A Mirror, Darkly

Shouldn't we stop inviting the Jonses, Taitzes, and Becks of the world on national television, letting them embarrass themselves, and then scurrying back to our columns, blogs, and Facebook pages to cite them as representations of mainstream conservative thought?
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By now, everybody on the Internet has viewed, re-viewed, re-blogged and gleefully mocked Alex Jones' Karl Rove-dwarfing meltdown on Piers Morgan last week. Everybody on the Internet, as it turns out, includes former FOX News superstar and BlazeTV founder Glenn Beck.

I subscribe to a lot of conservative newsfeeds on Facebook: Beck, Limbaugh, Hannity, Bachmann, Ryan, even "Proud To Be An American" -- a deceptively neutral-sounding front for the Independent Journal Review and its cohort of geriatric commenters whose ability to log into Facebook at all is a testament to Mark Zuckerberg's coding wizardry. Usually, these subscriptions get me little more than a steady supply of Reagan nostalgia, targeted advertising from the Tea Party Express, American flags, and the occasional flame war.

But in the wake of the Jones Incident, I noticed something unusual: Beck had seen the clip and oh boy was he upset. He was livid. With his usual brand of penetrating insight, Beck saw the whole fiasco for what it really was. As it turns out, Alex Jones' performance was not -- as many of us assumed -- an unusually candid glimpse into the mind of your typical right-wing conspiracy theorist, like the spirit of The Weekly Standard's comment section possessed of a single body and plopped down in front of a camera. Rather, it was a deliberate ploy by Piers Morgan and the liberal media to put the most embarrassing possible face on the gun lobby.

I'll let Glenn explain:

Want to know who the media wants to make the face of the pro-gun argument in America? Look no further than conspiratorial radio host Alex Jones, best known for his 9/11 Truther theories and his love of Charlie Sheen's hernia. Jones is the man behind the petition to deport CNN host Piers Morgan for his views on gun control, and Morgan invited Jones onto his show to debate the gun issue yesterday. Unsurprisingly, Jones made a fool of himself, giving the left the poster boy for their attempts to paint every logical conservative as an extremist nut job.

Not only did Jones disappoint Beck by playing right into the Democrat's gun-snatching hands, he enraged him even further with his shameless self-promotion:

Jones later rattled off conspiracy theories, including a claim that 9/11 was an inside job, all while plugging his website (which we won't link to because we respect you, the reader, and don't think you want to fill your heads with crazy ramblings in the middle of the day).

Sound familiar? Glenn Beck -- the man who accused President Obama of nefarious "anti-Colonial," "anti-white" racism, who maintains that the "Progressive Movement" has been engaged in a century-long conspiracy to destroy the Founding Fathers, who filled his advertising time by encouraging seniors to guard against impending economic collapse by investing in gold, and who decided to ditch FOX and launch his own television network so that you could tune in at any time of the day, who makes Sean Hannity look like Jim Lehrer -- is furious because Alex Jones went on television, accused the left of engaging in a massive, Hitlerian conspiracy to disarm the people, called for a renewal of the American Revolutionary spirit (emphasis on the violence) and managed to plug his website in the process. Beck is furious that Jones' public display of insanity has given the left an unfair opportunity to paint the whole conservative movement as deranged. Worse: Jones made Glenn Beck look... I don't know... like Sean Hannity, I guess.

The irony was so exquisite that even Beck picked up on it in his own, special way:

"He's not a conservative," Glenn said in reference to Jones. He noted that Jones is in truth the radical conspiracy theorist the left often tries to paint Glenn as.

To be fair to Glenn Beck, he is the only person on Earth logically incapable of seeing Glenn Beck objectively. Plus, you've got to give the man some credit for possessing just enough self-awareness to recognize the parallels between himself and Jones, even if he ends up further confirming his delusions by insisting that their differences are greater than a matter of funding.

But the absurdity of its source aside, I'd like to take a moment to seriously consider Beck's point, because underneath everything, he may have one. After all, isn't it just a little cheap of us to hold Jones up as a "poster boy" for the entire gun rights movement? Isn't it lazy of us to watch the video, feel validated in our belief that the opposition is nuts, and heap another ton of disrespect on the right? Isn't it a bit unfair?

Despite men like Jones and Beck, aren't there serious conservative intellectuals whose arguments deserve a hearing? Shouldn't we be watching and re-blogging their clips instead, rather than rebutting them with intelligent viral videos of our own rather than let the clownish Jones do our due diligence for us?

Really, isn't using the Jones meltdown as ammunition the same kind of straw-man bullshit that the Right pulled with Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright? Didn't we object to the same wide-brush tactics when they were used against us, and didn't we rightfully point out that FOX News' ability to find one genuine anti-American communist militant in the Occupy camp with an embarrassing lack of rhetorical acumen didn't mean the entire left was filled with subversive extremists?

