Neo-Supremacy Chic: Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin’s Tea-Scalding of MLK
They don’t call it white supremacy for nothing.
One of the ways this country’s reactionaries have made racism and neo-segregation chic is by co-opting the language of emancipation, equality and civil rights.
The “tea party” broods—the richest, most pampered, most welfared generation in the history of mankind—portray themselves as the put-upon victims of high taxes, disenfranchisement and debt, though this is the same generation that since 1981, and more so since 2001, has benefited from the lowest taxes this country has known going back to the 1920s, contributed to the greatest debt it’s known, and is now profiting from the richest retirement benefits this or any other country has ever known. Rich enough, that is, to give rise to sprawls like Palm Coast, which was created to suck on that hog.
Almost exclusively white, Catholic, Protestant and old, this most selfish generation discovered in 2008 that it was no longer the swing vote. It was outrun by younger, certainly more colored, more colorful, voters. It rebelled. It declared itself disenfranchised. Already self-segregated in communities physically gated or deed-restricted from the rabble, it was not a leap to self-segregate politically and turn imaginary disenfranchisement into discrimination.
The minor genius of the “tea party” movement is to do so by adopting the language and methods of rebellion, albeit in slogans only: reactionaries don’t make rebellions. They crush them. By co-opting the mythology of the original tea party, today’s “tea party” broods have managed to make their over-representation at almost every level of government look like no representation because the man at the helm doesn’t look like them. They go as far as using the language of disenfranchisement, and the protest words of the 1960s.
It is supremacy by rhetoric, the sort of supremacy that, in its cruder form, enables some fools to claim that a National Association for the Advancement of White People is no more (or no less, for good measure) racist than the NAACP. It is the supremacy of a Glenn Beck or a Sarah Palin who, as they did Aug. 28, on the 47th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, posed as the nation’s new civil rights pioneers, “taking back” America and “restoring” its honor. Taking it back from whom? Restoring it from what? Don’t ask, though it isn’t the fifth-grade speech-contest skills of a Beck or a Palin that would obscure what they mean: “For too long,” Beck said today, “this country has wandered in darkness, and we have wandered in darkness in periods from the beginning.” Darkness. The darkies, in other words, are back.
You don’t need to call the president a nigger to get your point across in this era of “darkness.” Especially not to a sea of whites joined on the Washington Mall by the single resentment of being led by a darkie president, and there to pay homage to Beck, who called America under Obama “The Planet of the Apes.” Some of Beck’s best friends, obviously, are black. “If we hadn’t elected a black president, do you think they would be doing this today?” the poetically named Joyce White asked a Washington Post reporter covering the event. The answer was all around, punctuated by the lie at the heart of the neo-supremacists’ movement: where the old civil rights wars were about inclusion, these “tea party” reactions are about exclusion. Where the old civil rights movement was about overcoming blood-soaked oppression, the “tea party” broods (which have no Bull Connor dogs chasing after them that I know of) are about keeping tax rates on the richest 5 percent among them from going up a few points.
In the “fair and balanced” reasoning behind neo-supremacy, the old master is the new victim, using the old victim’s language. The suffering and disenfranchisement of one has been replaced by the suffering and disenfranchisement of the other. It doesn’t matter that there’s no relationship between the two, that the mere suggestion of white suffering or disenfranchisement in this country, this retiree generation especially, is a supreme offense to those who have genuinely suffered and lived through decades of disenfranchisement until relatively recently. This is the United States of Amnesia, where historical memory is slight and the latest snappy slogan as good as scripture, especially when it’s cloaked in the language of god, as Beck—like a pimp wearing his obligatory crucifix and flag pin as his visas to credibility—did: “We are a country of God. As I look at the problems in our country quite honestly I think the hot breath of destruction is breathing on our necks and to fix it politically is a figure that I don’t see anywhere.”
Supposedly, the rally on the mall was not about politics but about the revival of religious virtue. But that, too, was a conceit as transparent as Beck’s camera tears. The country isn’t lacking in religious virtue, religious fervor or religious fixations. It’s drowning in it all, to its detriment: faith-based fanaticism is replacing rational analysis. It’s the sweetener of “tea party” brews: the rational and the analytical is to those brews what daylight is to Dracula. So the rally was a seizure by a master marketer of god as branding, god as divine legitimacy for what was otherwise a slow-motion stampede on the day’s iconic place in the nation’s historic calendar. It turned into the biggest “tea party” rally yet, signaling the arrival of the neo-supremacist political movement in god’s clothing.
The day’s nightmare, of course, the supreme act of white supremacy, was the co-opting of King’s day on the Mall to the “tea party”’s uses, and abuses, under the banner of restoration, religious or otherwise. Charles Blow, a columnist for The Times, put it simply in a piece entitled “I Had a Nightmare.” Calling Beck “the anti-King,” in a wordplay too subtle for most tea drunkards to detect, he writes: “I find it curious that many of the same people who object so strenuously to the Islamic cultural center proposed for Lower Manhattan, many on the grounds that it is inappropriate and disrespectful, are virtually silent on the impropriety and disrespect inherent in Beck’s giving a speech on the anniversary of King’s address.”
“In fact,” Blow continued, “to even insinuate that the president’s policies are in any way equivalent to the brutality of the Jim Crow South at the time of the civil rights movement is the highest order of insult, particularly to those who lived and suffered through it, as well as to those who live with its legacy. If Beck truly thinks these movements are comparable, I have some pictures of “strange fruit” I’d like for him to see. And yet, I’ve come to the conclusion that anger is the wrong reaction to Beck’s rally in Washington. Anger provides too low a return on investment. It consumes a tremendous amount of energy, but yields little progress. Instead, we should each take this opportunity to listen to the “I Have a Dream” speech once more, paying particular attention to how the echoes of yesterday’s struggles reverberate in our present struggles, and to recommit ourselves to the nobility of righteous pursuits.”
So here it is.