Saturday, August 28, 2010

Zaitchik, "Common Nonsense: Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance" (reviewed by Vickie Cleverley Speek)


Title: Common Nonsense: Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance
Author: Alexander Zaitchik
Publisher: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Genre: Biography
Year Published: 2010
Number of Pages: 282, includes index
Binding: Cloth
ISBN: 978-0-470-55739-6
Price: $25.95

Reviewed by Vickie Cleverley Speek for the Association for Mormon Letters

It's August 28. As I write, tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people have gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC to participate in a rally for America, titled "Restoring Honor." Organizers say the rally isn't about politics —that its goal is to pay tribute to America's military personnel and others who embody our nation's founding principles of integrity, truth and honor.

Glenn Beck, the man behind the rally, has become a soundtrack for conservative activists and members of the Tea Party movement who are angry and frustrated with President Barack Obama and other politicians in a volatile election year. Beck suggests Obama is a socialist moving the country away from the Constitution. His critics contend that Beck exploits fear with conspiracy theories and overheated rhetoric. Everything about Beck is controversial, including the date and place of today's rally — it's being held on the forty-seventh anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, which King, himself, delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Monument.

I have a confession to make. Before I read this book, I didn't know much about Glenn Beck. I've never listened to his radio broadcast, and I turned off my TV three minutes into his show when the poor guy started to cry. What I've heard of Beck's politics hasn't impressed me. Yet, I share his religious background (although he is active LDS and I am not), and I have a friend who boarded a bus and made the long trip from Chicago to Washington to participate in the rally. I was raised in conservative Idaho where most people in the 1960s identified with the John Birch Society in the fight against Communism.

Still, I don't know what to think about Alexander Zaitchik's book. I am perplexed. Why are so many people entranced by the guy? Why are they so attracted to his message? Zaitchik's book shows the kind of person I would not like to be affiliated with. Do people know Beck's background? Don't they care? An accomplished freelance writer with leftist leanings, Zaitchik has written for many liberal newspapers and magazines, including Salon, the New Republic, Reason, the International Herald Tribune, Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Believer. He served with the New York Press as an investigative reporting fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center and he founded the liberal online magazine Freezerbox. As an author, Zaitchik is clearly biased against Beck and obviously wrote to expose him as a charlatan.

Bias is evident from the title of the book, Common Nonsense, which parodies Beck's own book, Common Sense. In the introduction of the book Zaitchik compares Beck to circus mogul P. T. Barnum, writing: "Beck above all is an entertainer and a huckster. To put it more charitably, he is a businessman out to make a nickel…. In recent years, Beck has increasingly become a narcissistic demagogue huffing delusions of grandeur, but his ego and his narcissism feed, and have always fed, directly into a larger business plan. They are one and the same…. Beck's political grandstanding is, at bottom, little more than a circus entertainer's love of an audience, matched with a fine appreciation for the uses of notoriety, spectacle, and shamelessness. Like Barnum's great museums, and traveling freak shows, Beck's twice-daily performances, one on radio and one on television, trade in light amusement, canny deceit, and titillating monstrosity." (10–11).

Zaitchik then proceeds to examine Beck's life, from his childhood in Washington state, through his drug-crazed teens and early adulthood, to his success as a radio shock jock and his metamorphosis into a national leader of the conservative movement. Little of what Zaitchik writes presents a positive image of Beck, from his bullying of radio rivals and staff members, to his outrageous publicity stunts, his on air breakdowns, and his comparison of Al Gore to Adolf Hitler and the work of UN climate scientists to Nazi eugenicists (119).

To me, the most interesting chapters of the book examine Glenn Beck's forays into conservative Mormonism, the church he joined in 1998 after a painful divorce and a difficult struggle to overcome substance abuse.

Chapter 11, "Brother Beck Presents: Mormon Masterpiece Theater," discusses the role of Beck as a Crying Conservative.  Zaitchik states, "When it comes to public crying as vaudeville, Beck owes less to universal womanhood than to a very special brotherhood. He's not stereotypically premenstrual as much as classically Mormon. Like so much else that baffles people about Beck, his approach to public tears has been shaped in the crucible of his adopted faith. It was the lachrymose Latter-Day Saints who turned an amateur crybaby pro."(p 202).

