By John W. Whitehead
"It's about you, the viewer of this program. The goal is to get you to shut up -- not me, but you."--Glenn Beck, April 4, 2010, "Who Is Trying to Silence Glenn Beck's Viewers?"
"Where is the media? Do the rest of you in this business think it's going to stop with me? Really? Once they get me, what happens to you? Is there absolutely no chance whatsoever that you might be a target at some point in the future?"--Glenn Beck, April 7, 2010, "Have You Boycotted Glenn Beck Yet?"
The so-called Liberal Left once served as the bastion of free speech. I know. I was part of it. However, after decades of championing the First Amendment rights of those with the most deplorable viewpoints, the Left is now doing what it used to accuse the Right of doing. It has traded in its mantle of extreme tolerance for a hammer of intolerance and censorship, which it is using to smash any viewpoints that don't quite jive with its own politically correct sensibilities. Don't believe me? Just consider the latest attempts by those on the Left to silence Glenn Beck, that jeans-wearing, black-board-writing, conspiracy-touting FOX News talk show host.
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Since Beck's infamous July 28, 2009, on-air statement accusing President Obama of being a racist ("This president I think has exposed himself over and over again as a guy who has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture....I'm not saying he doesn't like white people, I'm saying he has a problem. This guy is, I believe, a racist."), he has been the object of a campaign by the leftist group Color of Change, among others, to get advertisers to boycott his show. The group's founder, by the way, Van Jones, was a top advisor to the Obama administration on "green" jobs until Beck accused him of having ties to a Marxist group, among other left-leaning affiliations. Beck's accusations eventually forced Jones to resign.
In an email campaign to advertising agencies and corporate sponsors of Beck's show, the head of Color of Change declared that Beck's commentary was "repulsive, divisive, and shouldn't be on the air." Most recently, the Rev. Jim Wallis, outraged over Beck's urging his fans to leave churches that preach economic and social justice ("code words," according to Beck, for communism and Nazism), has joined the boycott crusade.
Yet even as efforts to silence Beck and have him taken off the air continue, Beck's popularity and his bank account have skyrocketed. He has become America's favorite conservative hothead, pulling in nearly 3 million viewers a night and raking in a reported $32 million this past year alone. As author and journalist Dana Milbank, citing a Gallup poll, reported in January 2010, "Americans admire Glenn Beck more than they admire the pope....Billy Graham and Bill Gates, not to mention Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush."
Despite Beck's insistence that his show is just about entertainment, it's clear that he is expressing what many discontented Americans are feeling. In fact, I would venture to say that he's not so much talking anyone into his particular viewpoint as much as he is expressing the angst of millions of disaffected Americans who are sick and tired of the government meddling in their lives.
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What's more, Beck is not afraid to offend or raise a ruckus, and he does so with surprising regularity. Among some of his more memorable Beckisms: "Every night I get down on my knees and pray that Dennis Kucinich will burst into flames." "I'm thinking about killing Michael Moore, and I'm wondering if I could kill him myself, or if I would need to hire somebody to do it." And on Tea Party favorite Sen. Scott Brown saying his daughters are "available" during his election victory speech: "I want a chastity belt on this man. I want his every move watched in Washington. I don't trust this guy...This one could end with a dead intern. I'm just saying, it could end with a dead intern!"
Given his penchant for getting under the skin of his left- (and right-) wing counterparts, it's no surprise Beck made the alternative weekly Buffalo Beast's list of most loathsome people. As the paper wrote in 2006, "It's like someone found a manic, doom-prophesying hobo in a sandwich board, shaved him, shot him full of Zoloft and gave him a show." The Daily Show's Jon Stewart arrogantly said of Beck: "Finally, a guy who says what people who aren't thinking are thinking." From MSNBC's Keith Olbermann (who spews forth his own hate on a regular basis): "The comfort of today's mythical homespun aw-shucks-TV-totalitarian-Lonesome-Rhodes Glenn Beck is that everyday he gives away the essential truth that he is an idiot." Even Stephen King got in on the act with his own Beckism, declaring Beck to be "Satan's mentally challenged younger brother."
Yes, Beck is bombastic, loud and divisive, but should he really be silenced?
So far, more than 200 companies and advertisers have succumbed to pressure and pulled their advertising from the show. Exulting over the boycott's success, James Rucker, the head of Color of Change, crowed, "We are heartened to see so many corporate citizens step up in support of our campaign against Glenn Beck. Their action sends a clear a message to Glenn Beck: Broadcasters shouldn't abuse the privilege they enjoy by spewing dangerous and racially charged hate language over the air. No matter their political affiliation, hate language doesn't belong in our national dialogue."
But this is where those who truly champion free speech should part ways with their comrades on the Left. If you really believe in free speech, you will defend the Glenn Becks of this world--whether or not they're spouting so-called hate speech. In the end, it's still speech that deserves protection.
Free speech is supposed to stir things up and raise debate. But many Americans, on both the Left and the Right, have largely lost their appetite for that which is politically incorrect. Additionally, they have little appreciation whatsoever for the value of an open marketplace of ideas. This inevitably results in the kind of hypocrisy exhibited by those on the Left who literally hate Beck's guts but have never watched his show (and I can attest to this, having talked to some of these haters).
To our detriment, we have devolved into a society that subscribes to a Gong Show mindset: most people want their views to be aired and everyone else to shut up. They don't really want to hear what anyone else has to say. But that's the genius of the First Amendment. It allows people such as Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann to occasionally make asses of themselves. And as Voltaire remarked, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."