Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Glenn Beck, "Amazing Grace," 2010

Two a.m. and I've been packing for a big move for hours. An unpleasant chore, so I gave it an unpleasant soundtrack -- the three-and-a-half hour video of Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor Rally," on C-Span. I've been reporting on the American right for close to a decade now, so I've mostly gotten past the snark with which lefties respond to this sort of thing. I'm more fascinated by the craft of mass movement manipulation. For the first couple of hours, I was thinking that Beck was genius. Because the rally really wasn't explicitly political, not even Palin, and there were Native Americans and black preachers and MLK, and even if it didn't make sense -- if Beck was stealing history -- he seemed to be getting away with it. That is, he was successfully passing off the radical witness of MLK as prelude to the almost all white crowd on hand. That great white crowd would leave feeling itself redeemed from and inoculated against charges of racism. The use of veterans, too, was masterful -- never about the war, always about the soldiers. Beck can say anything he wants now -- he's proven, to his followers, that he is above politics.

"So what?" says the liberal. His followers are, after all, his followers, right? Not exactly. He needs not only to keep them but to keep them moving. Beck isn't Rush; Rush appeals to the cranky, while Beck speaks to discontent. Rush satisfies his fans' cynicism; Beck offers them hope. Or, rather, promises them that it's up ahead, and there's danger behind -- keep moving, nation.

So I'm watching out of the corner of my eye while I pack, admiring the craft of manipulation, when Beck starts winding it down with the story of John Newton, the slave trader turned clergyman who wrote "Amazing Grace." Beck, predictably, mangles the story, as he has every other moment of history he's stroked during the rally. But what catches me off guard is Beck's description of the song as the best ever written for the bagpipes. Cue bagpipes.

Now, I like bagpipes, too, but "Amazing Grace" wasn't written for bagpipes -- a military instrument. It's not a militant song, but Beck, tipping his hand at the end, makes it a battle hymn. A few more songs follow, but that's the big finale -- Beck has closed his rally like Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ. Remember, the boulder rolled away from the tomb, and the marching music rising, Christ rising too, to go kick some ass? That was Gibson's real theological sleight of hand, the replacement of the lamb with the action hero, muscular Christianity on steroids. Beck has followed his lead, turning the plaintive beauty of "Amazing Grace" into a war song. I know, firemen and policemen killed on the job sometimes get "Amazing Grace" with bagpipes. But somehow this is different. Those are funerals; this is a movement rising, getting read to kick some ass. It's the only moment in this really kind of dull rally that galls me -- the only real crack in Beck's facade of democratic pluralism.