“Oh no – not Glenn Beck! I hate him.”
“Beck – you mean that Glenn Beck? That conspiracy theorist?
Can’t stand him.”
“What are you seeing him for?
He’s an awful, right-wing, fascist, Nazi, Zionist … redneck.”
These were some of the milder reactions I got when I told American friends I was going to Salt Lake City to see Beck’s Fourth of July celebration spectacle, Man in the Moon.
Radio host, entrepreneur, author, documentary maker and, of late, owner of a fast-expanding news network, Beck is a man who elicits strong reactions in the United States. Especially from those of the liberal left, who are now a significant part of the very establishment against which they used to fight.
It’s hard to understand why Beck is such a red rag to the leftist bulls because he mostly talks about what all lefties worth their salt used to defend: liberty, justice, equality under the law and all that. Beck’s insistence on the importance of upholding and protecting the American Constitution, honouring the principles of the Founding Fathers and, above all, protecting the First Amendment (freedom of speech) has done little to endear him to the people who see themselves as the arbiters of everything that’s correct – politically correct, that is.
It doesn’t help Beck’s cause that he is a Mormon. Christianity in general is not very popular with the in-crowd and many in America voted for President Barack Obama the second time because, although they didn’t like him much, at least he wasn’t the worst kind of Christian.
Sober, hard-working, committed to creating prosperity and helping others, responsible, family oriented … in today’s anything-goes climate, what could be worse than a Mormon?
In the four years I’ve been following Beck – first via YouTube, when his eponymous television show was on Fox News Channel, and later through internet subscription to his network, TheBlaze TV – I have never seen him proselytise for the Mormon church. But he does talk about God quite a bit. He thinks America should become once again, as in the pledge of allegiance, “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all”.
Anyone who has listened to Beck for five minutes knows he wants small government and more personal liberty and responsibility; low taxes but high output and greater inventiveness; minimal state welfare but maximum self-reliance and personal charity.
So, although disappointed, I wasn’t surprised when my liberal friends sounded like they had fainted a little at the sound of Beck’s name coming from my mouth without being preceded by the words “I want to kill …”. Formerly “one of us”, I had broken ranks and sided with the enemy. A more diplomatic friend wondered whether I was completely sure Beck’s fans (not the man himself ) “are really your kind of people”?
I was so excited at finally being in America (to see the aforementioned friends who, for years, had been asking me to come and visit them) that I forgot to ask him exactly what kind of people he thought were my kind. Later, though, I had to ask myself the same question.
Who are my kind of people now that I am a born-again conservative dabbling in Christianity?
It used to be that the people who hate, vilify and ridicule Beck were my kind of people. Growing up in Norway as your common or gardenvariety 1970s radical, I had the same posters of Mao Zedong and Che Guevara as everybody else, went to all the big anti-everything demonstrations and believed in no responsibilities and free stuff for everyone.
After moving to China in 1988 and seeing communism up close, I had to admit it was perhaps not the great solution to … well … almost everything that I had been taught (in school; although even then I noticed that really devout Marxist-Leninists were incredibly earnest and dull).
After September 11, I started reading up on Islam and world jihad (holy war), and found that communism was just like a fundamentalist religion and radical Islam just like a militant ideology – in each there’s the same pathological need to control every aspect of other people’s lives, with the same promise of a spot of light killing in the afternoon.
Eventually I stumbled across Beck, in 2009. Among the documentaries doing the rounds about honour killings, stonings and the beheading of infidels, he stood out. There he was: Glenn Beck – passionate, zealous, a human dynamo, drawing lines between seemingly unrelated incidents around the globe, using his knowledge of history to find connections where few others could be bothered to look. He predicted the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and its eventual takeover of Egypt, he warned about the economies of Greece, Spain and the rest of Europe collapsing, he predicted the US National Security Agency’s (NSA) data spying scandals – and was roundly ridiculed.
But I thought, hello, here’s a man who makes a lot of sense. He is charming and uses an old-fashioned blackboard to illustrate a point so even I can understand the global economy – and he is against political correctness! I felt he was genuine and refreshingly honest about himself the way recovering alcoholics (which he is) often are, and I liked the fact that he was sometimes so overcome with emotion he had to fight back tears.
