Thursday, October 14, 2010

Glenn Beck, America's Own Roderick Spode

My last post, Glenn Beck, The World’s Greatest Authority on Slavery, included the phrase “America’s own Roderick Spode.” I cross-posted the blog on the Daily Kos, and one Mr. Dbug enjoyed it immensely.

The more I think about the comparison, the more apt and amusing it seems, so I thought I should delve into it some more.

This is Roderick Spode, as played by John Turner in an episode of the Jeeves and Wooster television series produced during the 1990s. Most Americans will probably not know who Spode is, save for those of us who enjoy British humor.

Roderick Spode is a recurring character in P.G. Wodehouse’s “Jeeves” novels. Spode, usually portrayed as a nemesis of Jeeves’ master Bertie Wooster, is an overbearing presence, described as looking “as if Nature had intended to make a gorilla, and had changed its mind at the last moment.” In his spare time, Spode is an "amateur Dictator" and the leader of his own fascist movement, dubbed The Black Shorts. Spode is typically encountered as he stomps around the countryside, delivering passionate speeches at rallies (click to see Spode at full tilt) or marches consisting of a few dozen Black Shorts, while he poses and preens as if he was watching thousands go by.

Although an aristocrat—a baronet, and the 7th Earl of Sidcup-- and a wealthy man, Spode is a populist who believes that national industrial capacity, national prosperity and national unity are correlated, promising that “at birth, every citizen, as of right, will be issued with a British bicycle and an honest British-made umbrella. Thus assured of a mobile workforce adequately protected against the elements, this great country can go forward once more to glory!”

If Wodehouse’s satiric pen is laid aside for the moment, much of Spode’s ideology consists of a marriage of scientific rationalism (the idée du jour) to appeals to historic British nationalism, particularly the ideal of the “free-born Englishman.” Though in reality largely mythical, the idea was real enough in the heads of generation after generation of nostalgic working-class Britons as they sought a decent condition for themselves in the socioeconomic hammermill of the Industrial Revolution.

For all his buffoonery, Spode is unalterably convinced that he is right and bound only for success, and takes every opportunity to press his views on the idle landed gentry who are Bertie’s social circle. As Spode himself put it, “Nothing stands between us and our victory except defeat! Tomorrow is a new day! The future lies ahead!”

Like Beck, Spode had many strange fixations—his political platform included dedicating Wales entirely to the production of turnips; a ban on the import of foreign root vegetables; the mandatory eating of asparagus; widening railroads to allow for the transport of livestock; and the scientific measurement of all British male knees (a riff on the contemporary eugenics movement). Spode enthused at length on the knee issue in The Code of the Woosters, declaiming: “Not for the true-born Englishman the bony angular knee of the so-called intellectual, not for him the puffy knee of the criminal classes. The British knee is firm, the British knee is muscular, the British knee is on the march!” Spode is glib when it comes to defending his bizarre positions, with blandishments such as “I can assure you, it has all been worked out scientifically ...”

One of the easygoing Bertie Wooster’s few truly fiery moments was when he upbraided the overbearing Spode in The Code of the Woosters, written in 1938.

The trouble with you, Spode, is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you're someone. You hear them shouting "Heil, Spode!" and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: "Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?"

—P. G. Wodehouse, Bertie Wooster in The Code of the Woosters (1938)

Granted, Bertie had an ace up his sleeve, courtesy of his valet Jeeves, concerning Spode’s own dark secret—that Spode’s other enterprise is a very successful ladies’ undergarment store. As Bertie later put it, "You can't be a successful dictator and design women's or the other, not both..."

Spode was a cutting parody of the UK’s real would-be fascist of the 1930s, the pompous but deadly serious Sir Oswald Mosley, the aristocratic leader of the British Union of Fascists, as well as other fascist leaders such as Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, and the like. Most of Mosley’s BUF was consciously based on Mussolini’s Brown Shirts and similar fascist groups in other countries, and his Black Shirt paramilitary organization were a rising and ominous force in British politics during the 1930s, until their defeat in an East London street brawl known as the Battle of Cable Street brought about the Public Order Act of 1936, forbidding political uniforms and private paramilitary associations in the UK. Mosley and the BUF championed British isolationism both before and after the outbreak of the Second World War. Mosley himself was attacked by a mob after the German invasion of Norway, following which he was interned as a potential spy or traitor, and kept under arrest for the remainder of the war. Ironically, after the war he changed his politics dramatically and launched a new, non-fascist organization, the Union Movement, whose goal was a unified Europe. Mosley continued as a perennial fringe candidate in British politics until 1977.

