There are many things wrong with Reihan Salam’s comparison of Glenn Beck to Malcolm X, and Adam Serwer points to a number of them:
Except for the fact that Malcolm’s father was murdered by white supremacists who were never brought to justice, his memories of the KKK terrorizing his family, his general experience of white supremacist violence reinforced or tacitly approved of by the state, being assassinated at 39 instead of making $32 million a year fantasizing about it on television, Beck and Malcolm…still have just about nothing in common. Both may have had a somewhat bitter reaction to the perception of race-based oppression against their people; only one of them actually lived that experience in any real way or got a decent book out of it.
That’s not to say that Beck doesn’t act like he believes that white people are living under similar conditions that black people did in Malcolm’s time, it’s very clear that Beck’s particular brew of white racial resentment draws explicitly on an inverted perception of state-sponsored oppression against blacks during Jim Crow.
Adam thinks Reihan is being tongue-in-cheek here, but I’m not sure comparing someone who called the first black president in American history a racist who hates white people to Malcolm X is all that funny, and if it is meant to be tongue-in-cheek I fail to see the point of the comparison in the first place. The likeness is at best strained and at worst contrived, a weird hook with no discernible point except contrarianism for contrarianism’s sake. Or, if the point is to show that Beck is leading some sort of political/spiritual revival, then there are plenty of conservative white guys he could be compared to before granting him the mantle of ‘white Malcolm X’.
Unless the point is to drape as much of the Civil Rights movement over Beck’s shoulders as possible; first with the appropriation of Martin Luther King Day, and now this ludicrous notion that Beck is some chubby, pale second coming of one of America’s most controversial and tragic figures in the fight for civil equality in this nation. Indeed, this seems like little more than another attempt to bestow upon the Tea Parties the same moral legitimacy as the Civil Rights movement, to cast it as part of the same continuum.
The two are not the same and the notion that they are is absurd and offensive, not only to African Americans, but to the history of our nation. The legacy of the Tea Parties belongs to a different era than the 1960’s – an era when tea was tossed over the side of ships by white men dressed as American Indians. An era in which those same white men owned black slaves and for all their good ideas about liberty, couldn’t bring themselves to free them for another hundred years, and couldn’t bring themselves to grant them legal equality for a century after that – indeed, until the time of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.
As Adam notes, “The problem is that even if Salam is kidding, a number of Beck’s followers aren’t.” I would add that even if Beck himself is kidding, a number of his followers aren’t. And Beck, I’m pretty sure, is in this for the long con.
(P.S. This is not to say that all Tea Partiers are racist or should be blamed for slavery – only that they are appropriating the wrong history here – not their heritage at all, but rather that of the people whose ancestors were oppressed for generations largely by the ancestors of the Tea Partiers. This is deeply cynical to me.)