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I Have a Nightmare: Glenn Beck and The Big Lie

"Dinosaurs" was a hilarious and unique TV series that ran for four seasons in the early nineties. (You can get it on Netflix if you missed it the first time around.) It's a classic family-centered sitcom, very much on the model of the original "Honeymooners," except that Mom, Dad, the kids and pets are all Muppet-style dinosaurs, as befits the setting, Pangaea in 60 million B.C.

Earl, the hard-hat–wearing father-figure, supports his family as a tree-pusher, knocking down ancient forests for his rapacious corporate masters. It was the best political satire I've seen on American TV, complete with newsbreaks from deep-voiced talking-head Howard Handupme, who issued regular soothing bulletins even as the Ice Age dawned, ending both the series and the known world. At the time, I marveled at how fully this allegory encapsulated the contemporary scene under President Bush the first: climate change, environmental despoliation, unsafe working conditions, corporate indifference to workers and consumers, commercial media serving that agenda, and all of it wrapped in a lighthearted look at growing up in the Cretaceous.

It came to mind this morning as I watched a clip of Glenn Beck's recent attempt to hijack the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr., in service of his remarkably well-funded and stunningly deranged campaign to colonize white Americans' minds. Beck, as you must have heard, has claimed that Tea Partiers deserve Dr. King's mantle:

We are the people of the civil rights movement. We are the ones that must stand for civil and equal rights, justice, equal justice. Not special justice, not social justice. We are the inheritors and protectors of the civil rights movement. They are perverting it.

Twenty years ago, I realized this morning, you would have needed a time machine to foresee the precise cocktail of sugarcoated racism, religiosity, and bald-facing lying that infuses our national media artifact, the real, live anti-Muppet, Glenn Beck.

If you've caught even a glimpse of Beck, you know what comedian Lewis Black meant when he said Beck had "Nazi Tourette's," comparing anyone or anything he dislikes to the Third Reich. "This is a guy who uses more swastika props and pictures of the Nuremberg Rallies than The History Channel," said Black.

But those are only outward trappings. Clearly, Beck has also learned a great deal from Nazi propaganda techniques, and he is putting it to work right here and now. The tactic that interests me most is "the big lie." Now, the Nazis didn't lay claim to that concept. In fact, they attributed it to the Jews and the British. And this, too, is classic: accuse your opponent of the misdeeds you have committed (Beck accused President Obama of racism, for instance, an assertion he has recently tried to soften), to insulate yourself from the same charge. Hitler laid out the concept in Mein Kampf, expressing the contempt for ordinary people in which his own grandiosity was rooted:

[B]ecause the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods. It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.

In a psychological analysis of Hitler commissioned by the wartime Office of Strategic Services, Dr. Walter Langer summed it up thusly:

His primary rules were: never allow the public to cool off; never admit a fault or wrong; never concede that there may be some good in your enemy; never leave room for alternatives; never accept blame; concentrate on one enemy at a time and blame him for everything that goes wrong; people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it.

Sound familiar? For the big lie to work, certain factors have to be in place.

First, there are the facts of human cognitive function. It is in our nature as human beings to construct reasons for the things we do (often our reasons are invented long after the action has been initiated). Of course, we like reasons that put us in a good light. Between the choice to see oneself as a hero in the mold of MLK, or as a person who is distorted by the fear of losing privilege and by resentment at all who seem to be taking it away, there's not much of a contest. To eschew the easy, self-aggrandizing option, you have to know that humans are susceptible to such delusions, you have to make a conscious choice to guard against them, you have to be willing to regard yourself in the cold light of truth stripped of narcissism. Exploiting the nearly universal proclivity for self-justification, Glenn Beck has made a career out of providing shiny self-deluding rationales for deeply repugnant attitudes.

I'd like to say there is an easy remedy, but I'm afraid there is only one remedy, self-awareness. Knowing that we humans—even you and I and all the right-on people surrounding us—have this inbuilt tendency, that it is hardwired into our brains, is just about the only ally we have in noticing and correcting for it. The Tea Party people aren't stupider or more gullible than the rest of us; it's just that nothing has as yet disturbed the trance of self-justification that masks their awareness of the big lies they've been swallowing.

Second, there is the way that, in being adopted as a media icon of nobility, Martin Luther King the symbol has been stripped of much that made MLK the man such a brilliant, brave, and inspiring figure. As the years passed, Dr. King's understanding of the integral relationship of racism and other oppressions grew deeper and more powerful. In a stirring speech delivered a year to the day before his death, Dr. King laid it out:

We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered. A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies…. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth…. A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, “This way of settling differences is not just.”

Glenn Beck's ability to impersonate entitlement to MLK's legacy depends on people not knowing what Dr. King really stood for. We need to strip off the padding Beck and his ilk have glued onto the rough edges of Dr. King's righteous anger and fearless love. Sharing this information will make the big lie harder to swallow.

Finally, in the inflationary atmosphere that nurtures the big lie, it is very hard for people to see how they are being lied to by those they trust most. Of course, we want to trust someone. If everyone is lying, the world starts to tilt, and vertigo sets in. Frank Rich has a good column today about the billionaires cynically bankrolling the Tea Party movement to advance their own interests. Through Fox, Beck is able to blast his big lies nearly twenty-four/seven. Populist rage might be real—certainly, we all have good reasons to revile some of the ways our taxes are being spent, to resent government's preferential treatment of the rich while the ranks of the unemployed balloon—but what the people who are underwriting this movement have in mind will do nothing to reverse those trends. Quite the contrary.

One of the things I loved about that old TV show "Dinosaurs" is how forthright it was about the bought-and-sold relationships between mega-corporations, government, and the commercial media. All the family names (Earl Sinclair, Ethyl Phillips) were based on oil companies, a rather nice reference to the fact that our petroleum-based world owes its existence to the great catastrophe underfoot that resulted from dinosaurs' extinction. The corporation that owned everything in Pangaea was called "Wesayso." Would it help if Tea Partiers and their fans knew who was benefitting from Glenn Beck's casting as Howard Handupme? It couldn't hurt.

This bone-chilling antiracist song, "Strange Fruit," made famous by Billie Holiday, was written by Abe Meerpol, who later adopted the two boys orphaned by the government's execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. When Holiday approached her label, Columbia, about recording the song in the late 30s, they refused on the grounds it might hurt sales in the South. She was finally granted a one-time release to record it for the Commodore label. This is merely a single facet of the reality Martin Luther King's words illuminated for the world.

Next time you hear Glenn Beck tell an all-white Tea Party group that "we are the inheritors of the civil rights movement," think of this song, and know that the big lie has been told again.