Sunday, August 29, 2010

Beck's Sentences

I really have to give credit to Finlo Rohrer. In preparing his piece on Glenn Beck's Restoring Honor rally for BBC News, he exercised the objectivity of journalistic professionalism and reminded those of us who read his Web page that, while many of the mainstream sources have been playing games with their job titles, there really is a difference between "reporting" and "writing." To the extent that I continue to agree with David Simon that the very practice of professional journalism, whether from the mainstream or by "citizen journalists," is in serious jeopardy, Rohrer may be one of the few sources out there who still not only understands but also exercises the standards that used to make journalism such a valuable public service.
The one place where Rohrer let those standards slip was when he turned to Beck's own one-hour speech. He made the following claim about the speech:
Since Beck was not criticising anyone or anything specifically, it would be rather hard for anyone to disagree with much of what he was saying.
I do not disagree with Rohrer's premise. I would even say that, because it was critically important that Restoring Honor not be interpreted as a political rally, Beck's speech was meticulously crafted to avoid any "hot buttons" with clear political implications. Had Rohrer left his claim at that sentence, he would have been on relatively secure ground; but, as good journalism demands, he then backed up his claim with three sentences from the speech. I would claim that each of these examples carried an implicit political message providing the strongest possible grounds for disagreement. So I would like to consider each of Rohrer's examples in greater detail.
The first may be considered as an instance of the rhetorical technique of "convenient distortion:"
Our children need people to look up to.
This overlooks the extent to which most children actually have people to look up to. They are, of course, those people who attract excessive attention from the media; and they are found not only in the domains of entertainment and sports but on the darker side of street gangs and organized crime. I suspect that the proposition that Beck really wanted to assert is that many children no longer turn to their own immediate families for role models, but this lacks rhetorical punch. For one thing, "many" is too vague an adjective, because it does not affirm the seriousness of the situation. Equally important is that Beck may have felt that such wording would be interpreted by "many" (with the same vagueness) in the audience as accusatory. He did not want anyone going around saying, "Glenn Beck thinks I'm a bad parent! What does he know?" So he covered up his claim with punchier language, which was laced with the connotation that we need a strong authority to dictate (hot-button word deliberately chosen) to people who should serve as role models of our children.
However, if this example is simply one of taking a potentially good idea and turning it sinister, the second example is far more serious:
America is only what we choose her to be.
This, of course, is pure myth; but it is myth sustained by a general public disinclination towards engaging considered reflection on such matters as the nature of our government (going back to how it was conceived by our Founding Fathers) and how it works. Those Founding Fathers understood the nature of that disinclination, which is why they explicitly conceived of a government in which "the people" delegate the authority to make such choices to representatives selected by an electoral process. The real problem we face, however, is that all choices, whether by the electorate or by the elected, have become targets for major efforts of influence that are entirely external to the government itself. The practice of influence was recognized early in our history, which is why the noun "lobbyist" has a rather distinguished lineage. However, that same practice has gradually migrated from lobbies to heavily circulated media; and influence itself has changed from skillfully phrased one-on-one conversations to the institutional level of what Hans Magnus Enzensberger called the "consciousness industry." Beck, of course, is currently a leading player in that industry; but the industry itself has always been far stronger than any of its players. Furthermore, the players themselves are far less important than the oligarchy that decides what influences are to be exercised; and the crux of the myth behind Beck's sentence is that the members of that oligarchy have little interest in what Beck's "we" wants America to be.
This brings us to Beck's third sentence:
We must be good so that America can be great.
I suppose this was intended as an attempt to demonize progressive thinking for its moral relativism. The idea that an adjective like "good" is subject to the different points of view of those who utter it is anathema to those fundamentalists who believe in the absolute declarations of good and evil that are to be found in the Old and New Testaments. However, the problems with this sentence lie not only with the word "good" but also with that concluding word. This particular concept of greatness has an unpleasant history. It figured significantly in Friedrich Nietzsche's approach to moral philosophy; but more important was the way in which the Nazis distorted Nietzsche's concept of "higher men" into their own political concept of a "Master Race." (Those willing to consult the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy will find an entry by Brian Leiter, which observes that Nietzsche had three favorite examples of "higher men:" Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Nietzsche himself!) In other words this relatively innocuous sentence contains at its core the stuff of demagoguery, which has been serving Sarah Palin (one of Beck's invited speakers) so well. Beck seems to have been learning from Palin's ascent to celebrity status; and he probably deserves credit for realizing that, where celebrity is concerned, means tend to count for more than ends. He may even have recognized that, in this particular case, the means are the same fear-and-hate-mongering tactics of Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf that have served many other Republican politicians. In other words, while the text of that sentence may have dodged any charges of politicization, the subtext is about as political as one can get.
Let me conclude with one final quote. This one comes from a student in Beck's audience that Rohrer interviewed:
I like how he challenges you to go and research for yourself.
I agree that this is an admirable trait, but I am cynical enough to believe that Beck offers such challenges knowing full well that almost no one in his audience will rise to them. The bottom line is that, whether it is a matter of fact-checking or the sort of semantic analysis that I have exercised here, Beck's claims are in sore need of valid warrants. Beck's rhetoric is neither more nor less than the 21st-century incarnation of the Big Lie, which Wikipedia describes as "a propaganda technique which entered mass consciousness with Adolf Hitler's 1925 autobiography Mein Kampf." In the simplest of terms, the principle is that people will believe anything, if you say it loud enough and long enough; and Beck has certainly demonstrated that he can be very good when it comes to being both loud in volume and long in duration.

No comments: