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Glenn Beck’s Sheep

Glenn Beck’s various endeavors are so superficial and insincere it’s difficult to understand those who fall for his scams. America, of course, has a long tradition of hucksterism. We are a credulous folk, ready to believe in any old snake oil despite the fact that they always fail.

One Millennial fool after another has promised that the end is nigh, but the world goes on. Never mind that. Just a detail.

Beck’s claim that he and his are responsible for the Civil Rights Movement is, of course, so ridiculous that if he uttered such a thing on Jeopardy he’d be laughed out of the studio. But, at his FoxNews home, it’s just the tea party ticket.

Even more troublesome are the anti-democratic billionaires and neo-medieval lords David and Charles Koch, Rupert Murdoch and others. They  finance an extremist agenda that would eliminate Social Security and virtually all government regulatory oversight, slash their taxes and leave the middle class and the poor to finance and fight their necessary wars for oil.

Until last week, when the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer shined the light on the Kochs, the media has let them have their way with the nation’s political psyche.

But Beck’s (and the Kochs’) unsuspecting followers might be even more troublesome still,  not least because they appear sincere in their willing conformity to the whims of their masters (all in the name of individualism). Reading the quotes from those in the crowd at Beck’s Lincoln Memorial celebration of historical heresy, I’m struck by a certain authenticity. They are true believers.

Leaps of logic and outright falsifications are common among all unquestioning believers. Consider this from Beck rally attendee Becky Benson:

Jesus, she said, would not have agreed with what she called the redistribution of wealth in the form of the economic stimulus package, bank bailouts and welfare. “You cannot sit and expect someone to hand out to you,” she said. “You don’t spend your way out of debt.”

The Beatitudes aside, I’m not certain what Jesus would do if he became Treasury Secretary or got a job at the Fed. If the Gospels are any indication, he’d probably smash some tables and invite the poor into dinner.

Anyway, it doesn’t get us very far to simply ridicule Beck’s sheep or point out their foolishness. We could do much the same to every follower of every true believer movement in history. I hesitated to refer to them as sheep, but sheep they are.

They present just the sort of danger the Framers tried to guard against. Of course, they probably think the same thing about me. But I’ve got the facts of history on my side. Religious fanaticism, which seemed much in view at Saturday’s D.C. Beckoning, is undemocratic by nature. Fanatics demand conformity. The democratic spirit is essentially non-conformist and pluralistic.

I am sorry for the sheep, but I condemn the Beckian herders who lead them over cliffs for pennies. It’s a dangerous gambit. It threatens the social fabric as it seeks to undo democratic institutions and values.

While speech must remain protected, our national political conversation has to be informed by the insight that some views have no legitimate place within a democracy. We can’t outlaw such speech by law, but we can contest it, smartly, emotionally, effectively. Demanding conformity to one particular religious tradition is one such view.

So, of course, is racism, and racism is unquestionably playing a part in the emotion frenzy we know as the tea party. Mainstream journalists are reluctant to face this obvious fact. They want to make it more legitimate by saying the tea partiers are motivated by economic uncertainty or other more acceptable causes.

The extremes of bigotry and religious fanaticism have been legitimized as mainstream. That is the great crime of today’s media. There are important exceptions, of course. But for the most part the media hasn’t met the right wing nut it won’t showcase.

As for Beck’s sincere followers, I can only hope they see the edge of the cliff before they fall off of it. Meanwhile, we have to speak our own values with great clarity and volume. We have to quit leaving voids in the conversation that can be filled by self-promoting rascals like Beck and billionaire thugs like the Kochs.

We have to insist upon reason and law, but we also have to recognize that humans are wired for emotional responses as well. Reason, believe it or not, is not always right. By that I mean it is not, cold and alone, enough to turn the mind of a true believer. If it was, there would be no true believers.

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Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith