The celebrity Glenn Beck has organized a festive and apparently harmless public event for the Washington Mall that he calls “Restoring Honor.” This theme is so deeply bland that it invites us partisans to look for inner meaning, such as the fact that August 28 is the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s revolutionary March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, or such as Beck’s Fox News Channel seeking a low-budget reality show to sell for the dog days of summer programming.
The trick here may be that Beck’s event, which will feature the celebrity Sarah Palin, is not about anything at all. It is a farce of an event in the way the bookish Karl Marx meant it, “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.”
Beck is an entertainer, and he does his job with hambone energy and handfuls of self-mockery. There is no threat here.
The original Martin Luther King event was the opening act of a tragedy that hurtled America toward violence and King’s murder five years later. This makes the Glenn Beck event exactly what Beck says it is: not King-significant, not partisan, not strident, not Tea Party—a lot of “not” about this or that. Beck admits to his ignorance of the day, “I had no idea August 28th was the day of the MLK speech when we booked it... I'm sorry, media, that I forgot the, oh, so important detail of the date.” Beck also denies a partisan logic, “Well, it's not a political event because I haven't found a lot of honor when it's followed by an 'R' or a 'D.'”
It would be tidy just to leave the event be—a well-organized gathering of amiable, energetic, kindly citizens, and friends on a sunny, dry, lucky day in a space designed for hundreds of thousands of people to enter and leave swiftly.
Gallery: Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” Rally
• John Avlon: I Have a Nightmare• John Avlon: Glenn Beck’s Hypocritical RevivalYet this is not the whole story, and the part of Glenn Beck that is a natural performer knows it, which is why he adds oddly discordant remarks to his explanation of the event. “I've been examining the problems of this country and I've been trying to come up with ways out,” Beck observes. “We're entering our last exit, last exit. We need to get off this highway.” Later he warns, “Make no mistake, the flame of freedom is dwindling. The shining city on the hill, the sun is setting. If you don't want it to go out on our watch, then you must stand in the blaze. The fire of truth that does not burn those who stand in it, but consumes everything that is not. Point others to the truth.”
What is Beck talking about? What is it that the folk who watch his afternoon TV show hear when he starts prophesying about “ways out” and “the sun is setting” and “the fire of truth”? The answer may be disappointingly simple. Beck isn’t talking about anything historical, that is, genuinely threatening, since he is not politically astute, intellectually curious, or even much of a kvetch. Beck is an entertainer, and he does his job with hambone energy and handfuls of self-mockery. There is no threat here. Beck is bootlessly earnest, as he says; Beck is pleasantly harmless, as he says. Beck is a fool in the manner of a court jester, a fool whom FNC properly features as foolish—a braniac with a pipe in-mouth, or a lecturer-in-chief with chalk in hand, or a handsome lad mugging to the camera as if he'd just dropped his own birthday cake in his lap. I think of him now and again as Quasimodo Lite, a deaf bell-ringer swinging from the Notre Dame of Fox, a man who is eager to confess his own unsightly warts—“I’ve screwed up most of my life”—and who is also heroically delighted to be our slightly stooped “Pope of Fools,” because this accidental role, in this Festival of Fools called 2010, wins the cheers of the crowd.
Listen to Beck’s monologues on the videos posted on the “Restoring Honor” site. Beck mutters random famous names like pop brands and offers a deal of extemporaneous sighing about loss, regret, children, monuments. It takes a strong man not to break down laughing at the tinkling piano soundtrack as Beck rambles, “People say, all the time, that trying to fix Washington, we need a George Washington, or, or, or we need a Thomas Jefferson or a Ben Franklin. Where are they? I haven’t seen them. But then I realize, it’s because, we haven’t grown them in an awfully long time...”
That Glenn Beck continues to ape revolutionaries and pontificators is not a measure of Beck, who is a hard-working stunt artist, but a measure of the moment of this jobless, deflating “Great Stall,” the virulence of want and doubt, when it is easier for us to debate an actor babbling nonsensical metaphors about a highway exit than it is to do the labor of robust conversation that leads to resolve and prosperity.
As for the August 28 event, it makes me smile that Quasimodo Lite will be on the stage with his Esmeralda again, this time played by Sarah Palin, and that the cheers of the crowd will convince both Beck and Palin that they are listened to. In the original tragedy, you will recall, the king ordered Esmeralda hanged as a witch, and it was many years later that they found the corpse of Quasimodo curled up next to her grave, starved to death rather than leave the one woman who ever showed him kindness. Victor Hugo understood our appetite for stern romance. Beck and Palin understand our desire for cushy sentimentality. Their fates are likely to be much sunnier than those of Quasimodo and Esmeralda, as we celebrate our fools until the commercial break.
John Batchelor is radio host of the John Batchelor Show in New York, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Los Angeles.