For those who pay attention to the battle of ideas that constantly goes on in the United States, two people presently have centre stage.
One is a man whose expertise is in the creation of alternate realities by playing fast and loose with the facts. This sort of enterprise has a long and sordid history to it, and while this fellow is on the rabid right, the tradition has its historical representatives across the political spectrum. There is never any lack of an audience for such promoters of alternate realities. Usually the size of the audience can be correlated to economic downturn, the defeat in war and popular notions of government incompetency.
The other man is a champion of the free flow of information. He believes that the only way citizens will avoid being swept into alternate realities, and victimized by the resulting ill-conceived government actions, is to have full knowledge of what policies are being pursued and their real consequences. Whether most people actually want to know these details is debatable, but this fellow is adamant that they should be available to anyone who cares to look.
Now we come to the question of who these men are and how they are perceived by the democratic government and “free” people of the United States.
Who is Glenn Beck?
Glenn Beck, our first personality, is an under-educated radio and TV personality turned political pundit. He was born in 1964 and has only a high school education. By his own admission Beck spent at least 15 years of his early adult life as an alcoholic and drug addict. He became suicidal in the mid 1990s and fantasied about imitating the manner of death chosen by the singer Kurt Cobain. He was pulled back from the brink with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous. Fifteen years is a long time to baste a young adult’s brain in mind-altering substances, and I will leave it to the reader to decide if that history qualifies such a brain for political preaching. Yet, it is as a political wise man that millions of Americans now regard Glenn Beck.
Sporting a style of aggressive jargon that makes him a sure candidate for Eric Hoffer’s “man of words with a grievance“, Beck throws out accusations and suppositions which, with uncanny regularity, turn out to be wrong. However, that does not matter, for his listeners seem never to doubt him and so there is little motivation for Beck to doubt himself. Increasingly popular, his growing number of listeners accept him as a defender of the US Constitution and traditional American values. And from whom is he defending these things? From progressives and liberals, socialists and secularists and all those who would destroy that mythical ideal America that exists as an alternate reality in the minds of Beck and his followers. He characterizes all such enemies as members of “Crime Inc.”
There is a strong naive simplicity in what Beck preaches. He espouses balanced budgets because “debt creates unhealthy relationships”. Somehow Glenn Beck can hold mortgages and still remain on good terms with his wife and kids, but it seems to him sinful that the government sells more treasury bills than he feels is necessary. The government should be reduced to a minimum. As to the country’s needy, that can be taken care of by private charity. If there is indeed such a thing as man-made global warming, that can be dealt with by the voluntary “greening” of personal homes. What we have here is the projection of small town ways to a country of approximately 350 million. Finally, Beck often makes demonstratively stupid anti-Semitic statements which he says cannot be anti-Semitic because everyone knows he is a friend of the Jews.
There have been times when Beck has confessed that he is not a political person but rather an “entertainer”. Yet his denunciation of ubiquitous conspiracies, particularly of a leftist kind, and his regularly articulated rhetorical question, “What’s the difference between a communist or socialist and a progressive…? One requires a gun and the other eats away slowly” is clearly not just show biz. And, what are we to make of the entertainment value of his repeated proclamation that Americans are in a battle to defend the “eternal principles of God” which makes “God the answer” to all our problems? No, whether Beck was originally playing at his “paleo-conservatism” or not, he is now so adapted to his role that what you see is what is there. The actor has been permanently transformed into the character he plays.
It is doubtful whether Glenn Beck has ever put forth a well thought out, fact-checked, position in his life. Yet such a failing has not prevented him from obtaining the backing of the powerful Fox Broadcasting Company. Beck and Fox are a very good fit. Both are part of a radical right which has now made itself appear acceptably all-American by redefining anything to the left of their positions as neo-socialist. And, they have drawn to themselves the millions of folks who are naive and simple conservatives living in a faux reality that defines the welfare state as communism and President Barack Obama as a Muslim agent seeking to impose sharia law on places like Oklahoma. For such folks Beck’s nonsense somehow confirms all their hopes and fears. In their millions they are moved, weekly, to agree with whatever it is that they think he is saying.
