If you’re eating something, spit it out right now. Don’t swallow it, because you’ll only see it again seconds later. Gallup has released the results of its annual poll to determine the men and women Americans most admire, and Glenn Beck has tied with Pope Benedict XVI for fourth place. That’s right: the man who made this video (and this video explaining that video) is as well-regarded, among Americans, as God’s official representative on Earth. Barack Obama crushed his division for the second year in a row, topping the list of most-admired men with a healthy margin over the second-place finisher, George W. Bush. Are you beginning to appreciate the sheer insanity of this poll, yet? Arguably legitimate human being Hillary Clinton topped the list of most admired women, but she only beat Sarah Palin by one percent. Maya Angelou remains deadlocked with Margaret Thatcher.
The takeaway from all of this is that Americans respect—or at least claim to respect—a former morning zoo DJ whose television show started four years ago more than the head of the Catholic church. Those of you concerned that people in the office like one of your coworkers better than you might consider, for a moment, of what value the esteem of the mob. Whatever you do, don’t consider what values Beck’s ascent alludes to in the hearts of the American people, or how long such a people can successfully operate a representative democracy. That’s what Dana Milbank at the Washington Post did, and he was forced to draw some ugly conclusions. “All ages have their charlatans,” Milbank writes. “The fact that Beck’s stew of venom and fabrication has been such a triumph probably says less about Beck than about us. He has merely captured the moment.” Zing!
The moment is pretty gross; if the American zeitgeist were an actual geist it would be a loud, dishonest banshee that rose from the grave to accuse virtually everyone of murdering it, and would probably have to be captured. Beck’s crypto-fascist worldview—which analogizes socialism and Nazism, urges ordinary people to disbelieve the news in favor of chain emails and home truths, and considers virtually all aspects of contemporary culture morally bankrupt except for the US military—could appeal only to a people desperately frightened for the future of their country. That their fears stem from there-goes-the-neighborhood white terror at immigration and black Presidents as much as from real events doesn’t make them any less real. Glenn Beck is tied with the Pope because they’re both broadcasting the same message: The end is near, there are good guys and bad guys, and the only way to save yourself is to identify who’s who.
That’s a child’s understanding of the world, of course, but it’s one that becomes more true the more you believe in it. Case in point: the blogosphere’s reporting of the Gallup poll. The story, according to the hyperconservative Newsmax, is that Palin and Beck have “vaulted” onto the list of most admired Americans. They also introduce the President of the United States as “the talk show host’s nemesis, President Barack Obama.” Meanwhile, the Orwellian-named Media Matters announces that “USA Today obscures lack of admiration for conservatives in Gallup ‘most admired’ poll.” If you’ve ever tried to obscure the lack of something, you know it’s no easy task. Just deciding where to put the blanket refers one to Book II of Being and Nothingness. In case you’re wondering, the USA Today version of events is pretty straightforward journalism, and it’s hard to disagree with their assertion that “The close finish by Clinton, named by 16% in the open-ended survey, and Palin, named by 15%, reflects the nation’s partisan divide.” Media Matters takes them to task for not pointing out that the combined percentages of admired liberals far outstrips those of admired conservatives, but then immediately has to admit that the polls come from different sample groups that render the notion of combined percentages virtually meaningless. Talking Points Memo, under less obligation to present the illusion of objectivity, simply declares that Americans still prefer Barack Obama to Glenn Beck.
Besides the postmodern implications of what the word “events” could possibly mean when we all get our news from conflicting descriptions of public opinion polls, such reporting generates much heat and little light. Dana Milbank, bless his heart, advances what I consider the only useful insight to come of all this. Unfortunately, it’s a question. Does Glenn Beck actually believe what he says on national television? “There’s scant evidence that Beck holds his zany views with any conviction,” Milbank writes. “At the very least, he has come to his views recently, after years as a morning-zoo radio DJ with libertarian leanings.” The story of Beck’s life—kicking his alcohol and drug habits after he lost his job, converting to Mormonism as a condition of his marriage—is the story of a man adjusting his moral compass for practical purposes. That he is, in essence, a moralist—lord knows his homilies about “taking back” the country and remembering traditional values aren’t the work of a logician—makes his success not just ironic but vaguely obscene. The American people should know better.
Instead we have gotten the meritocracy we deserve. In addition to revealing my new favorite fact about Joe Lieberman, the last paragraph of Milbank’s column nicely captures the weird inversion of values we’re confronting, here: “Lieberman… wrote a letter of recommendation that helped get the high-school-educated Beck into a non-degree program at Yale. Beck quit after just one course in religion—and now this theology dropout has earned a status in America more exalted than the Holy Father’s.” The comparison is apt. Both men live in Rome, either geographically or metaphorically, and Rome is the mob.