What Was Right and Wrong With Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” Rally

The pundits of the airwaves, newsprint and blogosphere have issued their assessments of the Glenn Beck rally at the Lincoln Memorial with predictable results: those who admired Beck before the rally liked it, and those who detest him ridiculed it. The New York Times, in its inimitable fashion, showed contempt for the proceedings by relegating its account to page 15, even though every past D.C. rally and march of equivalent or lesser size (especially those advocating social or political positions popular with the Times staff) received more prominent coverage. To Times columnist Frank Rich, Beck’s rally was part of a racist conspiracy hatched by billionaires—yes, Frank, sure it was. John Avlon, who long ago branded Beck as a wingnut, reasonably pointed out that it was a wee bit hypocritical for Beck to preach against divisiveness when his own cable show is one of the most polarizing, even by Fox news standards. And John Batchelor, who may be the most serious, erudite, and balanced public affairs radio talk show host in captivity, dismissed the rally as harmless and Beck as a clown:

“I think of him now and again as Quasimodo Lite, a deaf bell-ringer swinging from the Notre Dame of Fox, a man who is eager to confess his own unsightly warts—“I’ve screwed up most of my life”—and who is also heroically delighted to be our slightly stooped “Pope of Fools,” because this accidental role, in this Festival of Fools called 2010, wins the cheers of the crowd.”

Even less charitable was the Baltimore Sun’s TV critic, who accused Beck of “stealing Martin Luther King’s moral authority.” Less charitable still was MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, who seems to have been driven a little mad—or at least a little unprofessional, perhaps— by the fact that Beck had the audacity to hold his rally on the anniversary of King’s iconic “I have a dream” speech. Matthews’s hyperbole was, well, Beck-like:

“Can we imagine if King were physically here tomorrow, today, were he to reappear tomorrow on the very steps of the Lincoln Memorial? “I have a nightmare that one day a right wing talk show host will come to this spot, his people`s lips dripping with the words ‘interposition’ and ‘nullification.’ Little right wing boys and little right wing girls joining hands and singing their praise for Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin. I have a nightmare!”

Was Beck’s bash really a nightmare? Political biases aside (Chris), the question for Ethics Alarms is what was right and wrong about the “Restoring Honor” rally.

The only fair way to judge the rally is to consider its content, not dark suspicions of what its motives might be, or the flaws of its most flawed participants.

What was right:

Right: The objective. I’m sorry, but there is no way an ethics website is going to find fault with a huge rally in the nation’s capitol in support of trust, honor, integrity, honesty, faith, hope, and charity. America is in a crisis of trust, as I have written many times, and it is far more productive to hold a rally in support of these virtues than to ridicule it. The fact that there was nothing especially provocative, original, or eloquent about the words spoken yesterday makes no difference. Glenn Beck attracted 300,000 people, more or less, to stand in the sun and think about care American values and basic ethical virtues. That is a good thing, and would be a good thing whether the rally’s host was him, Chris Matthews, Oprah Winfrey, or Buzz Lightyear.

Right: Civic involvement. This is a good thing, whether Americans come to Washington for the Million Man March, to oppose or protect abortion right, to call for civil rights reforms, immigration reform, or any other legitimate purpose. These people care, and they are engaged; they are not like the citizens of Bell, California, shrugging their shoulders and ignoring their civic obligations while their crooked elected officials rob them blind. I know it is inconvenient to have normal, working citizens asking critical questions of elected officials who think they know best, but responsible officials from both parties, as well as fair journalists, should encourage and celebrate the conduct, regardless of which side of the political divide it comes from.

Right: Sincerity. Beck promised to keep the rally non-political, and did so. Searching for ammunition to denigrate the event, most of the critics used the rally’s religious content to justify their sneers. (I once thought that the complaint that the mainstream media was hostile to Christianity was Bill O’Reilly paranoia, but I was wrong.) The condescending Times story chose to characterize the event as a Christian religious rally (read, “naive, uneducated, Right wing, quaint, Republican, bigoted…”), noting that “the event had the feeling of a large church picnic, with people sitting on lawn chairs and blankets with coolers and strollers.”

I have a bulletin for the Times: every event on the Mall, including every Fourth of July and other well-attended ceremonies in the summer, not to mention performances of “West Side Story” or “The Pirates of Penzance” at the nearby Wolf Trap Performing Center always have people sitting on lawn chairs and blankets with coolers and strollers.

Right: Tone. There was nothing in the rally that could be fairly characterized as violent, angry, hateful mean-spirited or antagonistic.

