Predictably, the "Restoring Honor" rally on the National Mall last Saturday has evoked a lot of consternation.
Because the rally explicitly and studiously avoided trumpeting a political agenda, it freed up a lot of people to fill in the blanks themselves. For instance, Greg Sargent of the Washington Post insists it was all a con: "As high-minded as that may sound, the real point of stressing the rally's apolitical goals was political." By leaving the listener to infer an anti-Obama agenda from all of this talk of lost honor, host Glenn Beck was practicing "classic political demagoguery."
So let me get this straight: If Beck had done the opposite, and invited hundreds of thousands of anti-Obama signs, and carved up Obama like a turkey dinner, folks like Sargent would think the rally was less demagogic? Hmmm.
Obviously, Sargent's not entirely wrong about the rally's political resonance. Of course it was a conservative-and-libertarian-tinged event. Of course it would have been impossible without the right-leaning tea party movement. Of course the fact that Beck and Sarah Palin managed to attract so many people to the Mall is not a ringing endorsement of the Democrats.
But the partisan implications of the rally aren't that interesting. Nor, really, is the argument that the relentless celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. at the National Mall amounted to some grave insult to his memory.
One striking feature of Saturday's rally was how deeply religious and ecumenical it was. It seems like just yesterday that everyone was talking about how Christian evangelicals were too bigoted to vote for upright and uptight Mormon Mitt Romney. Yet Christian activists saw no problem cheering for -- and praying with -- the equally Mormon but far less uptight Beck, who asked citizens to go to "your churches, synagogues and mosques!"
The inclusiveness transcended mere religion. While the crowd was preponderantly white, the message was racially universalistic. That was evident not just on the stage, but in the crowd as well. When Reason TV's Nick Gillespie asked a couple whether as "African-Americans" they felt comfortable in such a white audience, the woman responded emphatically but good-naturedly: "First of all, I'm not African, I am an American ... a black American." She went on to explain how "these people" -- i.e., the white folks cheering her on -- "are my family."
Peter Viereck a largely forgotten conservative intellectual, would have found this familiar. During the 1950s, he noted that anti-Communism -- whatever its other faults and excesses -- had the remarkable effect of lessoning inter-ethnic tensions among like-minded activists. Anti-Communist blacks were celebrated and welcomed by anti-Communist whites. Anti-Communist immigrants and Jews were welcomed to the supposedly nativist and anti-Semitic movement. Viereck, who disliked the phenomenon (he said it was akin to xenophobia practiced by a "xeno"), dubbed it "transtolerance."
I'm more upbeat about the dynamic. Of late there's been a lot of debate, largely in the context of the so-called ground zero mosque, about the evils of American identity. Will Wilkinson, an influential liberal-libertarian writer, sees opposition to the mosque as an entirely reprehensible expression of the "cult of American identity" and the "zaniness of right identity politics." The upshot of Wilkinson's argument is that it's absolutely preposterous for the American people to see themselves as a people.
New York Times columnist Ross Douthat recently argued that there are "two Americas." The first America is wholly secular, "where allegiance to the Constitution trumps ethnic differences, language barriers and religious divides. An America where the newest arrival to our shores is no less American than the ever-so-great granddaughter of the Pilgrims." The other America is culturally defined: "This America speaks English, not Spanish or Chinese or Arabic. It looks back to a particular religious heritage: Protestantism originally, and then a Judeo-Christian consensus that accommodated Jews and Catholics as well."
Douthat makes some good points, but he downplays the relationship between what are really the two faces of one America. It is the American conception of itself as a people that keeps it loyal to the Constitution. The Constitution, absent our cultural fidelity to it, might as well be the rules for a role-playing game.
I confess, if Beck wasn't a libertarian, I would find his populism worrisome. But his message, flaws and excesses notwithstanding, is that our constitutional heritage defines us as a people, regardless of race, religion or creed. Is that so insulting to Martin Luther King Jr.'s memory?
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