There is none so dangerous as the white American who waxes nostalgic about what he or she likes to call "the good old days." Or, alternately, those "simpler" times, or the era of so-called "innocence" remembered from their childhoods, memorialized in a Norman Rockwell painting, or via televised re-runs of the Cleaver family, or Opie Taylor casting a line down at the ol' fishin' hole.
None so dangerous because such persons, through their lamentations about having lost the nation they so fondly remember, disregard as if they were a mere annoyance, unworthy of consideration, the lived experiences of millions of their fellow countrymen and women: peoples of color for whom so many of those days were anything but good, far from simple, and part of an era that can only be thought of as innocent by a people utterly inured to suffering, wholly incapable of even defining innocence, let alone identifying it, and unable, for reasons of their own racial narcissism, to stare truth in the face. In this case, the truth that their recollections are the very definition of selective memory. Perhaps worse, delusion itself.
Yet these dangerous minions are all around us. We could see them in the town hall meetings this summer, for instance, shouting about how they wanted their "country back," and how we should return to the nation the way the founders envisioned it. No, the shouters would insist, they didn't mean the part about slavery, or the part about women not voting, or the part about killing indigenous people. They only meant the good stuff: you know the part about limited government and perhaps powdered wigs. And muskets, and duels at twenty paces, and wooden teeth, and other such cool things as that.
And perhaps in this, they were telling the truth. But if so, this only suggests that to them, the bad parts--the enslavement of Africans, the murder of Native peoples, the vicious suppression of women's rights--are but a mere trifle of history. Not worth even thinking about. Oh yes, there was that, but really now, who cares? An argument can be made, methinks, that such bemused indifference might actually be a bit more disturbing for what it says about those evincing it, than would outright hostility be, or outright praise for the depredations of the past. At least the open celebrant of murder and oppression reveals himself for who he is, unlike the numbed and diffident spectator, who can maintain a patina of decency in the midst of calm, cool nonchalance.
To view such things as afterthoughts is to render the people who suffered under the weight of those days too unimportant to merit even a fleeting glance of recognition. It is an act of thought-murder, of memory-scrubbing, an act that seeks to elevate national amnesia to the lofty perch normally reserved for religious sacraments: dementia as the new communion wafer, ingested weekly so as to maintain the national pretense of righteousness. It is to treat genocide, physical and cultural, as no more important than errant lines on some gargantuan etch-a-sketch, which can be conveniently erased with a shake or a tap, never to be seen or thought of again.
It is this indifference to suffering--real suffering, not the imagined sufferings of the rich, forced to pay estate taxes, or CEOs asked (though not even forced) to reign in their 7-figure bonuses--that seemingly plagues so many a mouthpiece of the white right nowadays: those who have been giving the most consistent amplification to the notion of a national innocence lost. And so we have Glenn Beck, the recovering alcoholic and not-so-recovering public weeper-in-chief, holding forth almost daily as to the nation we "once were," but no longer are. Because of Obama. Because of liberals. Because of creeping socialism. Because of ACORN. We have lost our way, he insists. We are losing that America we once knew, he continues. And that of course is not only to be accepted as Gospel truth, but as catastrophic, because to Beck and to millions who, by their own admission hang on his every word, that America of old was a good and great place to be.
That Beck never took a history class past the eleventh grade may explain some of his inability to understand how venal is such a belief. In college, they tend to go into a bit greater detail about the good, the bad and the ugly of American history, unlike high school, where historical narratives are more likely to tow the patriotic rah-rah line. But then again, I've known black folks with eighth grade educations who possessed an historical clarity lacking even in many a white man with a PhD, so mere lack of exposure may be insufficient to fully account for Beck's blind spots.
Regardless of their source, these blind spots have been glaringly visible to the rest of us for a while now, along with the tears that so often stream down his face, as he contemplates and asks his audiences to contemplate with him, the passing of a once great nation. It was just such a blind spot to which I was introduced this past 4th of July, during a re-broadcast of a somewhat earlier episode of his radio show, in which Beck explained that he "hates the last 100 years or so of American history."
While he would no doubt insist that by this he did not mean the part about civil rights, or women's suffrage, or the end of mandatory child labor (although he was speaking specifically of the legacy of progressivism, which would certainly include those three things), the mere fact that he could make such a statement as if those events had not even happened indicates that the struggles that made those victories possible are of literally no consequence to him; that they hold no weight as key elements of our national story. Far from being seen as among the greatest accomplishments in our nation's history, Beck apparently views them as belonging to a third rail narrative, which pales in comparison to the more exhilarating remembrances of civil war battles, Washington crossing the Delaware, or that wholly fabricated trope about how, long before that famous navigation, a young Washington chopped down a certain cherry tree and, compelled by conscience, told his daddy the truth.
