Friday, August 27, 2010

Glenn Beck and the White Civil Rights Movement

It is safe to say that Glenn Beck is one sick, confused puppy. As Washington pundits debate the meaning of Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally at the Lincoln Memorial on the anniversary of MLK's historic "I have a dream" speech, the opinion in the reality-based community is pretty well divided on whether he is a garden variety huckster, a delusional demagogue, or an epic whack job. I think there is a case to be made that he is all three.

But this post isn't about Glenn Beck. It is about the cooptation of MLK in the service of a budding white civil rights movement--which may or may not develop into something more than a bunch of fat middle-aged white dudes in three-cornered hats pumping Obama = Hitler signs and shouting about socialism.

White civil rights, I hear you scoff? Isn't it a bit like men complaining of sexism or rich people complaining of classism? Yeah, it is. Which is exactly why it works.

Everyone needs to feel special, to feel a part of something. No one wants to be unnoticed or left behind with no destiny or narrative arc. Women have the feminist movement. Blacks have the civil rights movement, gay people have gay pride...what do ordinary white people have? America, that's what. With the American middle class falling further and further behind in hard economic times, and a sense that they are no longer the commanding demographic majority they once were, a civil rights movement for white people is terribly appealing. It promises not only heroes to champion their cause, but a full restoration of white folks to the core of American history. After all, the most common Tea Party refrain is, "I want my country back." This can be interpreted a lot of different ways, but at its core it is a plaintive childish cry: "I want a place in the sun, I want America to be about me and my family and my white Christian brothers and sisters--we want our American Dream back."

Mind you, I don't think any of this is happening on a conscious level. I definitely don't think that Tea Partiers believe they are racist; they think their movement has nothing to do with race and in fact transcends race, class and gender. They are anxious to show the rest of America that their movement includes people of color, and they therefore go out of their way to recruit and promote minority speakers at their rallies.

In truth, Tea Partiers wish that you would finally shut up about race because it's not about race anyway; besides: talking about race only divides people. They have no problem at all with black people, they just prefer that black people not draw attention to their "otherness," because they don't sees race. They gladly welcome black people into their fold, so long that they accept the traditional (white) Christian history of America conveyed in the schoolbooks of the 1950s and 60s.

The Tea Party/white nationalist movement is identity politics through and through. Denying this basic fact makes for amusing encounters when Tea Partiers attempt to explain to outsiders what their movement is about besides their white Christian identity. Because there is very little else that defines the movement. Policy-wise, Tea Partiers are basically Republicans, only more so--apart from promoting stock Republican positions on government (make it smaller), taxes (lower), health care and pensions (privatized), business (free from regulation), the movement features generalized anger, resentment, and dark predictions that the country will collapse into anarchy and civil war if they don't get that socialist Maoist Marxist Leninist Muslim (black) president out of the White House and "take their country back."

They are, as Howard Beale put in it Network,"Mad as hell and they aren't going to take it anymore." Mad that they have been promised a feast and ended up with crumbs. What happened to the American Dream? Some dark elements must have wrecked it. Like Muslims or Mexicans or liberals or feminists or gays or atheists or any number of subversive groups that hate America and are bent on destroying it.

A white civil rights movement answers each of these needs. It validates the worth of every white person in America, acknowledges that they are falling behind while other groups seem to be getting ahead. It also "restores" white Christian people to the center of American identity and history. To this end, multi-volume revisionist American history books have been published that laud our (white) forefathers and "black patriots" and place the Christian God at the center of each and every key turning point in American history.

To build a white civil rights movement, you need a white civil rights hero (Glenn Beck?), an "I have a dream" moment to inspire them (Beck's speech on the anniversary of MLK's speech?), and guidelines for action that provide direction for the movement (thus Beck's "action steps" in his forthcoming book, The Plan). Beck gave some hints what this was about on his website:

I'm coming to you next year with a plan, and it's multilayered. The first is ‑‑ and I started working on this in August. A 100‑year plan for America. This country was destroyed, and it began 100 years ago with the progressive movement... So how do we get it back?....I'm going to teach you how to be a community organizer next year, oh, because two can play at that game. I'm going to teach you how to be self‑reliant next year. We've divided the country up into seven regions.... Day‑long education seminars... where we're going to teach you everything you need to know. .. And then on August 28th... I ask you to meet me. Take your family. We move ‑‑ we had something planned.... By that time I hope to have enough things out there that you will at least have some teeth to the ‑‑ so the politicians will see you and hear you and fear you!... little by little I'm developing this plan, and I will explain more to you a little later.

