Fear and Learning at the Glenn Beck Rally

My mom and stepdad live in the DC area and, after establishing that yes, I really wanted to do this – no, really, I swear – they said that I could stay at their place when I came to town for Glenn Beck’s Restoring Honor rally. The only problem was that they were out of town for a wedding that weekend, and they’d gotten a dog since I last visited.

Mom didn’t think I’d have any trouble getting past him. She explained that he is a rescue dog, and that he is very shy, and that they’d leave some treats outside the door for me to give him. I looked up a couple of inexpensive hotels in the area, just in case.

The dog barked his head off as I unlocked the door, and barked some more as I walked in, brightly calling his name, waving treats, and making wild and completely unfounded assertions about who was a good boy. He kept barking, but he did back up enough for me to get into the front hall.

I moved a little further inside, still repeating the dog’s name in happy contexts and making sure he saw that the cats had run up to greet me and were twining around my ankles in a way that I hoped could only indicate a welcome — nay, beloved — guest.

Then he went into his menacing growl.

It’s a good one, and it reduced me to sliding a treat across the floor to him. The dog ate the treat and kept growling, low and deep in his chest.

I slid treat bits so that they landed a little closer to me and then a little closer again, until finally the dog was near enough for contact. I’ve been taught to let dogs sniff the back of my hand by way of introduction before trying to pet them for the first time, and that seemed like an especially good idea here. I slowly reached out my hand, fingers open and palm down… And the once-fierce dog flinched and skittered away from me.

He’s a rescue dog, and what he’d learned at the home from which he was rescued is that people will hit him.

The barking as I opened the door was part of his job as a watchdog and general Good Boy, but the growling once I got in was because he was afraid. (As heartbreaking as that is, there’s already a happy ending here: In scoring a home with my parents, this dog has entered the fabled land of Shangri-Treat that most pets think is only a legend. He’ll be fine, I promise.)

I mention it because once it was all over, it came to me that a lot of my time at the Glenn Beck rally was also about fear.

Indeed, a lot of my time leading up to the Glenn Beck rally was about fear. After the delightful James Withers and I agreed to go, I realized that I didn’t understand Beck’s fans (followers?) at all, and so I assigned myself the task of watching every episode of his show that aired during the month leading up to the rally.

It was not an easy month – I’d only seen clips of Beck’s show before, and it turns out the full hour can be hard to take. He prophesizes imminent economic collapse and ticks off examples of the nation’s ongoing moral collapse. He compares our current society to long-dead civilizations and the Weimar Republic. He breaks out the chalkboard to spiderweb out vast, decades-long – generations-long – conspiracies.

He yells, over and over, that the country is on fire.

It was unsettling to watch Beck alternate between slow drips of anxiety and skunk sprays of panic about the state of the nation night after night, but what really got to me was the way he portrays anyone who disagrees with him – and most of the time, that would be me.

In Beck’s world, there is no respectful disagreement; it is not possible that I too love my country and just have different ideas about the best direction for it. Night after night, I watched Glenn Beck tell his listeners that people like me hate America. That progressives – all progressives, even the most watered-down liberals – are deliberately trying to tank the economy so we can take away everyone’s hard-earned goods and set up an oppressive socialist regime. Myoohoohahahaha!

According to Beck, all liberals are elitists, and all elitists think his viewers are stupid. He told his audience that progressives want to take advantage of his fans, mock them, confiscate their guns, and force Big Government Death Panel Health Care down their throats.

He also claimed, over and over, that liberal progressive socialist elitists like me were constantly (and scurrilously) accusing everyone who disagrees with President Obama for any reason of racism. No nuance. We’re just awful people who are constantly throwing the word “racist” at Beck’s totally innocent Tea Party fans.

Beck tells his viewers that they are victims. Noble, courageous victims, but victims nonetheless. And the whole world is ranged against them – foreigners want to take their jobs, terrorists are trying to start sleeper cells in their neighborhoods, the elites mock and plot against them, and their own President wants to destroy the country they love and give their money to the lazy. It’s all happening right now, and terrifyingly quickly. The final blow could land at any moment.

It has to affect a person to swallow those carefully measured doses of fear five days a week. It affected me and I think Beck is full of it.

So it’s understandable that a few of the Restoring Honor ralliers growled or flinched when James and I approached. They have been told that we will do far more than hit.

We had agreed from the start that we would be upfront about who we were at the rally. (“Let’s face it,” said James, “We’re not going to blend in.”) We walked in wearing press badges that said “365Gay” right on them.

And the moment when I slipped mine around my neck was when I had to admit that there was fear on my side too. I’d joked about getting breakaway straps so James and I could just rip them off and run if we had to, but several friends had quite seriously asked me if I’d be bringing Mace. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about it.

