I said yes when a Glenn Beck producer asked me to come on the show for an hour as the expert on Edward Bernays, who manipulated public opinion from the 1920s through the 1980s. It's been 27 years since I interviewed and then wrote about the propagandist, but this was an opportunity to see Beck up close. Since my critique of Bernays is long out of print, I wouldn't be tempted to kiss up to the ratings master in the hope of garnering gargantuan book royalties. (Other temptations remain, of course.)
As the producer pre-interviewed me and explained what Beck was looking for, I told her what I would and would not address. Yes, Bernays pioneered in getting women to smoke by promoting cigarettes as signs of liberation, and getting voters to back politicians by making them seem like human gods. Yes, Bernays—Sigmund Freud's nephew and devotee—argued that "democracy" would lead to chaos unless people like himself secretly ran the show. Yes, it did seem to me that proponents of corporate bailouts and global warming had used Bernays' techniques.
I would not say, though, that Bernays and his followers were running the world: Many conspire but few succeed for very long, because in God's providence the truth eventually comes out. I wanted to say that we should be skeptical of those who shout, TERRIBLE DANGER COMING! WE GOTTA DO SOMETHING RIGHT NOW! Sometimes that is true, but in general it's easier to scream about evil in others than to acknowledge that evil also resides in us.
On Tuesday, Jan. 26, from 5 to 6 p.m., I stood by a cameraman and watched Beck, without an audience that hour, skillfully talk to the camera. Throughout the show he playfully pretended that he might take a chainsaw (he held it up) to a bunny (he held it up) for purposes that weren't clear but certainly increased suspense. Then, from about 6:15 to 7, before a live audience revved up to applaud, we taped a show scheduled to be telecast three days later, with commercials inserted.
Beck introduced me as "a former Communist. Now he believes man can rule himself." Not exactly, on the last part: I said, "We are people created to worship in some way. If we don't worship God, we'll worship the human gods created by people like Bernays." Beck wrote on one blackboard, "Can man rule himself?" He then answered the question: "Yes, if enlightened, educated, empowered, and entrepreneurial." But the Bible says our first sin, back in the Garden, was attempting to rule ourselves.
Beck then allowed me to use another of his blackboards: I drew, explained, and praised the system of checks and balances that the Founders set up because they were wary about man's ability to rule himself. They created a mix of limited monarchy (the president), aristocracy (the Senate), and democracy (the House of Representatives), with further checks from the Supreme Court, state legislatures, and—as a journalist I like this last line of defense—a free press. They weren't populists.
We went to audience questions. Petrina, very serious, asked for help in dealing with her "sense of powerlessness and sadness." I said people propose various schemes, but "Nothing works apart from Jesus Christ." Beck said, "That's not the way I would have answered it," then added a diplomatic, "but it's a good answer." He offered his prescription for a disordered society: "We just have to put it all in order. We have to enlighten ourselves, educate ourselves, empower ourselves, and then be creators. That is the solution."
Clear enough. Two different views: One with God at the center, one with man at the center. Beck emphasized his position: "Jefferson said fix reason firmly in her seat, and question the very existence of God. I have applied that to not just God but everything. . . . Empower yourself."
Oh, and one little thing: It seems that the show we taped was a little longer than the 41 minutes typical for Beck shows archived at his website. I went to the website a few days later to see how it all looked, and—surprise—my comment that "Nothing works apart from Jesus Christ," and Beck's initially curt response, were not there. I guess something had to be cut.