The Devil in Glenn Beck


More on the does-extreme-rhetoric-cause-terror question: Over at The Daily Beast, Reihan Salam argues that cable shouters like Glenn Beck do more to reduce the threat of violence than to enhance it:

Remember that political violence runs deep in the American tradition….The question is how we can keep this violent streak under wraps.

One approach is epidemiological. Like the swine flu, extremism should be subject to quarantine. Hateful sentiments should be suppressed to the extent possible, the better to prevent their spread. In Western Europe, neofascist political symbols and rhetoric are tightly regulated on the theory that violent extremism is a bacillus that must be contained. The end result, ironically enough, is that neofascist political movements, ranging from France's National Front to Britain's obnoxiously racist BNP, have had shockingly high levels of electoral success. By marginalizing certain political tendencies, the European approach makes it harder to domesticate them.

A healthier approach is to allow a wide array of screamers to soak up the angry energy of alienated citizens. Following the 2004 presidential election, a number of enraged lefties believed that George W. Bush's presidential campaign had stolen the presidential election by manipulating the vote count in Ohio through the misuse of electronic voting machines. In years past, this might have been ignored as a fringe belief. But it so happens that MSNBC's Keith Olbermann was willing to give the story considerable attention. Because Olbermann was willing to lend credence to the Ohio story, true believers treated him as an honest broker. And when Olbermann eventually moved on, they did too, for the most part.

I don't know to what extent I buy the theory, though it doesn't strike me as any less plausible than the blame-Beck thesis. What's interesting to me is how closely this debate is starting to resemble the old arguments about the effects of pornography, when the censors claimed that porn produces sex crimes while their critics sometimes suggested that it more frequently serves as a release valve. I get the impression some people have shifted their assumptions now that the context is political rather than sexual.