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Building a Mystery
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
I have to admit I've become morbidly fascinated by Glenn Beck, the popular Fox News host whose recent "Restoring Honor" rally attracted large crowds in the nation's capitol and incited endless commentary from social and political analysts. Critics claim that Beck is an anti-governmentist, a racist, an Armageddonist, while supporters see him as an Everyman hero who wants a revivalist return to a pure America, an America founded on a strict interpretation of the Constitution and an indissoluble belief in God. The divisive nature of his celebrityhood hasn't hurt his popularity, for his radio show and TV appearances continue to get big ratings and his books always debut at the top of the bestseller lists. The rally drew between 87,000 and 500,000 people, depending on which news source you trust the most.
My personal relationship with Beck has nothing to do with his relevance, popularity, or politics — I'm a big fan purely because the guy's crazy as a goddamn bedbug, and I happen to be a big fan of high-profile lunatics. Ross Perot had his brief moment in the sun in the 90's, and John Edwards showed flashes of truly operatic delusion during the 2008 election, but Beck has been the reliable go-to guy for highly public displays of humiliation and craziness. This is a guy who famously began his interview with Sarah Palin by reading to her from his diary, a heart-stopping moment of pure embarrassment that managed to accomplish something rather remarkable — it made you feel bad for Sarah Palin. There was a look of sheer terror in her eyes, darting around for exits, as Beck began intoning his infatuated bobby-soxer prose.
Long before Obama took office, Beck has been a Cassandra of the first order, issuing dire warning about impending cataclysms and end-of-the-world certainties. He always gave these predictions in an earnest, wish-I-didn't-know voice, as if his peek behind the blueprints of the Apocalypse rendered him too stunned for hyperbole. If you only knew what I know, he seemed to say. If you only knew. The results of the 2008 election and Beck's move to Fox (from CNN) kicked his ecclesiastical fervor into high gear, and ever since his radio show has been chock-full of breathless monologues about the locomotive that is high-speeding our country straight to Hell. You have to admire the guy's indefatigability on the subject — when he gets going, he's like a Revolutionary-era Castro, incapable of being sidetracked from his filibustering.
I listen to the show whenever I can, always hopeful/frightened for that singular, cringe-worthy moment, and rarely am I disappointed. I'm fascinated by the callers who speak to Beck directly on the air, the true believers who seek out pastorly advice from the host about how to conduct the great battle. Curiously, I find myself feeling a great deal of compassion for Beck's audience, and I swear I don't mean that in a condescending way. I can dismiss the host as a cartoon character, a buffoon, but I always feel a sharp pang when the callers speak; something about the way they articulate themselves just kills me. I think there's been a terrific misreading about the general nature of the Tea Party/Beck/Limbaugh fans and the reasons for their passionate commitment to the cause. The call of most critics is racism, pure and simple, and "white man's rage" at a changing nation, but I don't see it that way. I think the real reason is something much easier to identify.
Whenever I hear a caller on Beck's program, I immediately take a mental picture of the person speaking, and most times it's easy to guess the demographic — suburban, Republican, God-fearing, soccer mom or small-business owner dad. There's nothing blatantly offensive or noteworthy about them; they just seem like regular folks with conservative leanings. But on the air, after a few mild exhortations from Glenn, they become Crusaders, or Warriors, or Great American Revolutionaries. They're no longer Bob from Accounting or Terri picking up the kids, they're Soldiers on the Front Lines of the Second Revolution. It is an intoxicating bit of self-deception, to see yourself in larger, dramatic terms, to build a little fiction around your important but not-very-memorable existence. For a few moments, their predictable lives have become enlivened by the notion that they're on some terrific quest. It's hard not to be lured by this mythmaking — there's a $20 billion computer gaming industry devoted to the same goal of elevating common people to Warrior Kings and Queens.
A little deception can be a healthy thing for most people, but it can be tricky, and I'm wary of those who don't know when to stop with the embellishments. I had a friend go "third person" on me last week and it was a troubling, unfortunate moment — you can't trust somebody like that. Speaking in third person — referring to yourself and not using "I" or "me" — shows a willingness to see yourself in grandiose, inflated ways.
I wonder, seconds after they've hung up, if the callers on the Beck show don't feel embarrassed for carrying on so righteously, so theatrically. I tend to believe that most folks don't have the luxury to be at fever-pitch like Glenn is at all times, to be a Minuteman with musket drawn, ready to go into the breach at a moment's notice. Most folks have jobs, mortgages, children, lives. I have no doubt about their beliefs — I'm sure they think Obama is sending the country to Socialism — but I also think that, like most people, current political traumas are secondary and pale in significance to the day-to-day battles that everybody has to fight. Having a political cause is important but only when there's enough time. In other words, I'd like to help you out with that Epic Battle for the Nation's Soul, Glenn, but I have to pick up the dry cleaning.