When he left Fox News Channel in 2011, his detractors screamed with unbridled schadenfreude about him having been fired because he couldn’t pull in the advertisers, despite the station having 120 per cent higher ratings than its closest rival, CNN. Others mumbled that he had been “let go” because he had upset uber-leftist gazillionaire George Soros, whom Beck calls Spooky Dude due to the former’s involvement in shadowy groups with strong links to left-wing 60s and 70s radicals such as Bill Ayers, Cass Sunstein and Frances Fox Piven who used to be enemies of the state but are now leading establishment figures.
Beck says it was time to leave Fox News Channel because he had been called to greater things, namely starting his own news network, Glenn Beck TV. That network, now known as TheBlaze, has, two years later, close to 300 employees. As well as running in-depth news reports and analyses for eight hours a day, it has just launched a series of 60 Minutes-like documentary programmes. Last year, his company’s revenue was US$90 million. Not bad for a “crazy conspiracy theorist”! Beck has also written and co-written several books and started a clothes manufacturing company, 1791, since leaving Fox, besides organising some quite spectacular summer rallies, attracting hundreds of thousands of people.
SO HERE I AM IN Salt Lake City, getting ready to meet Beck at a lunch meet and greet, to which I, as the buyer of a Gold VIP ticket for Man in the Moon, have been invited.
The venue is the Grand America Hotel, a posh affair with carpets so deep, the many overweight people using little motorised scooters to get around are finding the going tough. The walls are agleam with mahogany panelling and within cavernous, chandeliered ballrooms, conservatives are trying to flog T-shirts, self-defence kits and books about the Constitution and George Washington. A legless war veteran in a wheelchair hands me a mini Constitution, for free.
Among those mingling are middle-class families with young children dressed in Walk For Hope (a cancer charity) T-shirts, students and older couples.
When the elderly Joneses from Texas, who have flown to Salt Lake City in their own plane, hear that I don’t have a car, they immediately offer me a lift to the venue of the show later that day, as does Ron Douglas, a Mormon father of seven.
These are the people who, I was told, “wouldn’t understand what I said because they were too inbred” and would “probably shoot you for being a foreigner”. Yes, the people who warned me against Beck and his fans seem very concerned about guns – in the hands of lawabiding people. Then again, they said the police would shoot me if I went to New York’s Grand Central Terminal dressed as Public Security Uncle, a character from my Cantonese-language teaching films on YouTube. Was I shot? Yes, with a camera, with New York’s finest posing next to me.
No, sorry, the only firearms I see here are one of notorious killer Charles Manson’s shotguns and a musket from the Mayflower, the ship that brought 102 English pilgrims to this brave new world in 1620.
These are exhibits in Beck’s thought-provoking temporary museum, Independence Through History, a collection of objects that shaped America and the wider world for better or worse.
A couple of weeks earlier I had stood outside the door to the balcony where Martin Luther King was shot: that of Room 306 in Memphis’ Lorraine Motel. Here in Beck’s museum is the last note the civil rights activist wrote, scribbled down on hotel stationery just before he went to his death. It reads almost like a suicide note – as if he had known he would be killed.
Also in the collection is William Bradford’s Bible, which sailed to America on the Mayflower; Abraham Lincoln’s desk and chair; Marie Antoinette’s prayer book (not very well thumbed); Napoleon’s Bible (ditto); the paper, signed by Adolf Hitler, that British prime minister Neville Chamberlain famously waved in 1938 while declaring “peace for our time”; and a woman’s Ku Klux Klan uniform. There is a first edition of Mein Kampf, signed by Hitler, the author, and an original drawing of the hold of a slave ship, complete with Africans (in loincloths) lying stacked like firewood, with not a square millimetre to spare. Even more disturbing are the leg irons designed especially for children.