That fear of possible violence was unfounded, but putting my badge on certainly didn’t make things easier for me. I went ahead and did it before James and I met up, and almost immediately a guy near me in the crowd caught sight of it and then stared hard at me as he walked past. I was very conscious of being an outsider in a large group of people who didn’t make sense to me.

Perhaps not the most diverse group Mr. Lincoln has ever seen

That was the only time I came close to feeling threatened, though. Mostly the badges just made things more difficult. People declined to speak with us over and over, and almost no one would agree to give us their names, or to be filmed or photographed. Beck had told them that people like us were there to mock them – why would they walk into it?

(And, to an extent, they were right. Even more fervently than my friends wanted me to bring a can of Mace to the rally, they wanted me to bring pictures of signs back from the rally.

Tea Party gatherings have become known for hilariously illiterate racist signs, and I have to give Beck and his organizers grudging credit for realizing that and drumming in the message that signs were not welcome.

Had there been any, though, I would not have hesitated for a moment to gather and make cruel fun of some low-hanging fruit. You walk around with an idiotic sentiment scrawled on posterboard, you get lampooned on the Internet. Those are the rules. Especially if you cannot be bothered to proofread the damned thing.)

The first few ralliers I approached simply declined to speak to me, and the first brave one who did, an anonymous gentleman from somewhere other than D.C. who was wearing a “Restoring Honor” T-shirt, wasn’t exactly gushy.

“This rally is about restoring honor. What have we lost?”

“Honor.”

“OK. How so?”

“In every way.”

It looked like it was going to be a long day.

And it is true that all day long James and I both watched people read our badges, stiffen, and walk away. (And we both later admitted that it was never not funny when we caught them doing that.)

But eventually we did find a few people who were willing to talk to us, and when they realized that James and I really wanted to hear what they had to say, they got downright chatty.

Amy from the D.C. suburbs seemed to have just been swept into the whole thing. She explained that she’d made some new friends who were a little more conservative than she was at meetings for “parents who were concerned about what was going into our textbooks and what was going on with our school budgets.” And her friends were going to the rally, and there was a charter bus going from her town, so she figured why not?

Amy declined to elaborate on the textbooks, but was quick to let us know that she didn’t have a problem with the LGBT community, claiming that her response when a dear friend had come out to her was “So? You’re the same person I loved a minute ago.” She said that she didn’t go along with the harsher attitudes of some of her more socially conservative friends. “Being gay doesn’t make you less of a person, and being conservative doesn’t make you more Godlike,” she said.

When I asked her what she got out of the rally if she was put off by some of the far-right elements, she said it was “just a coming together and a renewal of the American spirit.”

I heard similar sentiments throughout the day. Glenn Beck seems to be like Silly Putty to his fans. Something about his conservative, ultrapatriotic message appeals to a certain segment of the population. They shape it to fit the spot that fills that need, and seem to be able to scrape off and ignore the rest. Maybe that’s why Beck isn’t always consistent with what he says – he doesn’t need to be.

Jeff from Bel Air, MD was surprised that I asked him his thoughts about gay marriage at all, even after I’d introduced myself as a writer for 365Gay. To him, it was irrelevant to the day. Jeff liked that the Tea Party movement was creating more interest in American history and discussion of “the great ideas of the Constitution.”

(Which brings up an interesting point: It’s a good thing that more citizens are interested in learning about the Constitution, but we should be aware that right now Glenn Beck ‘n’ Friends are the ones handing out the reading lists. It’s high time that the rest of us jump in there.)

Of the small, self-filtered population of ralliers who were willing to speak to us, Jeff and Amy were fairly representative: They weren’t necessarily intolerant themselves, but didn’t seem to see why the intolerant attitudes of some of their conservative brethren might be a problem.

It’s an odd disconnect, and a puzzle that’s worth solving. If we can help make the connection between prejudice and the damage it does to their loved ones a little more tangible for this population, I think they will start making bigotry less socially acceptable, and thus a far less tempting political tactic.

Talking to Beck’s fans also showed me that in getting a dialogue started, the Harvey Milk principle holds true: If they know us, they don’t vote against us. Or at least they’re more likely to talk to us. The ralliers who spoke with me and James were usually quick to mention a friend or relative in the LGBT community.

The value of that one-to-one personal connection can’t be underestimated: When Alveda King got to the part of her speech about the “procreative foundation of marriage” being threatened, both James and I bent our heads to scribble notes, and an elderly woman standing near us noticed and snapped “That’s right. Get all the dirt you can.”

To her, we were press, outsiders, there to bring back only the worst, most bigoted parts of the rally for others to condemn and laugh at.

Once we started talking to her, Ann turned out to be from a small town in central Pennsylvania not far from the small town in central Pennsylvania where I spent my early childhood. And that was enough. Ann didn’t whip out a rainbow flag and start gathering signatures for gay and lesbian adoption rights, but she did soften noticeably and told us a lot (no, a LOT) about her views on what was wrong with the country and how it could be fixed.

