Why Glenn Beck Is the Perfect Pitchman for the Tea Party's Deranged Ideas About US History
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From then on, the ideal of the assertion and protection of individual rights was regularly bound up with racial demonology. Anglo genocidal campaigns against and land theft from Native Americans, for instance, contributed to the influential theories concerning property of John Locke, who before Beck arrived on the scene, was considered “America’s philosopher,” the man most associated with the notion of God-given inalienable individual rights and restricted government.
Once such theories were formulated, they were then used to further justify dispossession, contributing, as law professor Howard Berman put it, to the “Americanization of the law of real property.” The nineteenth century was known for a frenzied speculative capitalism that generated staggering inequality. At the same time, eliminationist wars that drove Indian removal, the illegal invasion of Mexico by the United States in 1846, and the ongoing subjugation of African Americans helped stabilize the Daniel Boone-like image of a disciplined, propertied, white male self -- and did so by contrasting it with racial enemies who were imagined to be unbridled (like the speculative capitalists), but also abject and property-less.
The Civil War cemented the metaphor whereby the free individual was defined by (and endangered by) his opposite, the slave, and has been used ever since to frame conflicts that often, on the surface at least, don’t seem to be about race at all. It’s a point nicely illustrated recently by Dale Robertson, a prominent Tea Party organizer, who carried a sign at a rally that read: “Congress = Slaveowner, Taxpayer = Niggar.” Beck, for his part, has identified ACORN, the Service Employees International Union or SEIU, the census, and the healthcare bill, among other threats, as laying the foundation for a “modern-day slave state” in which, of course, his overwhelmingly white following could be reduced to the status of slaves. As to progressives, he has said that, “back in Samuel Adams' day, they used to call them tyrants. A little later I think they were also called slave owners, people who encourage you to become more dependent on them.”
Sometimes, though, it really is just about race: “Obama’s Plan,” announced one placard at a Wisconsin Tea Party gathering, would lead to “White Slavery.”
When Tea Partiers say “Obama is trying to turn us into something we are not,” as one did recently on cable TV, they are not wrong. It’s an honest statement, acknowledging that attempts to implement any government policies to help the poor would signal an assault on American exceptionalism, defined by Beck and likeminded others as extreme individualism.
The issue is not really the specific content of any particular policy. As any number of frustrated observers can testify, it is no use pointing out that, say, the healthcare legislation that passed is fundamentally conservative and similar to past Republican healthcare plans, or that Obama has actually lowered taxes for most Americans, or that he gets an F rating from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. The issue is the idea of public policy itself, which, for many on the right, violates an ideal of absolute individual rights.
In other words, any version of progressive taxation, policy, and regulation, no matter how mild, or for that matter, of social “justice” and the “common good” -- qualities the Texas School Board recently deleted from its textbook definition of “good citizenship” -- are not simply codes for race. They are race. To put it another way, individual supremacy has been, historically speaking, white supremacy.
This helps explain why it is impossible for the anti-Obama backlash to restrain its Tourette-like references to the Civil War to frame its fight, or its rhetorical spasms invoking secession and nullification, or its urge to carry Confederate flags as well as signs equating taxpayers with slaves. That America’s first Black president’s first major social legislation was health care -- something so intimately, even invasively about the body, the place where the social relations of race are physically inscribed (and recorded in differential mortality rates) -- pushed the world-turned-upside-down carnival on display every night on Fox News, where the privileged fancy themselves powerless, another step toward the absurd.