"Sonny's Corner" is a regular column in Prairie Fire, featuring commentary on civil rights and justice issues. Our friend and Omaha colleague, Joseph P. "Sonny" Foster, died suddenly at age 54 in August 2005. He left an uncompleted agenda, as did many of our civil rights and justice mentors and heroes. We shall attempt to move forward on that unfinished agenda through this column.
On an evening early in the Christmas season, my wife and I went to hear Glenn Beck at a Lincoln, Neb. theater. We had heard about him, but we had wanted to hear him in person. Well, we did not hear him in person but it was as close as technology can take us. The program was being downlinked live from Pittsburgh.
When we arrived, Glenn was jiving with his supporting cast, and I will have to admit that I was happily surprised. He was not breathing fire and brimstone but yucking it up with his pals. He was wearing jeans, black ankle-top tennis shoes and a T-shirt.
It did not take long for me to realize that I had been snookered. The fire and brimstone belched from his nostrils when he got on his high horse. I wanted to blurt out the question, Why do you hate Woodrow Wilson? Was it because he gave women the vote? Was it because he gave his “life, his fortune and his sacred honor” to the League of Nations, only to see it strangled in infancy? But Beck continued his rant: “Germany is in decline and fall. France sucks. The English are arrogant. All Europe is melting down. We have to be more like Texas!” And how about this one? “Clinical depression is not real!”
At times he reminded me of the apocalyptic evangelists that used to scare the daylights out of me with their predictions of the end of the world when I was a kid in Sunday school. But he is not a religious apocalyptic. He is a political apocalyptic. I am old enough to remember the demagogues of the Great Depression. One of them was Father Charles Coughlin, with his Sunday afternoon radio rants. I am not saying that Beck is anti-Semitic, but Coughlin was and at some subterranean level, Beck reminds me of Coughlin. And at times Beck reminded me of another demagogue of that era, Gerald L. K. Smith, the Christian minister who went to seed on anti-communism. Why do economic crises tend to produce demagogues? Smith was an oratorical hypnotist and so is Beck, who stood there alone except for his blackboards and his “choir” for three hours without a note and never ran out of energy. Maybe if he had a few notes his history might have been more accurate.
As a nation we know we are below sea level economically, saddled as we are with the burden of national debt, which like the stone of Sisyphus is dragged to the top of the hill only to roll back to the base. There were plenty of apocalyptic preachers during the big D depression of the ’30s who predicted the end of the world, only to wake up the next morning after the carefully calibrated but no-show apocalypse to discover that the same old problems, the same old people and the same old world were still here, waiting to be dealt with. The true visionaries are those who show us what we can do, not those who shut us off at the pass.
When Beck was beating up on Germany, I couldn’t help remembering a moment in Costa Rica four years ago when a friend pointed across a deep valley to a huge mountain. He said that the mountain had been purchased by the German government with the understanding that its forests were to be protected in order to give off enough oxygen to balance the account of German industry for the carbon dioxide it had ejected into the atmosphere. The nation that was the pariah of the western world in the mid-20th century has now unified itself and become a model for all nations. Beck is wrong if he thinks that Germany is still in history’s doghouse.
All that having been said, however, Beck’s conclusion before a packed house seemed emotionally honest. It was there that after a three-hour harangue he seemed closest to reality. Like Dante, he was remembering his own personal slog through purgatory. It left one with the hope that at some moment he would look up and recognize that he was no longer in the underworld, but out in the sunlight. If that were to happen, he would be another Saul of Tarsus, who was “yet breathing out threatenings” all the way to Damascus but ended as a convert to the cause he had hated. Be careful who you hate, Glenn. You may become like it.