Living in an America I No Longer Recognize
I have been feeling for some time that I am living in an increasingly unfamiliar nation. It has reached the point that some days I look in the mirror in my mind and see an American expatriate living in America.
Until recently, I chalked much of this up to aging. As we get older, the familiar drops away (people, customs, sayings and the like). Fewer and fewer people in any group of mixed ages remember the events, movies, TV shows, music and books that are part of the amalgamated core of myself.
Forces at Work to Alter Traditional American Values
But I have come to realize that there are other forces in play besides aging, forces that are altering the very core of the values that have defined being an American for me—and also defined my faith (Christianity).
While I agree with the wisdom of not demonizing others, I see certain individuals and certain institutions as embodying a spirit that is life-destroying instead of a spirit that is life-enriching. For me, when this spirit goes unchecked, it fulfills my definition of evil.
It is the reality of the dark side of the Gollum, it is Sauron’s Eye overlooking Mordor, it is Voldemort, it is the White Witch who has turned Narnia into a land where it is always winter but never Christmas.
Quest for Absolute Power = Evil
What defines these fictional figures is their singular quest for absolute power over all by any and all means possible. In the last century, we saw any number of nonfictional national leaders seeking the same goal in the same manner: World War II was the global response to Germany’s Hitler and Japan’s military leaders, all seeking world domination.
There are many others from this era forward to the present: Mussolini, Franco, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Idi Amin; these are the ones we often hear the most about. Their tactics were brutal, violent and, for most, obvious.
Hitler’s may have been less obvious to a degree, but his regime’s systematic cruelty could only have been kept out of official sight by means of informal and formal denial.
Today’s efforts at control, particularly in the United States, are far more subtle and to a large extent do not depend on overt violence. Yes, there are sharp edges of violence in many places, but not at the center, at least not as long as there is so little hard protest (unlike the Vietnam era protests).
Control Has Sifted from Brute Force to the Media
Today, much of the means to control has fallen to the media, primarily television. One of the most influential in this field is Rupert Murdock’s Fox News. Fox has blazed an enormous trail that, while it is not truly new, has made Murdock, his investors and his key employees an enormous amount of money.
I say, “not truly new,” because our nation has had a strong stream of biased, over-the-top journalism since the colonial days. In the early 20th century, William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer made their fortunes by developing a news style that came to be “yellow journalism.” This is journalism that sells papers by engaging in hyperbole, sensationalism and printing stories that may even be made up.
Fox News: Today’s Yellow Journalism
This mantel has fallen to Fox News. Fox’s ratings and advertising success has pulled most major media, TV and print into an increasingly right to far-right direction. Unfortunately, the character of the far right today is dominated by enormous amounts of emotionally loaded sneering and disdain, incessant fear mongering and large amounts of misinformation, distortions and just plain lies.
These three are particularly dangerous in a democracy where rational understanding must prevail over the so-called mob mentality. And of the three, the third is the most treacherous.
There are many figures on Fox News who fit into this category of, shall we say, yellow TV news. In part for the sake of brevity, but also because his presence currently is so dominant, my focus is on Glenn Beck for an example of how damaging this misinformation can be for our nation.
Glenn Beck: Master of Distortion
Beck’s misdeeds are called out on a regular basis by Jon Stewart on his program, The Daily Show. This is an enjoyable a place to begin and Stewart, despite being a comedian, often nails an issue or person extraordinarily well.
Admittedly, Beck gives Stewart a lot to go after: his goofy mannerisms, his use of puppets and blackboards, his outlandish pronouncements. These elements of Beck fit Stewart’s tart yet surprisingly mild style.
But, as several public figures and authors have been noting increasingly recently, Beck’s poisonous labeling, paranoid-like pronouncements and predictions, his outright unprovoked attacks, his slippery distortions and his unsupported “facts” are making a mark on our society, a mark that aims to destroy the very principles and values he and Fox are purporting to protect.
Beck Attacks Soros and Wallace with Amazing Distortions and Ignorance
Two such recent attacks by Beck illustrate what I mean. One was against the billionaire George Soros and the other targeted evangelical Jim Wallace (founder of Sojourners).
In both cases, Beck attempted to make strong supporters of traditional American political and social values into anti-American evildoers. He also demonstrated an egregious ignorance of arguably the most central of Christian values: social justice for the poor.
Why is this a problem? Because people believe Beck even when he either does not know what he is talking about or he is
deliberately making something up (for whatever reasons). Judge for yourself:
“Soros is a familiar figure among progressives. He is an extraordinarily wealthy man who has used his money to fund non-violent groups that succeeded eventually in turning their Post-Soviet nation away from Communism and toward democracy. He also has supported more liberal politicians over the years with enormous amounts of money.”
Beck Labels Soros (a Jew) as Anti-Semitic
Soros is Jewish, and he and his family survived the Jewish Holocaust in Hungary (where he was born) by successfully hiding their identity. Soros was a young teenager when he went with an official to an estate that had been confiscated from another Jewish family.
