Beware of stoking the fires of US racial division
As Fox News superstar Glenn Beck presided over Saturday’s ‘Restoring Honor Rally’ at the Lincoln Memorial, the sight of one of modern America’s most divisive figures performing his shtick beneath a statue of a president killed while defending national unity couldn’t have been more striking.
Beck, aided by Sarah Palin, staged the rally to honor America’s soldiers “and other upstanding citizens who embody our nation’s founding principles of integrity, truth and honor,” according to his website.
Neither was it timed to coincide with the 47th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech on the same spot. Purely coincidence, insisted Beck (who earlier vowed that the rally would “reclaim the civil rights movement. It has been so distorted and so turned upside down. It is an abomination.”).
And as for Rev King’s fight for equality, months ago Beck told his audience that the terms ‘social justice’ and ‘economic justice’ were, in the past, “the rallying cry on both the communist front and the fascist front. That is not an American idea. And if we don’t get off the social justice economic justice bandwagon, if you are not aware of what this is, you are in grave danger.”
In fairness, Glenn Beck is probably sincere in professing a deep and abiding love of his country. And, on Saturday, he and Palin quite rightly honoured American soldiers sent to fight and die in foreign wars not of their making.
However, given his regular nonsensical TV and radio rants (like those branding president Obama a closet socialist), don’t expect this high priest of right-wing shock jocks to extend the hand of friendship to his ‘fellow Americans’ of the left anytime soon.
Furthermore, in an increasingly polarized land where the proliferation of tailor-made media outlets lets consumers tune-in to outlets offering only views they already agree with, Beck knows that the politics of division pay well. Between May 2008 and May 2009, his brand infotainment earned him $23m (£15m) — in 1863, president Abraham Lincoln earned $25,000 annually (about $417,000 or £268,000 in 2010 terms). But Honest Abe earned it the hard way commanding Federal forces during the Civil War.
Two weeks ago, my family and I visited the site of one of his finest hours, the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania. The July 1863 battle was the Civil War’s most pivotal. It was here, months after the carnage, that Lincoln delivered a fleeting 256-word speech that remains among the greatest in US history.
Between 8,000 and 10,000 men died at Gettysburg. Tens of thousands were wounded. Monuments to regiments from both sides abound, including those that contained thousands of Irish-born soldiers (the son of United Irishmen founder John Mitchell died during the Confederates’ ill-fated Pickett’s Charge on the last day).
One of Gettysburg’s most moving chapters occurred decades later, when former combatants returned in 1913 to jointly commemorate its 50th anniversary. Then, in 1938, 1,800 Civil War veterans from both sides helped dedicate Gettysburg’s Eternal Light Peace Memorial. Neither reunion eradicated America’s race problem. It took more than a century on from Gettysburg for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to bury most aspects of segregation and the Jim Crow laws in the South. And African-Americans continue to battle for the “social and economic justice” that so alarms Glenn Beck.
Stoking the fires of division have been very profitable for Beck and Sarah Palin but, like Gettysburg, the tactic can potentially reap a bloody harvest.
Perhaps Beck, Palin & Co would do well to hold their next rally at Gettysburg, where the echoes of history might humble them into realising the folly of fanning fear and division for personal financial or political gain.