Hard right demagogue Glenn Beck has come under sustained fire in the aftermath of the Arizona shootings. Along with the Ann Coulters, the Rush Limbaughs, the Bill O'Reillys, and the Sarah Palins few have done more to poison American politics with outright lies and violent language. Quite rightly there has been an outpouring of criticism against this style of politics but as warranted and wide ranging it has been, it doesn't go far enough. How American politics became synonymous with smears and bombast owes everything to the generalised violence that suffuses US culture, as Dave explains here.
Whether violent political rhetoric played a direct part in the conditioning of Jared Lee Loughner is hard to say. But we are all stamped by culture. It underpins every action, every thought. It makes us possible as thinking, feeling human beings. To get on in life, let alone climb the greasy pole, we unthinkingly practice the mores we've imbibed since birth in 1,001 everyday actions. Mumbling something about the weather to strangers, saying thanks after handing money to a checkout operator, we do these things not because we're cultural dopes, but because they help us rub along. They're the small things culture uses to haphazardly glue our variegated and antagonistic society together. If you live in a 'happy' society, the stronger the glue and the social solidarities it throws up. If you live in a climate of fear, the weaker the ties and the greater the atomisation. These is a reason why the Scandinavian social democracies are much less violent societies than the United States.
Therefore, what makes a man murder is a complicated business. Psychological problems are often cited, but human psychology is only possible through sustained exposure to the socialisation process. When Jacques Lacan said the unconscious is structured like a language, he wasn't wrong. Experiences and ideas react with each other in an unending dialectic of thought and action, which is at all time and always conditioned by one's relation to the world. Everything is full of meaning, and how that is received depends on one's (conditioning/conditioned) mentality. It is difficult to tease out, but culture is right at the heart of the process. The weight with which cultural expressions of violence impinge on individual psyches vary from person to person and how that plays out in their lives and their actions varies, but it's real, and it's always (already) there (more here).
It would be naive to expect a nuanced appreciation of the relation between cultural expressions of violence and acts of violence on Monday night's installment of Glenn Beck's show on Fox News. It's just as well I was anticipating nothing of the sort.
Sat on his desk like a doey-eyed jabberwock it wasn't long before faux sincerity gave way to the polemical rumblings of a rant. Once he heard about the shootings he chose to stay silent, and ordered his staff to do the same. What he claimed he was waiting for was a member of America's political establishment to talk common sense. Instead figures in the media and politics fell over themselves to score points. They, aided and abetted by the Washington establishment, had turned a tragedy into a political opportunity.
As criticisms go, this is about as reasonable as Beck gets. There is a semblance of an argument here. Without a shred of evidence, the "left" (i.e. anyone not sold on Fox's diet of repetitive propaganda) has tried to pin the shooting on the right. From the moment the first pundit began speculating about the shootings the weight of liberal media bias was thrown behind spinning the story to suit their anti-Palin, anti-Beck, and anti-Limbaugh agendas. The only outlet not to engage in "wild speculation" was Fox itself. While this is true (even Beck occasionally utters a truth), it was certainly a first for them. Were Jared Lee Loughner of Middle Eastern descent I doubt this uncharacteristic even handedness would have been much in evidence.
At that point Beck goes off the deep end. "Progressives" such as Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and CNN have seized upon the tragedy to drive forward their agenda, which is nothing less than the schema of communist revolution. You see, having poured over the Old Beards Glenn knows the tricks of the revolutionary trade and sees them at work everywhere where liberals have influence. The schema goes something like this. The communists/progressives/liberals have a solution, they get people into government, they use their position to stir up social problems, the system collapses, the people rise up, and the revolutionary elite can rescue the situation by imposing their top down solution. Et voila. Communism.
Progressive policies in their entirety can be boiled down to this project. Here lies the danger represented by the Tea Party, Palin and Beck. They can spy the elitist and totalitarian core at the heart of the Obama administration and the progressive agenda and this is why they do everything possible to shut the right down (Beck's own activities are suppressed to the extent he sold five million books in the 2003-2010 period, and Palin regularly packs out rallies).
Jared Lee Loughner therefore is a convenient idiot in the left's grand plan. Unfortunately for them their attempt to use him as foil is flawed because there is no evidence he had any politics as such. As far as Beck's concerned the most dangerous people in America are 9/11 troofers, those who think the moon landings were hoaxed, and people who only believe in big government solutions (of course!). And, surprise, surprise, Loughner was a troofer, believed the Mars Rovers were faked, and his favourite books were the Communist Manifesto and Mein Kampf: the two tracks of the same totalitarian train [sic].
In Beck's eyes, Loughner wasn't a right wing or a left wing nutjob. He was just a nutjob. Violence just happens. It's not a problem of political ideas, it's a problem of people. You can't change human nature.
Of course, while denouncing the political blame game Beck isn't above turning it round into a new crusade, or, as he calls it, 'Glenn's Challenge'. In a rambling statement Beck makes a series of mom-and-apple-pie demands that boil down to keeping violence out of politics. Referring to a blackboard behind him, he confidently predicts that of the various political and media personalities stuck on there only Sarah Palin will sign his statement. I guess he forgot his own image was up there too.
There you have it. In a remarkable act of self-deception Beck rubbishes and (intentionally?) misunderstands the points his critics have made about the violent discourse of American political culture. At the same time he rules out the very possibility of wider explanations of the shootings, crushing all the detail, all the complexity down to dumb old human nature and insanity. The result? The dehumanising language of Beck and his stable mates have zero culpability and, if anything, the right comes out of the shootings with the moral high ground, a high ground Beck has few scruples using to hit back at his opponents. Cue the resumption of politics as usual and clear consciences for right wingers everywhere.
Beck does have a high profile. It's to his credit he's toxified American conservative politics to the extent where he and his inimitable brand of frothy hyperbole is identified with mainstream US conservatism at home and abroad. But it's worth remembering his political base is very small in the grand scheme of things. In the first five months of 2010 his TV audience figures halved. His radio listeners amount to around nine million, though there are signs this is declining. In a nation of some 300 million people this is small fry indeed - his top position as a "highly rated" TV and radio personality says more about the fragmentation of the American media than any real social weight.
This isn't to say Beck isn't dangerous. Nor does it negate criticisms of his never ending torrent of rubbish. But his power needs putting in perspective.