Tag Archives: Glenn Beck

Blind leading the blind

As a fledgling history blogger, I’m conflicted about whether or not to keep posting about Glenn Beck’s ongoing historical shenanigans.  On the one hand, it makes for great blogging fodder.  It’s timely, controversial, and relates to fascinating questions about the way that historical memory intersects with contemporary politics and culture.  

On the other hand, the fact that it does intersect with contemporary politics and culture makes me leery of it.  I don’t want this blog to turn into another current events soapbox. 

Let me therefore offer a possibly unconvincing qualifier.  I’m about to say some rather unkind things about Glenn Beck, but my motives here are not political, and I’m not trying to score any ideological points.  I’m not interested in doing so, and even if I were I doubt that either his ratings or his credibility would suffer due to the online rantings of an obscure adjunct professor of history.  Indeed, I hope that my own political inclinations are a mystery to most of you, since this is not intended to be a political blog. 

Is Beck’s engagement with history on his show important?  I think it is.  You might denounce him as a demagogue, as a blowhard, or as a laughing stock, but the unavoidable conclusion is that a lot of people listen to what the man has to say.  After he plugged George Washington’s Sacred Fire, its sales on Amazon skyrocketed.  In fact, when I searched for it to insert the link, its name appeared as a search suggestion as soon as I typed “George W,” despite the vast number of books on Washington that are out there.  Its sudden popularity seems entirely owing to Beck’s endorsement, since this is a massive book from a relatively obscure publisher, written by an author without a track record of popular publications on the founding, and containing conclusions at considerable variance from the findings of most historians.  

If Beck can send a history book to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list, then his remarks can potentially shape the way that a lot of people think about the past.  And to be frank with you, I think that’s a problem—not because Beck’s historical interpretations are ideologically driven, but because he seems to be remarkably ignorant of basic historical knowledge. 

Photo by Gage Skidmore, from Wikimedia Commons

 

In fact, he doesn’t seem to understand what constitutes general historical knowledge and what doesn’t.  On May 21, he told his audience that he intended to “show you some of the examples of where history is just wrong.”  He then asked, “The New Deal — how many of us grew up in households that said the New Deal saved America, OK? All did. Now that you’re learning something about the New Deal, did the New Deal save America?”  Why he’s convinced that this is some type of arcane knowledge that’s been lost to the ages is entirely beyond me.  Both of the survey textbooks I used while teaching introductory survey courses last semester flatly stated that the New Deal did not end the Great Depression.  So does academic historian David Kennedy’s Freedom From Fear and any number of other books. 

On the same show, Beck asked his audience, “How many of you had heard of George Whitefield before, what was it, last week or the week before?”  He then noted that only three or four had.  This is somewhat astonishing, since Whitefield is hardly an obscure figure in either historiography or in general surveys of early American history.  If Beck and his audience were unaware of Whitefield’s existence or the New Deal’s shortcomings, the problem is not that history is being lost or that historians are engaged in some type of cover-up, but rather that they should have paid more attention in high school. 

Similarly, in a May 28 piece, Beck discussed the Wilson administration’s anti-German propaganda and curtailing of civil liberties during WWI.  He then claimed, “This history of the country has been so erased, we’ve been searching for days on images, pictures, anything on all of this stuff.”  Again, none of this information has been ignored or neglected by historians or teachers.  He and his staff would have found what they were looking for in any decent textbook, or even online; I’ve never had trouble finding visual representations of WWI propaganda on the internet for use in my lecture slides.  Perhaps Beck needs to fire his research staff and hire some fourteen-year-old who’s familiar with Google. 

Beck’s ignorance, though, doesn’t prevent him from speaking his mind or even from presenting himself as an expert, as evidenced by his recent remarks about the Dead Sea Scrolls.  This segment possibly set a broadcasting record for the highest number of inaccurate statements made within a short period of time.  After chiding his staff or not knowing what the scrolls are, he claimed that the scrolls were hidden away after the Council of Nicaea (they predated the council by centuries), said council having been organized by Constantine in order to build an army (it had nothing to do with an army) and resulting in death sentences for heretics (nope) and the formulation of the Apostle’s Creed (ditto).  This is not just a slip of the tongue or a case of misspeaking; this is buffoonery on an epic scale. 

And yet this is the guy sending history books to the top of the bestseller list, presenting regular history segments on his show, garnering honorary doctor of philosophy degrees, and assuming responsibility for educating America.  I don’t doubt the man’s sincerity or his patriotism, but if he’s going to keep up this history bit, then he desperately needs to be better informed.  If the blind lead the blind, it’s been written, both will fall into a pit.  And just for the record, that’s not from the Dead Sea Scrolls.

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Here’s a pretty devastating review

…of the book on Washington’s religion that Glenn Beck has been plugging.  Check it out.

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If George Washington chops down a cherry tree in the forest and there’s nobody to hear it but Glenn Beck, does it make a sound?

The other day I was sitting in Pizza Hut with a friend of mine, enjoying a plate of boneless chicken wings, when I looked up at the TV mounted on the wall to find Glenn Beck talking about George Washington. 

Beck’s new favorite book is George Washington’s Sacred Fire, by Peter Lillback.  He’s been bragging that its sales have skyrocketed because of his endorsement, and evidently he’s right.  As of my writing this, it’s ranked no. 1 on Amazon.  I haven’t read the book, but as far as I can determine (and if anybody knows differently feel free to correct me), Lillback is trying to make the case that Washington was a more orthodox Christian than a lot of us believe.  Personally, I think Washington was well along the deism end of the spectrum, though not as far as some of his contemporaries. 

