Do you remember a simpler time, when America was not so much a postindustrial superpower struggling to compete in a globalized economy as it was a hallway with Mean Joe Greene in it? Or when our national discourse was not so much the difficult process of reconciling changing demographics with a shared tradition as it was a series of decontextualized images from family reunions? Glenn Beck remembers that time, and he wants to know how we can go back to it. “America has never been a perfect place, but we used to be united,” he says solemnly. “If a politician told you right now that he could make that happen again, that you could go back to those simpler times when people were together, you’d do it in a heartbeat, wouldn’t you?” Beck goes on to say that, of course, no politician could do that for us, before spending a few minutes explaining to us how we could go back to that simpler time by following his instructions, which he conveys via an extremely confusing metaphor. Watching Glenn Beck use logic to construct an analogy is like watching a woman hit her kid at the supermarket.
That Coke commercial dates from the innocent year of 1979, when Carter was President, the economy was stumbling from disaster to embarrassment like it was rush week, and the Iran hostage crisis was about to sour thirty years of US foreign policy. But we weren’t the America of malaise and botched rescue attempts. We were the America in which an eleven year-old boy could overpower security at a Steeler’s game and selflessly offer Mean Joe Greene a Coke, and Mean Joe Greene would drink it and thank him because, I dunno, equality. Same goes for the Kodak commercial. Remember when people used to get together for family reunions and children’s birthday parties and laugh and have a good time? That never happens anymore. Now we just meet to do cocaine and furtively jerk off our homosexual partners under the table beneath the watchful eye of ACORN. We’ve got to get back to that simpler time.
These four minutes of nostalgia for an age that never existed provide what is perhaps the best insight yet into the Glenn Beck mindset. It’s a worldview informed not by history or reason or even political dogma, but by a miasma of television commercials, partially remembered civics classes and—like the Paul Anka jingle from the Kodak commercial, which was “so popular they went back and wrote the whole song”—whatever pop culture happens to stick. It’s the political education of the guy at the other end of the bar, and Beck has perfectly identified his audience with this segment. They’re people who track the progress of the nation through commercials.
Remember the early eighties, when the commercials were all families playing board games and the President was a recognizable actor from cowboy movies? Now commercials are about cannibals gang-raping you and the President, um, makes you think you’re watching that commercial if you don’t have your bifocals. Never mind the massive deficits, crises in the Middle East, corporate deregulation and regressive tax structures of the Reagan era—if you know nothing about economics, geopolitics, environmental science or social justice, but you do remember a lot of soft drink slogans, those were halcyon days. I mean, Calgon, take me away! Right? Remember that?
Part of the reason commercials from the early eighties remind us of a quote-unquote simpler time is that we were twenty-eight years younger then. That Mean Joe Greene ad reminds me of a year when I didn’t have to work in exchange for money or negotiate adult interpersonal relationships or even use a toilet reliably, because I was two. Beck was fifteen, and it’s worth noting that 1979 was the year his mother died in a boating accident, shortly before his stepbrother committed suicide. The years that follow were a self-described haze of substance abuse and unhappiness for the commentator—ones that shed light on the bizarre teenage drinking metaphor that he uses to describe what needs to be done—and it’s quite understandable that Beck would associate the ubiquitous Coke and Kodak commercials of the late seventies with a simpler, better America. It was the America of his adolescence, and the years that followed were not easy ones for him.
What isn’t understandable is that he would treat this sort of nostalgia as a viable political position. Beck may remember a more innocent America when he sees that Coke ad, but I see a multi-billion-dollar corporation selling sugar water to a nation where 60 percent of the population is overweight. Kodak is not the custodian of America’s identity any more than they are custodian of our memories; they just sell a product that is related to taking pictures. Any American who grew up after 1962 knows to be wary of advertising, unless he is in advertising himself. At this point in his life, Glenn Beck is in advertising just as much as any exec at Coca-Cola. He’s using our vague sense of nostalgia to sell a sweet, useless product, and he won’t hesitate to employ whatever noble ideals will move product best. “It’s the real thing,” Coke used to say about their phosphoric acid-based foaming beverage. When Glenn Beck bubbles over about the real America and urges us to get back to it, he’s selling something just about as good for us.