December 16, 2010

Nina Berman & Alan Chin: Broke-Beck Mountains of Madness

Glenn Beck’s entourage of young assistants deploy off his bus in Wilmington, Ohio, uniformed in blue shirts emblazoned with his name and the title of his book “Broke”.

Part of it may have been the extremely cold weather, but the much-touted expectation of anywhere between five and twenty thousand Glenn Beck fans rallying to Wilmington to see their hero did not happen. There was a large crowd to be sure, but traffic alerts proved embarrassingly unnecessary, as local residents up to half a mile away forlornly offered parking for $5 or $10, even as ordinary curbside parking spots could easily be found a block or two from Main Street.

Beck started his day as host of a $500-a-person breakfast at the General Denver Hotel. The cost of the ticket included a photograph taken with him.

Hundreds wait for their numbers to be called before entering the Books ‘N’ More bookstore to get their Beck “Broke” books signed. Around 800 copies were sold, from which the store, but not Beck or his publisher, promised to donate part of the profit to local charities.

Head lowered, Beck holds a book buyer’s hands in a moment of prayer, while an assistant thrusts a volume forward.

In person, Glenn Beck seems like a teddy bear, wanting to be loved, wanting to give love. He is charming and squeezable, channeling a bit of the Bill Clinton magic, a little chubby, a little pasty, very white. Sincere. How could anybody be immune? But Clinton backed that up with an enormous intellect and powers of negotiation, whatever else you might think of him. In Beck, he triumphs his own ignorance while recycling long-discredited diatribes from the John Birch Society and McCarthyism.

Beck trumpets his appearances as celebrity stimulus to local commerce. But not only is the impact temporary and limited — mostly not out of his own pocket as he sells $30.00 books, $125.00 theater tickets, and $500.00 breakfast plates — it encouraged the most desperate sorts of free enterprise:

With a handwritten sign proclaiming “Patriot Bears For Beck” pinned to his chest, a local merchant advertises his store.

Judy Ahrmann sells tupperware in a vendor area set up in the basement of the bookstore. She was laid off by DHL when their air transport facility closed, costing the region 8000 jobs.

There is no question that Glenn Beck’s occupation of Wilmington for a day swirled some money around and some reached local businesses that need it badly. In Beck’s vision, Americans in struggling communities like Wilmington will save themselves by shopping. But when the only things for sale are meager and the only money to buy them came from selling goods and services equally meager, then the only one who ends up being anything but broke is Beck himself. There is something disconcerting about a book called “Broke” being aggressively sold to people who are, by a writer who isn’t.

And so with the breakdown of logic, a Beck event wouldn’t be complete without the presence of a few fringe characters. There was an insurance salesman in a Revolutionary War Patriot costume, holding a plastic chicken, railing about Obamacare, and this woman who circled downtown in a van with Santa Claus riding on the hood and stickers warning against an impending Communist takeover.

At the 24-hour Community Prayer Center on Main Street, Martha Wise is one of the volunteers. She says that, for three months, she has “tithed herself to God.”

Wilmington is a traditional small town — conservative in culture, moderate in politics, deeply religious — going through hard times. Its people were happy to host Glenn Beck, as they would have any celebrity or public figure. But if his ideology were implemented, the 16% of people unemployed, almost twice the national average, would lose all unemployment insurance, Medicaid, food stamps, and assistance to public schools. And that wouldn’t just be “conservative,” it would be brutal, and madness.

–Nina Berman and Alan Chin


This is the second of a two posts. View the first “Waiting for Beck” here.

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(note: 11am PST – minor edit for content)

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