If you haven’t seen the Jeeves and Wooster series, incidentally you are seriously deprived—Hugh Laurie stars as Bertie Wooster, a well-meaning wastrel aristocrat, and the incredible Stephen Fry stars as Jeeves, valet to the gods. Hilarity ensues.

This is Glenn Beck. Most Americans will know who he is, mostly because he’s managed to attract a great deal of attention to his on-air and on-screen antics, as well as his recent rally at the Lincoln Memorial.

[I assure you, I had nothing to do with the coincidence in their poses and uniforms. All right, so I did, but it was only because the resemblance is what put the Beck = Spode thing in my head in the first place.]

Glenn Beck is a prominent conservative talk-radio personality, television presenter, and political activist, strongly allied with the more radical elements of the Republican party and other conservative organizations. He was born in 1964 and grew up in Washington State, having been raised Catholic. Catholicism notwithstanding, his parents divorced when he was 13, due to his mother’s alcoholism. Rather than attending college, Beck got married, worked a series of low-paying jobs at radio stations and “getting high every day” for fifteen years. After joining Alcoholics Anonymous in 1994, he remarried and converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, commonly known as the Mormons. From the late 1970s until 1999, Beck was a low-grade comedian and prankster, one step up from Jackass or Punkd.

Mr. Beck is frequently lampooned for his frantic blackboard diagramming and over-emotional delivery, including his famous March 13, 2009 ‘breakdown’ when he broke out in tears and theatrically sobbed, "I'm sorry, I just love my country and I fear for it." Jon Stewart of the Daily Show parodies Beck’s style here. The weeping was eventually revealed to be a not-even-very-clever stage trick, done by smearing Vick’s Vapo-Rub on his face to make his eyes water. Beck marries the fervor of the convert and true believer to the cynical charlatanry of the carnival huckster.

Beck is also frequently criticized by economists, scientists, historians, and other experts for gross errors of fact and repeated clumsy attempts to rewrite the republic’s history to fit his political views. These have included Beck’s supporting the patently false claim that Thomas Jefferson endorsed the idea of the US as a Christian republic, based on the evidence of his having signed shipping permits dated with the phrase “In the year of our lord, Christ.” As Chris Rodda promptly and succinctly pointed out, however, the documents in question were pre-printed forms prepared by the Dutch government, which was not separate from the Dutch Reformed Church, rather than the US government.

Beck’s standard approach to virtually any topic is to take any issue, whether a thing he favors or a straw-man iteration of something he opposes, and weaving around it a tangle of saccharine uber-patriotism, Leave-It-To-Beaver family values, and New World Order conspiracy theory, in which the latter imperils the former. He describes the federal government and the progressive movement as an enormous conspiracy dedicated to the repression of individual rights and the American way of life, staging a coup (referring to the 2008 presidential election, in which conservatives were sharply defeated) or ‘soft revolution,’ and amassing an army. He is essentially taking a large page out of Joe McCarthy’s “creeping communists” playbook and adding to it the ‘black helicopter’ antigovernment paranoia of the militia movement of the 1990s. He further accuses the left wing of preparing for mass violence. There is a black sort of irony in how much of Beck’s own fearmongering consists of allegations that the federal government is using fear tactics to further the progressive agenda. He has yet, to my knowledge, to comment on the Bush administration’s chronic and Machiavellian abuse of the Homeland Security “terror alert system” for political ends, including raising the warning level around election time or when the administration was having PR difficulties on other fronts.

In effect, he is working off the old ‘rights of the freeborn American’ idiom that has been kicked around the political sphere for two centuries, starting with a mythical golden age in which a Christian republic of happy freeholders basked in the glow of the free market, ruled over lightly by a limited federal government. What brought an end to these good old days—not that they ever actually existed—was supposedly creeping increases in government power, heavier taxes, and the evolution of the modern federal government from it’s 18th-century form, in a supposedly slow but steady march of big-government liberalism. This false continuity makes sense to people who only see history in black and white, but doesn’t even attempt to account for issues such as the legal status of slavery (more precisely, how could an ideal society embrace slavery as a fact of cold economics), the Industrial Revolution, evolutions in finance, the klepto-capitalist government from 1870 until 1930, and so on. It makes for a depressing story, a legacy of decline and defeat to rival that of Tolkien’s Sons of Feanor in the Silmarillion, or the humiliations of Israel in the Old Testament, but there always lingers the promise of eventual revenge and redemption.