The museum screams, “Never again!” But the mainstream media has decided Beck must be pilloried, so, after the show, a journalist from The Salt Lake Tribune (demonstrating her “investigative” credentials by getting the names of both the venue and the show wrong) writes that the recipient of the Defender of Israel award – presented by casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife – is a “Nazi sympathiser” because he “owns so many macabre Nazi memorabilia”.
Having toured the museum it is time to meet Beck and he is just as he seems on TV: warm, inclusive, sentimental, huggy. When he hears I have come from Hong Kong, he gets all teary-eyed, grasping both my hands with his, saying “Thank you, thank you,” over and over again.
Beaming, he calls his producer over: “Tiffany! Take down her details.” Two hours later I’m sitting in a lounge in the Grand America being interviewed on film – for a segment to be aired on his show – by Beck’s “people”, who want to hear about the difficulties of “living in Communist China”. I hope I manage to make them understand that Hong Kong is still slightly different from our more ideologically inclined parent to the north. But I also tell them that I think the US, that former beacon of liberty, is no longer a great deal freer than the mainland, where you can now do largely what you want so long as you don’t openly criticise the Communist Party or stop people from tearing down your house to build a motorway or shopping centre. The noose of political correctness is tightening around the necks of the American people while government agents stick their noses further and further into private business. Would the Chinese government be able to store all e-mails, texts and phone conversations going between its citizens, even if it wanted to?
I take a drive with Douglas into the hills surrounding Salt Lake City and there, squatting darkly among high-wire fences and numerous signs telling everyone to keep away, is the enormous NSA (of whistle-blower Edward Snowden fame) data storage facility. If I didn’t know what it was, I still wouldn’t feel like hanging around for long in this scary, futuristic wasteland.
IT’S A FEW HOURS BEFORE the Man in the Moon extravaganza. Driving to the event with Douglas, I wonder whether we should feel flattered that today is only the third July 6 since 1945 on which it has rained in Salt Lake City. It not only rains, it buckets, spurts and cascades down with an almost Hong Kong-style enthusiasm. As it has done for two days, having made it impossible for Beck to carry out proper rehearsals at the outdoor venue. The show we are about to see – if we are able to see anything through the wall of water – will thus effectively be both dress rehearsal and opening night.
We stop at a convenience store to buy some rain ponchos and the shop assistant peers at us, shaking her head.
“The customer before you bought the last 20!” Douglas buys a roll of 33-litre black bin liners instead and, mildly reassured, we set out for the USANA Amphitheatre, grimly prepared like youths going to a rock festival. The trouble is, I hated rock festivals even when I was a young, demonstrating radical, so I’m not overly thrilled at the prospect of sitting outside in the pouring rain, even under a bin liner. Even for Glenn Beck.
The venue is packed to capacity and the woman sitting behind me is wearing the poncho I should have had. I wonder: almost 20,000 Christians in one place, all praying furiously that the rain will stop, and still it’s chucking it down.
Then, just before sunset, the rain does stop and a double rainbow appears. Perhaps God has listened after all.
The show, about the history of America and the Earth seen through the eyes of the man in the moon (who shakes his ancient, weary head at the lack of enthusiasm Americans show these days for breaking new frontiers, unlike during the moon-storming 60s), kicks off with a daring stunt: two men suspended upside down 15 metres above the stage, with military precision, unfold and “raise” – effectively lower – an American flag hung the wrong way up; a symbol of a nation in distress.
That is, ultimately, Beck’s warning and his message. America is rapidly losing her freedom; and, when she is no longer free, where will the world’s “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” go?
LIFE AND TIMES
February 10, 1964: Glenn is born to Bill and Mary Beck, in Everett, Washington state. He will be raised Roman Catholic and develop an early interest in radio, landing his first job as a DJ on a local AM station aged 13 (the same year his parents will divorce).
May 15, 1979: Glenn Beck's mother (along with a male companion) drowns while out in a boat on Puget Sound. A Coast Guard investigator speculates she may have intentionally jumped overboard - and Beck will often refer to her death as a suicide. Beck's stepbrother will commit suicide shortly afterwards.
