By BOB HERBERT
Published: August 27, 2010
America is better than Glenn Beck. For all of his celebrity, Mr. Beck is an ignorant, divisive, pathetic figure. On the anniversary of the great 1963 March on Washington he will stand in the shadows of giants — Abraham Lincoln and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Who do you think is more representative of this nation?
Consider a brief sampling of their rhetoric.
Lincoln: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
King: “Never succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter.”
Beck: “I think the president is a racist.”
Washington was on edge on the morning of Aug. 28, 1963. The day was sunny and very warm and Negroes, as we were called in those days, were coming into town by the tens of thousands. The sale of liquor was banned. Troops stood by to restore order if matters got out of control. President John F. Kennedy waited anxiously in the White House to see how the day would unfold.
It unfolded splendidly. The crowd for the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” grew to some 250,000. Nearly a quarter of the marchers were white. They gathered at the Lincoln Memorial, where they were enthralled by the singing of Mahalia Jackson and Joan Baez. The march was all about inclusion and the day seemed to swell with an extraordinary sense of camaraderie and good feeling.
The climax, of course, was Dr. King’s transcendent “I Have a Dream” speech. Jerald Podair, a professor of American studies at Lawrence University in Wisconsin, has called Aug. 28, 1963, “the most important single day in civil rights history.” This is the historical legacy that Glenn Beck, a small man with a mean message, has chosen to tread upon with his cynical rally on Saturday at that very same Lincoln Memorial.
Beck is a provocateur who likes to play with matches in the tinderbox of racial and ethnic confrontation. He seems oblivious to the real danger of his execrable behavior. He famously described President Obama as a man “who has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture.”
He is an integral part of the vicious effort by the Tea Party and other elements of the right wing to portray Mr. Obama as somehow alien, a strange figure who is separate and apart from — outside of — ordinary American life. As the watchdog group Media Matters for America has noted, Beck said of the president, “He chose to use the name, Barack, for a reason, to identify not with America — you don’t take the name Barack to identify with America. You take the name Barack to identify, with what? Your heritage? The heritage, maybe, of your father in Kenya, who is a radical?”
Facts and reality mean nothing to Beck. And there is no road too low for him to slither upon. The Southern Poverty Law Center tells us that in a twist on the civil rights movement, Beck said on the air that he “wouldn’t be surprised if in our lifetime dogs and fire hoses are released or opened on us. I wouldn’t be surprised if a few of us get a billy club to the head. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of us go to jail — just like Martin Luther King did — on trumped-up charges. Tough times are coming.”
He makes you want to take a shower.
In Beck’s view, President Obama is driven by a desire to settle “old racial scores” and his ultimate goal is “reparations” for black Americans. Abe Lincoln and Dr. King could only look on aghast at this clown.
Beck has been advertising his rally as nonpolitical, but its main speaker is Sarah Palin. She had her own low moment recently as a racial provocateur, publicly voicing her support for Laura Schlessinger, radio’s “Dr. Laura,” who went out of her way to humiliate a black caller by continuously using the n-word to make a point, even after the caller had made it clear that she was offended.
Palin’s advice to Schlessinger: “Don’t retreat — reload.”
There is a great deal of hatred and bigotry in this country, but it does not define the country. The daily experience of most Americans is not a bitter experience and for all of our problems we are in a much better place on these matters than we were a half century ago.
But I worry about the potential for violence that grows out of unrestrained, hostile bombast. We’ve seen it so often. A little more than two weeks after the 1963 March on Washington, the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham was bombed by the Ku Klux Klan and four young black girls were killed. And three months after the march, Jack Kennedy was assassinated.
My sincere advice to Beck, Palin and their followers is chill, baby, chill.
A version of this op-ed appeared in print on August 28, 2010, on page A19 of the New York edition.