We constantly bemoan the lack of serious dialogue in this country. We lament how the loudest voices drown out the wisest. We point out how the vast majority of citizens -- who are reasonable and willing to compromise -- have been drawn into partisan trenches dug by our most inflammatory pundits, turning the rational middle into a dangerous no-man's land. By using Alex Jones as a boogeyman for the gun lobby, aren't we exacerbating the problem? Jones' history of conspiratorial insanity is well documented, and - as loathe as I am to lend Beck any credibility - do we really think that Piers Morgan's bookers were oblivious to this fact when they invited him on the show? Although it may be less sinister than Glenn suggests, aren't we more or less doing what he accuses us of? Shouldn't we stop inviting the Jonses, Taitzes, and Becks of the world on national television, letting them embarrass themselves, and then scurrying back to our columns, blogs, and Facebook pages to cite them as representations of mainstream conservative thought?

Of course, it'd be easy to say yes, we are -- and the Right does it too -- and yes, we should stop, and yes, please for the love of God let's just all cut it out and have a serious debate in this country. That'd be a nice, albeit somewhat well-worn conclusion. I've read that column before and I've liked it every time. It made me feel good. It made me feel hopeful.

But the real answer to these questions, as painful as it may be, is "no." We shouldn't just refuse to listen to the Wrights and Becks of the world, and perhaps more importantly, we can't afford to. We can't for a simple reason: as irrational, as conspiratorial, as divorced from reality as they may be, the most extreme bloviaters of our national discourse command real audiences, with real money, and real votes. While this might be as much consequence as cause in our cyclical descent into insanity, the fact is that these people do have platforms, and so long as they do, they've earned, in some sense, a place in the conversation. We have to take them seriously. We have to take them seriously even if we hate it, even if they are so insufferably stubborn that lending credibility even to the nutjobs who theoretically fall on our side of the aisle is degrading -- just ask any Republican whose been forced to kowtow to Rush Limbaugh, or any Democrat whose had to call Al Sharpton an "important voice".

We have to take them seriously because even in their paranoia, they are serious, and so are their followers.

There is a difference between deserving influence and having it. The true irony is not that Glenn Beck is just as much of a fringe conspiracy theorist as he accuses Alex Jones of being, but that both men, in virtue of their audience and their influence, do represent a significant segment of the population. An irrational, under-informed, knee-jerking segment of the population that's a good deal smaller than they claim it is, sure, but still -- they've got pocketbooks and rights.

Are they representative of mainstream conservative thought? No, but that isn't the point. The trouble with our desire to engage only with the serious thinkers is that even when we peel away the echo-chamber, even when we turn off cable news, and tune down talk radio, even when we consider only "ordinary Americans," the truth is that not all thinkers are serious. Glenn Beck and Alex Jones don't remain popular by divine decree -- there are real people who agree with them. It's nice to pretend that if we could just get the clowns off the airwaves then their views would vanish with them, but it just isn't so. Yes, Glenn Beck is insufferable and has no grasp of history. But so are many of his fans, and they got that way long before The Glenn Beck Show hit the airwaves.

When we wish the dialogue were saner, we ought to admit that, in a larger sense, we wish the citizenry were saner. And yes, some of it is. But some of it isn't and we can't blame it all on the media. Our politics consists of more than just two sides, and as much as we might like to, we can't simplify this sometimes brilliant, sometimes incoherent country by pretending the serious thinkers speak for the wackos anymore than we can pretend Alex Jones speaks for the serious thinkers. The only thing we can do is acknowledged that they're all speaking and that we have got to hear them and respond.

Luckily for us, the choice isn't zero-sum. No single person need be the sole perspective by which we understand our opponents. We can have a serious debate, with serious people, and at same time acknowledge that crazies exist. We can read The Wall Street Journal and The Independent Journal Review; we can watch Firing Line and then switch over to BlazeTV. We can seek compromise with the David Frums and Andrew Sullivans of the world and when we can't find it, we can acknowledge our differences with mutual respect. But when we've done that, then yes, we can and, yes, we should listen to Alex Jones and Glenn Beck. We should watch their videos and repost them on our blogs. We should consider what they have to say, even if we consider it ridiculous. We should hold them up not as examples of mainstream conservatives, but as what they are: the men on the fringes who speak for the extremists, because extremists do exist. We can't, as tempting as it may be, dismiss them. They are boogeymen, sure, but even boogeymen are dangerous when left to their own devices.

In politics is always pays to know what people are thinking, even the people who aren't terribly good at it. So go ahead: listen to Alex Jones again. Really listen, because there are people who hear it as gospel. I know it's painful, but if it helps, remember that Glenn Beck really, really doesn't want you to.

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