Even his most fervent detractors must admire Glenn Beck’s prolixity. He fills four hours of his online network’s broadcast schedule. He gives speeches and oversees a men’s clothing-and-beard-oil line. He has written or co-written over a dozen nonfiction books in the past six years. He has also written (or co-written), as of this month, six novels.
Two of his fiction bestsellers are Christmas-themed, the other four are hypothetical investigations of the endgame of Obama’s America. All horrors of a sort, I suppose, but four non-Christmas books are explicit attempts to dramatize the arguments of his nonfiction work: Two—The Overton Window and The Eye of Moloch, both credited to Beck writing on his own—deal with the machinations of a shadowy conspiracy by “elites” to take over the world using nefarious public-relations techniques. Another pair, written by Beck and Harriet Parke, have as their premise that the successful implementation of a series of United Nations conservation programs will lead to mass incarceration, forced labor, selective breeding, secularism, gun confiscation, near-total censorship, the elimination of private land ownership, lots of ominously capitalized nouns, and, of course, the replacement of all food with “nutrition cubes.”
That United Nations program is, as any casual student of right-wing media could tell you, Agenda 21. Beck and Parke deemed the name alone sufficiently terrifying that their first stab at extrapolating its hellish implications needed no subtitle, though to un-tin-foiled ears it might sound more like a real-estate agent how-to manual than science fiction. Their second book merits an ambiguous subtitle: Agenda 21: Into the Shadows, successfully banishing thoughts of Zillow searches in favor of naptime.
Time here is too short to go into what the UN’s Agenda 21 actually is, what the fringe right thinks it is, and what damage their aggressive ignorance on the issue has done in communities around the country, where Beck’s followers have fear-mongered elected officials into denouncing nonexistent dangers. I do encourage you to read up on it, lest your city council also start making laws based on pure fantasy.
Indeed, the recent successes of anti-Agenda 21 activists were what prompted my interest in these books. The growth of the anti-Agenda 21 movement implies a founding document ripe for the kind of right-wing Hunger Games treatment that Beck and Parke must have been aiming for. The UN’s Agenda 21 must contain elements that spark the imagination—how else could the conspiracy find such purchase?
It was with that attitude I delved into Agenda 21 and its sequel. I did not expect good writing, or a good story, even, but I did expect the kind of Bizarro-world POV on current events that makes, for instance, “This Week in Bible Prophecy” so freakishly fascinating to those not reading Scripture with the same secret decoder ring.
After all, turning a non-binding, antique UN resolution into a template for a dystopian future requires some imagination—in fact, it requires a lot of imagination, something really more akin to paranoid psychosis than artistry. In that regard, Beck and Parke have fallen short. Books and movies born of truly deranged worldviews can often muster their own kind of genius, spectacles of interiority that confer on viewers the sense of spying on someone else’s fantasy. Agenda 21: Into the Shadows never quite reaches the DSM-level diagnosis that could propel it from stiff agitprop to lyrical fever dream. Instead, the book lies limply in the justly unexplored territory between “extended Reddit post” and “Ayn Rand novel.”
One of the many, many, many problems with the Beck-Parke dystopia is their refusal to contain it. “The Republic” that has replaced the United States bears any and all hallmarks of an oppressive regime (Children raised by a collective! Uniforms! Prohibition on alcohol! Women in the military!), even those that don’t obviously flow from whatever animating principle it is that is supposed to have started the authoritarian gears turning.
The novel feels less like the product of someone trying to imagine “what if the United Nations got everything they wanted” and more like Beck and Parke just brainstormed a list of Bad Things That Could Happen and described the results— and just the results, not the series of events leading up to and what happened during, the Bad Things. At its best, dystopian fiction is at least in part backward-looking: Explicitly or implicitly it sketches the journey from good idea to unintended consequences, and half the fun is the wild ride of the slippery slope.
Beck and Parke just skip that part. In the first book, they plopped readers down in the grayscale Republic and explained away the 18-year journey from the post-industrial present to a semi-agrarian, technologically backward collectivist future with vague references to “the Illness” and “[o]fficials who made big promises” whose “laws got more strict.” Such omissions are unfair to readers; it’s as if Animal Farm began with the observation that you couldn’t tell the pigs from the humans, and then proceeded to be a diary of what it was like to work on the farm.