And no small amount on Biblical prophecy.

She even came back over and started chatting to me some more when Beck’s generic Chicken Soup for the Tea Partier’s Soul speech got boring.

James does not understand the inherent bond all Keystoners share and thus insisted on referring to Ann as my “new girlfriend” for the whole rest of the damn day, but her change in attitude illustrates a point we need to remember: If we’re going to make inroads with the far-right crowd, we’ll have the most luck in one-to-one conversations where we can find those small, personal connections. When James and I took our leave, Ann gave us a genuinely fond farewell (shut up, James) and sincerely wished us safe trips home.

We can also make some inroads by appealing to the Libertarian streak of the far right. This is a crowd that doesn’t want the government to meddle in their private lives, and we can find common ground there.

Would this shirt be all that out of place at a marriage equality rally?

Several ralliers were surprisingly receptive to the idea of marriage equality if I came at it sideways – starting with the idea that the government shouldn’t be telling any religion how to define its concepts. Suggesting that maybe governments should only certify legal unions, regardless of the gender combination, and that individual churches could then decide whether to call that a marriage or not was a concept that a Libertarian who was interested in protecting his church from Big Government could get behind.

And, if we want to find ways to help social conservatives understand us, we need to remember that a lot of these people are afraid. The world is shifting in ways that make them feel out of control. Over and over, I heard rally attendees echo Beck’s sentiment that we as a country needed to get back to a time – different for each of them – when things were better.

The pasts they talk about are mythical: the time before politicians were corrupt, the time when crime only happened in cities, the time when any disaster could be taken care of through simple pluck and community effort, or the time when everyone was honorable and acted accordingly. But many of the ralliers were certain that such pasts existed, and if we could just find our way back the world would be easier to understand and way less scary.

I think that’s why vague messages like Beck’s have such appeal: If we can just restore honor, find unity, and love our country enough, it’ll all start making sense.

When people are basically good and just a little afraid, we can lead them into understanding. We just have to be gentle and patient enough to do it treat by treat.

(Is it fair that we should have to be the ones who are gentle and patient? No, of course not. But if the goal is to actually change hearts and minds, it’s a path that’s worth exploring.)

Toward the end of the day, a man who identified himself “from Roanoke, VA” approached me. He liked gays, he said – they were some of the best people he’d met. He just wasn’t ready to use the word “normal” to describe same-sex relationships, and he had a problem with gay men meeting for public sex in his local park.

I explained to him that public sex wasn’t an inherent part of the orientation – he was genuinely stunned and saddened to learn that straight men have been known to publicly misbehave – and when I started talking to him about coming out stories, he went from smiling to positively beaming. He was happy to hear stories of people finding themselves and finding love. He just couldn’t use the word “normal” yet.

That’s a guy who’s about two LGBT friends away from getting it. That’s someone we can work with.

The people I talked to at the Restoring Honor rally were more interesting than I expected (and shame on me for that). I’m not Queen Optimism and Sunshine about it – most people we approached wouldn’t talk to us, and those that did usually had a wall beyond which friendly debate couldn’t continue: an absolute certainty about how to interpret Biblical scripture, for example, or a dead-set belief that any change to the current system is the exact same thing as socialism.

And Beck’s vague, treacly Let’s Find God and Be Nice or Something speech doesn’t erase the fact that he’s been a veritable lawn sprinkler of fear for the past couple of years.

Especially when I suspect he’ll go right back to wetting down the Slip ‘n’ Slide of Terrifying Angry Bigotry first thing Monday evening.

And I’m not saying that Beck’s audience should get a free pass for listening to his half-truths and bile just because they’re scared and he helps them justify those feelings.

But we don’t need to see them as a monolithic immovable object against which we have to keep throwing our increasingly irresistible force. If we can make connections with them on an individual level, we can find ways to talk to them, and bit by bit we’ll seem a little less scary. And laws against workplace discrimination will seem more and more like basic fair play and good common sense.

I’d like to end with Alexander Burke of Reston, VA, the one person I met all day who wanted me to have his full name and photograph.

He dove into a debate James and I were having with some Tea Partiers as the rally was breaking up.

Mr. Burke just wanted to make sure James and I had a little backup, and he announced to the group that he was a straight, devoted Baptist and that he was proud that his church welcomed all orientations. He also wanted me to please be sure that his subversive buttons showed up in the picture.

It was a strange day – I still have no idea if the rally attendees found what they were looking for – but I’m glad I went. I feel like I can look at Beck’s viewers with a little more understanding and much less fear.

I hope they’ll be able to look at us that way too.

Gold Poovan

Sent from my Fabulous iPhone 
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