By Wallace C. Turbeville, NewDeal 2.0
A little over a week ago we were treated to Glenn Beck's quasi-religious extravaganza on the anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech. I have had a gnawing sense that there was some greater meaning to this event, despite the absence of any apparent substance in the messages delivered.
Then it hit me: I recalled that, in a 2009 New York Times interview, Glenn Beck compared himself with Howard Beale, the character portrayed magnificently by Peter Finch in the 1976 film "Network." The metamorphosis of Beck into a self-proclaimed prophet of an ideologically conservative God suddenly made complete sense.
In Paddy Chayefsky's screenplay, Beale was a newscaster who suffered a psychological break when informed that he was to be fired because of low ratings. He wandered into the studio wearing his pajamas, drenched from walking in a thunderstorm, and delivered the famous speech urging viewers to throw open their windows and scream, "I'm as mad as hell, and I am not going to take it any more." Of course, the viewers complied en masse and Beale was given his own show that featured his lunatic rants. Ratings soared.
Before his famous exhortation, Beale recounted a list of problems plaguing society and admitted that he was totally clueless as to any solutions. Chayefsky was unsympathetic with Beale's audience. He brilliantly described the mass insanity of a public willing to follow a prophet with no inkling of a way to address problems, based only lunatic, disassociated anger. Chayefsky intended that "mad" be read as having both of its meanings. He was appalled by the public's self-indulgent eagerness to transform the immediate gratification of a primal scream into a social movement.
It is instructive to recall how Beale met his end. Network management found it necessary to restrain Beale when his rants put corporate strategy at risk. In redirecting Beale, they inadvertently reattached his mind, however tenuously, with rationality. Beale started speaking (quite eloquently) about the dehumanization of society, advising his viewers to make the best of the situation because the trend was irreversible. Ratings plummeted, not because the public disagreed, but because they became bored. As the film's narrator put it, "No one particularly cared to hear that his life was utterly valueless." The amoral head of programming, Diana Christensen, arranged to have Beale gunned down on live TV by the Ecumenical Liberation Army (they also had a prime time reality show, "The Mao Tse-Tung Hour"). That final show was a great success for the Network, if not for Beale.
Glenn Beck proves that Paddy Chayefsky's observations of American society in the 1970's are just as valid today.
I have often wondered whether Beck is a lunatic, exploited by Fox News and deserving of our sympathy. After all, he suffers from macular dystrophy, an inability to focus vision on the real world. (Chayefsky would have loved the irony.) But I now believe that he is sane (and I suppose deserving of no sympathy). He understands that disassociated anger is cathartic for today's public. Nonsensical conspiracy theories and baseless ridicule are entertaining fillers, but his real stock-in-trade is the public's rage at a "system" that must have betrayed them because their dreams have not been fulfilled. People are angry because they feel powerless to change conditions that they dislike. They cannot even describe what the problem is because no leader has articulated it. A rational explanation would at least mitigate the rage by calming anxieties. But no progressive leader has the courage to try it, and it is not in the conservatives' interest to do so. You might say that the public's experience is dehumanizing (but if you did, you would bore the audience).
The facts suggest that Beck is more Diana Christensen than Howard Beale. Like her, he understands that news, in the sense of events and public policies, cannot contend with entertainment in a world dominated by fear and uncertainty. He has simply chosen to be his own prophet. His claim to be a mouthpiece of God appears cynically calculated to complete the construction of a modern-day equivalent of Chayefsky's Network. As Max Schumacher, the only principled character in the film said of Christensen: "You are television incarnate, Diana [read, Glenn] — indifferent to suffering, insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality."
This is all far more important than Glenn Beck. I believe that this disassociated rage has been an important characteristic of American society for at least 40 years. It is a product of the self-important and self-indulgent baby boomers (like me), who have always been susceptible to the message that they should hold on to their own money rather than sharing it, in the form of taxes, in pursuit of the greater good. The anger and cynicism, initially directed at the "system," was eventually turned on the government. The only leader whose message resonated in this era was Ronald Reagan — "Government cannot solve the problem; it is the problem."
Ideological conservatism has ruled the day for 40 years. The genius of the New Deal, in retreat throughout this period, was not ideology. It was the pragmatic observation that the only way to achieve long-term prosperity is for the government to draw the weak and less wealthy into participation in the economy. Left to their own devices, the strong and wealthy will rationally act in their own short-term interests. Only government can act in the collective long-term interest. The unbridled free enterprise and deregulation advocated by conservative ideologues can make a few people wealthy in the short-run, but it is unsustainable because middle- and lower- income families will inevitably be left behind.
What has been missing is a progressive leader willing to risk telling the public the truth. The middle- and lower-classes have been getting poorer. The quality of their employment in good times has deteriorated; and progressively, in each downturn, unemployment persists for longer and longer periods after the economy improves. As high school and college graduation rates have stagnated, the American dream of boundless opportunity has withered away, even for their children. Even the apparent success of the wealthiest is unsustainable unless increasing income disparity is reversed.
What an opportunity for progressives to redirect this anger toward conservative ideologies that have decimated the American Dream! For Mr. Obama, the path to a transformational presidency was, and hopefully still is, to channel this energy into an all-out effort to restore balance to the economy.
Chayefsky also created a character, Arthur Jensen, who was the head of the Network. Assuming his best voice-of-God tone, he tried to convince Beale to proclaim a utopian world view in which businesses roamed free of government interference, his "corporate cosmology." When Beale nervously asked why he should be the chosen prophet for this new world order, Jensen answered: "Because you are on the television, you dummy." Glenn Beck needs to be reminded that Arthur Jensen was not God; he was just a character in a movie.
Wallace C. Turbeville is the former CEO of VMAC LLC and a former Vice President of Goldman, Sachs & Co. He is Visiting Scholar at the Roosevelt Institute.