Jones’s claim that “the white polluters and the white environmentals [sic] are essentially steering poison in the people of colored communities,” Beck said, “What is the excuse this time for appointing the same type of radical, saying almost damn exact same words as Jeremiah Wright to an influential position in our government?”
Beck framed this “radicalism” by playing this Rev. Wright quote: “The government lied about the Tuskegee experiment. They purposely infected African American men with syphilis.” There’s a certain degree of hairsplitting to be done factually about what Wright was claiming (in this case), especially with regard to the claim that the government deliberately infected people with Syphillis. The Mormon devil is in the details.
In the Tuskegee experiments, government researchers deliberately kept their subjects/pseudo-patients in the dark about their prognoses in order to observe the nature of their biological decay. These experiments demonstrate an obvious case in which professionals on the government payroll deceived the public for years, as much as they fooled their own hapless patients. Not treating or informing patients did, in effect, inject people with syphilis (except with a penis instead of a syringe), as the doctors surely knew that the disease would enter spouses and unborn children.
The only attribute almost “the damn exact same” between Wright’s and Jones’s assertions was darker-skinned people have historically been abused. The Fox News Channel commentator revealed his underlying hatred of this narrative, even in the factually unambiguous Tuskegee case. Why didn’t Beck use Wright’s moronic assertion that the U.S. Government created HIV to decimate black communities to illustrate his idiotic point? Well, because that bit of crazy doesn’t need historic revision; it’s demonstrably false.
Beck has gone out of his way to reassure his viewers that he is the right kind of culture warrior, fighting for Americans’ interests, and against the types of crackpot eugenics schemes perpetrated by the Soviet Union and, especially, the Nazi regime. “The scientific consensus in Europe in the 1920s and the ’30s was that eugenics was a good idea,” he says, adding, “I’m glad that a few people stood against eugenics.” By quite literally whitewashing Tuskegee, Beck shows himself as both a consummate hypocrite and reactionary propagandist.
Beck and his benighted fan-base live in a paranoid world where “white culture” is under attack in the same way that Joseph McCarthy envisioned America’s peril at the hands of communist infiltrators. The foreign, the other, the alien lives among us and “we” must defend our way of life. To Beck, it seems, this way of life ignores both white racism and social ascendancy. A sort-of-black president is a major treat to this illusion, for the more obvious reason of White House melanin, and for producing a tangible racist backlash.
As he sits on his couch in a room facing the street, I ask Zaitchik to elaborate on the nature of the birther conspiracy, in which a number of parties are ostensibly shutting up about the tenuous nature of Obama’s birthplace. (A recent CNN poll tallied that a quarter of Americans doubt the president was born in the US.)
Have they been jumping off of that claim that surfaced during the primaries, I wonder aloud, that a 10-year-old Obama longed for the presidency at a young age?
Zaitchik shrugs in response, eyes wandering away, visibly disinterested in belaboring the obvious. He responds that if Obama had some sort of foreign roots, he would have been all-too-happy to use that background in a college application to Harvard because “it would have helped him.”
I disagree with Zaitchik that Beck’s dismissal of Tuskegee is his worst. For what it’s worth – after all, nobody was paying much attention to the guy at the time – Beck’s lowest professional moment really never occurred in the political commentary realm. (Although, perhaps it relates vaguely to the reproductive rights discussion.) When he was a relatively low-level radio personality, Beck somehow summoned the good taste to make an on-air call to the wife of a competing deejay in a moment of distress. A former Clear Channel programmer gave the goods on what Beck said to her.
“‘We hear you had a miscarriage,’” remembers Brad Miller, a former Y95 deejay . . . “When Terry said yes, Beck proceeded to joke about how Bruce [Kelly] apparently can’t do anything right – he can’t even have a baby.”
Apparently, at the time, Mrs. Beck – kind of like Laura Bush scolding W. over “Bring it on” – found her sensibilities bruised by an escalated callousness, and gave Glenn a once-over for this. Sadly, for the research purposes of Zaitchik’s text, says the author, she hung up at the journalist’s ring.
Speaking of Mormon fantasy, the author is more concerned than I am about Romney’s chances in 2012. Many Evangelicals would agree that the prophesied return of Joseph Smith alongside of Jesus Christ at final judgment is a functionally important notion to consider on arrival at the Republican primary booth. I also disagree with Zaitchik that the rise of Beck represents a coalescing of the Mormon and Evangelical worldviews, or that at least it’s not enough to give Romney a serious shot. The again, he is The Glenn Beck Guy. If there is something which can bind these disparate christian groups is fear of a swarthy other. Some white evangelicals may love this passage from the Book of Mormon:
And [God] had caused the cursing to come upon them, yea, even a sore cursing, because of their iniquity. For behold, they had hardened their hearts against him, that they had become like unto a flint; wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people, the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them. And thus saith the Lord God; I will cause that they shall be loathsome unto thy people, save they shall repent of their iniquities.
The worst part of becoming the Glenn Beck Guy, even if you’re the best Glenn Beck Guy, is that it promotes Glenn Beck. Like a neglected toddler shitting on the carpet, Beck will take whatever attention he can get. Zaitchik’s book is, indeed, a competent and well-deserved beating of America’s gray-haired media toddler, but that such obvious hucksterism needs “refudaition” is the real problem with slime. Slime sells. Slime spreads. And then it sells some more. Zaitchik could have written on any number of topics, and produced a compelling manuscript, but the market demands slime.
That a talent like Zaitchik should devote any attention to a man, whose ideology could be ably deconstructed by a clever German Sheppard, should make us all feel a little slimy. What should be crystal clear is muddy. And if Beck’s “dream” comes to fruition, none of us will ever be clean again.