Well, this may be a little generous, but he is genuinely, I think, trying to back up his feelings with real ideas. This is not thinking, of course. Thinking is challenging your feelings with ideas. But I think Mark Oppenheimer is onto something when he describes Beck's refusal to treat his audience as people who could not possibly be interested in history, or philosophy, or a somewhat half-baked congeries of ideologies, philosophies and conspiracy theories. He's not stupid - he got into Yale. He's kind of a smarter but less insecure Jonah Goldberg who made it on his own merits. Mark Leibovich's brilliant NYT profile of him yesterday captured a little of the malign innocence of those green blackboards, the kind of atmosphere that made me laugh ("We hate Woodrow Wilson!") but also almost admire. Here's Beck mocking himself as a young intellectual:
He embarked on a period of “searching” and self-education. The process was largely haphazard. He tells of walking into a bookstore and loading up on books by a hodgepodge that included Alan Dershowitz, Pope John Paul II, Carl Sagan, Nietzsche, Billy Graham and Adolf Hitler. “The library of a serial killer,” he called it.
His formula was not cooked up by Ailes as condescending Hannityism:
“If you were in an imaginary meeting for a TV show,” Bill Shine, Fox News’s programming director, says, “and someone said: I have an idea. Let’s spend a month talking about the founding fathers and get a bunch of pictures of Benjamin Franklin and hang them up,’ you’d be like, What?’ But it works.”
When he tries to talk of a distinction between Jesus' admonition to help the poor and socialism, he is not nuts; but his excitability and emotional vulnerability get the better of him and his arguments. He is utterly, inexcusably irresponsible a great deal of the time (on Obama and race, for example), but what distinguishes him from O'Reilly or Hannity is his obvious occasional self-doubt, captured hilariously in this 2 am letter to Sarah Palin:
I said: Sarah, I don’t know if I’m doing more harm or more good. I don’t know anymore.’
This is not, I think it's fair to say, a question that has ever occurred to Sarah Palin. Back to Oppenheimer's point:
Glenn Beck actually appeals to listeners by offering them intellectual sustenance (or something pretending to be). My dad was in a Dunkin’ Donuts recently we are from Massachusetts, after all and a woman he met there said, “You know, Beck discovered that FDR knew the Japanese were going to invade. Beck has a whole staff of researchers learning things for him.”
And as Leibovich notes, Beck can hold people spellbound by talking about the founding fathers and whatnot. Here is the point: the theologian Stanley Hauerwas was once talking to me about premillennial dispensationalists you can Google it, if you care, but it is a kind of fundamentalist Christian, basically and he said, “You know, their theories about the end times are not for stupid people. You have to be smart to follow that stuff.” His point was that people want ideas to chew over, they appreciate complex ideas, and they will gravitate toward people or institutions who seem to offer them red meat of that particular kind. Beck with his incredibly convoluted theories, the gold-standard stuff, the hatred for Woodrow Wilson: he really is offering a pretty deep, if internally inconsistent, worldview for people who do not have another worldview, like progressivism or Marxism or monetarism or even Christianity, in place. And he is offering books and thoughts and ideas, without condescension, to people who may not be comfortable getting such ideas from the Times or National Review.
(Photo: Fox News personality Glenn Beck speaks during the 'Restoring Honor' rally in front of the Lincoln Memorial at the National Mall on August 28, 2010 in Washington, DC. Beck held the rally on the 47th anniversary of the 'I Have a Dream' speech of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to 'restore America.' By Alex Wong/Getty Images.)
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