With a sequel, Beck and Parke get a second bite at the sour apple as they pursue, on the surface, an equally respectable dystopian novel genre plot beyond “how we got here”: escape and/or rebellion. Detailing your protagonist’s journey to freedom allows writers to flip the slippery slope and frame their social criticism in photographic negative: “If you don’t want X to happen, you better WYZ.” For Beck and Parke, I’m afraid the results are just as muddy as in book one.
We follow heroine Emmaline and her small family out of their Compound and through the Human Free Zone—a creation whose name alone reflects the confused ideology and would-be instruction at the heart of the book. As described, the Authorities created Human Free Zone to be, well, free of humans. Emmaline observes during a stop at a rhetorically convenient abandoned zoo: “First, they relocated people and put them behind fences, and then they gave the animals their freedom. It was such an evil irony.” So maybe the dual reading of “Human Free Zone” is just another evil irony? Maybe hyphens were outlawed along with the Bible? Maybe the mass incarceration was based on misreading of a memo? Not since the ursine horror of “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” has a book turned so profoundly on a grammatical lacunae.
But why haggle about a hyphen when the book fails as instruction on every level? Someone hungry for details on how to avoid or escape the Agenda 21 nightmare would find precious little to guide them here, either practically or symbolically. Emmaline’s treasure trove of present day artifacts (handed down from her mother in the world’s lumpiest plot device/sleeping mat) includes such enigmatic trinkets as a gold coin, a New Testament, a recipe for pumpkin pie, and safety matches. Of those, it’s the pumpkin pie recipe she winds up exchanging for food and shelter. As a secularist believer in central banking who really loves pie, this still doesn’t make sense to me.
Some just-so object lessons in teamwork versus “the individual” find themselves contradicted every few pages or so. Believers in “family values” would have a hard time parsing the blended unit at story’s center: Emmaline goes from teen-age widow and single mother to a second marriage with a handsome near-stranger in a matter of days, after which she kidnaps another child. When she discovers her first husband is actually alive, she saves him from slave labor but abandons him in the “Human Free Zone” along with an older couple who, she and her trophy husband reason, would just slow them down. The abandoned trio do get the pie recipe.
But enough. To catalog all of the novel’s problems would be amusing for you but simply tedious for me. There are untold number of continuity errors of the Robinson Crusoe-filled-his-pockets type. There’s terrible writing at both the descriptive and granular, grammatical level. The dialogue grates on the ears like a rusty Cuisinart.
Its failure as literature is less surprising, however, than its failure as propaganda. At least, I think it does. The novel topped bestseller lists, but that seems weak proof that it played a part in convincing otherwise neutral readers that the UN is coming not just for their golf courses and guns but also for their children and fresh food.
Rather, I suspect that the Agenda 21 novels sell for the same reasons the Left Behind books do. They may be intended as tools of evangelism, but in practice they function more like fetish pornography: pleasurable wish-fulfillment for a specific audience. But to the world at large? At best, incomprehensible. At worst, obscene.
I don’t mean “obscene” in a sexual way—though there are some nauseating passages involving kissing and eggs. Obscene, rather, as in a violation of the senses and betrayal of values. Obscene because of the way the authors insult me as a reader, first and foremost, but also as a person. The most disturbing thing in these novels isn’t the authoritarian cruelties or pointless deprivations; it’s the implication that such a regime could come to pass and the vast, vast majority of not just Americans but of humanity would be OK with it. That’s what the refusal to describe our road to perdition in detail means: that it happens because the sheeple let it.
And if that’s what’s obscene, what’s masturbatory is that Beck and his supporters believe they are the ones who can and will be the resistance to unjustly held power. The riddle of the right’s self-image as beleaguered minority finds full expression in a bestselling novels that trumpet a message going supposedly unheard. Beck is Cassandra with a megaphone, a man whose millions of followers confirm that he’s being ignored.