I have to admit–every part of me wants to just completely ignore the fact that Glenn Beck exists. I want to accept him as a cheerfully wrongheaded caricature of some ghastly mutation of conservatism, and nothing more. My attempts to block him out of my mind were thwarted this weekend, however, when everything on the Internet pointed my attention to his Washington D.C. “Restoring Honor” rally. Suddenly, it was all very real. Were there really that many people packing the national mall cheering on Beck’s calls to reclaim America for “God” (is it his Mormon God? A Christian God? A blue deity from Avatar)? How was this joker the focal point of one of the largest political gatherings in recent history?
The significance of this man’s apparent following–I mean, just look at the ratings of his various TV and radio shows–demands that we take him seriously. Unfortunately, almost every commentary, tweet, or passing remark I’ve read about Beck since the rally has been either completely sarcastic, pointlessly angry, or simply dismissive. The discourse surrounding Beck by his many critics is as infantile and unhelpful as the man himself. Beck is not going anywhere and his followers will not diminish by us simply pointing at the whole thing and calling it preposterous.
That huge crowd was there in D.C. for a reason. They believed in something enough to be there. Was it Beck and his charisma that drew them? Was it his (shudder) civil religious fervor that maintains Christianity is about individualism and anti-social justice? I’m not sure. But I know these are important questions. The “masses” here may be mostly white, middle-class, pro-military tea-partiers, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have brains. It doesn’t mean we can just joke about the whole thing and expect that their children will be more nuanced and all will be well.
Beck and his pop-polemics are just a natural outgrowth of a culture that has embraced division as some sort of high Hegelian virtue. No one really takes the other side seriously any more, out of intellectual laziness and an alarmingly delinquent aptitude for things like nuance, moderation, charity, and friendly dialogue.
Until both sides are willing to take the other seriously, even the Glenn Becks in the lot, there will only be more stalemate, more pointless sarcastic rants and hateful Facebook posts complaining about the unfathomable ignorance of this or that person. There will only be more extreme polarity, exacerbated by a media system that thrives on soundbite bickering and black-and-white divisions.
I’m not sure what the solution is to get us out of this quagmire, but I think it probably starts with someone who is willing to stop talking and start listening to the other. It starts with the abandonment of the notion that progress is about winning a tug of war match over America’s soul. It starts with someone–anyone–writing a serious analysis of Glenn Beck that doesn’t cynically dismiss him at the outset as a lab rat run amok. Has anyone read such a thing? Please, send me a link.