What was wrong:

Wrong: The date. No, Glenn Beck wasn’t stealing Martin Luther King’s moral authority any more than Martin Luther King was stealing Abraham Lincoln’s moral authority. Yes, he had a right to hold his rally at the Lincoln Memorial, 47 years to the day of the “I Have a Dream” speech. It was still unnecessarily offensive to black Americans who feel that the date is sacred, and that for a rally on that date to be hosted by an outspoken critic of America’s first black president is audaciously and intentionally disrespectful. Beck should have picked a different date. Insisting on that date, knowing how much it upsets many African-Americans, is similar to insisting on building an Islamic center near Ground Zero, and just as insensitive.

Wrong: Conflict of interest and the resulting appearance of impropriety. Beck is a Fox News star, and anything he does will be interpreted in that context. Knowing this, he should not have allowed Sarah Palin, regardless of her drawing power, to have a key role in the event. Palin is also a Fox personality: the combination of the two raise legitimate suspicions that the “Restoring Honor” rally was nothing but a Fox ratings stunt. The existence an unresolved  conflict is inherently harmful. This one significantly undermined all of the good aspects of the rally by undercutting its legitimacy and creating cynicism.

Wrong: Immodesty and hubris. Glenn Beck claims to be aware of his educational inadequacies, his modest intellectual credentials and his intemperate character, but his conduct sometimes indicates otherwise. This was one of those times. There is nothing wrong with a common citizen assuming leadership status, even if, as in Beck’s case, it invites comparisons with Howard Beale, the “Mad Prophet of the Airways” in Paddy Chayefsky’s “network.” Beck is a TV and radio personality, an entertainer, and an author of quick-to-the-remainder-bin best sellers that specialize in preaching to the choir. Placing himself in the role of a genuine America hero, icon and martyr like Martin Luther King shows a regrettable lack of modesty by Beck. Maybe he will do something in future years that has genuine importance to America, and will be looked upon as a serious cultural figure rather than a piece of pop culture trivia, like Pinky Lee or Morton Downy, Jr.  Stranger things have happened: consider Arnold Schwarzenegger. On the way there, however, Beck is obliged to show proper respect and deference to the giants he emulates (or derides, in the cases of Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt).

Final Ethics Verdict: On balance, Beck’s rally was positive, well-intentioned, and a fair embodiment of the virtues it aspired to support. There is a crisis of trust in America, and that so many citizens cared enough to come to Washington in order to hear someone talk about it—even “Quasimodo Lite”—demands appreciation and, as much as it pains some of us, respect for the man who inspired them.

12 thoughts on “What Was Right and Wrong With Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” Rally

  1. ummm, gag. It’s hard to swallow, but I think you’ve nailed it. Why do we on the left let crazies on the right sucker us into opposing religion, the flag, immigration enforcement, and other American values?

  2. Same way the right gets suckered into opposing reasonable gun control, a way for longtime illegal immigrants to become citizens, and First Amendment rights for non-Christians, artists and anti-capitalists, I bet!

  3. I generally agree with you, Jack, although I think it is likely that anyone with the hubris to organize such a rally in the first place is likely to be filled with immodesty generally. Why is it that the best men (and women) stand aside because they don’t have the ego needs of crowd adulation, and leave such roles to those who have subtle (or not so subtle) needs for personal power and self-aggrandizement? I think of it as more a happy side-effect that the people in the crowd were able to come together in a noble cause, visit with each other, and feel the solidarity of a true American spirit of patriotism and celebration of worthy values, regardless of who happened to be the actual leader, or featured speakers.

    • The point is, I think, that some people have more justification for their immodesty than others. You are right: leaders by definition think they are special; if they don’t think that, why should anyone else?

  4. “When facism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.”

    Sinclair Lewis

    Sorry, Jack, but trust, honor, integrity, honesty, faith, hope, and charity have been absent in America for quite some time.

    The fact that the demographic at this rally had no problem with lying to start a war or allowing Americans to die due to sheer governmental incompetence after Hurricane Katrina struck is odd to me.

    You make some valid points, though. So, on balance my vote is none of the above. Glen Beck’s rally was neither ethical, nor unethical—it just was…

    • Just what? What? I’m dying of suspense!

      I think the “lying to start a war” has been pretty much put to bed, unless you subscribe to the odd definition that holds that mistaken assumptions are “lies.” Virtually everyone thought Saddam had WMDs because that’s what he wanted everyone to think: you just can’t call a reasonable, near universal belief encouraged by the target nation itself a “lie.” It’s OK for talking points and bumper stickers and chants, but it’s just not true or fair, and this is, after all, an ethics site.