A white civil rights movement also calls for historical context, a heroic narrative for conservatives in American history. Conservatives must be cast as civil rights heroes and liberals/progressives to the segrationists/oppressors. Naturally, this entails a wholesale rewriting of America's civil rights history. Beck is, as ever, up to the challenge, and in the week leading up to the MLK memorial rally on Saturday, he aired a four-part "documentary" on the 400-year "history of segregation" in the U.S. How are liberals/progressives implicated in segregation? Simple: “segregation came out of progressivism." Meanwhile, civil rights were something "we did" (conservatives, that is)... Say what?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, slavery does not figure very prominently in Beck's history. He kind of skims over the whole whites-owning-blacks part, focusing in particular on indentured servants and a black man who owned a black slave in colonial America (suggesting that anyone could have slaves-- it was all about economics, religion, etc., so the white-black thing was no big deal). We then literally skip over about 200+ years of slavery in the U.S.--primarily in the south. Also unmentioned is the fact that blacks were immediately re-enslaved after the civil war by southern law-makers who passed legislation permitting them to imprison and/or fine anyone who was unemployed and therefore illegally "loitering.” Since it was difficult for freed slaves to find paid work, and since few white men would vouch for their employment anyway, former slaves were often arrested, levied huge fines, and when they couldn’t pay, law enforcement sold them as forced labor to mines, the U.S. Steel Company, white plantation farmers, etc. In this way, freed slaves became re-enslaved. This system of neo-slavery continued until the mid-1940s.

We also hear nothing about poll taxes, literacy tests and the countless other tricks and intimidation used by the white political establishment to keep black voters disenfranchised. Nor is there anything about Jim Crow laws used to keep the races separate and (very) unequal. Nothing on the rise of the Ku Klus Klan and the systematic lynchings and burning of crosses. Nothing on Nat Turner, Booker T. Washington, Sojournor Truth, W.E.B. Du Bois. Nothing on Malcolm X or the role played by MLK in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Nothing on landmark cases in civil rights history such as the Dred Scott decision or Plessy v. Ferguson, and a very twisted interpretation of Brown v. Board of Education. does segregation come out of progressivism? How does Beck pull the rabbit out of the hat? The trick comes with his gross distortions of twentieth century history. According to Beck, Woodrow ("I hate that SOB") Wilson chose to sell out his black constituents by re-segregating government agencies. Beck points out that government agencies had been integrated, until Wilson segregated them. Wilson was a progressive democrat, ergo, segregation came out of progressivism. (No mention of the fact that Wilson reluctantly signed this order because of intense pressure from powerful Southern Democratic law-makers who wanted the races kept apart in the government.) FDR gets thrown under the bus as well, as he did not go as far in de-segregating society as he had promised. Both (progressive, democratic) presidents had detained German and Japanese Americans during WWI and WWII. Meanwhile, Eisenhower (a Republican president) appointed Earl Warren as chief justice of the Supreme Court, which in turn handed down the Brown v Brown of Education decision desegregating schools; Lincoln (also a Republican) had freed the slaves. Ergo, Democrat=Progressive=Nazi/segregationist; conservatives=civil rights supporters.


The truth, of course, is that conservatives fought against the abolition of slavery and segregationism tool and nail. It is universally known that conservatives have been aligned with segregationism since the late 19th century. Segregation came out of slavery, which morphed into neo-slavery, which became the Jim Crow laws (all courtesy southern democrats—today’s conservatives/Republicans). It took the forceful intervention of federal troops to enforce the Supreme Court decision to integrate schools in Mississippi and in Alabama, where segregationist Governor George Wallace gained hero-like status among conservatives by physically blocking black students from entering the whites-only University of Alabama.

Indeed today's conservatives are still enamored of segregationism or at least are not repulsed by it. In fact, leading conservative intellectuals Rush Limbaugh has spoken in favor of segregationism, and Ann Coulter defended a group of white supremacist segregationists against charges that they are racist. As late as the early 1990s, Christian conservatives strongly supported the white-dominated Apartheid regime in South Africa, which was not all that long ago. The late Jerry Falwell, a leading Christian conservative televangelist, railed against de-segregation. The fundamentalist Christian conservative Bob Jones University only ended its ban on interracial dating in 2000; they did not even admit blacks until 1971. And let's not forget the conservative Mormon Church (of which Glenn Beck is a member), which did not grant priesthood to African-Americans until 1978!

Nor has segregation been "solved"; in the twenty-first century, racial segregation may actually be on the rise. In the spring of this year, a federal judge ordered a county in Mississippi to stop racially segregating students into separate schools. And just last week, a story broke that administrators of a middle school in Mississippi mandated racially segregated elections of student body officers.

In fact, Beck himself has gone so far as to defend slavery, claiming it was not a big problem until it started to be "politicized" in the run-up to the civil war. This is not altogether surprising, for one of Beck's heroes, far-right Christian Reconstructionist R.J. Rushdooney, famously argued for "Biblical" slavery, claiming that "some people were by nature slaves" and that southern slavery was "benevolent."

If these seem like inconvenient facts, they clearly do not trouble Beck. Nor are they a problem for his followers as they mobilize at this historic moment against the injustice perpetrated by the fascistic Marxist Muslim oppressor in the White House.

Let freedom ring!

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