Glenn Beck's cognitive dissonance

Blog ››› ››› JOHN V. SANTORE

Glenn Greenwald recently provided the following analysis of Fox News' Glenn Beck:

Increasingly, there is great difficulty in understanding not only Beck's political orientation but, even more so, the movement that has sprung up around him... Some of this confusion is attributable to the fact that Beck himself doesn't really appear to have any actual, identifiable political beliefs; he just mutates into whatever is likely to draw the most attention for himself and whatever satisfies his emotional cravings of the moment.

Does Beck have any core beliefs? It's hard to tell -- hard to know if even he really knows the answer. Beck has described himself as a rodeo clown, which would suggest that he's just in it for the laughs. But he has also disagreed with that depiction. "I've joked that I'm a rodeo clown," he said on October 5. "But you know what? I take that back. I no longer am a rodeo clown. I am a dad, and quite frankly, I'm a little pissed off right now."

This is the kind of cognitive dissonance that routinely defines Beck's program. It isn't hard to find numerous examples of his Fox News show broadcasting completely antithetical messages, sometimes on the same day, sometimes even within the same segment. It might be because he truly doesn't possess any core principles, or because he is a consistently sloppy thinker. But either way, you have to wonder how often Beck leaves his audience unmoored and not knowing what to think anymore -- a state which might in turn make them all the more susceptible to the "answers" he then pretends to provide.

Consider the following examples from recent Beck programming:

  • Obama hates white people, except that he doesn't.

In a shocking moment on July 28 which ignited a firestorm of controversy and a campaign that has so far peeled away at least 80 of his advertisers, Beck said the following:

This president I think has exposed himself as a guy, over and over and over again, who has a deep seated hatred for white people, or the white culture, I don't know what it is.

Just over a minute later, after he was reminded that many of Obama's top officials are white, Beck completely reversed himself:

I'm not saying that he doesn't like white people; I'm saying he has a problem.

And then he reversed himself again: "This guy is, I believe, a racist." It's hard to think of a better example of how willing Beck is to change his tune at a moment's notice, even after making the most serious of claims.

  • Money means nothing to me, which is why I have so much of it.

On September 29, Beck seemed to suggest that accumulating material possessions was irrelevant to him:

Do you feel like I do? I think you do. We would all absolutely learn to do with less, learn to do with nothing, quite frankly, sew our own clothes, you know, never get any new clothes, just can our own food, work out in the yard, take a bus to work if we needed to, just to have our kids to have the opportunity at the freedom to succeed and fail that this country has always offered its citizens.

However, he has also described himself as an unapologetic capitalist who enjoys making money. Beck on September 1 [emphasis added]:

The media will say, "Oh, he's just a clown." Well, you know what? I am clown. I am a guy who just -- I just want to have laughs and fun. I'm a capitalist. I want to make money. I want to do all that stuff.

And on August 24 [again, emphasis added]:

You see, ask yourself this first question: what do I have to gain if I'm right? If I am right, America transforms into a place where guys like me don't make any money. If I am wrong -- well, then I would be wildly discredited, now, wouldn't I? What could possibly -- what would be my motivation other than I believe these questions must be asked.

For what it's worth, Beck's radio show alone has guaranteed that he has become a very rich man, making his professed disinterest in possessions all the less believable.

  • Does it take a village or doesn't it?

On September 28, Beck hosted a studio audience composed of moms. He also welcomed Dr. Keith Ablow, a psychiatrist who has repeatedly been a guest on his show. During a discussion of their hopes and fears concerning the future, Ablow engaged in the following exchange with several audience members [emphasis added]:

ABLOW: And the silence was deafening when these mothers grow silent. When the question is asked by Frank, how many of you feel that things will be better for your kids -- think about the tragic proportions of what just happened. They don't feel that they can overcome these forces. That's why neighborhood and community is so important, because you can't do it alone.


ABLOW: You need to do it in concert -


ABLOW: - with other mothers and other people who believe what you do, because it's so lonely to try to turn back the tide of these mammoth forces alone. It's very difficult. It takes a village, doesn't it?


Now compare this "it takes a village" message to what Ablow said later in the same program:

ABLOW: Most people come to me are coming because they don't know their personal histories. And it's a very dangerous thing to deprive someone of history and spirituality.


ABLOW: Because what do those things do? They make you autonomous. They give you a sense of self and a sense of feeling confident about the future to make your own decisions.


ABLOW: Take that away from people and what do you get? You get the anxious people coming to my practice. They feel unnerved. Then they need support, right, temporarily from me, but I intend to restore them to autonomy. I'm not sure the government understands the extent to which people can made -- be made dependent. It may be their intention.

There is no reason to believe that one can't simultaneously possess a strong sense of self and a strong sense of community, or that someone can't achieve great things due to their own initiative while also receiving assistance from the society in which they live. These are principals that progressives inherently understand. But do Ablow and Beck believe such things? On the program referenced above, they made no attempt to reconcile Ablow's disparate statements, which were instead presented in a way that suggesting that being a robust individual and belonging to a broader society are mutually exclusive.

  • I couldn't afford college -- which is why I'm a capitalist.

Beck has identified Obama's supposed commitment to "reparations" as being at the heart of his presidency, although the general specter of wealth redistribution is what he seems even more fixated on. On his Fox News show, he routinely plays a clip from a 2001 interview Obama did with WBEZ in Chicago, during which the then-law professor stated the following (emphasis added):

The Supreme Court never ventured into the issues of redistribution of wealth and, sort of, more basic issues of political and economic justice in the society. One of the -- I think, the tragedies of the civil rights movement was because the civil rights movement became so court focused, I think, that there was a tendency to lose track of the political and community organizing and activities on the ground that are able to put together the actual coalitions of power through which you bring about redistributive change.

