Glenn Beck, Benito Cereno and Black

By Dorinda Fox

I don’t watch Fox News and don’t want to. However, many of my long suffering students, who patiently read what I ask them to read and perform academic tasks I deem worthy, do watch Fox News. If they can read material that might not be their cup of tea or perform tasks they don’t want to do then I ought to be able to do the same.

I was able to learn more about the prophets/pundits or Fox News when Fox News literally set up camp five miles from my house in the spring of 2010 for the first stop of Glenn Beck’s “American Revival” tour associated with the recent TeaBag conservative political movement.

I went.  I saw.  I came away thinking about Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno and its prescient warnings of the racial divisions that prevent true understanding of much of anything in this country since its inception. This is going to take some serous explanation later on.  If you have a spare few hours then go read the book here Melville is a far better writer than I am ever going to be. Compared to Melville I am a monkey hitting random typewriter keys.

Pre-Conceived Notions

My expectations were based on news reports of egregious behavior by those attending previous TeaBagger events. I was rather tired the day of the event because I had spent the previous evening seeing Lewis Black perform in  Orlando.

White Anger

There are some very angry white people in this country. It was my observation that weekend that such angry white people in the age range of 30 to death are drawn to entertainers/prophets/pundits who express that rage and frustration onstage. I give you Lewis Black and Glenn Beck as representatives of the polarities at either end of the range of this white anger.

I feel qualified to discuss this anger because I saw Black perform in Detroit, Gainesville, and Orlando. I am a fan. I am drawn to Black’s comedic interpretation of my frustration about political events in this country. I see stuff on the news every day that angers me, and watching Lewis Black makes me feel better.  He gets it.

In line to see Lewis Black in Detroit I started counting the number of black people in the line with me. This may seem like an odd fixation but, I had just spent 36 hours in downtown Detroit for the weekend and I was the only white person most everywhere I went—until Black’s performance.  There were less than ten black people in the line to see the performance in downtown Detroit which has one of the largest concentrations of black residents in the country. The crowd was made up of white people from the suburbs and mainly me—who ranged in age from 30 to death. The second performance was in Gainesville on the University of Florida campus.  Again, there were less than ten black people in the auditorium and three of them were ushers.  There were also not that many college students in the audience even though they could have walked from their dorm to see the performance and paid only $10 for the tickets if bought 30 minutes before the show. The crowd was white people (mainly men) who ranged in age from 30 to death.  The performance at Orlando drew the same demographic.

You may wonder why you had to read that paragraph.

Beck draws the same audience or at least he did at the first stop of this Revival Tour on a college campus where college students could walk to the event and get tickets at a reduced price.  There were some, but most seemed to have attended the event with their parents. There were black people working in concessions and security, but in the audience I saw three black people and all were sitting in the cheap seats behind Beck’s stage with me. One couple was to my right. One black man came in late and the people sitting in the row for which had a ticket would not honor his seat assignment. That was distressing so I asked if he wanted to sit with me. I asked why he was there and he said he owned a small business, and was quite concerned about new insurance fines from healthcare reform.

I had the exact same view of the crowd as Beck did—a sea of white and the middle aged faces.

During Black’s three performances, he repeated a story about a gig he had a casino in what sounds like a truly awful small town of three casinos and trailer parks located in the desert along the Nevada and Utah border. One of the town’s many deficiencies was its newspaper in which the reviewer described Black’s act as consisting of “mental breakdowns” on stage.

“Mental breakdowns” on stage also aptly describes Beck’s performance—sums up the whole six hours in two words.  He cries about his children a lot when he worries about their future.  He does not want to be right about the awful state of our world and its future.

Both Black and Beck engage in social commentary.

Black’s is based on current events such as healthcare legislation, the legalization of marijuana, and perceptions of the America by citizens of other countries. He centers his remarks on the present. He also riffs on religion, identifying himself as a Jew out of sync with the dominance of Christian religion in American culture.  He is particularly mystified and intimidated by Vince Gill and Amy Grant whom he had a tough time following on stage a few years ago as the “angry Jew.”

Beck’s social commentary centers around a rose-colored vision of the American past and Christianity supported by quotes cherry picked from George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson.

Several times Beck asked the crowd to get down on their knees in prayer every evening to thank the Lord for Fox News.  This is because Fox News is fighting to preserve the moral values of faith, hope, and charity while under serious interference from the White House.  He explained that he has a red phone on his desk with a phone number only provided the White House so they can call to discuss their differences but they never call him during his Fox programs. He does not know why.

That sounds crazy to me.

I expected the crowd to be made up of people who acted as crazy as Beck. Not the case at all. The mood in the arena was that of a church service.  There was no name calling. There were no offensive signs.  There was only one souvenir booth in the lobby with derisive bumper stickers but it was located on the end and hard to find.

