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The Overton Window: More Poodle Than Panther

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I'm pleased to announce that At the Tea Party: The Wing Nuts, Whack Jobs and Whitey-Whiteness of the New Republican Right ... and Why We Should Take It Seriously is available today! Edited by GritTV's Laura Flanders, it includes essays from an amazing lineup of writers: Max Blumenthal, Alexander Cockburn, Lisa Duggan, Bill Fletcher, Glenn Greenwald, Arun Gupta, Melissa Harris-Lacewell, Chris Hedges, Jim Hightower, Richard Kim, Rick Perlstein, Katha Pollitt, Sarah Posner, Ruth Rosen, Ken Silverstein, Tim Wise, Kai Wright, JoAnn Wypijewski, Gary Younge, Alexander Zaitchik, and Deanna Zandt. Here's my contribution, a review of Glenn Beck's novel The Overton Window.

The Overton Window: More Poodle Than Panther

The most surprising aspect of Glenn Beck's novel The Overton Window is the banality of its politics. Coming from an entertainer whose trademark is blackboard diagrams connecting Nazism, the Lincoln penny, Woodrow Wilson, and the impending destruction of America by organizations promoting social justice, and with a back cover promise "to be as controversial as it is eye-opening," in the end the book posits nothing more than a boilerplate conspiracy run by an evil New York public relations magnate. Could Beck have taken on a less controversial player? Perhaps he initially considered risking everything by vilifying Wall Street bankers, or telemarketers, or child molesters, before gritting his teeth and pledging his life, his fortune, and his sacred honor to outing such a powerful and well-defended foe.

But on second thought, Beck's choice of conspiracy villain makes a kind of sense. After all, has Beck ever gone after a player who could actually hit back? Whether it's a politically powerless organization like ACORN or the Tides Group; a peripheral bureaucrat like Van Jones or a politician so prominent he's already a lightning rod for criticism, like Obama; or concepts so broad or amorphous that railing against them is as dangerous as screaming into a pillow, like "progressives" or "the liberal media," Beck's villains are always carefully screened to guarantee the only repercussions he'll endure for choosing them is a boost to his ratings. This is true for his television and radio shows, so it stands to reason it would be true in his first attempt at a novel, too.

In fact, a reasonable rule of thumb for testing the seriousness of anyone's claim to the role of underdog in the fight against vast, powerful forces, is this: what actual damage has the claimant sustained? Ask this question of Glenn Greenwald, or Michael Hastings, or Carol Rosenberg, or Jeremy Scahill, or Marcy Wheeler, or of any other real journalist, and you'll learn of doors closed and financial opportunities lost. Ask it of Glenn Beck, and you'll learn of multi-million dollar television contracts and book advances. Ah, the sacrifices this man has made in exposing the powerful forces who secretly control America.

The safe silliness of Beck's villain aside, progressive readers would be hard-pressed to disagree with the novel's main premise: a misinformed and apathetic populace has allowed America to be captured by oligarchic elites, elites who masterfully manipulate public opinion to perpetrate the system by which they engorge themselves on the citizenry. Not such a different conception, in fact, from the one that undergirds my own recent novel, Inside Out. Beck and I both even include an author's note and list of sources to help readers sift out the fact upon which we base our fiction. And we both clearly intend for our novels not just to entertain, but to elucidate.

Which makes it all the stranger to consider that the author of this earnest book is the same man The Daily Show hilariously demonstrated to be in the grip of Nazi Tourette's, whose obsession with race led him to declare that Obama "has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture," and who has composed virtual love letters to President Bush and Sarah Palin. If I hadn't known Beck the television huckster before encountering Beck the novelist, I would have thought that, politically, at least, we might have much in common.

But similar premises don't necessarily lead to a confluence of conclusions. A sobering thought for anyone hopeful that, say, the Tea Party's small government rhetoric provides possible common ground for some sort of progressive outreach. Progressives think government is too big and therefore want to reduce secrecy and prevent the president from imprisoning and assassinating American citizens without due process; Tea Partiers think government is too big and therefore want to prevent universal health care. Progressives think the national deficit and debt are out of control and therefore want to shrink the military; Tea Partiers think the national deficit and debt are out of control and therefore want to eliminate social security. The differences in such world views are far more significant than the similarities, and an attempt to minimize the differences and try to build on the similarities is apt to lead to extremely disappointing results.

The good news, I suppose, is that whatever readership The Overton Window finds, the book's impact is apt to be benign. Most of its readers are probably already Beck's fans, in which case the damage is done. Those who get through the book without prior knowledge of Beck will likely be distracted from deep thought by the one-dimensional characters, unending political speeches masquerading as dialogue, and absurdity of the conspiracy Beck proposes. The Overton Window is dull and disjointed more than it is dangerous or disquieting, and therefore, as both political primer and political thriller, ultimately, inert.