Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Rupture: Glenn Beck hits the Mall

Everything turned out OK today in Washington, D.C. The Rapture According to Glenn Beck came off without a hitch on the National Mall. No, the Fox News commentator, author and conservative firebrand didn’t walk on the reflecting pool near the Lincoln Memorial.

While the weather was flawless at Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally, no shafts of light emerged from the skies over the nation's capital to follow him around. No one resembling the Almighty whispered in Beck’s ear during the proceedings, as he had said might happen (although Keith Olbermann at MSNBC’s “Countdown” promises that his program will feature a recording of the actual audio of the voice speaking direct to Beck in an “exclusive” on Monday).

And despite the fears of civil rights veterans for whom this day looms large in history — Aug. 28, 1963 — there is no danger of the speech uttered that day by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. being eclipsed in the national memory. This was upheld, with thunder and conviction, by a counter event today elsewhere in Washington.

They were both reminders of how far we’ve come as a society since that date 47 years ago, an indelible benchmark of our social progress as a nation. But Beck’s attempt to upstage the date, location and spirit of a clarion American event, points to the deeper, inescapable irony: At its core, the Beck rally revealed the stark contrast between itself and the event it desperately tried to emulate.

Olbermann is justifiably fond of addressing Beck as Lonesome Rhodes, the indelible character in Elia Kazan's “A Face in the Crowd.” Today, Beck was in something close to full Elmer Gantry mode at his rally, whose stated purpose was to honor the American military and to reassert the importance of religion. "Something beyond imagination is happening," he said. "America today begins to turn back to God. ..."

“We must get the poison of hatred out of us,” he told the crowd. “We must look to God and look to love. We must defend those we disagree with. ...”

“Today we are going to concentrate on the good things in America, the things that we have accomplished – and the things that we can do tomorrow,” he said.

At another point, and despite his protestations that the site selection of the Memorial was a coincidence, Beck tipped a hand that was already obvious, calling on the crowd to "recognize your place to the creator, realize that he is our king. He is the one who guides and directs our life and protects us." Note the words “he is our king,” a deliberate shot at the legacy of the man who synonymized this date and place with history.

The previously announced inclusion of Alveda King, MLK’s niece, also disproves the idea that all this was by happenstance. Her presence at the Beck event — despite Beck’s bid to give the rally a weight, an impact beyond the purely promotional — reflected the underlying duplicities of the rally.

"If Uncle Martin could be here today … he would surely remind us that as brothers and sisters, united by one blood in one single race, the human race, we are called to honor God and to love each other," Alveda King said, in a message that, on its face, is consistent with the message and the universal motivations of her uncle.

If only. If only this wasn’t the same Alveda King who has been a vocal opponent of same-sex marriage. If only this wasn’t the Alveda King who protested proposed California state legislation to extend civil rights to gays and lesbians more than a decade ago. The same Alveda King who said previously flat-out that “God hates homosexuality,” and, earlier this month, equated gay marriage with genocide.

Maybe Olbermann can do an audio hookup with Alveda King so we can hear the voice in her head.

◊ ◊ ◊

“They want to disgrace this day, and we’re not givin’ them this day. This is our day, and we ain’t givin’ it away!” Sharpton said at the “Reclaim the Dream” rally at the historic Paul Laurence Dunbat High School and sponsored by Sharpton’s National Action Network.

Sharpton’s comments at this alternate rally (you hesitate to call it “competing”) point to a defensiveness that was typical of some of the vanguard of social protest. While Sharpton admitted that King's legacy necessarily entertains different views of the messenger, what wasn’t up for debate — by Beck or anyone else — was the thrust of the message delivered 47 years ago.

"His speech says clearly that he wanted to see a nation where the federal government protects us from those and states that would not uphold our civil rights," Sharpton said.

"You can't have a march telling government to leave us alone and say you're reclaiming a march where they came to appeal to government to protect us," he said. "They're having an anti-government march on a day that King came to appeal to government. You can't have it both ways."

"It would be wrong for us to allow those who espouse the universal value of exclusion to hijack the site and the message of that marvelous day and to use it against the very vision that Martin Luther King Jr. articulated so magnificently," he said.

The Rev. Walter Fauntroy, former D.C. representative in the House, was likewise combative, saying Beck's rally had "seized the hallowed ground of the 47th anniversary ... to promote their universal vision of exclusion."

"Their purpose is to turn the clock back in a time in America,” he said.

◊ ◊ ◊

Some of the pre-reactions to Beck’s extravaganza, and Sharpton’s pointed day-of responses suggest that Beck was playing Sharpton and some of the others, baiting them for a response to his Lincoln memorial gambit, priming the pump for the predicted (and alas, predictable) outrage.

Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C. delegate to Congress and someone who was actually at King's march in 1963, took the right tone: "Glenn Beck's march will change nothing. But you can't blame Glenn Beck for his March-on-Washington envy," she said today.

Norton’s response implicitly gets to the heart of the matter: If Martin Luther King were somehow alive to weigh in on a commemorative controversy of his own incidental creation, he'd almost certainly have defended Beck's right to stage a rally. He’d have certainly rejected Fauntroy and Sharpton’s idea that Beck was "seizing" or “hijacking” a public site in the nation’s capital. The constitutional principles of equality that MLK lived by and died for (among them, freedom of assembly and freedom of expression) aren’t water's-edge ideas; there's of course no exclusivity clause making that freedom apply to some but not to all.

King's speech and its centrality to the nation still resonate strongly, and will despite Beck’s earnest evangelical bloviating this weekend. By its very existence, Beck's rally was necessarily referential to the signal American moment that preceded it — the moment that made Beck’s rally possible in the first place.

Despite the cynical timing and location of the Beck Address, Americans should celebrate the event and see it for what it was: a weak bid to appropriate the luster and moment of the 1963 King speech with little of its charity, character or fully populist underpinnings. Today’s big deal at the Lincoln Memorial didn’t so much trample on MLK's legacy as it burnished it, validated its place in history and showed us, through the stained-glass funhouse mirror of Glenn Beck, how imitation can be the sincerest form of demagoguery.

Image credit: Beck: NBC News.

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