Zaitchik blames Beck's famous tears on the Mormon social ritual of bearing testimony once a month: "Those who study Mormon rituals and rhetoric say that the fingerprints of bearing testimony can be found all over Beck's public tearfulness" (203). Quoting David Knowlton, a Mormon cultural anthropologist at Utah Valley University, the author writes: "Beck's emotional performances are very like Mormon testimonies… Beck has married two rhetorical styles: the quiet Mormon sense of emotion present during key moments in testimony, and the bombast of more mainstream evangelical performances. Mormons and evangelicals simply do not trust reason to the same degree they trust feeling." (204). Zaitchik then adds: "When viewed in the context of Mormon practice, Beck's public crying begins to make more sense…  This helps to explain the yawning comprehension gap between his religious fans and his secular critics. Secular liberals watch Beck's cheap theatrics and see unmanly, dishonest, and possibly insane behavior. Mormons and like-minded evangelicals, especially Pentecostals, see familiar signposts associated with masculinity, sincerity, and even authority" (204).

 "The way Beck has built his movement and his audience is a microcosm of the method by which the Mormon Church grew into a worldwide religion," Zaitchik explains. "Like an earnest young missionary spreading the good word through emotional speeches to confused Latin American villagers, Beck has brought his gut of self-revelations to national television and radio, employing emotional intensity overflowing into tears to conquer doubt of his sincerity and prove his access to powerful truths…. Bear testimony; recruit. Bear testimony; recruit" (205).

After listening to hours and hours of Glenn Beck tapes while writing the book, Zaitchik notes he found the moment when Beck first became aware of extreme Mormon conservatism. It probably came on the morning of October 31, 2008, when "Beck played for his radio audience, a scratchy recording from the 1960s made by Dwight Eisenhower's secretary of agriculture, Ezra Taft Benson. While serving in that position, Beck explained, Benson had met with Nikita Khrushchev during one of the Soviet premier's visits to the United States. In that meeting, Benson claimed to have gained valuable insight into the global communist conspiracy" (p. 125).

In chapter 12, The Ghost of Cleon Skousen, Zaitchik recalls the evening of Sept. 2, 2009 when Beck presented one of his famous Fox News lecture seminars. Using a series of slides and art objects, Beck "connected the dots of progressive influence to reveal the contours and loci of leftist political power, its secret strategies and unspoken agendas" (211). The actual originator of Beck's progressive-communist-fascist ideas was none other than Willard Cleon Skousen, a deceased ultraconservative Mormon and John Birch Society believer who authored the books the Naked Communist (1958) and the Naked Capitalist (1970). In Common Nonsense, Zaitchik gives a very good overview of Skousen's life and ideas, and the reasons they appeal to Beck. Skousen's tome the 5,000 Year Leap: A Miracle That Changed the World (1981), a little known book that Beck dragged out of twenty-first century obscurity, has since become one of the must-reads of modern conservatism and is the central history text for hundreds of thousands of Tea Party activists (215).

Common Nonsense is an interesting book, but it is obviously biased against Beck. I recommend it to those who would like a behind-the-scenes look at Glenn Beck's career, the broadcasting industry, and the past conservative politics of the Mormon Church. But if you are a Glenn Beck supporter — you aren't going to like what you read. Four days ago, Zaitchik wrote an online article for the Huffington Post, The Farce of Glenn Beck's Rally for America, . In it, he noted, "Most recently, Beck has worked to resuscitate the names of famously anti-civil rights figures from the history of his adopted Mormon faith. He has respectfully played tapes of Ezra Taft Benson, who thought Martin Luther King was a communist agent out to destroy the Mormon Church (and who once wrote the foreword to a book of race hate whose cover illustration featured the severed, bloody head of an African American). Beck has also implored his viewers to read the divinely inspired books of W. Cleon Skousen, another John Birch Society fantasist who believed that the civil rights movement was part of a worldwide Communist (and, later, New World Order) conspiracy."

Last week, in an interview with the Boston Phoenix, Alexander Zaitchik deconstructs Glenn Beck, August 23, 2010,, interviewer Chris Faraone asked Zaitchik how much hate mail he has received since his book on Glenn Beck came out. "The venom has trickled in, but it's nothing like when I published the first piece on Salon in September," Zaitchik answered. "I was getting a lot of attacks where people try to shut down your e-mail by putting you on a million lists, and then I was just getting all that 'You godless socialist go back to Russia' kind of stuff, and thinly veiled threats that made me realize that I didn't want to do any readings in Utah."

Judging by the size of the crowds today at the Restoring Honor rally, I'd say that's a pretty good idea.

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