Over the weekend Glenn Beck "reclaimed" the civil rights movement. To his way of thinking, racism was only ever about skin color. And now that we all agree that "judging one by the content of his character, not the color of his skin" is wrong, well then anything we do to actually try and help the disadvantaged minorities in this country must also be wrong. It's a warped perspective for sure. But how did it get that way?
The civil rights movement was about a heck of a lot more than simple skin color. It was never about just that and it still isn’t. It’s about lifting all people up. As long as there are still people in this country suffering the legacy of discrimination and poverty, then the civil rights movement will be fighting for them. Beck and his race-baiting Tea Party friends still don’t get it. They don’t have any solutions for poor ghetto children. They don’t have any solutions for poor ghetto children. They don’t… well, you know.
What’s interesting is that Beck’s base is cut from the same cloth as those who would have been opposing MLK. They now understand that racism is wrong. But they still don’t know what it is. They see it as simple as skin color. But it was never just about that. It was about fear of the other, of taking all one’s fear and bitterness and laying it on a particular sub-group. And much of this happens below the surface of consciousness, where these deeper reptilian emotions reside. It’s no coincidence that Beck’s people feed on anger, fear and hatred. It the the right-wing authoritarian way.
The last thing they want to do is the emotional geometry required to step into the consciousness of an other for a second, to see the world through their eyes. The idea of being a poor single mother. Of being a young kid in the ghetto. Listen to the way they talk about “gang-bangers” and “punks”. They can’t relate to the idea of finding government services helpful. Of being hopeless and alienated by society. Of truly being out of options, with no one to get them through hard times. Of being a different religion. Of being a different sexuality.
Theirs is a black and white reality in which the “right” way is there for all to see, and you either grab the ring or you don’t. And if you don’t then damn you – it’s your own fault for seeing an opportunity and not taking it. But they cannot imagine not seeing opportunity. Being a young mom and not knowing how to prepare your child for Kindergarten. Being a young dad and not knowing how to be there for his family. The only thing separating the John Galts from the Welfare Queens is simple choice. “OK, I think I’ll stop smoking crack and go to business school!” As if it were all so easy. As if that’s how people work. As if that’s how society develops. As if there is no such thing as privilege and structural advantage.
Beck's people find much to admire in Martin Luther King Jr. He was a religious man. he was serious. He was bold, but not too angry. He made a fair point about race. And that's about as far as they take him. They round him out and soften his edges into a sort of cartoonesque, Disneyfied version of what he actually stood for. Instead of a martyr for the disenfranchised, exploited, impoverished and dispossessed, he becomes a soothing reminder of a closed, shut-tight troubled past. His image and certain memorable refrains - surgically extracted and re-imagined - sit atop that dark chamber of historical nightmares like a calm satin bow. The fact that the cultural wreckage of American racism never went away, but merely grew more violent and despairing, becomes something firmly apart. Connected no longer to an historical tragedy, if anything the modern ghetto is now traced to nothing more than misguided liberal benevolence at best, Democratic political conspiracy at worse.
And so to Beck, the new civil rights movement is simply about doing away with nanny-state interference. And once this fancy pandering, this Nancy meandering, is removed, the ghettos will at long last be free from the "chains of tyranny" and the crisp sound of bootstraps will echo through broken windows and litter piles everywhere. Let freedom ring.