The density of cars in the parking lot was unremarkably low and the multiplex lobby was nearly empty. On Long Island last Thursday evening, people had somewhere else to be, it seemed. Yet, when I passed down the barren corridors of the theater and entered the sloping auditorium, I confronted a silent army. There may have been only a dozen free seats left. Did they file through a secret entrance? Ninety-nine-percent white and at least 75 percent over 50, a couple hundred ticket-buyers just sat in an obedient hush. On the screen, a video feed played of an all-minority girls' chorus, on an overlit stage, warbling carols. Behind them, a looming projected image of a book, titled The Christmas Sweater. Logos for NAPA could be seen from almost every angle. In the corner of our screen, a video gadget appeared periodically with a clock ticking the seconds backwards, titled "Countdown to Glenn."
Glenn Beck was about to arrive, in simulcast real-time, but the nature of his thrust remained unclear, at least to me. I sat as if unprepared for a calculus final, or as if in a stadium of Moonies waiting for the Reverend to marry us all at once. Were they supposed to have let me in if I hadn't read the book first? "A Return to Redemption" was the official subtitle of the "show," although on the electronic board in the lobby it was called only "GB Returns." Redemption? My God, was Beck an evangelist now? There was no visible advertising. It seemed as though Beck's message had gone out along brainwash backchannels, received only by the body-snatched.
But maybe that's not fair. Maybe. We could dismiss Beck's devotees as being bigoted, reactionary fools, because Beck, on his Fox TV show and radio program, tells obvious lies and panders absurdly to the basest levels of American jingoism and terrified ethnocentrism, and if you've passed the seventh grade in any decent public school in New York, Massachusetts or California, you know better than to take him seriously.
But perhaps we shouldn't—be dismissive, that is. The people who sat around me in the theater had bruises that needed to be iced, that much was certain. If Beck is a charlatan he, like all savvy barnstormers, knows cultural malaise in need of snake oil when he sees it. On the playground of conservative commentating, where Limbaugh is the fat bully with the walkie-talkies, and Hannity is the conniving Little Rascal still smarting from the beating he got at home, Beck is the demagogue kid with wet eyes and the air of a cornered animal, constantly coming up with elaborate plans to exact revenge or inflict justice. The others often appear to be just grumpy middle-aged men struggling to hold onto the rage and frustration of their audience for the sake of profit, but Beck's schtick is of a different variety—a pleading, baby-faced cry in the wilderness, not necessarily on behalf of right-wing pseudo-issues or conservative economic policy, but in the cause of the purely reactionary. Beck wails from the pit of his being for the calendar to roll back, to return us all to a simpler, purer time when presidents were pasty-white, a man could say "nigger" on TV and get a canned-laughter chuckle, and, not incidentally for him, TV news anchors possessed genuine authority.
At 45, Beck's not pining for the Eisenhower era as his parents' generation did; Beck's Golden Age is the Nixon-Ford years, the same chunk of time Howard Stern remembers for the masturbatory possibilities of Charlie's Angels. If you remember the 70s at all, Beck's world-view seems flat-out deranged. But at the same time, and despite the surprisingly vituperative lashing Beck got a few weeks back in the usually middle-of-the-road New Yorker, we know from countless books, articles and blogs written by workers in the trenches that neo-con media is big business, as calculated as politics itself, and that Beck's persona is little more than a contrived capture system for listeners and viewers. Craziness is not an integer here, but mercenary manipulation is, and nostalgia is the primary tool of choice. Beck's penchant for going faklempt and often outright weeping on air may suggest to some of us the SS officers who'd tear up listening to bygone-heroic strains of Wagner (and hey, the cover of his newest book, Arguing with Idiots, below, has a Third Reich-ish air about it, doesn't it?), but to others he's speaking only to the real pain of aging and seeing your children grow into distracted self-interest and watching your sunniest days slip away from you forever. (In one astonishing segment on Fox recently, Beck misted up over the vanished world represented by a 70s Coke commercial—"Remember how it felt?!" he cried.)
