The Great Explainers

Paul Greenberg

8/30/2011 3:09:00 PM - Paul Greenberg

Glenn Beck -- great explainer, talker extraordinaire, and showman in general -- now has left Fox News. When the midway's star attraction becomes just another bore, it's time to dim the lights and tiptoe out. Much of the audience dozed off some time ago. So the Great Explainer packed up his tree charts and shut down the show, taking whatever's left of his fan base with him.

It was a good run. H.L. Mencken said it: Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public. But after a while even Americans tire of Great Explanations.

Glenn Beck, like Ron Paul, will always have folks who hang onto every word of his monologues. At least since Father Coughlin's heyday, or Coin Harvey's before him, America has been full of people convinced that one talented pitchman or another will reveal the secrets of the universe in his very next breath. Or broadcast. Or speech. Or mass mailing.

Maybe it's the vastness of this continental nation that explains it -- the 3 a.m. loneliness that the Glenn Becks fill with talk, talk, talk. F. Scott Fitzgerald called it the dark night of the soul, and it cries out for a voice that can dispel our doubts. There's an urban emptiness out there to fill, too. For in this country, there's such a thing as "The Lonely Crowd." (David Riesman, Nathan Glazer and Reuel Denney, 1950.)

Think back to Garner Ted Armstrong and his daily revelation of (drum roll) The World ... Tomorrow! Garner Ted may not have been as prophetic as he sounded, but tone can be all in these matters. The man was a master of drama, specializing in suspense, continuity, a gnostic air, and above all the ability to keep you listening. If he'd been a writer, we would have turned to the next page every time.

Adolescents of all ages are addicted to such artists; we just can't change the dial. It's as if we're under a spell, even if we're not True Believers but just curious about the tricks of the stentorian trade. ("How did he do that? I've just wasted another hour!")

A disc jockey of the news, Mr. Beck was always pushing the latest conspiracy theory. Or maybe an oldie but a goodie. There are so many to choose from. The illuminati, anyone, or maybe the Freemasons? How about the Rosicrucians, or the Elders of Zion? You pays your money and you takes your conspiracy. The arms industry, maybe, or Ron Paul's favorite, the Federal Reserve. The historian Richard Hofstadter called it "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," an essay that merits re-reading on a regular basis.

Is it just my imagination, or do the Great Explainers grow more frequent, like American political manias in general, as presidential election years approach?

Or maybe they just come with hard times, bred by some desperate need to believe. In something. Anything. Even if it's only the latest conspiracy theory about evil powers out to get us. What else could explain our failures, our hard luck, why we're so unappreciated, how come we're so smart yet so broke, why everything conspires against us....

Not every Great Explainer needs an economic crisis to prosper. Some are shmoozers for all seasons, hardy perennials who bloom whatever the economic season, in good times and bad, boom or bust. We love 'em, especially in the middle of the night when sleep won't come.

Glenn Beck will continue to attract listeners. He'll do well in America, as my immigrant mother used to say whenever she encountered a particularly smooth talker.

Conspiracy theories will surely remain a fixture of American politics. Whole gimcrack philosophies are woven out of them, and, when the political season is upon us, like a fit, what in ordinary years might be dismissed as the lunatic fringe can become the whole warp and woof of American politics. What fun -- like Ross Perot's charts and graphs that proved ... something or other.

So step right up, or rather tune in, and you'll soon enough find your own favorite guru. He'll explain it all, whether your brand of populism is right-wing or left. Choose your own infallible prophet -- Glenn Beck or Keith Olbermann, Rush Limbaugh or Noam Chomsky -- and then just sit back and listen. It's so much easier than thinking for yourself.