What Was Behind Glenn Beck's 'Restoring Honor' Rally?

Monday, August 30, 2010 - 11:07 AM

Conservative US radio and television commentator Glenn Beck speaks at a rally dubbed 'Restoring Honor,' to show support of the US military,. (Nicholas Kamm/Getty)

I spent the weekend mulling over coverage of Glenn Beck's rally in Washington. I had an immediate, almost visceral, reaction to the announcement that he was planning to "take back the civil rights movement," and that Beck had scheduled his rally for the same date as MLK's March on Washington, in the same location. For me, the inevitable question, "How dare he?" eventually became, "Why?"

What is the purpose behind this rally? Why would a man who had to apologize for calling President Obama a racist, go on to draw parallels between himself and Dr. Martin Luther King? I have all kinds of issues with the comments that Beck makes on his show, and the misinformation which is often distilled through his commentary, but I've never thought that Glenn Beck is stupid. So I must assume that he knew how angry people would be to hear him say that he is "reclaiming the civil rights movement... because we were the people that did it in the first place." Or when he says that he spent the night before his rally in the same hotel where Dr. King put the finishing touches on his "I Have a Dream" speech. 

Perhaps the motivation is sincere. Perhaps Beck honestly believes that older conservatives don't have a real voice in American politics and that we have invested too heavily in hate and division to find any kind of effective political detente. But I agree with John Avlon of the Daily Beast on this one point: Beck has built his media empire by exploiting divisions and stirring up fear and hatred. Having made millions by fanning the flames of dischord, it's disingenuous at best to now pontificate about unity.

Still, I am much more comfortable with Beck in his role as revival preacher than I am with the position that he occupies on Fox News. Beck is hardly the only commentators to step back and forth across the line that separates news from opinion. People on both ends of the political spectrum do this, and the results are devastating.

One in five Americans mistakenly believe that President Obama is Muslim, although he was born and raised Christian. In 2003, 70 percent of my countrymen believed that we had established a connection between Saddam Hussein and the attacks on 9/11. As a professional journalist dedicated to informing the public, these statistics are alarming. Commentators on both sides, liberal and conservative, are sometimes deliberately twisting the facts in order to inspire anger, outrage and fear. Keith Olbermann is as guilty of this as Glenn Beck. And it's just as distressing no matter what the political bent of the person responsible. Misinformation is a bad thing, and a misinformed public can be more easily manipulated for political gain.

So, while I applaud the sentiment of unity that Beck spoke about this past Saturday, I absolutely detest the manipulation of the message through the invocation of Dr. King and the March on Washington. Beck says his rally was non-political, but King's movement was seeking political change. Remember that the official title of the 1963 event was "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom" and the event is often credited with helping to get both the Civil Rights Act and the National Voting Rights Act passed in Congress.

Several attendees at the rally this weekend say that, like the marchers of almost 50 years ago, they were raising their voices to fight oppression and discrimination. Laudable goals, but I have yet to hear a reasonable argument that any of these activists have been oppressed or victims of institutional discrimination. On the contrary, most Tea Party activists are white, male, conservative and make more than $55,000 a year. 

Like so many others, I was surprised and impressed at how Glenn Beck avoided political arguments on Saturday. And I strongly support his right to hold a religious revival anywhere he likes, and on any date. But I object to the invocation of Martin Luther King's name and the idea that Beck is "reclaiming the civil rights movement." Aside from anything else, it makes it impossible to evaluate the rally without comparing it to the March on Washington. That comparison is not flattering for any event, and most organizers would not seek it. And in the end, it's divisive, which is exactly the opposite of what Beck talked about on Saturday.

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