Generally speaking, nostalgia can be a beautiful cultural idea, but it has gotten a bad rap in recent decades, partly because voices like Beck generalize it and tempt the bitter majorities with visions of wholesale time travel and, therefore, immortality. Idealizing the past, Beck is promising us all heaven, like a two-chinned messiah in a silk suit. What makes his audience authentically stupid is that they believe the promise can somehow come true.
Nostalgia is what's on sale during The Christmas Sweater pageants, but also redemption, as the new subtitle says, the two ideas tangled up together in a mushy ball of marketed daydreams. The whole burrito boils down to this: first, when the clock on the screen ticks down to zero, Beck emerges and speaks for all of five minutes, almost crying already, about the show we're about to see.
Then, last year's simulcast is projected behind him, and that's what we're subjected to for over 90 minutes. In it, Beck sweatily "performs" a one-man show monologue on the same stage—think Spalding Gray, but not—acting out the mawkish plot of his book, in which a fictionalized version of 12-year-old Glenn suffers poverty and the death of his father and doesn't appreciate the sweater his mother knitted him because he wanted a bike.
Eventually the "boy" runs away, and gets lost in a storm, or something. Beck looks around in terror, like Dorothy when the Wicked Witch descends, and throws himself down into a heap on the stage more than once. This storm is apparently significant to the audience that surrounded me; several recited some of Beck's monologue along with him, softly, to themselves.
Then Beck's alter ego emerges from the storm, after a Dickens-slash-It's a Wonderful Life hallucination about how much worse life could be. He is then thankful and gets his bike anyway.
With the tale told, we're closing in on the two-hour mark, and the "live" Beck returns, and then "presents" four Oprah-like video segments about people whose lives have been devastated by tragedy: child death, breast cancer, addiction, suicidal depression. Then the survivors of these mini-tales—which are interspersed with looming quotes from Beck's deathless prose, and even more images of the book jacket itself—appear on stage with Beck, having weathered their "storms" largely thanks to the message in Beck's book. Which is, as far as I can tell: don't give up.
Beck chokes up at his own performance, shakes his head at his guests' fortitude, tells us to be victors, not victims of life, and then says good night. He may have been "live" for all of 18 minutes.
Not that I, for one, was terribly hungry for more. Strangely, the book was not on sale in the lobby.
It's hard not to let the starved mind wander during all of this, to what kind of marketing ratfucker decided to trot these poor people on stage and use their losses to sell Beck's book, or to what kind of mother who has buried a young child would be satisfied with the looming aphorism, "No one who ever passes through the storm regrets the journey!" You can't help also wondering how much of the story reflects Beck's own life, which he tearily says it does. (It doesn't, though his addicted, mentally ill mother did drown when he was 15, an event he's turned into acres of self-pitying justification ever since. Whether or not she knitted, I could not say.)
The unholy ordeal of watching Beck "act" aside, the evening's lingering impression had nothing much to do with the puling, quick-fix "message" Beck had to offer, which is entirely unexceptional these days, or even his venomous-yet-saccharine political perspectives, which were not expressed explicitly. No, it was the shameless spectacle of the man himself. I normally avoid righteous demagogues like we tend to avoid photographs of severely burned faces, and so this intimacy with a preening, yowling, self-defined rescuer of America's soul, authoritatively telling other people how we should get up and get back to work (and make money to buy his books with) after our toddler's been eviscerated in a pile-up, or after cancer has turned our bones to charcoal—this was new to me. Naturally, my gaze turned to the viewers around me, who barely moved through the entire performance, and showed signs only of complete credulity and acceptance. Were we seeing the same man?
It's a simple cognitive dissonance I may never decipher. As the protagonist of The Island of Dr. Moreau said at novel's end, I look about me at my fellow man. And I go in fear.
Glenn Beck's The Christmas Sweater: A Return to Redemption will be rebroadcast in theaters nationwide on Thursday, December 10. Check ncm.com/fathom for ticketing information, if you must.