Book review: Common Nonsense

In November of 2000, Americans sat on the edge of their seats waiting to find out who would be the next president. Protests were held, counter protests were organized to meet the challenge and everyone had an opinion. The 2000 election remains capable of igniting passionate debate. Some look it as the time that the Supreme Court stole an election for George W. Bush. Some mark it up to Al Gore having the campaign skills and spinal fortitude of a slime mold. There are those who rue Florida’s hanging chads and aging Jewish voters for Buchanan. And not a few still point to those tense days as proof that Ralph Nader is a festering sore on the ass of the Republic.

Any or all of them could be right. But when you read Alexander Zaitchik’s new book, Common Nonsense: Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance, you’ll turn the last page with the understanding that election 2000 brought something far more sinister than Bush/Cheney down upon America. Worse, you’ll know that it ain’t over yet.

Beck was working in Tampa at the time, unsuccessfully trying to break into conservative talk radio. In fact, he was about to be let go because he was terrible at his job, saved only by Clear Channel’s local monopoly. But when Bush v. Gore came to a head in Florida and Beck was one of the few local voices on the airwaves, Clear Channel saw the opportunity and went national with Beck. That exposure formed the foundation for his current media empire, and the experience turned Beck into the “real conservative” he is today. No more making fun of rednecks: from then on, Beck would fashion himself as one.

If you’re hoping to read a book-length rant against Beck and all that he stands for, then this isn’t for you. This is not Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot. It’s a careful and studious look at Beck: part biography, part deconstruction and incredibly readable from the first page to the last.

Listed as “Current Affairs,” Common Nonsense is written like the best history. Zaitchik moves the focus between the tree and the forest with incredible dexterity, giving the reader depth as well as context. Both are frightening. I found myself comparing the feel of Zaitchik’s book to The Heart of Darkness, particularly the sense of foreboding that builds as the reader understands more and more of what makes Beck tick, or more accurately, what makes him particularly unhinged and dangerous. Kurtz “went native,” a respectable thing to do in my book. Beck went Mormon, which is like going native but without any of the positives. And at least Kurtz had the good grace to live with the natives; for all of Beck’s soft-focus talk about the “real America,” the man lives in a mansion in Connecticut and takes a limo to work.

I’ll let you read the book to find out what kinds of crackpot conspiracies Beck subscribes to and the kind of hard Mormon rightwingism that he’s bringing into mainstream American culture. A god among the natives he may be, but he’s not off the corporate reservation: he’s just packaging the fascism in a way that would make Goebbels proud.

My compulsion to dog-ear every page containing important information, a laugh-out-loud turn of phrase or Zaitchik wielding stinging, sarcastic wit deformed my review copy. The reader never has far to go between examples like, “Weirder still is the fact that Beck has successfully grown a mass following while stumbling through a remedial self-education in U.S. democracy, which reflects the carnival mirrors inside his mind as much as it does the reality he struggles, in futility and desperation, to comprehend,” and “It seemed that the [Tea Party] protesters’ main enemies were Russian history and apostrophes.” They’re all great, but Zaitchik plays them subtly enough that they never detract from his presentation of vital information.

And that’s what makes this book special. A great many writers from the left could have spent 258 pages lobbing insults at Beck. Zaitchik takes the high road, blending straight biography with solid, investigative journalism. Sometime in the future, professors will be assigning Common Nonsense and historians will be referencing it.

Read it. It’s not going to make you feel better, but it will give you a much deeper understanding of America’s current insanity.

16 replies »

  1. Yep, and he follows a Mormon who was pretty much kicked out for being a nutjob. Skoulsen. Beck has singlehandedly gotten the guy’s whackjob, conspiracy theory ravings to the number one slot on the NYTimes best seller list.

  2. Interesting. I’ve have to give it a read. I’ve always felt Beck and those like him are aware of their foolishness but simply don’t care. I don’t believe for a moment they would buy what they sell, unless they could re-sell it for a profit.

  3. The Mormons and Evangelicals will stop treating each other nicely in the 2012 Elections.

  4. PC: That’s a question that i’ve been turning over in my mind too. Is he just a huckster out to make a buck? The possibility is there. Honestly though, i’m not sure which is worse.

  5. The fact that people think this man is relevant is the scariest thought in my mind. This same fear was in my mind when I saw how many parents take their young children to see professional wrestling. I wanted to scream at them — “What are you doing?”.

    People do really buy Beck’s persona and ranting? Again I want to scream. The man is a juvenile clown being taken seriously by adults. That is what scares me.

    Now when I see that people in other countries see him and they believe that more than 276 citizens take him serious — this embarrasses me no end. I feel shame — a shame that I am looked upon as being an American and Glenn Beck is also an American. Heaven help us — we have a problem.

  6. The book will be on my list to read — hope that it does not depress more than I can handle.

  7. Hey Jesus, since you’re here i’m wondering if you could answer a question? Did you really come to America (whether by magic or boat) and suggest that the Kingdom of Heaven is in our undergarments?

  8. Or that Satan is your brother? He’s got the same problem Mitt has: Mormonism is some distance away from Christianity, and you can’t really sell it to the Evangelicals. Tget might as well be Jews For Jesus.

    A question for the experts among us: using the distance between Christianity and Judaism as 1 Theological Unit, what are the distances between Christianity and Mormon, and Christianity and Islam?

  9. I found this book fascinating and you review to be exactly my thoughts. I have given away two copies, and will be ordering more for Christmas gifts. One problem…I had to read Sarah Palin’s silly book in exchange for my Teapartying friend to read this one. Oh well, it didn’t take long.