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Glenn Beck Channels Rage of Self-Indulgent Baby Boomers

Progressives must redirect Beck-style anger toward conservative ideologies that are killing the American Dream.

A little over a week ago we were treated to Glenn Beck’s quasi-religious extravaganza on the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. I have had a gnawing sense that there was some greater meaning to this event, despite the absence of any apparent substance in the messages delivered.

Then it hit me: I recalled that, in a 2009 New York Times interview, Glenn Beck compared himself with Howard Beale, the character portrayed magnificently by Peter Finch in the 1976 film “ Network.” The metamorphosis of Beck into a self-proclaimed prophet of an ideologically conservative God suddenly made complete sense.

In Paddy Chayefsky’s screenplay, Beale was a newscaster who suffered a psychological break when informed that he was to be fired because of low ratings. He wandered into the studio wearing his pajamas, drenched from walking in a thunderstorm, and delivered the famous speech urging viewers to throw open their windows and scream, “I’m as mad as hell, and I am not going to take it any more.” Of course, the viewers complied en masse and Beale was given his own show that featured his lunatic rants. Ratings soared.

Before his famous exhortation, Beale recounted a list of problems plaguing society and admitted that he was totally clueless as to any solutions. Chayefsky was unsympathetic with Beale’s audience. He brilliantly described the mass insanity of a public willing to follow a prophet with no inkling of a way to address problems, based only lunatic, disassociated anger. Chayefsky intended that “mad” be read as having both of its meanings. He was appalled by the public’s self-indulgent eagerness to transform the immediate gratification of a primal scream into a social movement.

It is instructive to recall how Beale met his end. Network management found it necessary to restrain Beale when his rants put corporate strategy at risk. In redirecting Beale, they inadvertently reattached his mind, however tenuously, with rationality. Beale started speaking (quite eloquently) about the dehumanization of society, advising his viewers to make the best of the situation because the trend was irreversible. Ratings plummeted, not because the public disagreed, but because they became bored. As the film’s narrator put it, “No one particularly cared to hear that his life was utterly valueless.” The amoral head of programming, Diana Christensen, arranged to have Beale gunned down on live TV by the Ecumenical Liberation Army (they also had a prime time reality show, “The Mao Tse-Tung Hour”). That final show was a great success for the Network, if not for Beale.

Glenn Beck proves that Paddy Chayefsky’s observations of American society in the 1970’s are just as valid today.

I have often wondered whether Beck is a lunatic, exploited by Fox News and deserving of our sympathy. After all, he suffers from macular dystrophy, an inability to focus vision on the real world. (Chayefsky would have loved the irony.) But I now believe that he is sane (and I suppose deserving of no sympathy). He understands that disassociated anger is cathartic for today’s public. Nonsensical conspiracy theories and baseless ridicule are entertaining fillers, but his real stock-in-trade is the public’s rage at a “system” that must have betrayed them because their dreams have not been fulfilled. People are angry because they feel powerless to change conditions that they dislike. They cannot even describe what the problem is because no leader has articulated it. A rational explanation would at least mitigate the rage by calming anxieties. But no progressive leader has the courage to try it, and it is not in the conservatives’ interest to do so. You might say that the public’s experience is dehumanizing (but if you did, you would bore the audience).

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