Beck has highlighted the remarks as central to Obama's entire world view. "If you want to understand the big picture in the puzzle that we're trying to put together," he said on October 5, "this is the one thing Obama has said that you must understand above everything else."

Beck believes redistribution schemes are fundamentally un-American, but his explanations of this charge are often so vague and contradictory that they are virtually meaningless. During the same October 5 broadcast cited above, Beck rebutted the idea that he was a cynic in the following way (emphasis added):

Lindsey Graham keeps calling me a cynic. I am not a cynic. I believe in the American people. I believe, look -- my dad was a baker. His dad was a baker. His dad was a baker.

I'm the first guy to ever go to college in my family, and you know what? I went for about 60, 70 days, that's it. You know why? I couldn't afford it.

I believe in the American Dream. We can make it as long as we're being honest with each other, and we help each other out.

Despite this tale -- one which would suggest that Beck himself would have stayed in college had he only had the money to do so -- he continued on with a general denunciation of any form of "social justice" [emphasis added]:

This is Barack Obama in 2001. 2001 -- look at what he said -- he talked about social justice. Social justice is taking money from one group and giving it to another. He talked about economic justice, the same thing. He talked about the political and community organizing, and the events in the organizing on the ground that cobble together the coalitions of power that lead to redistributive change...He believes when you spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody. That's Marxism!...Spreading the wealth around. Well, that's not a capitalist idea.

What are we to conclude? That Beck is happy that he couldn't afford college? That the poverty he experienced and which limited his choices and options in life was patriotic - was American? Would he have us believe that we should never provide scholarships to aspiring students, that affordable, in-state tuitions paid for by tax revenue is just a Marxist plot to "spread the wealth around"? Or does Beck want us to be "honest with each other" and "help each other out"?

  • Should we use our head or use our gut?

On September 24, Beck told his audience to trust their instincts when thinking about the government. "You know, there is a great book that I read years ago," he said. "It's called The Gift of Fear." Rather than portraying fear as the last thing people should operate off of when making political decisions, Beck embraced it, illustrating his point using a parable implying that we should aspire to be more like dogs [emphasis added]:

The first chapter is how we're all given the gift of fear. And they talk about how it's important not to dismiss that fear. And they talk about dogs and how everybody - you know, there is an incident and somebody, you know - some neighbors rob them and whatever. And the person always says, "You know what, my dog - I should have been listening to my dog, you know. He was yip, yip, yip and barking every time he came over. He just hated it."

Like the dog has some super extra sense that you don't have. You know what it is? It is not that the dog has some special power of seeing bad guys - I swear to you. My dog - I should have listened to my dog.

No, you shouldn't have listened to your dog. You should have listened to your gut. Your dog is missing something that you have, and that the second guess, "No, no, he can't be a bad guy. No, that can't be. No, that's not -"

Listen to your gut. It was a gift, the gift of fear. Right now, your dog would be watching that video going, "Yip, yip, yip!" I'm telling you, listen to the gift of fear. It's there for a reason.

Later on in the program, Beck welcomed Dr. Ablow, who during a discussion of the 9/12 protest, offered a completely contradictory diagnosis (emphasis added):

ABLOW: What is it doing after all? You are tapping emotion, which is what you have been saying - tapping emotion at the expense of analysis. Where are the facts? Let's rally people with the truth.

So what should we listen to? Our head or our gut? And which one does the 9/12 Project appeal to? Apparently, Beck doesn't know.

  • Be polite to your elected officials. Poisoning them doesn't count.

Beck has attempted to insulate himself from the charge that the right-wing media is encouraging violence, and has often spoken out against violent conduct. And yet, he has at times delivered the exact opposite message. In early August, just three days after imploring his viewers "to be respectful, polite, forceful, and peaceful" at town hall meetings with their Representatives, Beck joked about poisoning House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. What message were his viewers supposed to take away from the segment, besides the idea that that killing members of Congress is funny?

Three days later, on August 9, Beck engaged in one of his most despicable acts, portraying the president as a homicidal arsonist. After dismissing Obama's plans for immigration reform, Beck said the following:

I don't know about you, but when I saw that story last night, I did this -- you got to be kidding me! I mean, let me -- let me just ask you a question. Maybe I'm alone, but I think it would be just faster if they just shot me in the head. You know what I mean? How much more can -- how much more can he disenfranchise all of us?

He then pretended to pour gasoline on a guest who represented the American people. "President Obama," he yelled, "why don't you just set us on fire?" Is this the work of a host who honestly hopes his audience will remain peaceful and civil?

  • Stand up! And follow me.

None of this should surprise us. Beck, after all, now begins every single one of his Fox News broadcasts with a contradiction. "If you believe this country is great," he says, before trotting out a manufactured ill that is theoretically undermining America, "then stand up! Come on -- follow me."

Take action! he is saying -- by doing exactly what I tell you to do. What commonly follows is a mish-mash of contradictory claims, half-baked notions, and flat-out distortions that are so glaring and egregious that they could only be the product of either a profound disdain for serious thought or a deliberate strategy aimed at promoting confusion. Either way, Beck is doing his audience, and the nation, a grave disservice.

Glenn Beck
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