06.29.11

Beck's Lessons for Liberals

With his Fox show ending, liberals are inclined to ridicule Glenn Beck. But as Michael Tomasky argues, Beck was more cunning than progressives in at least one regard.

So it’s the end of the road for Fox and Glenn Beck, whose last show on the right-wing propaganda network is Thursday night. Beck is off to start GBTV, which I guess seems the obvious name for his personal enterprise but sounds more like LGBT (as in movement) than he probably prefers. Anyway, as he shuttles off to a realm where we normal earthlings can finally just ignore him, I think it’s important to make the point that as dishonest as he was and is about George Soros and Van Jones and the Department of Homeland Security and all the rest, he spewed even more pollution about history than about the present, and liberals should give a few moments’ thought to this problem as he exits the stage.

I was in the habit, if something so infrequent can be called that, of flipping Beck on about once a week for a minute or three. I was often surprised to find him discussing not Barack Obama or one of the malefactors named above, but Federalist Number 10 or the Fourteenth Amendment or Woodrow Wilson. His interpretations of history are every bit as bonkers as his assays of the present: We’ve been on the road to fascism since Teddy Roosevelt, Social Security was really the handiwork of Josef Stalin via Harry Hopkins, his Manchurian Candidate in the FDR White House, and on and on and on. Here is an amusing little timeline of history according to Beck, assembled by the folks at Media Matters for America.

He’s out of his mind, obviously, but here’s the thing: He is the only television personality  I know of who uses his national platform to talk regularly and often about American history. And he makes me think, well, this is one of the ways in which conservatives are cleverer and more cunning than liberals.

Liberals very rarely talk about history, as my Democracy journal colleague Elbert Venture wrote recently in a fine essay. To them, history is settled, and there’s no more point arguing about it than there is in arguing about the physical properties of trees. It’s a factual given. Except that it’s not. The standard, non-crazy history we’ve all been taught is being contested every day by Beck and others. Next time you’re on a long-ish drive, flip over to the AM dial and listen to any of the several Christian news-talk stations you’ll find. You will see what I mean. And I’m not talking about arguably controversial liberal assertions about history—Thomas Scopes was a great man, say, or Charles Beard was dead-on about the Constitution. I’m talking about stuff in the grade-school textbooks. The Civil War was caused largely by slavery? Lib propaganda, all of it.

The right understands that building its individualistic utopia hinges in no small part on destroying the story about our history in which collective action ever improved the country.
Video screenshot

The right understands that building its individualistic utopia of the future hinges in no small part on destroying the story about our history in which collective action resulted in any success. History must therefore be rewritten, and it must be rewritten in accessible form —on cable television and radio. The left, meanwhile, ignores the subject for the most part. I don’t want to overstate the numbers of Americans who have come to believe that Woodrow Wilson was a fascist, say, or that Medicare is un-American. But it seems clear that those numbers are growing. MSNBC, if it really wants to be the anti-Fox, could do far worse than give over 30 minutes somewhere every evening to sane and factual history.

Ultimately, history was Beck’s partial undoing. A New York-based nonprofit group called Jewish Funds for Justice (JFSJ) deserves some credit for bringing Beck’s incessant misuse of Jewish history to Roger Ailes’ attention. JFSJ president and CEO Simon Greer got a meeting last July with Ailes and Joel Cheatwood, a Fox executive who’s leaving the network to work with Beck. Greer alerted them to the fact that, as he put it to me in an interview, “Beck had used Hitler and Holocaust and Nazi imagery nearly 400 times in the last 18 months. And Ailes looked at Cheatwood like, ‘Huh?’” Greer says he even received in due course a hand-written note from Beck himself: “He didn’t quite apologize, but it wasn’t bad.”

And finally, it was the Soros harangue, so deftly demolished on this site at the time by Michelle Goldberg, that may have crossed the line. If by the way you have not read Soros’s powerful and fascinating response to Beck from a recent issue of The New York Review of Books, I suggest you do so. Instead of handing fellow Jews over to Nazis, as Beck had it, Soros was of course doing the opposite:

When the Germans occupied Hungary on March 19, 1944, my father knew exactly what to do. He realized that these were abnormal times and people who followed the normal rules were at risk. He arranged false identities not only for his immediate family but also for a larger circle. He charged a fee, sometimes quite an exorbitant one, to those who could afford it, and helped others for free. I had never seen him work so hard before. That was his finest hour. Both his immediate family and most of those whom he advised or helped managed to survive.

Instead of submitting to our fate we resisted an evil force that was much stronger than we were—yet we prevailed. Not only did we survive, but we managed to help others. This left a lasting mark on me, turning a disaster of unthinkable proportions into an exhilarating adventure.

That Soros even felt he had to answer such absurd charges shows how insidious historical lies can be. What we need is historical truth, not just in The New York Review, but in more popular venues as well.

An earlier version of this article misstated the first name of historian Charles Beard. It has been updated.