The Reverend Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University recently conferred upon Glenn Beck an honorary doctorate in the humanities. It’s official: Beck is now a doctor of philosophy. Liberty University’s honoring of Beck is fitting because he has clearly established himself as Fox News’s resident “historian,” with his area of expertise being American civilization, with emphases on the early republic, Progressivism, and the New Deal. Glenn Beck, Ph.D. makes about $1 million a month, earning him the distinction of being the highest paid “historian” in the world.
Beck has emerged as the most influential promoter of the Jonah Goldberg/Amity Shlaes contention that President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal were unmitigated “calamities” for the country. Almost nightly, Beck tells his several million viewers that FDR, Woodrow Wilson, and other “progressives” (even TR) were engaged in a long-term project to strip Americans of their freedom and impose some kind of totalitarian state. Historians whose specialty is the early 20th Century probably could never have dreamt that a TV and radio personality could convince so many ordinary Americans that laws that ensure the safety of meat and drugs, minimum wages, expanding voting rights, etc. undermined their “freedom.”
Beck, Goldberg, Shlaes and others seem to be pursuing a long-term project of their own to misinform their rather gullible audiences into believing that anytime a government imposes limits on the ability of private business (especially giant corporations) to exploit the country’s land and labor it is an attack on individual “liberty.” It’s the identical argument that the representatives of corporate trusts deployed at the turn of the last century when they demanded the “freedom” to do anything they wished. In the wake of the Wall Street financial meltdown and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill catastrophe, both brought to us by the less than benevolent actions of unrestrained corporate power, Beck’s views are not only stupid and false, but dangerous.
But one of Dr. Beck’s main pet peeves is his belief that the “founders” intended the United States to be a Christian nation and the idea of a “wall of separation” between church and state is a myth perpetrated by secular liberal elites. It’s not that Beck is wrong about the ambiguity of the personal beliefs on the subject by the founders, but he and others like him are monumentally wrong by overstating the relevance of the intent of 18th Century views on the thought and practices of 20th and 21st Century America.
Gordon S. Wood, in a June 2006 edition of The New York Review of Books, writes:
“We can’t solve our current disputes over religion by looking back to the actual historical circumstances of the Founding; those circumstances are too complex, too confusing, and too biased toward Protestant Christianity to be used in courts today, and most of them are remote from or antagonistic to the particular needs of the twenty-first century. We do not, and cannot, base American constitutional jurisprudence on the historical reality of the Founding. . . . What Founders’ intent should we choose to emphasize? That of the deistic Jefferson and Madison? Or that of the churchgoing Washington and Adams, with their sympathies for religion? Or that of the countless numbers of evangelical Protestants who captured control of the culture to an extent most of the Founding elite never anticipated?”
In the modern era the Supreme Court had little choice but to build on the idea of a “wall” between church and state, not because the learned men at the dawn of the Enlightenment had expressed their own contradictory views on the subject, but because of the social pressures and prerogatives of the contemporary period the Justices themselves were living through. The United States Constitution is a “living document” no matter how often Beck and others repeat the lie that it isn’t.
Beck, in all his disquisitions about the founders’ intent and the church/state divide, never mentions the social and political context of 18th Century America that informs his interpretation. He never engages his esteemed colleagues among academic historians preferring instead to dismiss the whole profession as part of the liberal-Democratic-progressive elite that is trying to impose its godless agenda.
And this brings me to the most fascinating aspect of Glenn Beck: Beck as Historian. To explain his novel historical theories to his viewers Beck assumes the affect of a university professor. When Beck sports a tweed-like blazer and rests his spectacles on the tip of his nose, eyes peering over his glasses, he’s impersonating the archetype of a professor that is widely familiar in the culture from movies and TV (if not from actual colleges and universities). Even in an era of erasable markers and PowerPoint he uses a chalkboard for heuristic purposes. The semiotician in me sees the chalkboard as far more than a mere stage prop. Given that Fox News has access to the most sophisticated and blaring computer graphics to drive home its political points, Beck’s use of the chalkboard is remarkably low-tech (even inside a very high-tech television studio). He’s the only TV personality who uses one.
The chalkboard signifies scholarship and learning. His studio is transformed into a classroom and his audience becomes a class full of eager students. Beck becomes a professor — specifically, a history professor. Covered in chalk dust and ruffling through his lecture notes, Beck exudes a certain power that derives from the teacher/student relationship that is timeless even though he and his producers are deploying this demeanor as nothing more than a pseudo-educational propaganda tool. Writing in Time magazine recently, Beck’s ideological soul mate, Sarah Palin, praised him for exactly this type of professorial playacting. I suppose historians should be flattered that even Fox News recognizes the symbolic influence of our profession.
In The Use and Abuse of History , Frederick Nietzsche famously identified three kinds of history: the monumental, the antiquarian, and the critical. Beck does a little bit of each, but he is truly a practitioner of the monumental variety. “Monumental history lives by false analogy,” Nietzsche writes, “it entices the brave to rashness, and the enthusiastic to fanaticism by its tempting comparisons. Imagine this history in the hands — and the head — of a gifted egoist or an inspired scoundrel; kingdoms would be overthrown, princes murdered, war and revolution let loose, and the number of ‘effects in themselves’ — in other words, effects without sufficient cause — increased.”
The wide dissemination of Beck’s views wouldn’t matter much if the United States were in better shape today. But the status quo that is emerging cannot help but create a highly volatile electorate for years to come. Class lines are hardening, mobility is stifled, unemployment will remain near double digits for many years, there is a sea of angry voters who are susceptible to jingoistic appeals and conspiracy theories (like the ones Beck promotes). The ongoing fiscal crisis at the local, state, and federal levels has led to the heartless rollback of public institutions at exactly the time when they are needed the most. And it is in this dreary context where Beck each night on television twists the meaning of the terms “empathy,” “progress,” and “social justice” into buzzwords deployed by those who want to turn the United States into a Nazi/Communist/Socialist/Totalitarian State. No wonder he has become the Joan D’Arc of the Tea Party movement.
It’s fascinating that in an era where far-right ideologues like David Horowitz and affiliated organizations like “Accuracy in Academia” constantly scream about how terrible academia is and how “tenured radicals” have usurped the once noble purpose of the university still drift toward creating a fake scholarly environment for their propaganda. Like the recent Texas School Board decision purging textbooks of ideological impurities, and Jonah Goldberg writing a “book” with all the trappings of footnotes and sources, or Liberty University conferring an honorary doctorate on Beck, Beck’s shtick is a backhanded nod to the relevance of history as a discipline and to historians not only as educators, but also as the keepers of the nation’s myths. We historians have more power in the culture than we often give ourselves credit for.