The only boos were at the beginning of each segment when videos were shown with photos of Pelosi, Reid, and Obama. The boos were almost Pavlovian.   The positive responses to such videos when military personnel were shown seemed equally Pavlovian. Otherwise the crowd was quiet and listened intently.

On the way to our seats Beck provided a three ring binder of materials for our Beck University experience.  Much of this material was similar to that presented by David Buckner, who is Beck’s economics faculty member. Buckner is identified as being a faculty member at Columbia. He was an adjunct once. I looked it up. Being an adjunct once and being a full professor are two different animals. His primary degrees are also not in economics.  This became apparent during his PowerPoint presentation centered on emotional appeals. He made frequent references to his children. He showed a video of a clueless black businessman and a young white woman on a broken escalator wondering how to get off.  His slides had unattributed figures related the national debt and interest owed to China and Japan.

Buckner’s appeals did not get to me and make me sad. I found his incompetence amusing.  However, I looked around that arena and saw thousands of people pen in hand scribbling notes from this great man’s lecture.  They were not only angry,  they were scared and confused and looking for answers. During breaks I saw many of these people sitting quietly on benches eating pizza and reading the notebook material. I paid $20 for my ticket in the cheap seats.  Many of these people had paid hundreds of dollars.

Beck and Black are not equivalent.  Beck has a medicine show. Call me cynical but toward the end of Beck’s remarks someone called out “we need a doctor.”  Beck brought up the house lights on section 204 and began to hum Amazing Grace.  The crowd hummed or sang along with him as paramedics tended to the ill person in that section.

In contrast to Beck, I believe Black is trying hard to be the Shakespearean court jester to our King Lear.  That is a more noble intention. However King Lear was as crazy as Beck. When Hamlet makes his “To Be or Not To Be” speech the skull he holds in his hand belongs to Yorick who had been the court jester. Being a court jester is no easy gig.

Regardless of intent both men are playing to same crowd of angry white middle class (mostly male) Americans whose world is changing.  Whites will no longer be the majority. Whites won’t be guaranteed a better life due to ethnicity.  The world is global and, as George Carlin noted on more than one occasion, that world is brown. Whites are scared.

So What About Benito Cereno?

Basic plot: White sea captain boards slave ship in distress to find Hispanic sea captain attended by a helpful and wise black slave. Takes several hundred pages for the white sea captain to understand the slaves have overtaken the ship and are presenting a play to the white sea captain in order to obtain food and assistance. There are many clues such as one of the Hispanic sailors saying “Help me!”  or the black slave holding a razor to the shivering and fearful Hispanic sea captain’s neck as he shaves him.  He then wipes the man’s face with the Spanish flag.

After that rather obvious scene, the white sea captain observes what excellent man servants blacks can be.

I’m just saying the white sea captain is blind to any reality in which white is not dominant. He can really only see the world in one way. This almost gets the captain and his crew killed.  Through a convenient plot device the captain finally sees the light and saves the Hispanic slavers. The Hispanic captain spends the rest of his days in a monastery that functions as a mental hospital blubbering about the black devil.  The black slave who led the insurgency has his head cut off and displayed on a post as a warning.

Melville based the novel on a true story about a sea captain who was an ancestor of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Melville ends the novel with this conversation among the white and Hispanic sea captains:

“You were with me all day; stood with me, sat with me, talked with me, looked at me, ate with me, drank with me; and yet, your last act was to clutch for a villain, not only an innocent man, but the most pitiable of all men. To such degree may malign machinations and deceptions impose. So far may even the best men err, in judging the conduct of one with the recesses of whose condition he is not acquainted. But you were forced to it; and you were in time undeceived. Would that, in both respects, it was so ever, and with all men.”

“I think I understand you; you generalize, Don Benito; and mournfully enough. But the past is passed; why moralize upon it? Forget it. See, yon bright sun has forgotten it all, and the blue sea, and the blue sky; these have turned over new leaves.”

“Because they have no memory,” he dejectedly replied; “because they are not human.”

“But these mild trades that now fan your cheek, Don Benito, do they not come with a human-like healing to you? Warm friends, steadfast friends are the trades.”

“With their steadfastness they but waft me to my tomb, Senor,” was the foreboding response.

“You are saved, Don Benito,” cried Captain Delano, more and more astonished and pained; “you are saved; what has cast such a shadow upon you?”

Beck’s Rallying Cry

“We don’t want change.  We don’t want TRANSFORMATION.  We want RESTORATION.”

The End of the Sermon

The world is changing.  The United States population and its economy will no longer be predominantly white.  This is why the polarities of Beck and Black exist, and why they have similar audiences.

Transform or restore? Which polarity are you going to choose?  If you think Black is funny and speaks to you, or if you think Beck can save this country, then you may have already chosen. It also likely means you are angry and scared.

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