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Glenn Beck’s History Lesson: Amnesia and Conformity

A perusal of Glenn Beck’s commentaries on Fox Television reveals a man who perceives himself as a traditional history teacher.  He has his blackboard and trusty pointer, while he removes his glasses to underscore key points.  His lessons are essentially lectures in which professor Beck leads his viewers (class) to the proper conclusions.  There is no room for discussion or creative thinking in the Beck classroom.  A healthy respect for the role played by ambiguity and paradox in historical causation and human motivation is discouraged by Beck who insists that his pupils adhere to rote memorization and learning.  It is hardly the classroom of the twenty-first century, but Beck’s pedagogy was on display for the entire nation during the staging of his “Restore America” rally at the Lincoln Memorial on the forty-seventh anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Beck’s history lesson is a rather confusing one.  He states that he wants to restore America and return the nation to God.  But when exactly did the United States abandon God?  Was the abandonment present at the creation when the Bill of Rights provided for freedom of religion and a separation of church and state based upon colonial opposition to the established Church of England?  Beck, of course, ignores the Founders’ attraction to Deism and the Enlightenment, including Benjamin Franklin’s questioning of Jesus’s divine origins.  Instead, Beck proposes that America was founded as a Christian nation, and, indeed, some colonies proposed freedom of religion for all Christians in order to prevent the immigration of Jews.  While Beck does appear willing to expand his religious boundaries to include a Judeo-Christian tradition, there is certainly no room in Beck’s America for non-Christians or those who might profess no belief in a supreme being.  Thus, Muslims are left out of Beck’s national classroom, and he and his followers are able to embrace a clash of civilizations historical narrative which opposes the creation of an Islamic Center within blocks of Ground Zero, even though a gentleman’s club and lap dancing are tolerated.  In addition, Beck’s religious history lesson omits the tradition of Christian socialism in the United States which helped foster the social gospel movement and combined fundamentalist tent revivals with socialist political meetings on the Oklahoma frontier in the period before World War I.

Beck’s notion of America as a capitalist, Christian nation allows him to endorse American exceptionalism and the concept of manifest destiny.  In Beck’s world view, Americans are God’s chosen people, ant it is incumbent upon Americans to share the blessings of their civilization with the less fortunate peoples of the earth.  Thus, the continental expansionism of the United States and formation of a global empire, in which American military personnel are stationed around the world, are the unfolding of God’s plan for the planet.  Beck’s history does not allow for introspection or reflection.  Instead, a blind patriotism is celebrated in which subjugation of the environment and Native Americans, racial slavery, intolerance, exploitation of labor, and global imperialism are glossed over in a story of triumphant expansionism.  American soldiers and settlers brought the gifts of democracy to the Natives and Mexican peoples of the West and Southwest, while in World Wars I and II, the Cold War, and the War on Terror, America is exporting freedom to the world. 

It is a type of unthinking patriotism which renders Americans incapable of comprehending why some in the world might question the commitment of the United States to democratic principles.  Thus, professor Beck refuses to consider how the Cold War implementation of the Truman Doctrine led to the support of dictatorships and authoritarian regimes in the Philippines, Indonesia, Nicaragua, South Vietnam, South Africa, and Iraq.  Beck’s myopic view of history makes it difficult for his students/ followers to understand that Iranian resentment toward the United States is fueled by a CIA coup in 1953 which removed a democratically-elected government and installed the despised Shah who was overthrown in the Iranian Islamic Revolution.  To raise such issues is unpatriotic and not allowed in Beck’s “democratic” classroom.

Despite this historical celebration of America’s civilizing and democratic mission, accompanied by a failure to acknowledge that there might be any historical failings in American foreign policy--even in the jungles of Southeast Asia--Beck and his prize pupil, Sarah Palin assume that the United States somehow got off course and that God and honor, along with traditional values, must be restored.  Accordingly, we must return to the 1960s and redeem the Civil Rights Movement, for that seems to be where the nation got off course in attempting to bring the promise of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence to all Americans regardless of race, gender, class, or sexual orientation.  Rather than a period in which America got off track, the 1960s commitment to a more egalitarian society may be perceived as the moment when the nation returned to its founding principles. 

Yet, Beck and his Tea Party pupils seem threatened by such a diverse America.  Seeking to identify with the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., Beck and his Tea Party followers perceive themselves as citizens whose civil rights are violated by increased taxation, government regulations, and the health care bill signed into law by President Obama.  While the Beck crowd may have an argument when it comes to bailouts for special interests such as the banking industry, there is a travesty in equating health care reform with the injustices suffered by African Americans in the 1950s and 1960s in the American South when they were beaten and killed for simply registering to vote.

And, of course, the Beck classroom refuses to acknowledge the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the continuing intersection among race, class, and poverty in this country.  The Beck classroom is essentially white, but at his Washington rally there were some black religious speakers.  They, however, knew their place at the periphery and would not assume to steal center stage like the great imposter, Barack Obama.

Thus, the Beck classroom/rally was largely a white, older, more affluent group who wants to take their country back from the minorities that are not real Americans—thus, the “birther” movement questioning the legitimacy of an Obama presidency.  But here Beck and his cohorts, who may do well in the anticipated low turnout for the 2010 midterm elections, appear to be on the losing side of history.  America is becoming a more diverse nation, and demographic estimates are that whites will become a minority be mid-century.  Such a state of affairs seems threatening to Beck, and some fellow conservatives are proposing to amend the Fourteenth Amendment, denying citizenship to the children of undocumented immigrants and ignoring the historical origins of this amendment in assuring citizenship rights for America’s black population.

So, in the Beck classroom we must abandon the very individualism which professor Beck claims to embrace and cherish.  We must all adhere to the same religious and economic principles, denouncing free speech for those who fail to support the troops and dare to critique American foreign and military policies.  Women must be denied their right to choose, gays and lesbians must not be allowed to marry, and immigration must be controlled in the name of restoring honor.  To restore America and reclaim the Civil Rights Movement, professor Beck insists that his pupils engage in historical amnesia and illiteracy.  The straight jacket classroom of Beck works better if we all become the unthinking drones of The Stepford Wives or the obedient aliens in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  Of course, such drones are perfect candidates for Beck’s hucksterism as he shamelessly promotes his position as the spokesman for the purchase of commemorative gold coins.  On the other hand, is professor Beck’s national classroom really the type of America envisioned by Thomas Jefferson?