No indeed, how could the greatness of a Martin Luther King Jr., or a Fannie Lou Hamer (whom Beck, I would be willing to bet couldn't identify if his life depended on it, without first doing a Wikipedia search), possibly compare to those great heroes of the 19th century Gilded Age? Or the colonial leaders who sought to suppress the religious beliefs of non-Christians, or murder women they suspected of witchcraft? How could one not prefer the likes of an Indian-killer like Andrew Jackson, to, say, any of a number of labor leaders, suffragettes, and civil rights activists who were willing to put everything on the line for the cause of equality? The last century indeed was such a vile and pitiful time that one can only castigate the rest of us for not seeing it as clearly as dear brother Beck, who so easily traded in booze for the Bible, that one might be inclined to accuse him of simply shifting from one mind-altering drug to another. One might do that, that is, if one were inclined to be judgmental.
And we wouldn't want to be judgmental, for that is a talent best left to Beck himself.
Most recently, Beck became weepy at the showing of two classic commercials during his television show: commercials that make him especially wistful for those good old days about which he is so emotional.
One was a Kodak spot from 1975, featuring the song "Times of Your Life," by Paul Anka, piped over old super-8 footage of families from the 1950s and 60s. And then there was the famous Coke ad, from 1979, featuring former NFL great "Mean" Joe Greene and a little kid, who offers Greene his cold soda after a tough game, and gets a Steeler jersey in return. No question these were both effective and touching advertisements. But in the hands of Beck, they became something else. Rather than seeing them as what they were (emotion-laden manipulations intended to sell products and make their respective companies a lot of money), Beck presents them as literal paeans to national unity and togetherness. Despite acknowledging that "America has always had her problems"--the typically and obscenely understated way in which white conservatives tend to gloss over things like apartheid and institutionalized racial supremacy--Beck insists that once upon a time (like back in the days represented by those commercials) "we used to be united on some basic things."
"Do you remember how that felt?" Beck queried of his viewers. "Do you remember what life was like?" He continued on. And then, in his crowning challenge, he speculated that if a politician promised he could take us back to those "simpler times," when the flowers presumably smelled better, the skies were bluer, and even one's tears tasted like molasses--presuming for a minute that one would ever have occasion to cry in a place as blissful as this-- we would all "do it in a heartbeat." "Wouldn't ya?" he added with the aw shucks earnestness that has become his hallmark move.
All of which suggests that Beck doesn't actually remember much, or perhaps never learned much, about those days. About what unity could he possibly be speaking, after all? Would it be the unity of the 1950s, which led white folks to gladly embrace the Brown v. Board of Education decision, requiring the desegregation of previously all-white schools? The unity that prompted whites, in the wake of that ruling to rush to the local florist, purchase bouquets and hand them out to black children as a welcome to their new educational environs?
Perhaps he means the unity that led Montgomery, Alabama bus operators to help Ms. Rosa Parks to her seat up front, and chastise that one unruly white guy, who--owing to his own mistaken assumptions that the town was something other than unified behind the notion of civil rights--thought blacks were still supposed to be relegated to the back of the bus?
Perhaps the unity of which he speaks was that which inspired Governor George Wallace to serve as Grand Marshal at the welcoming ceremony thrown for Vivian Malone and James Hood, when they sought to become the first black students to enroll at the University of Alabama.
Or the unity that in 1963, led every single white person in America to attend the March on Washington, so as to demand the passage of civil rights legislation, which, oddly, was going to be passed anyway, on a unanimous vote, seeing as how everyone was unified behind "some basic things," like, ya know, equal rights for all.
Or maybe he was speaking of the unity that led everyone to support the U.S. war in Southeast Asia, or even when they didn't support it, at least to ensure that those who dissented from the conflict would be met with open arms and a firm commitment to the First Amendment, like, ya know, at Kent State.
Come to think of it, perhaps he meant the part where everyone loved Dr. King, and so the FBI thankfully never spied on him, and when he condemned the slaughter in Vietnam, saying that the United States had become the "greatest purveyor of violence in the world today," everyone applauded his courage, since they had all said it before themselves. And of course it was really cool how no one ever killed him, because, ya know, all were so united in their admiration.