While I was looking for information about the book, I found out that Beck has been on a real Washington kick lately.  On May 7, his guests were Andrew Allison and Earl Taylor.  Allison is co-author of The Real George Washington; Taylor is president of the National Center for Constitutional Studies, the organization that published Allison’s book.  Beck has been encouraging people to read that one, too, but based on the transcript of his interview with these guys, I think I’ll have to pass.  Here’s a sample: 

BECK: Yes, and [Washington] was trusted on making treaties. And people, they did. They trusted him. Tell me the story of — I’m trying to remember the name of the Indian that came up and made the George Washington prophecy. A, is it true? Tell me the story and then, is it true? 

TAYLOR: That is true. This is actually in the French — during the French and Indian War when he in his early 20s was on aide to General Braddock – British General Braddock. And they were leading about almost 1,500 troops out to western Pennsylvania, Fort Duquesne, around Pittsburgh now. And Washington had warned — because Washington knew the area and he had warned Braddock that there are places that are real good ambush sites, I wouldn’t go there. 

Washington at Braddock's defeat on the Monongahela, from the Library of Congress (LC-DIG-pga-02418)

Well, General Braddock, he was a — he was a British general. And, you know, they’re — most of them are quite proud. And they know it. So they march right into — through this area. And almost 1,000, I guess the number is 700 French troops with Indians ambushed them and just started mowing them down. And out of the almost 1,500 that they started with, there was over 1,000 deaths and wounded. And among those were all of the officers including Braddock, except George Washington. And he wrote the next day to his family, he said, ‘I don’t know why I’m still here. It must be the hand of Providence that had preserved me. I’ve got bullet holes in my hat, through my clothing. I’ve had two horses shot out from under me.’ 

BECK: He was never wounded ever, was he? 

TAYLOR: No. Not in battle. 

BECK: And he — and the troops talked about bullet holes through his clothing and he was on a white horse. 

TAYLOR: Oh, yes. 

BECK: It would be like camouflage! 

(LAUGHTER) 

BECK: Camouflage your horse! 

TAYLOR: Well, 15 years later, Washington — this was in 1770, Washington was with a group of men that were reviewing and kind of scoping out the same area. And an old Indian was part of an Indian band that discovered them and invited them to sit down in the council, around the council fire. And this old Indian chief gets up and he said, ‘I was there. As a matter of fact, I was in command when the Indians and the French drenched this area with the blood of the soldiers. And we killed a lot of them. But we could not kill that man.’ He said, ‘I had moved my best marksmen on him and I told them they cannot miss and they usually did not miss.’ ‘But this time,’ he said, ‘we couldn’t hit him.’ 

BECK: And is this the same Indian that said, you will be a great leader of… 

TAYLOR: Yes. And that was his — that was his prophecy. He said, ‘I’m telling you, the great spirit is with that man. He will one day be the great chief of a great nation.’ 

ALLISON: Preside over an empire. 

TAYLOR: ‘He cannot die — he cannot die in battle.’ 

Washington did indeed escape from Braddock’s defeat without a scratch, which is remarkable enough, but if the part about the prophecy sounds more like drama than history, it’s because that’s probably all it is.  Washington’s step-grandson George Washington Parke Custis wrote a play about the incident in 1828, claiming that he got the story from Dr. James Craik, a physician who was at Braddock’s defeat and on the 1770 surveying expedition.  (He was also, incidentally, one of the attending physicians at Washington’s death.)  

Years later, the tale turned up again in Custis’s Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington, where he again attributed it to Craik but admitted in a footnote that Washington made no mention of the incident in his diary.  Interestingly enough, the same footnote mentions a separate meeting with Indians during the same trip that is found in the diary, and for which (unlike the supposed prophecy visit) we have a specific name for the embassy’s leader.  I suspect that Craik took this visit, embellished a few details, and turned it into the prophecy story after Washington was dead and elevated to the pantheon of early national heroes, but that’s just me. 

This wasn’t the only bit of questionable history Beck and his guests were throwing around.  Here’s Beck during the same show: 

His country, Britain and then the United States of America, had him serving for year after year after year after year. After he won the Revolutionary War, he went back to be that farmer in Mount Vernon. And things started to fall apart. And they came knocking at his door and said, ‘George, we need you, because the whole thing is falling apart.’ I’m paraphrasing, but I think it was pretty close to — ‘Have I not yet done enough for my country?’ No. He went back and he didn’t say very much during the Continental Congress and the constitutional convention. He didn’t say much. He didn’t have to. He was a revered figure. He was — that’s my favorite painting of him. He was a revered figure. He was a guy — this was actually a painting done on the, just on the words of one of the — I think it was a farmer if I’m not mistaken. A farmer came into the field one day, and heard some noise and heard him standing there, in the field and he just watched him as he got down in Valley Forge on one knee and he prayed all by himself. He’s a guy that in the end could have been made king. He could have been made a ruler. He’s a guy who could have been really upset at Congress. Boy, oh, boy. 

The “farmer” was supposedly a Quaker named Potts, who decided after seeing the general in prayer that soldiering wasn’t such a bad gig after all, and became a fervent supporter of the Revolution.  That, at least, is the story as it originally appeared in the Washington biography by Parson Weems, who never met an anecdote he didn’t like.  Since then it’s appeared in illustrated form so many times that the question of whether or not it actually happened is essentially moot.  It probably didn’t.  Weems is a notoriously unreliable source, and in 1918 Valley Forge park officials refused to allow the erection of a monument to the event when they were unable to find any evidence to substantiate it. 

At one point during his Washington segment, Beck claimed that “it’s ironic to me that we make up a lie about ‘I shall not tell a lie’ on George Washington when there are so many great truth stories with him.”  That makes two of us—or maybe one of us.  I’m glad he’s urging his audience to study the founders; I just wish he’d do it a little more carefully himself.

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