      I would also think the incompetent federal response to the oil spill would quiet the “allowing” Americans to die canard. Big, unprecedented disasters are hard to handle, and equating incompetence with malice is naive or opportunistic.

      You’ll have to show me your evidence that the demographic (do you mean “white”? I sure hope not…) at the rally had “no problem” with the Katrina response. I doubt you have any—I don’t know anybody, of any demographic, that had no problem it. I’ve never read or listened to the opinion of anyone, anywhere, who felt that way. That’s just a blatantly unfair statement. Right?

  5. I LOVE your blog.
    You have to be one of the most passionate, intelligent people on the web.

    Even when I disagree with your opinions, I still respect you. (Just had to get that out of the way before I forgot.)

    Actually, the “Saddam had WMD argument could be, will be and probably be debated” for some time. I just happen to believe the second Bush knew he did not, but had a fight to pick. So, he did what it took to justify his actions.

    The BP oil leak argument is cute, but it fall apart when you look at facts like we watched Hurricane Katrina form, gain speed, then strike. In other words, there was a WARNING that NOLA was about to get hit, and that things would be bad.

    No, Jack. I do not mean white people in general. But silence is also speech and I do not remember hearing outrage from those folks over the misery that was created by the lack of response to the hurricane. I may have even missed their calls for a return to honor. Surely someone at FOX News could have stirred up a little outrage over how Katrina was handled. But, then again, it probably would not have helped their rating much…

    Am I being fair? In this case, it’s all relative.

  6. Gyasi,

    I typically love your comments, but these comments are less than your previous forays. What does people coming together at a rally for a good objective in D.C. have to do with a Hurricane 5 years ago? What does it have to do with how a war started 7 years ago?

    You acknowledge that trust, honor, integrity, honesty, faith, hope, and charity have been absent in America for a long time, but that’s also an admission that these were the objectives at the rally. Are these not worthy pursuits? Does the past disqualify the future from making a better world?

    You’ve completely lost me with your points. Can you please try explaining it in a different way?

    • Tim:

      OK. You are right. Not my most lucid post.
      I was trying to be “nice” and got lost in translation.

      Agreed. The Katrina reference was obtuse.
      Meaningful, but it would take too long to explain…

      So, here is what I really think.

      Glen Beck makes his money by preying on people’s fears and sowing further seeds of discord. Regardless of what he says the agenda is, I see him as little more than a cheap huckster.

      I lived through the Civil Rights Era and remember well the start of forced busing to integrate schools in the mid-1970s. Rarely did the people involved in the opposition to civil rights publicly say—”You know what, I just don’t like Negroes.” There was always a smokescreen—be it state’s rights, neighborhood schools or law and order—used as the stated objection. I think that is the case with Beck’s rally at the Lincoln Memorial. I have no proof, but my gut says that most of the people that attended have an issue with a Black man being POTUS. I also believe that most of those same folks are decent people, on balance. It’s not that they are racists, fear just has a way of corrupting people, I guess.

      Finally, Beck’s holding his rally “in support of trust, honor, integrity, honesty, faith, hope, and charity” at the Lincoln Memorial on the anniversary of Dr. King keynote to those gathered for the March on Washington was perverse. Beck has never had his family threatened by segregationists, his home attacked, been arrested for his principles, nor had his church bombed while little girls and boys were attending Sunday School. [BTW: Four little girls died.] How dare he and Sarah Palin hitch their wagons to the legacy of Dr. King! They know nothing of his life or the reason the March happened in the first place.

      One more thing—After the march Beck denigrated the “theology of liberation” that he claims President Obama embraces. How ignorant! Truthfully, I hope POTUS does embrace that theology. Little does Beck know, but the tenants of liberation theology are almost identical to the things he said he was in D.C. to reclaim. Click through to this link for an eloquent explanation: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rev-james-martin-sj/glenn-beck-vs-christ-the-_b_698359.html.

      There it is. Straight, no chaser. I still vote neither ethical, nor unethical. Some good people were had by a hustler, unfortunately.

      Click through for Dr. King’s speech in its entirety—http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkihaveadream.htm. Worth the read!

      • Dear Gyasi: I really don’t disagree with any of what you said. Beck is a hustler. He’s also a narcissist. Choosing the same date as Dr. King’s speech was indeed disrespectful and offensive.

        There were some racists in the crowd, but I really doubt that racism was on the agenda. Nothing wrong with religion, nothing wrong with talking about values. I just wish it had been a more substantive and credible guy, on a different day.

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