Virtually no commentators, left or right, have defended Glenn Beck’s vicious attack on George Soros. Commentary called Beck’s tirade "marred by ignorance and offensive innuendo"; the ADL’s Abe Foxman called them "horrific" and "over the top"; and this week, The New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg writes that Beck hit "tropes [that] correspond uncannily to those of classical anti-Semitism."
Beck depicted Soros, a stridently liberal financier, as a shadowy manipulator of left-wing groups, the media, and other varied interests whose ultimately goal is to enrich himself and establish himself as a world power. More repugnant, Beck twisted Soros’ actions as as a thirteen-year-old boy in Nazi-allied Hungary.
Soros has said that his father forged documents that hid his Jewish identity and put him under the protection of a Hungarian functionary in charge of confiscating Jewish property. Soros remembered attending the official on one such trip, which led Beck to say of Soros on his three-part Fox News special last week: "Here’s a Jewish boy helping send the Jews to the death camps."
I am not sure I have much to add to the already copious commentary on Beck’s pathetic performance. (In addition to my colleague James Besser’s interview with Foxman, see The Atlantic’s recap and the The Daily Beast’s column for other noteworthy takes.)
But I will say this: Beck does not have to be driven by a secret anti-semitic agenda to ignorantly propound anti-semitic ideas. That may be the tragedy of this whole ordeal. Beck prides himself on his self-taught brilliance, an autodidact libertarian who need not succumb to the pervasive liberal agenda that infests American instutions: the school system, the media, universities, the government, you name it.
But if being self-taught is a virtue–it is–Beck reminds us of its limits. With him, we see what happens when we have nothing but scorn and suspicion of established institutions. (Funny that many consider him a conservative, for that matter.)
Paranoia is Beck’s stock and trade. And it plays well with those who harbor a sense of alienation and its accompaniment, outrage. The problem, of course, is that paranoia only works well when you lack power. But for some time now Beck hasn’t. His show averages about 2 million viewers, and his influence far exceeds that. Mark Lilla, in The New York Review of Books this week, gives an exhaustive review of the various ways in which Beck’s empire continues to grow.
All of this leads me to think that, if the wisdom of Beck’s own crowd does not temper his tirades, we’re in trouble. Paranoia is normal, but I hope it does not become normative. Beck makes you wonder.