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AOL asked me to write a blog post this week on all the comic invective directed recently toward Glenn Beck, knowing that both his defenders and detractors would come out of the woodwork to wage war in the comments section.* And come they did, by the tens of thousands, thanks in part to a headline on the AOL welcome screen that overstated my concern about some of the more below-the-belt spoofs. (“Attacks on Beck Crossing the Line: Our Writer Says Recent Parodies Are Anything but Funny: Skits Under Fire”)
Now, I’m not a Beck fan, as even a cursory reading of the article would make clear. If anything, the assignment gave me an excuse to embed videos of several Beck-lampooning sketches, some of which I think are perfectly fair. The best of these was the Stephen Colbert monologue embedded at the top of this post, which perfectly mimics Beck’s performance style, calls him on his BS, and does so without resorting to ad hominem attacks. What I objected to was those sketches that got personal — Jon Stewart appearing to make fun of Beck’s recent health woes, Andy Cobb taking Beck’s icky incest fantasy from his book The Real America: Messages from the Heart and Heartland out of context to imply that Beck really meant it (he did not; he was merely making an offensive analogy to gay relationships), and The Onion wishing for Beck to die a violent and gory death (a video that contains some NSFW language).
I’ll admit, I actually thought all of these were funny, even the ones I found squirm-inducing and inappropriate. But I also thought that they made the tactical and ethical mistake of stooping to Beck’s level. Ad hominem attacks, quoting people out of context, and wishing people dead may be things Beck does routinely, but his critics won’t win any converts by doing the same.
That seems unfair, that Beck’s critics should have to play by rules that he won’t follow, but only by maintaining a higher standard than Beck will his critics avoid being charged with hypocrisy, a charge Beck defenders will use as an excuse to ignore the substance of the criticism.
That doesn’t mean Beck shouldn’t be fair game for ridicule; indeed, I think ridicule may be the only thing that can discredit him. But there’s a right way to do it, one that allows his critics to maintain the moral high ground, and a wrong way. Besides, its easy enough to skewer Beck for his public actions; there’s enough fodder there without having to skewer him for who he is in private as well.
*By the way, there’s little that’s more depressing to me than the vast chasm, as seen in the comments section of my AOL post, between the pro- and anti-Beck factions. Both sides seem to live in mutually exclusive realities. Beck supporters believe he’s the lone voice of truth in journalism (which doesn’t speak well of the rest of the Fox News talking heads), the only person who’s asking tough questions of the Obama administration (which is somehow fascist, socialist, and communist at the same time), someone whose every assertion is backed by “facts” and “truth” (because no one is calling his red phone to challenge his claims), and someone who so frightens liberals (based on the kinds of attack clips embedded in my post) that he must be doing something right. The Beck loathers think he’s either an idiot, a loon, a huckster, or some combination of the three; an entertainer trying to pass himself off as a journalist; someone whose every assertion is a lie, backed by video clips carefully edited to distort and take out of context the quotes of his ideological foes; and as big a threat to America as Beck fans think President Obama is. Both sides are quick to resort to insults and name-calling (did no one actually read my post?), both dismiss evidence cited by the other side as tainted by the bias of its source, and neither seems able to agree on something as basic as the meaning of such concepts as “facts” and “truth.” How will we ever bridge such a gulf when we can’t even agree on basic premises?
I think Beck is a demagogue, but I also think the populist anger he taps into is genuine. His viewers get that they’re being robbed by powerful special interests, but not that Beck is channeling their anger toward the wrong targets (ACORN, SEIU, and other groups of relatively powerless blue-collar and minority Americans) — or that this self-described “rodeo clown” performs this act of misdirection at the behest of the real culprits, in order to hide their crimes and to distract Americans from who’s bamboozling them by sowing discord among them. It’s going to take a real Wizard of Oz moment to pull back the curtain on Beck; instead of a Toto, maybe it’ll be a satirist like the dogged Colbert who will expose him.