Last week I drove to Nebraska for a cousin’s funeral. I packed in a hurry, forgot my iPod, and couldn’t get public radio. Crissie wrote about how we live on information islands, so when I found Glenn Beck’s weekend show I decided to listen. I lasted a little more over an hour. (More)

You should know that an hour of Beck was scary. What follows are my reflections:

He’s everywhere….

I found three stations carrying the Beck broadcast so reception was no problem. I could have driven for hours with Beck coming out of my speakers. He bills his program as “The fusion of entertainment and enlightenment.” I have some notions about “the Enlightenment” left over from college. What came to mind were the 18th century and the triumph of reason. This is from Wikipedia:

The Enlightenment was less a set of ideas than it was a set of values. At its core was a critical questioning of traditional institutions, customs, and morals, and a strong belief in rationality and science.

Somehow a “strong belief in rationality and science” isn’t at all what popped into my mind when I thought of Glenn Beck. I’ve only seen video clips of him on the internet and I associate him with smarmy tears and not rationality or science.

I was surprised by the hypnotic quality of his voice. It is gentle and well modulated. Glenn has none of the bombast of a Rush Limbaugh. If some Democrat with deep pockets hasn’t engaged a psychiatrist to evaluate Beck’s voice, they should. If all you have seen is the video clips, I think you are missing the power of radio.

He’s all about (wrong) values….

My next impression was that Mr. Beck is a value-statement a minute. If George Lakoff were hired to teach Democrats about values messaging, he could use this radio transcript as exhibit A. Beck oozed praise for a caller who had taken his daughter out of pubic schools because the teacher didn’t want his daughter to excel in the name of equality for all students, which somehow became the tyranny of mediocrity.

He praised the caller for “doing the right thing” and being involved in his daughters’ future and setting an example of “going John Galt.” Beck gave an oblique summary of Ayn Rand and John Galt and the very sad notion that there was no place left for the Galts to go, but that we could all leave the system behind us. (Note: I don’t agree with him; I’m reporting what he said. The transcript was not available when I checked his website; it may be there now, but I’m not going back to look for it.)

Life is scary … so buy stuff….

Commercials were woven into the program as if they were just one more piece of cherished information that Glenn was sharing with his listeners. Scared about the state of the economy? Buy gold. He presented it as, “Oh we know the economy isn’t good for so many of us and what can we do … oh we can buy gold, of course.” An advertisement for a water purification system was delivered in the same vein and sounded so eco-friendly even I started to wonder. When I started writing this, there was a banner about survival seeds on his website and how everyone should be growing their own food and saving seeds. It has disappeared now but I think you get the drift.

The hour that I listened to was brilliant radio designed to move the listeners into a state of agreement and action. It wasn’t overtly political but there was a strong undercurrent of join us now and you might survive. Allusions to fear anyone? Beck’s musings about “the real message of 8/28” scared the B’jesus out of me. I don’t for a minute think he doesn’t already “know” the message, but he has a gift for stringing his listeners along in the suspense of the possibilities. I personally am much more worried about Glenn Beck running for President than I am about Sarah Palin.

What can we learn?

My take on Glenn Beck and his listeners is that we don’t do any good calling them crazy or challenging the few facts that are offered (like attendance figures at the 8/28 rally). Beck offers a perversion of our progressive values:

  1. People matter more than profits
  2. The earth is our home, not our trash can
  3. We need good government for both #1 and #2.

He makes people feel like they have found someone who says what they feel: that the system and government are not working for them. Then he tells them the answer is unregulated capitalism: profits over people. Buy your gold, your water purification system, and your survival seeds … and you’ll survive even if our environment and our government collapse. It’s our progressive values, flipped upside-down.

To create a Progressive Spring to counter the Conservative Winter of our national soul, we must learn to speak from our hearts and our values. We should visit Glennbeckisle for an hour, and learn how to offer an equally compelling counter-vision. What he sells is wrong … but he sells it well.