As for Beck’s own particular interpretation of the ‘freeborn American’ idiom, religious scholar Joanna Brooks suspects that much of Beck’s almost religious reverence for the Founding Fathers and their era is an outgrowth of his newfound Mormon faith, where in her words, “reverence for the founders and the United States Constitution as divinely inspired are often-declared elements of orthodox belief.” At least one Mormon President claimed to have experienced divine visions including the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Mr. Beck quite obviously doesn’t know his history very well—in fact, one of the major sources of his gratuitous factual errors is his partnership with David Barton, a controversial pseudo-historian, evangelical preacher, Republican political consultant, and textbook consultant to both the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps and the Texas State Board of Education. Mr. Barton is an ardent advocate of Biblical government of the United States, to the extent of excluding non-Christians from public office, and argues that the traditional “separation of church and state” aspired to in the US is a myth built from false pretenses. The latter assertion was, unfortunately, included in a core textbook provided to JROTC students.

Mr. Beck is also conspicuous for embracing antigovernment conspiracy theories of the sort beloved by the 1990s “tin-foil hat” sector. In addition to alleging that the federal government is out to get him, personally, Mr. Beck has repeatedly insisted that that the Federal Emergency Management Agency is running concentration camps in the continental united states (even after he was thoroughly spindled by Nobel Prize laureate Paul Krugman on the subject). Beck subsequently denied ever having mentioned FEMA, even though he was videotaped talking about the concentration camp issue on an episode of Fox & Friends.

In some ways, Beck also mirrors Stephen Colbert’s character on the Colbert Report, which presents the odd situation of Beck, a real person, being more off-the-wall than Colbert’s stage character pretends to be.

The significant difference is that while the worst damage Colbert has done is to conservatives who took too long to realize he was parodying them, not joining them, Beck has inspired people with short tempers and poor judgment to commit violent acts. As one example, an avowed Beck fan, Byron Williams of Oakland, California, in July 2010 engaged the California Highway Patrol in a gun battle in which two police officers were seriously injured. As it turned out, Beck had spent much of the previous several weeks ranting about the Tides Foundation, a harmless social justice nonprofit, and casting it as the nexus of a vast conspiracy of Beck’s enemies. Mr. Williams explained that listening to Beck had enraged him to the extent that he was attempting to start a revolution, and that the ACLU and the Tides Foundation were his targets.

As usual, Beck reacts to such criticism with his usual gormless and glib “who, me?” defense, and then goes right back to waving the same red flag in front of the bull. Despite the overtly political and heavily partisan nature of his programming, Beck has disingenuously claimed that his business is entertainment rather than the news, in an attempt to disassociate from the actions he quite plainly inspired. The extent to which Beck is responsible for their actions despite his own thinly-veiled advocacy of violence is starting to look like an increasingly valid legal question.

So to sum up, Beck and Spode have the following in common:

• A belief that modern society is sick and weak, and in need of rescue.
• Some really bizarre ideas about the proper order of human society, be they the proper agricultural economy of Wales or the role of the federal government in economics and religion.
• A belief that strongmen and motivated followers can effect change.
• Unabashed contempt for anyone who disagrees with them (c.f the title on the book cover above).
• Histrionic public speaking, and gross delusions of how many people are actually in the audience.
• A propensity to erratic behavior, and sweating.
• Outspoken interests in maintaining law and order, even though they also propose overthrowing or replacing the established order.
• A few embarrassing secrets. Please not that I am not equating being a Mormon with being a lingerie merchant, but it is quite likely that his following among evangelical Christians would shrink if his “heretical” Mormon religion were more widely known.
• A sense of messianic destiny, whether for themselves or for their movement.
• Horrible dress sense.

If there is one way in which Spode thoroughly outshines Beck, it is in having at least some intellectual respect for his audience. While Spode lays out his “worked out scientifically” platitudes, Beck reacts with a nauseatingly glib “who, me?” when called on the carpet, even when he’s not flatly denying that he said what he is caught on video as having said. Beck, it seems, simply doesn’t think his audience is smart enough to pick up flat-out lies and contradictions.

I can therefore assure you that it has all been scientifically worked out—that Glenn Beck is the United States’ own Roderick Spode. As with most American things appear when compared to their British counterparts, they are bigger, richer, louder, and cruder.

What makes the odious Spode more tolerable than the odious Beck, of course, is that the former is a fictional character, while Mr. Beck exists in this universe, which means we are unfortunately stuck with him. To be more precise, Mr. Beck’s corporeal form exists in this universe, but quite where his strange little mind is at any given time is…well, that is a damn good question, but it’s almost certainly not the same reality in which we live.

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