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.