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.
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.