All sarcasm aside, the divisions that roiled the nation in mid-century, and which Beck gives such short shrift with his praise for the Kodak commercial, what with its quite different imagery, were hardly erased by the late 70s: the point at which the "Steeler and the Kid" commercial, as it's known, first aired.
That was, after all, the year that the battle against nuclear power heated up due to the partial meltdown of a reactor at Three Mile Island.
And the year that the Unabomber constructed one of his first devices, and managed to get it placed on an airplane.
And the year that Klansmen and neo-Nazis shot and killed five members of the Communist Worker's Party in Greensboro, North Carolina, during an anti-racism march.
And the year that a jury gave a slap on the wrist to Dan White, who had murdered Harvey Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone: a decision that set off a major uprising by gay rights activists. It was also the year that a massive national gay rights march took place in Washington DC, with hardly unified approval from the religious right.
And it was the year that a U.S.-backed dictatorship came to an end in Nicaragua, to be replaced by the nominally-socialist Sandinistas, whose regime would then be attacked mercilessly by the Reagan-funded contras, over the objections of millions of Americans and even Congress.
And of course it was the year that American hostages would be taken in Iran, leading millions of Americans to blame President Jimmy Carter for the event, and for having stood insufficiently behind the ousted dictator, Shah Reza Pahlavi. This outrage would then help prompt a very un-unified nation to elect Ronald Reagan a year later.
To proclaim that America was ever unified, behind much of anything important, is to ignore the whole of the national experience. Even during World War Two, arguably the most unified period in our national life, black veterans viewed the campaign against European fascism and Japanese imperialism differently. But it is doubtful that Beck or his listeners have ever heard of the Double-V (for victory) campaign, which saw the war effort as existing on three fronts: Europe, Asia, and at home, against the racial oppression to which veterans of color were being subjected, and would be subjected even after their triumphant return.
And while white America chose as its heroes in this period, soldiers like Audie Murphy or draft-dodging but oh-so-masculine actors like John Wayne--who actually got out of service so as to allow for the furtherance of his movie career--black folks cleaved to an entirely different set of role models: from the Tuskeegee airmen (about whom most whites knew little for more than a generation), to the martyrs of the civil rights movement: persons like the Reverend George Lee, Vernon Dahmer, Medgar Evers, Wharlest Jackson, Herbert Lee, Sammy Younge Jr., Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, Harriette Moore, Jimmie Lee Jackson, Lamar Smith, James Reeb, William Moore, Jonathan Daniels, and Viola Liuzzo, among others. That few whites have even heard these names (and that the history books used to teach all Americans rarely mention them) suggests that, as with Beck, the culture in general would rather gloss over the evidence of disunity that has marked us from the beginning, would prefer to fabricate a commonality of purpose and vision that has never, for one moment, existed anywhere within the borders of the nation we call home. White America prefers the lie. Has grown dependent on it, in fact, so much so that to challenge it is to forever brand oneself as unpatriotic, as an enabler of a victim syndrome amongst those who indeed have been victims of American disunity.
Yet it all seems strangely perverse, seeing as how the "innocence lost" narrative is inherently about the proclamation of victimhood, about imagining the majority as embattled by those who would sacrifice the greatness of the past on the altar of modernity and all its attendant evils. It is the ultimate victimology. And it is far more dangerous than any equivalent form put forth by the truly oppressed. For when the dominant group in a social order proclaims itself aggrieved, insists that it is the marginalized faction, and yet still has its relative power, its guns, its bombs, its police forces, its military, its majority status (in numbers and certainly in influence), that sense of grievance becomes more than mere annoyance. It becomes deadly. The backlash engendered by that sense of victimhood, linked with firepower and the strength of the state apparatus becomes a potential source of real fascism, properly defined and historically conceptualized. It is always the notion of national decline and the need for rebirth that lay at the root of fascism, after all. Would that someone might explain this point to those given to accusing President Obama of the thing.
And it is precisely that, the fascist impulse, which Glenn Beck--a self-proclaimed rodeo clown, who yet commands the respect of millions--is daily nurturing, feeding like kindling to a flame, stoking like an old Boy Scout campfire. Only the agenda here is more insidious than the toasting of s'mores. Indeed it is about returning America to a place neither good nor great: a place that is dying, and indeed deserves to die, having been on life support for far too long as it is. Time to pull the plug now. A death panel for a dying empire: exactly what we need, no matter how certain talk show hosts may feel about it.
Tim Wise is the author of four books on race. His latest is Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama (City Lights, 2009).