After reading Will Bunch’s Backlash , I decided to watch Glenn Beck’s five o’clock show on Fox News. Needless to say, everything Bunch reports is true, in fact there are now half a dozen companies selling gold on the show rather than one. (The implications for Beck’s bank account are not immediately clear, but he is estimated to have earned $23 million in 2009, partly from his books. And the other sponsors, as signaled by Bunch, also respond to the fear generated by Beck’s rants, notably a solar generator for when the electric grid tanks.)
Aside from that, Beck appears to be trying to create a new breed of politically aware voter: a God-fearing libertarian. Beck’s extensive – if tardy – reading probably hasn’t included any Muslim writers, so he would be unaware that what he is advocating harks back to an old Muslim tradition, Mutazilah, which originated in Basra and Bagdad in the eighth century in opposition to Sunni Islam. The Mutazilah school believes that human reason is as important as revelation, or belief in God. This obvi-ously has been a minority view in Islam, but it is echoed today by the Hezbollah leader, Nasrallah, who calls for ‘independent brains, decentralization and flat networks’. As reported by Alastair Crooke in Resistance: The Essence of the Islamist Revolution, it was because Hezbollah fighters were organized into horizontal networks, where they could take individual initiatives, that they defeated the technically far superior Israeli army in 2008.
Beck and his gold merchants, however, are not interested in the religious commonalities between American Christian fundamentalists and some of those America is fighting. Bespeckled professor Beck’s lessons focus on the idea that the left invented propaganda before the Nazis did, seeing the common man as part of a herd of cattle that has to be kept in a pen ‘for his own good’, because he is not smart enough to think for himself.
This accusation rests on the fact that the nineteen-twenties American inventor of public relations, Louis Bernays (twice related to Sigmund Freud), pioneered the manipulation of public opinion based on knowledge of the subconscious. In an interview with the BBC, cited over and over by Beck, his daughter, Anna, referred to his ideas as ‘enlightened despotism’. Instead of focusing on Madison Avenue’s systematic use of group psychology to persuade Americans to consume ever more unneces-sary products, Beck underlines the fact that Hitler’s propagandist in chief, Joseph Goebbels, was familiar with Bernays’ work.
Tagging Bernays as a leftist, Beck then jumps to his favorite con-temporary nemesis, the legal scholar Cass Sunstein, who advocates ‘nudging’ people into do what is good for them. Sunstein’s ideas were made to look quite scary by Glenn Greenwald in a Salon.com article last January /www.salon.com/news/opinion/glenn_greenwald/2010/01/15/sunstein, but at least they are intended to promote socially desirable behavior, as opposed to mindless consumption.
Personally, I am a strong advocate of individual reason. The problem is that our system of education, while promoting creativity, does not enhance reason. If it did, Beck wouldn’t be making millions.
P.S. Just as I finished this blog, the latest issue of In These Times arrived, with an excellent article on Beck, Glenn Beck’s American Ark. Among other things, the author, Theo Anderson, notes Beck’s links to the John Birch Society, saying: “Think of witches slavery, Catholics, Jews and blacks. Think of the John Birch Society and godless Communists.”