Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Barack Obama is the same as Glenn Beck? Sorta. This headline is meant to catch your attention? Yes.

Love him or hate him, Glenn Beck has a lot of viewers. Millions actually. Why and how has he garnered such a following? His androgynous, boyish complexion gives him the appearance of a lesbian who makes a point not to wear make-up, so it's probably not his looks that get people to watch (see: Anderson Cooper). What is it then? You can smugly write-off his massive, cultish following, disregarding these millions as ignorant rednecks, which is in fact how many liberals approach it. Fortunately, I won't do that. Not exactly, anyway.

If all you know of Beck's show are the clips shown on Jon Stewart, then you actually have a pretty good idea of what it's like. Usually I'd say watch the thing for yourself, and I guess you should, but any given clip--even out of context--probably gives you a fairly accurate picture. Beck fills most of his hour-long show by repeating certain key words--socialist, Marxist, communist--attached to names--Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, to name a few--, drawing connections between the adjective and the person, using laughably sloppy reasoning. In this sense, Beck's show has no real substance, and it's hard not to think the people who believe his gibberish are idiots. He doesn't actually make any points; he just calls people names over and over again under the false credibility of ad-hoc logic and "facts" that aren't really facts. And as propaganda--or "agitprop," as pretentious, Beck-hating liberal rags like The New York Review of Books might put it--it's very effective. (The NYROB readership can be summed up as: people who want to read articles with words like "agitprop" in them, but who don't know what "agitprop" actually means, slash won't wikipedia it because they won't accept that they don't, in fact, know what it means.)

Take a look at this clip, in which Beck constructs an argument based on Obama's childhood influences for why and how the president became a "Marxist."

Notice how he draws his conclusions. Barack's father was a communist, so Barack must be a communist; his mother was an atheist, so she believed in Marxism "to the extreme." There isn't a correlation between the two propositions; the one doesn't necessarily make the other true. Is it possible that a mother's atheistic leanings might influence the political ideology of her son? Sure, but Beck frames his arguments in what logicians, and other nerds, call a contrapositive: if the one is true, then the other is also true. Beck does this and then adds "to the extreme."

So Beck is a phony, an agitator, a propagandist. Many on both sides of the political spectrum--the ones who care about things like facts, anyway--have said as much and have denounced him. That Beck is a quack is indisputably true, but not that interesting. The interesting question is not, is Beck credible? but rather, why is his message--that Obama and liberal dems are destroying America, and that our problems will be solved once he and they are not in power--so attractive to so many people? My answer is somewhat existential, and pretty depressing. "Uh oh," you say, feeling increasingly uncomfortable, "what kind of weird truth bombs is this boy about to drop?"

Cue "Thank You" by Dido.

Times are tough. The recession continues to take a catastrophic toll, and while it's not getting worse it's not showing any signs of substantial improvement either. People are hurting, and they're pissed-off. Beck and others like him recognize this frustration and they have exploited it brilliantly. To these frustrated Americans who are fed-up, understandably, with how their lives are going at the moment, Beck has provided a scapegoat--and a way out. He's produced the following scenario: if this president continues to hold power, your problems will continue as well; but without him and his agenda, your problems will be solved and your lives will improve dramatically. Beck's message then is like a drug, where the euphoric feeling is not "real" in the sense that once the drug wears off and you go back to sober reality you'll still be sad, or poor, or whatever. But the feeling, in that transitory moment, is real enough; you are indeed, if only for a time, happier. Like Spongebob below.

So while Beck's fans believe that a better life is around the corner, but unachievable while Obama enacts his agenda, they are optimistic--happier, even--and violently impatient to get this guy the hell out so their better life can start.

Obama's campaign produced a similar effect among liberals. He captured--or exploited, depending on how you want to look at it; both are valid--the extremely powerful desire people have to want something better, the same desire that Beck recognizes. Obama deceived us, as Beck has. Both are masters at this trick. Obama convinced us--and perhaps he believed it, too--that government could be better than it is, that it could, with him at the helm, provide us with that better life that we all feel is there but just beyond our reach ("I knew real politics could be like how it is on West Wing!"). It's the same, tired dream that's been dreamed and crushed millions of times in this country. It's Gatsby's green light. Spoiler: Gatsby doesn't get the girl, and he dies at the end.

Obama and Beck the same? Well, in a way. They both sold/sell false messages in order to gain an audience. The difference between the two is that Obama employed hope, and an uplifting message of coming together to solve problems, Beck stokes hate and division. But both of them duped/are duping us. I admit I didn't realize this during the campaign. My eyes, just like the rest of the goddamn saps, were too glazed over with hope juice to see anything (it probably wouldn't have been legal for me to drive). Democrats and Republicans coming together; the nation coming together; a post-partisan era--these were pipe dreams. Fortunately, after the dreamy smoke cleared, Obama turned out to be a pretty good president. He is pragmatic, careful. He is--dare I say it--a bureaucrat, the very thing we thought he wasn't. We thought we wanted a superhero, but here's the thing: 1) superheroes, like MLK or Gandhi, won't get elected to public office, 2) people like that aren't actually good as government instruments.

Back to Beck (could be the title of his secret gay lover's tell-all book?). Fine, he's a liar. But what are his motivations? Is he a racist? I don't think so. I don't think Beck is more or less affected by race issues than the next white guy. Do I think there are there some racial elements in the emotions Beck is stirring up? Yes. The demographics of this country are changing. In a few years, non-white groups combined will make up a majority in the U.S. I think mixed up in all of this is the feeling that people are losing their country, that the idea of America portrayed in Budweiser ads is no longer a reality. (In the New Yorker Kelefa Sanneh makes a strange but indeed plausible argument that politics explicitly catering to "white people" will soon lose its negative, racist connotation as whites lose demographic real estate.) These feelings are not something to just write-off as desperate, pathetic attempts by sore-loser whites to hold onto power. Call me crazy, but I'm sympathetic. These people love this country and they feel like it's getting away from them. That's not something to scoff at--well, okay you can scoff, but have some sympathy at the same time.

So...Beck is an angel? Not exactly. He does play up the fact that Obama is black and that his middle name is Hussein and that he also has a funny first name. I see this less as racism per se, and more giving his viewers as many things as possible to make him "different." (I suppose this is a kind of racism, in that Beck uses Obama's black skin color to reinforce a "not me" mentality with his viewers. Okay, so that's exactly what racism is. Nevermind--my point is, I don't think Beck hates black people.) Beck is more like Kim Kardashian than he is like Strom Thurmond, but not because he looks more like a woman than a man. He does though. Like Kardashian, Beck just wants the spotlight. Unlike Strom, Beck is not a complete bigot.

Let's recap. In this post, I crushed hope and the possibility of a better life, and at times defended a man I despise. I really let the keyboard get away from me on this one, huh. Maybe it was the weed Spongebob sold me.