1982: After high school, Beck takes a job on a radio station in Utah, which is followed by stints in Washington, DC, Kentucky, Phoenix, Houston, Baltimore and several other cities.
1983: He marries his first wife, Claire, and together they will go on to have two daughters - one of whom, Mary, will be born with cerebral palsy.
1980s and early 90s: Beck's broadcasting begins to take on a more patriotic and expressly political tone, with his outlook tacking rightwards.
1994: Beck and Claire divorce. He is diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, later describing himself as a "borderline schizophrenic" and admitting he was suicidal after years of alcoholism and drug addiction. Attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings helps him achieve sobriety.
1995: Beck's employer, a station in New Haven, Connecticut, apologises after a Chinese-American caller is mocked on air during his show, prompting protests by activist groups.
1996: Beck takes a theology class at Yale University for a short time before embarking on a "spiritual quest" that eventually leads to Beck and his second (and current) wife, Tania - whom he will marry in 1999 - joining the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The couple will adopt a son, Raphe, and have a daughter, Cheyenne.
2000: The Glenn Beck Program airs for the first time, on WFLA, in Tampa, Florida, taking the station's afternoon time slot from 18th in the local ratings to top within a year. The show will be launched nationwide in 2002.
August 2005: Referring to survivors of Hurricane Katrina who remained in New Orleans after its flooding, Beck says on air: "We're hearing about the victims in New Orleans … Those are the only ones we're seeing on television are the scumbags … Most of the people in New Orleans got out!" In the same harangue, he adds: "You know it took me about a year to start hating [a few of] the 9/11 victims' families."
January 2006: Beck is invited to host a nightly prime-time news-commentary show on CNN, which he will do for two years, before moving to Fox News Channel to launch Glenn Beck. By September 2009 that show will be pulling in more viewers than its three closest rivals for the time slot combined.
March 2006: Listing the possible reasons for immigration to the US from Mexico, Beck says: "One, they're terrorists; two, they're escaping the law; or three, they're hungry. They can't make a living in their own dirt-bag country."
November 2006: While interviewing Keith Ellison, the first Muslim US congressman, Beck says: "I have been nervous about this interview with you because what I feel like saying is, 'Sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies' … And I know you're not. I'm not accusing you of being an enemy, but that's the way I feel, and I think a lot of Americans will feel that way."
October 2007: As forest fires ravage parts of southern California, a predominantly Democrat state, leaving one person dead and forcing some 1,500 from their homes, Beck says: "I think there is a handful of people who hate America. Unfortunately for them, a lot of them are losing their homes in a forest fire today."
July 2009: On Barack Obama, Beck says: "This president, I think, has exposed himself over and over again as a guy who has a deep-seated hatred for white people, or the white culture … This guy is, I believe, a racist."
October 2010: On the theory of evolution, Beck says: "I don't think we came from monkeys. I think that's ridiculous. I haven't seen a half-monkey, half-person yet. Did evolution just stop?"
February 2011: Beck warns viewers against Google: "Who are they? Are they right? Are they left? May I recommend if you're doing your own homework, don't do a Google search. It seems to me that Google is pretty deeply in bed with the government." The same month, he says protests in the Middle East, Europe and the US are part of a "grand plan" co-ordinated by left-wingers and Islamists to destroy Israel and the West and install a global caliphate or new world order.
June 2011: Beck leaves Fox News Channel to launch a new two-hour show on his own network, TheBlaze TV, which is initially internet-subscription only.
July 2011: After Anders Breivik kills 69 people, mostly teenagers, at a Norwegian Labour Party's Workers' Youth League camp, Beck describes the setting as "a little like, you know, the Hitler Youth or whatever. Who does a camp for kids that's all about politics? Disturbing". Beck runs his own Patriot Camp for schoolchildren, which runs programmes on "our Constitution, the Founding Fathers and the values and principles that are the cornerstones of our nation".
May 2013: Promoting his 20th book (his literary output includes six novels, two of them for children), Exposing the Truth About Guns, Beck claims, "the freedom of all mankind is at stake" over the issue of gun control in the US, which he opposes.