The US government has made no objection to the Fox-Beck propaganda show. Both are, of course, protected by the First Amendment to the US Constitution. And, it is probably the case that at least some of the elements of elected government, for instance the Republican Party’s right wing majority and the Blue Dog Democrats, are in agreement with all or part of Beck’s message. The rest of the government, the liberal democrats for instance, seem frustrated and confused. They do not know how to respond to someone like Beck and so they hope that he will, in the end, prove a temporary phenomenon.
Who is Julian Assange?
Julian Assange , our second personality, is an Australian born internet expert. Born in 1971, he attended the University of Melbourne where he studied physics, mathematics and philosophy. However, he did not stay to complete a degree. He made an early career as a computer programmer and is the author of both free and commercial pieces of software. A strong anarchistic strain runs through Assange’s early adult period. He was a member of a number of relatively benign hacker organizations and the ideal of information transparency seems to have been a strong driving force in his life from early on. All of which eventually led him to found Wikileaks in 2006.
It is Assange’s contention that government secrecy almost always harms people and denies them the ability to make rational decisions. The press has the responsibility to fight against censorship but has been seduced into cooperating with the system it ought to be policing. “How is it,” Assange asks, “that a team of five people has managed to release to the public more suppressed information … than the rest of the world press combined? It’s disgraceful.”
There are those who see Assange as an “internet freedom fighter”, and Daniel Ellsberg of the Pentagon Papers fame, has asserted that Assange “is serving [American] democracy and serving the rule of law precisely by challenging the secrecy regulations, which are not laws in most cases, in this country.” But that is not how American and foreign intelligence agencies see Julian Assange. Secrecy is part of their reason for being and without it they are out of a job. To them he is a real threat. They have accused him of harming national security and putting in danger the agents that feed them their secret information. They offer no proof of any of this and fail to mention that the information they receive from these agents is often used to kill other people. Assange has described a line-by-line review procedure used to protect “innocent parties who are under reasonable threat” but government spokesmen disparaged this claim and just repeat their charges against him in robotic fashion.
The US government is clearly seeking the destruction of both Julian Assange and Wikileaks. For instance, in August 2010 allegations of rape and sexual harassment were made against Assange in Sweden. They were dismissed within 24 hours because the prosecutors found that “the accusations lacked substance”. On 20 November 2010 an Intepol arrest warrant was issued for Assange stemming from these same charges. Assange and his supporters say that he is being framed. Given the record of those who are his enemies, this assertion is quite easy to believe.
Julian Assange has won several awards for battling censorship and upholding the public’s right to know. He has appeared on a number of media venues both in the US and elsewhere. The British magazine the New Statesman included him in its list of the 50 most influential figures in 2010 and, it is reported, that he is in the running for Time Magazine’s 2010 man of the year. Nonetheless, Assange’s loyal following is minuscule and if he becomes better known to the public at large it is likely to be a function of the smear campaign now being waged by the intelligence agencies. Their expertise in such covert operations is beyond question.
Beck vs. Assange and what it all means
Glenn Beck and Julian Assange represent two options for the American state of mind. Beck is a charlatan who preaches an alternate reality that affirms the untested, ahistorical and prejudicial assumptions and feelings of millions of Americans. These are voting citizens who know little of what lies beyond their neighbourhoods, but know absolutely how they feel. Beck tells them that their feelings really do correspond to the state of the world and so they avidly, loyally, listen to him. We all like to be told that we are right. That makes Glenn Beck a source of ego-re-enforcement for a significant segment of the population.
Julian Assange is a real truth teller who shatters assumptions, calls into question feelings, and would force us all to look at the historically objective information that best represents how things are. What Assange is doing makes no one comfortable and reinforces nobody’s ego. He stands up and speaks truth to power but, as Noam Chomsky once pointed out, power already knows the truth. If power bothers about the truth at all it is to keep it largely secret. To do so it seeks the real truth teller’s destruction while leaving the charlatan free to play the Pied Piper with impunity.
This does not bode well for the future of America and perhaps the West at large. Too many Americans, and their leaders as well, haven’t got an accurate sense of the real world. In part, that is why the US government regularly formulates domestic and foreign policies that answer the demands of interest groups while harming the rest of us. Such policies fail in the long run. In doing so they open political space for both charlatans and truth tellers. And here they are in the persons of Glenn Beck and Julian Assange. Now America can choose.
* Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University. He is the author of numerous books, including Islamic Fundamentalism and America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood.