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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.)