Beck used this incident to claim that Soros was anti-Semitic. Beck did not make clear that Soros’ efforts to help foster governmental overthrow was to get rid of the Communist leaders and form of government, something that would have made Soros a hero in the eyes of the nation any time from the 1950s on.
Instead, Beck used these efforts by Soros to create an enormous cloud of suspicion that somehow Soros was at the center of an insidious, diabolical and systematic effort to overthrow the U.S. government (you know, the government Beck and Fox News love and admire, to which they are unquestioningly loyal).
Beck Claims Christian “Social Justice” Aims at Communism
Earlier last year, Beck launched an unexpected attack on any and all Christians who stand for “social justice,” calling it a “perversion of the Gospel,” equating it with pure, unadulterated Communism and urging churchgoers to leave their church if they heard the term. One of the persons who pushed back was Jim Wallace, the evangelical Christian who founded the magazine and Web site called Sojourners.
Wallace certainly is not radical in his core beliefs, but for him (and vast numbers of Christians even today), the idea of “social justice” as something evil, as something that must be guarded against, is extraordinarily wrong for it goes against the heart of the Christian bible, against Jesus’ central message.
Beck Threatens Wallace
Wallace pushed back strongly, yet he also invited Beck to meet together and to dialogue publicly. Beck declined and then went on to say to Wallace, “But just know [Jim]—the hammer is coming, because little do you know, for eight weeks, we’ve been compiling information on you, your cute little organization, and all the other cute little people that are with you. And when the hammer comes, it’s going to be hammering hard and all through the night, over and over.”
Beck: Educator and Religious Leader? Not!
As I said above, the problem is that there are a huge number of people who are using Beck as their teacher, their educator in matters of history, current events, religion, politics. He even purports to have a “university” in which one can enroll. This makes those people who buy phony degrees that take little or no real academic work look harmless.
He is not well-educated in any traditional sense of the idea in any of those areas. According to the Wikipedia article on Beck, he enrolled in a single college-level course on “Early Christology” at Yale in 1996, then dropped out before the term was finished.
Later in his life, he sought help from AA to gain control over his long-standing alcohol and drug dependency. He also converted to Mormonism (he was raised as a Roman Catholic). Although he purportedly has engaged in some self-directed study by reading books, he has had no formal education in theology, biblical studies and religion, or any college-level education in politics, history, philosophy, literature and science—all the things we expect of a college graduate.
What he has had is an extensive and varied career as an on-air personality in radio, honing an ability to get the attention of an audience by any means possible, including by annoying people. Reportedly, he became adept at this skill during his various radio jobs before reaching Fox. (See www.salon.com/news/feature/2009/09/23/glenn_beck_three/print.html for a related article by Alexander Zaitchik.)
Beck’s Outrageous Radio Prank: A Foreshadowing?
At a radio job in the city of Baltimore, he and a partner slowly unfolded an extensive and elaborate story about the development of “Magicland,” described as the first underground, air-conditioned amusement park. On the day it was supposed to open, a number of people drove around looking for it. But it was totally fiction. Putting one over on people and laughing about it was the payoff. Foreshadowing his present programming?
Frankly, Beck seems more akin to the classic flim-flam man, the skilled huckster, than to anything like a serious, intelligent, educated leader. But Murdock has been giving him a powerful national stage because Beck can draw a highly devoted and motivated audience.
Murdock Is the Key
Obviously, Murdock is the key to this. If he wanted Beck gone, Beck would fade into the shadows. As poor a source of journalism as Fox News is, it nonetheless provides a frame of legitimacy to those who go on the air. Remember the print ads that say, “As seen on TV!” This typically is for questionable products and is totally meaningless.
People have stated for years that if it is printed in the newspaper or in a book, whatever “it” is gains some automatic credibility. TV has joined this group over the past 50 years.
It would be nice to think that over time more and more people are going to be able to discern the ignorance, the prejudices, the distortions and outright fabrications of Glenn Beck and others like him. Yet, critical thinking is in short supply in the United States.
I cannot imagine most of these same people being comfortable with hiring a civil engineer to build an enormous bridge over deep water if they knew he dropped out of his first course on calculus and never went back to school. Yet they do seem to be happy to be informed and led by someone not educated or trained in the areas about which he claims authority.
No Standards or Accountability for the Media: We All Suffer as a Result
In many critical areas, society has been persuaded to set minimum standards and to provide a license only to those who can meet that mark of sufficient education and training. This often is verified by examination prior to being granted a full license.
But this is not the case when it comes to running one of the most powerful sources of information sharing known to human kind. There are no standards to meet except that it must make money. We all suffer as a result.
Keeping the Flame of Truth and Justice Alive
But unless there are either new laws or a change of heart, we are left to encourage advertisers to drop Beck, if not Fox itself, to get Fox turned off in public locations and to continue to get the word out in as many ways and places as possible: Keeping the flame of truth and justice alive in the world.