In the midst of his speech at this weekend’s Values Voter Summit, Glenn Beck seemed momentarily taken aback by the depth of his audience’s contempt for gay people.
Beck was on stage, flanked by the insignia of the Family Research Council—the right-wing Christian group that sponsored the event—holding a folder of plastic sleeves in which he had inserted copies of some of the most notorious badges in history: yellow stars, red triangles, and other colorful symbols.
“The black [one] was an anarchist,” Beck told the crowd, as he flipped through the plastic sheets, holding each exhibit up for them to see. “This meant that you were a Jewish criminal. This meant a communist, here. This is just a Jewish person,” he said, pointing to each Nazi symbol.
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As he held up the yellow star, Beck put on a whining, effeminate voice, and said: “I’m sure the mainstream media is going to say, ‘He’s a Nazi! He loves the Nazis.’ Yeah, why don’t you try to write this one in context.”
Here is that context: Beck had the mostly fundamentalist Christian crowd in—pardon the pun—raptures. He was towing the rhetorical line that dominated this year’s summit, namely that fundamentalist Christians are being victimized by every conceivable group in society. Over the course of the three-day conference, speakers led the attendees to identify with slaves prior to abolition, with African Americans today, with Native Americans, and, most especially, with victims of the Holocaust. The underlying ideological sleight of hand is to allow the overwhelmingly white and middle-class crowd to displace these historically persecuted groups, and see themselves, in 2013, as the true heirs and victims of tyrannical and murderous oppression.
By seeing themselves as victims and the targets of Nazis, many of the so-called Values Voters can justify their other political stances. This contorted logic allows them to frame their inability to impose their religious worldview on all Americans (and on other nations, for that matter), not as a sign of pluralism and democracy, but as religious oppression—oppression of their desire to impose their religion on everyone.
The persecution mythology also feeds into their narrative about guns. At a breakfast event titled “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition,” speakers said repeatedly that all repressive regimes seek to take away individuals’ guns. The implication is that Values Voters need their guns to fend off a tyrannical government; but also, that any government’s attempt to limit gun ownership is proof of that government’s tyrannical bent.
Beck touched on many of these themes. His speech, which was illustrated by his signature chalk board, on which he had scrawled a hodge-podge of names and ideas, skipped over a bewildering array of right-wing talking points. He talked about the difference, as he sees it, between American “exceptionalism,” which, in his view, is real, versus “manifest destiny,” which he sees as a form of arrogance. He talked about how the Nazis used the notion of “compassion” to justify certain murders, particularly of infants with disabilities. Then he joked about threatening to drown his son in the family swimming pool.
As his talk reached a crescendo, Beck continued to flip through the different Nazi symbols contained in his folder, searching for the symbol that would tie together the persecution theme of his speech, and give his audience the rhetorical pay-off they were awaiting.
But as he fumbled through the folder, it became apparent that Beck’s performance was fishtailing. He couldn’t find the symbol he was looking for, and his speech became a jumbled catalog of the other Nazi badges—which had meant death for millions—that he was casually holding up for the audience to see. (In light of Beck’s request that his remarks be reported in context, we have included a verbatim quote of this commentary.)
“This is a Jewish … blue … I’m trying to remember it … ah … I had it categorized, every one … ah … blue I believe was …. Ah shoot, I’ve lost it. Guys? I’ve left it behind, the other star. The other star that I have, I’ve left it back stage, is purple. Does anyone know what the purple star is?”
He went on to explain to the audience that the purple star was reserved for the group that the Nazis called “Bible scholars.”
The relevance to Beck’s crowd is obvious. By allowing U.S. fundamentalist Christians to believe that the Nazis exterminated “Bible scholars,” Beck played into the narrative of victimization and persecution, and allowed them to appropriate the Holocaust as their own tragedy. Many of the Values Voters, of course, study the Bible every day, and Beck intended them to believe that the Nazis would have killed them for doing so. (In the interest of full disclosure, I note that I am a third-generation Holocaust survivor; most of the maternal side of my family was murdered in Poland.)
Of course, the key problem with Beck’s story is that it is false. There was in fact a purple triangle in the concentration camps, and it was in fact forced upon a group known as “Bible scholars.” But that was a term used by the Nazis to refer to Jehovah’s Witnesses, thousands of whom perished in the concentration camps. It is false to say that Nazis targeted “Bible scholars” in the way that Beck’s audience was led to understand that term.
But before Beck could locate the purple star, one of his audience members responded to his question about the color of the star, by shouting, “Was it pink?”
Beck immediately replied, “No, that’s gay.”
The audience erupted in laughter.
It’s hard to know exactly what motivated each person in that room to laugh at that moment. Was it because it seems funny that gay people were also murdered in the Nazi concentration camps? Was it because of the apparent absurdity, in their point of view, of confusing “legitimate” victims of the Holocaust (Jews, Christians, people with disabilities) with those who they believe might really deserve to be killed? What part of the audience’s “values” made that reference to gay people seem so funny?
Whatever the reason for the laughter, it seemed to catch Beck off-guard, and added to the chaotic tone that had gripped his speech.
Though he quickly regained composure, and continued with his spaghetti-on-the-chalkboard speech, the disquieting ambiguity of that moment overwhelmed any other message Beck was trying to convey.