Glenn Beck, the popular Fox News host, has a red telephone on his desk that never seems to ring. Every now and then, in a moment of acute frustration, he will pick it up and give the camera his trademark pleading-puppy look.
What Mr. Beck wants to hear from the phone are answers, and he wants to hear them from the highest authority in the land: the phone, he says, is "a dedicated line right to the White House." And when Mr. Beck gets things wrong, he wants his antagonists on Pennsylvania Avenue to correct him. But "They don't call. They're not going to call."
One of the specific answers Mr. Beck wanted, on one of the days I watched his program last week, had to do with White House Communications Director Anita Dunn, who has been caught on film quoting one of those Mao Zedong aphorisms that wouldn't look out of place on a motivational poster. She also remarked that Mao was one of her "favorite political philosophers," an honor the Chinese Communist shared with Mother Teresa.
Obviously Ms. Dunn was yet another person who deserved to be added to the long list of radicals that Mr. Beck had uncovered within the government.
What's more, no one would call that red phone to reassure Mr. Beck, to tell him that the Obama administration isn't crawling with traitors or to explain why his many nightmare scenarios will not actually come to pass.
"They won't call me," he tells the camera. "Communists, revolutionaries, socialists, Marxists, followers of Chairman Mao appointed by Obama to the executive branch in positions of the government-call, call me. Explain it. Explain it any other way. Call me, right now."
Yet there the mute telephone sits, a quiet symbol of Middle America's frustration. The diabolical liberals in the White House refuse even to acknowledge our queries. "Their silence is their answer," the host sighs.
Is it really? On Monday I wrote to an old friend, Robert McChesney, a professor of communications at the University of Illinois who has been a frequent target of Mr. Beck in recent weeks for his left-wing views and also for co-founding Free Press, an advocacy group on media policy. Did Mr. McChesney get a chance to respond on the red phone or any other way? No. "He never asked me or Free Press to call the red phone," Mr. McChesney wrote me.
Then I emailed Mark Lloyd, the Chief Diversity Officer at the Federal Communications Commission. Mr. Beck has attacked Mr. Lloyd numerous times in recent weeks, repeatedly airing video clips in which he appears to hold noxious views. Did Mr. Lloyd get a chance to call the red phone? "No, no one gave me a phone number to call Beck."
Nor should Mr. Beck require a phone call from the White House to understand that lots of people, including conservatives, have cited Mao and Lenin and other such demonic figures in all sorts of contexts, and that they aren't always careful, when so citing, to point out what bad people these were.
No discerning person would conclude from Ms. Dunn's dimwitted remark that she is a Maoist. That would require more evidence-and that's what makes Mr. Beck's pantomime fear and trembling so odious: He doesn't appear to be interested in further evidence, or really any evidence that doesn't serve his shtick.
Consider a few of the other grand assertions tossed out by the panic-peddling host last week: that the cause of last year's financial crisis was pressure exerted by Acorn and "the people in Washington" on otherwise-reluctant mortgage lenders; that the cause of the inflation of the 1970s was President Jimmy Carter's quest for a "socialist utopia."
These are postulates that it is only possible to believe after you have utterly closed yourself off to conventional ways of knowing, after you have decided that the reporting and analysis and scholarship on these subjects are not worth reading, and that you will choose ideological fairy tales over reality until the day a magical phone call comes from on high.
What Mr. Beck's silent phone really symbolizes is a new kind of ignorance, a coming high-tech dark age in which people can choose to blow off professional standards of inquiry; in which they can wall themselves off with cable TV and friendly Web sites, dismiss what displeases as liberal bias, and demand that any contrary view be transmitted to them via telephone call from the president himself.
Why not let Mr. Beck and his viewers have their fun? Because ideas have consequences. Maybe, as many believe, Glenn Beck is indeed the future of the conservative movement. From tea parties to town-hall meetings, thousands are signing up and fitting themselves out with their very own hotline to nowhere.